2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


The First Christmas Carol

Luke 1:26-38

Our Christmas traditions have almost run their course. The manger scene on the coffee table is now a wise man short. Where could he have gone? The dog has been acting suspiciously. Most of us have finished our Christmas shopping. A few of us are impulse shoppers still waiting for the impulse. I hope it will happen soon. The ones of you who have bought into the absolute heresy of artificial Christmas trees are feeling pretty good about yourselves. You haven't had to pick a single pine needle out of the carpet. The real tree people, and we are quite arrogant about being real tree people, are embarrassed for you.

Our traditions serve as wonderful reminders of Christmas, and yet they can also keep us from experiencing Christmas. The familiar rituals make us forget how outlandish this whole celebration really is. The connection between the first Christmas and our Christmas gets more vague each year.

The story began with a girl hardly old enough to have any child, let alone this child. Nazareth was a rundown village in an obscure province of Rome. Mary was a simple peasant girl with no status, no identifiable qualifications, seemingly no preparation for such a role. The angel looked several times to make sure the address was right.

Gabriel began, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." It's hard to say exactly what it was that made her favored. It must have been something most people wouldn't have recognized. It may have been something Mary herself wouldn't recognize.

She was overwhelmed and bewildered by the appearance of an angel. She wondered what it meant. Mary would do a lot of wondering. At several crucial moments she is said to have "kept all these things in her heart." She had far more than most to fit in her heart.

The angel called her by name: "You must not be afraid, Mary." Gabriel, who didn't come across nearly as confident as Denzel Washington in The Preacher's Wife, knew that in spite of his assurances fear was an appropriate response. Gabriel told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something of the mystery that waited before her. The superlatives Gabriel uses are stunning: the child of the Highest, the throne of David, a reign that goes on forever and a kingdom that has no boundaries.

It was then that Mary thought she had come up with a loophole. She knew that a baby didn't fit the facts of her relationship to Joseph. She started to explain to Gabriel the process by which babies are conceived. The angel understood that it was all hard to believe so he would give her a sign. Her Aunt Elizabeth, childless and far beyond childbearing age, would have a son, too.

The whole future of creation now hung on the answer of a teenage girl. It makes you wonder who the second choice was or if Mary was the first one asked. Her response is stunning, "I am God's servant, body and soul. Let it happen as you say."

Her courageous answer doesn't mean that Mary wasn't afraid. She wished that she was older or somehow more prepared—though it's hard to imagine how anyone could prepare for such a thing. Her parents would be heartbroken. Joseph was an understanding person, but this was asking way too much. Mary hurried to Elizabeth's, half to see if it was true, and half to have someone to talk to, if perchance it turned out to be true. When Mary arrives, she immediately knows that every bit of it is so. Elizabeth's child leaps in her womb, and just like in a Broadway musical, Mary breaks out in song.

Mary sings with gratitude for what Christ's coming will mean for her personally, but she sings about herself for only a moment. God's goodness towards Mary is only a single example of God's overwhelming grace: "God has swept away the high and mighty, has brought kings down from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands."

Mary's song ought to be considered the first Christmas carol, but the Magnificat won't be heard nearly so many times as Silver Bells or White Christmas. The theme of this radical, revolutionary song is that the hungry are really the lucky ones and the rich are in big trouble.

Mary's song couldn't be more out of step with the way Christmas is celebrated today. It's hard to read the Gospel of Luke and see how our Christmas celebration could have possibly begun with this story. Christmas 1999 will be seen by many as an economic indicator. The average American family will spend well over $700 on things for Christmas. Much of that money is spent with the bizarre assumption that the more money we spend the more fun we'll have. Parents feel enormous pressure to join in the buying frenzy. Families spend themselves into debt. The poor are impacted the most. Those in poverty have their noses rubbed in it because they aren't able to provide their children with all the toys they see advertised on television or all the ones their friends at school are getting. It's no wonder that in a recent survey only 38 percent of Americans said they consider Christmas to be "a strongly religious" holiday.

Instead of seeing Christmas the way the retailers, wholesalers, and discounters want us to see it, we should see Christmas as it really is. "God has swept away the proud. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones. God has sent the rich away empty." Mary's song isn't a carol rich people like us should enjoy singing.

Christmas turns the world upside down. God rotates everything 180 degrees. Ours is a society based on acquisition. The underlying assumption is that everyone wants more. Gathering wealth is foolishness according to Mary's song. The people on the Fortune 500 list have bet on the wrong horse. The self-important have missed the boat. Climbing to the top of the ladder is foolish because Christ is going to turn the ladder upside down.

Christmas challenges the status quo. Mary sings that her child will see life from the point of view of the disadvantaged. Jesus saw every system from the point of view of its victims, every religious hierarchy from the point of view of those who are left out, every political structure from the point of view of those who are burned by it. Christ's coming revealed the peril of trusting in our own wealth. Christ came to make what is commonly considered success irrelevant.

One of the remarkable qualities of this song is that Mary sings of the justice God will bring in the past tense. God has shown strength, has scattered the proud, has brought down the powerful, and has sent the rich away empty. Why is it all written in the past tense? According to the newspapers, these things haven't happened yet. In scripture, the faithful express trust in God by speaking of the future with such confidence that it is described as already here. Such faith is a promise to be a participant in the efforts to achieve that future. The Magnificat celebrates the future as a memory and praises God for having already done what lies be fore us to do.

Christmas reverses everything. Most television commercials seem to say that Christmas is reserved for happy, successful people in smiling, wealthy families. It's not so.

Christ comes for grieving people with broken homes. Appearances are deceiving. The people who look favored aren't. The self-centered don't have it made. Christmas is the promise that God cares for children who hunger for food, for the lonely who hunger for love, for all who hunger for hope. The word becomes flesh to walk with us wherever there is sadness, fear or emptiness. God comes to be with us in our dark valleys, to bind our broken hearts, to lift us tired and weary to new life. No matter how dark it seems, there is a light. No matter how abandoned we feel, there is another. No matter how hurt we are, there is healing. We need to see the Christmas story by the light of our worst troubles. It's when we're hurting that we see that Christ comes to be the comfort we need.

Browning Ware, former pastor of First Baptist, Austin, wrote this about the grace of Christ's coming: "When I was younger, I thought there was an answer to every problem. And for a time, I knew all of the answers. I knew about parenting until I had children. I knew about divorce until I got one. I knew about suicide until three of my closest friends took their lives in the same year. I knew about the death of a child until my child died. I'm not as impressed with answers as I once was. Answers seem so pallid, sucked dry of blood and void of life. Knowing answers leads us to make pronouncements. I still have a few friends or acquaintances who are 100 percent sure on almost everything, and are ready to make pronouncements on marriage problems, teen pregnancies, AIDS, or whatever is coming down the pike. But when we get shoved into our valley of the shadow, a pronouncement is the last thing we need. We try to make everything fit our easy answers, but more important and satisfying than getting all the answers is knowing the one who is the answer."

Christ comes to be the companion who will comfort us when we mourn. God comes for the unpretentious people who recognize scars that won't heal—theirs and others, too.

Christmas is the beginning of a small, counter-cultural community of people who put their trust in God's way, and none of their faith in the materialism and selfishness of the majority. Advent invites us to have different standards, different hopes, and different dreams than those who don't know the meaning of God's coming.

Who notices the faithful servants of God, the people who do what's right and good and caring? Who notices? God does. It may not seem like those who serve are winning, but they are. Christmas belongs to the few who live in wonder at the coming of Christ, and respond as servants, "Here am I, body and soul."

No one who understands Christmas stays the same. If we believe that God's coming changes the world, then we'll change the way we see our world. God's way of seeing will become our way of seeing. The work of Christ's hands will be continued in the work of our hands. We'll have compassion for all people—especially the ones that usually go unnoticed. We will care for the hungry, elderly, and children, pray for the hurting, and comfort the brokenhearted. We'll live with a passion for what's right in a world that's mostly wrong.

The way to celebrate Christmas is to believe in the God who fills the hungry with good things and who turns it all upside down. God's people discover that God's ways are wonderfully peculiar. Because Christ has come, we are invited to walk out of step with the rhythms of the world.

Brett Younger

Lake Shore Baptist Church

Waco, TX