(a sermon for December 24, 2017, the 4th Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-25)
In almost every nativity scene you’ll ever see they always look, well… perfect: Mary, all calm and bright, with nary a hair out of place and Joseph, looking properly prayerful and stalwart; dutifully, if quietly, about the business of being an earthly father. And then, of course, there’s the baby, all clean and white and bathed in the glow of a warm light that fairly well seems to shine from his bed of hay in the manger; all this as angels in bright raiment hover overhead, while shepherds and wise men come to call with farm animals quietly milling about.
Now tell the truth; isn’t that the image that always comes to mind when we’re telling this story? It’s a beautiful scene of utter simplicity and serenity; a uniquely holy birth amidst what can only be described as joy expressed in deep and resounding quiet, with a peace – heavenly peace – that could not possibly be contained within the stable, but simply had to overflow out into the dark, shining streets of Bethlehem and outward to all of the world.
At least that’s how I like to think of it!
Actually, I’ve always loved how Barbara Robinson, in her marvelous children’s story of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, describes a Mary who is “just right” in our imagination: she’s “all pink and white and pure-looking, as if she never washed the dishes or cooked supper or did anything else except have Jesus on Christmas Eve.” Any and all gender stereotypes aside (!), that does kind of express how we’ve come to view what happens “round about the manger,” as we gaze intently at this truly “Holy Family” – Mary and Joseph and their precious newborn – kneeling in the wonder, the splendor and the hay!
Of course, anyone who’s ever been involved in or present at the process of giving birth knows that most times it’s not like that at all! Now, there’s no doubt that having a child is a beautiful and natural thing; but often it’s also a painful and exhausting thing; and hard work, most especially for the mother, but also in very real ways for the father and everybody else involved in the delivery (as the saying goes, they don’t call it labor for nothing!). What’s more, childbirth is an experience that cannot help but create change in the persons involved in a variety of ways: physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. And the thing is that even though there are weeks and months of anticipation and preparation that lead up to the event, inevitably there comes this moment when the actual arrival of the child creates this new and utterly bewildering reality of life! I remember this well with all three of our kids, but especially on the night that Jake, our firstborn, came into the world. I’m holding him in my arms, I’m so full of joy and love and I’m feeling all this wonder in my heart; but all the while there’s this fleeting voice in the back of my head that’s asking, “OK, big shot, now what do you do?”
So can you imagine, then, what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph? This sweet, romantic, bucolic image we have of them to the contrary, the truth is that here were two people who had a great deal working against them: to begin with, they were young (so very young; Mary was no more than 14 or 15 years old and Joseph only a year or two older than that); they were dirt poor and under the thumb of an oppressive Roman government; and not only that, they were engaged but unmarried and expecting, and thus facing the scandal that such a thing would create. And add to all this that now, thanks to a government edict of taxation, they were both far from their home and trying in vain to find a place to stay in Bethlehem where Mary could have the baby in safety and perhaps some comfort, only to end up having it all happen in the squalor of a stable surrounded by farm animals.
Doesn’t sound quite so sweet or romantic when you think of it that way, does it?
But this was, in fact, the scene of his birth, the “little Lord Jesus” of whom we sing: a tiny, helpless child who was the very light of the universe all wrapped in human skin; ever surrounded by two altogether ordinary people (actually, from the world’s point of view, maybe less than ordinary people!), two people in whom and through whom God was doing something extraordinary, even as they themselves must have wondered why they were there in the first place!
Max Lucado addresses this beautifully in his book In the Grip of Grace: “He whom angels worship nestled himself in the placenta of a peasant, was birthed into the cold night, and then slept on cow’s hay,” Lucado writes. “Mary didn’t know whether to give him milk or give him praise, but she gave him both since he was, as near as she could figure, hungry and holy. Joseph didn’t know whether to call him Junior or Father. But in the end he called him Jesus, since that’s what the angel had said and since he didn’t have the faintest idea what to name a God he could cradle in his arms.”
“Don’t you think,” Lucado goes on to ask, “[that] their heads tilted and their minds wondered, ‘what in the world are you doing, God?’ Or better phrased, ‘God, what are you doing in the world?’”
Think of it, friends, as that same utterly bewildering reality of life that hits at every new parent sooner or later; but this time it’s hitting on a divine scale… which, when you think about it, pretty much what Christmas is!
For you see, within and beyond the beautiful and peaceful scene depicted at the crèche is this incredible story of God doing something that thoroughly confounds our human sensibilities; which was for the divine to come to us, and to be born and live among us just as any child would do… with everything that entails! How incredibly wonderful and strange all at the same time that God would become a real, living and breathing, laughing and crying person; knowing every one of the joys we experience in life, but also willing to take on the hurt and the pain as well. What an amazing and yet bewildering thought that the almighty would even deem it suitable to step into the harsh realities of our lives and living, but in fact does it again and again, today, tomorrow and all through our lives, so to understand who we are and how it is that we feel!
But such is this divine love that comes to earth in the midst of a Bethlehem’s manger. Incredible, isn’t it? Incredible that out of the harsh reality of his birth a new reality in the world was created; incredible that this was the family that God chose to bring forth this child of love into the world and then to raise him up to be the man he would become; incredible that this one who was called “son of God and son of man” saving the world from its sin would be brought into the world by two young, impoverished and ultimately powerless people who literally had nothing else to give except to simply say, “Yes.”
But the good news is that that was more than enough. Mary and Joseph said yes… yes to God!
Every year as I return to this nativity story, I’m newly amazed that even though at the very beginning she was no doubt confused and scared at what the angel is saying to her, and that she even dares to ask this heavenly visitor, “How can this be,” still Mary identifies herself as “the servant of the Lord,” saying “let it be with me according to your word!” And not only that, what’s just about the next thing she does? She sings! “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” Mary sings with joy to overflowing for the blessings in her life and in her womb and in her world by the grace of God almighty!
And then there’s Joseph, who legally and socially had every right to turn away from Mary in this unexpected and life-changing situation, but who was not only, as scripture tells us, “a righteous man,” but also loving and compassionate, a “man of incredible faith” who paid attention to dreams and angels and did what needed to be done for the sake of Mary, the child and ultimately, the world.
We might well wonder as we look upon the nativity scene why it was that God chose this family to bring his only son into the world; what the criteria must have been for becoming the most significant foster parents in human history… well it seems to me that with Mary and Joseph, first and foremost it was that they said yes!
That’s important for us to know; especially now as on this Christmas Eve Day we draw ever close to the manger and the miracle of the holy birth; for you see, it turns out some of the most important lessons of this season come from those who were the first to say “yes” to that birth in the first place.
Friends, above and beyond everything else we bring to this time of the year, the whole point of Christmas is that God comes. “To you is born this day… a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” That’s the promise of Christmas, a gift of God’s power and love that’s in fact every gift we will ever need to fulfill every longing we may ever have. It’s the gift of forgiveness, and healing, and restoration and eternal life all wrapped up in the person of Jesus Christ. As Jack Hayford has put it, “It will take a lifetime to unwrap the essentials [of this gift] for our present, and an eternity to unfold the glories for our future.” But it starts now… by first saying an emphatic yes to the gift itself, letting our hearts embrace the Christ Child for today and letting him grow with us into the year ahead; accepting God’s presence in Jesus be the solid reality of our lives, and that place where all our hopes for tomorrow are placed and secured!
Think for a moment of the Christmas gift that goes unopened. Think of the disappointment and sadness the refusal of that gift creates in the giver, and how much less the recipients are for not having had experienced the joy and the wonder that comes with the gift. But think also of how much deeper the relationship between the giver and those who receive becomes when that gift is received with a whole heart and with great joy and thanksgiving; indeed, in the giving and the receiving there’s a relationship that cannot help but grow and deepen, and life – and the world – changes because of it!
Well, such is the gift of Christmas that’s now offered to us in Emmanuel, God With Us. When that gift is not received by an open heart, then Christmas remains just another holiday, another opportunity for revelry and gift-giving that’s comes and goes with the 25th of December. But… when we say “yes” to God’s gift to us of a Savior and Christ is born again in our hearts, then Christmas – true Christmas – becomes the centerpiece of each new day; a way of life and living that is forged in an ever deepening relationship with the Lord girded in love, and joy, and peace, and unending hope.
I hope and pray on this day before Christmas that in the same way that those two who first knelt before the manger bed, you also will say yes to God’s gift. It’s still a gift, as much now as it was two millennia ago; and it’s still good news, as fresh and as real as the here and now in which we live. For unto you is born this day is a Savior; one who comes to us so that he might lift the burden from off of our shoulders; one who comes to wipe the tears from our eyes; one who comes to assure us once and for all that we are not alone in this world, and that there is truly hope and joy unending.
And the beauty part? All we have to do is say yes!! So say it… Say yes!! Let our souls this day magnify the Lord! Let our spirits rejoice in God our Savior, for truly God has looked with favor upon us and has sent us a Savior!
Yes… Yes! YES!
Merry Christmas, dear friends, Thanks be to God, and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry