Written by Pastor Ed
What’s It All About?
Dec. 24 Advent IV
Luke 1: 46b-55
Luke 1: 26-38
In some ways we return today to where we started 4 weeks ago with our theme of Let It Be, as we read the accounts of the annunciation, the angel’s visit to Mary where the phrase is taken from, and then continuing on to Mary’s visit with Elizabeth and the Magnificat, Mary’s song. And we have been following the metaphor of the woodworker building a project, now nearing completion.
But this project, this incarnation, the birth of Jesus, is really much bigger than the story we tell. While Christmas has become a major holiday, thanks to a lot of advertising and in no small part thanks to Clement Clarke Moore and his poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” more commonly known as “Twas the night before Christmas;” for many centuries Christmas was a minor feast, and was even ignored by many Christians as a holdover from pagan winter rituals, a view still held by some people.
Indeed, if we read the gospels carefully we might note that two of the gospels, Mark and John ignore the birth stories completely and Matthew focuses on Joseph and includes the birth in one short sentence. Only Luke gives much attention to Jesus’ birth, and even then there is as much in the parallel account of the birth of John the Baptist as there is about Jesus. Luke often includes parallel accounts, of Zechariah and Mary, Jesus and John, and next week we’ll see Simeon and Anna.
The angel’s message to the shepherds is that there is something big happening, and the baby in a manger is simply a sign that provides the proof. It’s sort of as if Herman’s turtle stool which he’s been working on during the children’s feature was really only the first small piece of a larger renovation project that involves redoing his whole house! If we could hop in the TARDIS here and travel back to the first century (come this evening to find out more) we would discover that in the midst of angels and shepherds, there is a lot of fear, confusion, and even shame. We tend to see Mary’s visit to Elizabeth as a joyous occasion, but I suspect it had much more to do with getting out of town and trying to make sense of what was happening. How would you explain your circumstances to your friends and neighbours?
No, the focus is not on the birth, but on the larger project that is coming into play and that is proclaimed not only be the angel Gabriel, but also by Mary and later by the angels that appear to the shepherds. And it’s not a very tranquil picture. Have you ever noticed how many times in the first two chapters of his gospel Luke records that people were afraid? When an angel shows up, it’s a bit startling and the angel or angels have to say again and again, “Fear not!” Easy for them to say.
And, if you listen closely to Mary’s song, you will find reason for both rejoicing as well as fear and trembling, because it promises a major upheaval to come. The project being put into place, of which the birth is only a sign, is of a major overhaul of society – bringing the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly; filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. This is the good news of great joy that is announced to the shepherds. This is what will bring peace on earth and light to the world.
This is the start of a project that will culminate at Easter, the primary festival of the church year, and a project that carries on even to today in the church as we live out the principles of Jesus. For you see we have been given the task of furthering this audacious project until its completion. And it requires the same boldness and confidence that those first participants showed, for even in the midst of fear and perplexity, Mary said, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Zechariah, when he could finally talk again, praised God and amazed his neighbours. And the shepherds went and checked out this strange message and sign. They took to heart the angel’s message to not be afraid, and opened themselves to be a part of the message that something new was breaking into the world, upsetting as it was going to be.
When God shows up, however that happens in our lives, it can be unsettling. When God’s people show up in the world it should also be unsettling to the status quo, proclaiming justice and peace to a world that is more interested in maintaining things as they are and where the rich get wealthier and the poor are left to their own devices. And that’s really what this season is all about. If you really want to put “Christ in Christmas” as the saying goes, then you should be intent on spreading the message of Mary, and not just spreading it, but living it out – working for a more equitable society, for peace, and for turning the tables upside down.
On Wednesday evening Gay and I made the trip over to Rosebud to see a play called Caribou Magi. It was a wonderful mash-up of a rag-tag drama group trying to tell the Christmas story when all they knew were lines from Hamlet, A Christmas Carol and The Last of the Mohicans. It was hilarious. But it also got the point across that it really doesn’t matter how you tell the story. It really doesn’t matter whether you say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” There is no “war on Christmas” as some like to pretend in order to rile up their base and raise more money.
It doesn’t really matter how you tell the story, because the story of Jesus’ birth is only the beginning of the project, a minor piece in the much larger story of God’s breaking into the world, a story that continues even to today. And as one commentator wrote:
“When God breaks into our world, into our lives, our response needs to be Mary’s — who says, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.” Because when God intrudes, how can you not? I mean, what else is there to say? God intrudes when God must. God intervenes when God’s Kingdom is in peril. God interrupts injustice. God interferes when power oppresses. And so we say, ‘Here we are.’”
Yes, let it be now.