January 6, 2019

A Thrill of Hope - The Promise of Hope

Good morning. It is my privilege to be with you this morning on the fourth Sunday of Advent.  I’m excited to preach because it is what I love to do – what God has called me to – and especially so during my favorite season – Christmastime. I love decorating the tree, I love giving gifts, I love everything about the season, but I especially get a huge kick out of Christmas music. I get excited in September and October when Christian artists begin dropping their Christmas albums – but I have to be sneaky to listen to it then, because there are other people in my home who believe that Christmas music belongs at Christmas – not in the fall. However, today, we have the historical precedent for Christmas music – and it happens 9 months before the big day! Please stand with me as I read Mary’s Song from Luke 1:46-55:

And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

Let us pray

Shepherd of Israel, 
you gently support the one who is with child 
and call forth the Lamb who dances in the womb, 
Stir our hearts to recognize Christ's coming, 
as Elizabeth recognized his presence 
in Mary's radiant obedience to your desire, 
and open our souls to receive the one 
who came to love your flock. Amen.

You may be seated.

How many times, do you think, have you heard the Christmas story or parts of it in your lifetime? I actually thought this through a bit and I would hazard a soft estimate of 3-4 times per Christmas season lived if you are a church going person, and at least once if you are not. For me, that means by the time I turned 18 and pretty much skipped the church scene as best as possible for the next 20 years, I had already heard the Christmas story 72 times. Add the 20 for the years I didn’t attend and you have 92. Now go back to the 3-4 for the last 6 Christmases and that puts me right at 100. 100 times of hearing the story of the incarnation. 100 times in my lifetime of being privy to the most wondrous mystery – God becoming man and intimately researching and ultimately knowing well the depths of the human experience.

That’s a lot of re-runs.

If you came to church this morning expecting to hear something new about Christmas, some crazy new idea about what happened back in Bethlehem, I have bad news – this is just another re-run. Don’t get me wrong – the Christmas story is always a compelling re-run, and it’s one worth paying attention to, but it is not a new story. I do believe it is certainly one that is worth re-telling.

This part of the story, Mary’s trip to Elizabeth’s house and her exclamation of praise may get less attention year after year, but it is definitely worth a look. Mary, who would ultimately birth a baby far from home, who would entertain shepherds in the hours after her labor, who would hear stories of a ‘heavenly host’ of angels singing praise, who would hear prophesy and praise and ponder the moments, this Mary was so taken aback by what God was doing before all the really amazing things started happening that she worshiped God using words and phrases and ideas she had heard all her life.

Think of Mary further back, in the moment of the announcement. Think of her as a peasant girl, poor, a Jewish girl living under Roman occupation. Perhaps mostly a normal life, but one lived with a sense of both the desperation of current circumstances and the hope of a promise yet fulfilled. Jews today still live in that sense of anticipated hope – waiting for the promised Messiah. Jewish girls then and now wondered if their child would be the One.

So, despite the awful weight of the angel’s message – an unwed mother was not a proud circumstance! There was also a sense of awesome responsibility. Mary on hearing the news of her unexpected pregnancy, goes to visit a relative who has also had unexpected news of pending motherhood. Think about this for one moment – God chose two pretty unremarkable people to advance his plan of redemption. Mary and Elizabeth were both poor. Mary was from Nazareth (remember Nathanael’s snide remark in John 1:46 – Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?) and Elizabeth lived in a remote enough place that it isn’t even named. They were both women, and Mary was worse – an unmarried woman. Elizabeth was old and barren. Mary was young and a virgin. They had little to offer their society as a whole and were the unlikeliest of choices for any kind of work of God.

And yet. Here they were. Obedient. Willing servants waiting on God.

Elizabeth’s recognition of Mary is prompted by the Holy Spirit. She shouts a greeting to Mary that echoes the angel’s earlier pronouncement: Mary you are so blessed! You have trusted God and he will accomplish much through you.   

And Mary breathes out and speaks of the wonder and majesty of a God whose holiness and power and justice and goodness and faithfulness are known and expected.  Hear her words again:

"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

It is a Christmas hymn before there were Christmas hymns.

Mary tells us why she said yes when the angel told her the impossible was going to happen: she already knew and loved and trusted the God he represented.

Mary’s song isn’t about Jesus in the sense that it could not have occurred to her that it was about the babe she would carry – he has not yet been born and she cannot possibly understand all that he will be. Mary’s song is about God. The God she already knows and has heard about and trusts.

That’s what the song is about, what the song brings to us -  a New Testament psalm of praise, carrying forward the themes and ideas of God into this period that is the advent of Christ. For 400 years in the life of the Jewish people, God has held off new revelation. He has still been their God. He has still been present. He has just been silent.

And so it is as he prepares to finalize his revelation, as he prepares to offer the salvation he promised from the fall on – the words of praise his people offer – Mary, then Zechariah after John’s birth, and finally Simeon as he blesses the newborn Jesus – all echo the praises of the past. The story of God’s salvation in times past for Israel is the story of his hand in the present: knowing who God is and how he has moved prepares us for who he will be and how he will move.

God uses the praises of his people to shine a spotlight on who he is and what he has done and to prompt us to trust him.

Mary’s song is a revelation. It is a revelation of Mary’s understanding. It is a revelation of Mary’s expectation. And it is a revelation of Mary’s delight and wonder at being the one chosen to birth the promise that will save the world.

I think that the wonder Mary felt and that she conveyed here in these words, was part of what brought the whole story to us. I imagine Mary whispering these words under her breath as she and Joseph make their way first to Bethlehem and then to Egypt. I imagine her singing these words to her other children as a lullaby when they were little. I imagine her telling her children and grandchildren all about how Jesus was born all through her lifetime. I imagine Luke sitting with Mary and asking her to tell the familiar tale; perhaps he had previously overheard her telling children or others the story. I imagine Mary taking in a breath and with her eyes full of all that had happened telling once again of the angel’s visit, of her trip to Elizabeth, and then these words of praise, echoing a hundred psalms and prophesies.

Of course her story continued from there – John’s birth, her trip to Bethlehem, the stable, the shepherds – all of it. But it starts with a song. It starts with remembering God’s faithfulness and so knowing that since he has kept those promises, he will keep this one.

What better way to kick off Christmas week than with that same remembrance? Our modern lives can be so hurried and full of busy. It is easy to miss or at least skim over the incredible depth of all that Christmas commemorates. Of course we enjoy the parts and pieces – the decorations, the gifts, the programs, the celebrations, the family time, and of course, the music. But for today at least, let’s take a moment and think about what it is Mary was so full of joy and wonder about and how her song is beautiful picture of who God is. Mary’s song starts with a general praise to God from her deepest self, moves to wonder at his remembrance of her, recounts his holiness and mercy, generally, and then gives details of his work in the world, finally delighting in the fulfillment of his promises to Israel.

Mary’s song forms a template for worship that we would do well to remember not only at Christmas, but throughout the year.

First, we begin with general praise that emanates from the depths of us to the heights of God. He is our redeemer, our savior. It starts with God wrapped in flesh in Mary’s arms and continues as Jesus transforms lives over and over today. It is his remembrance of us – as low and unremarkable as we are – that precipitates his willingness to not only be born but to offer us a second birth. It is God’s love for us that spans time immemorial and travels from a garden, to a desert, to a manger, to a cross, to an empty grave, to the willing heart today. This praise transcends the reality of our circumstances to the understanding of God’s very real willingness to offer us rescue from the sin that keeps us bound.

Second, we understand that he is holy and he is merciful. His holiness is thorough enough to be expressed in the mere mention of his name. This is an expression of praise, too, an affirmation from Mary that she understands that God is God. Yet he remains merciful to those who recognize this – his grace moves from age to age, expressed in his kindness to those who worship him. John says that Jesus is another grace given: John 1:16-17 says Out of his fullness we have all received one grace after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” In other words, the babe that Mary will birth is yet another demonstration of God’s ageless mercy.

Next, we know of all that God has done in the world. In some respects, we have a better picture than Mary ever could – we not only have a longer historical record of God’s work, but we have seen and known his work in our own present lives. Just today, I was reading a friend’s testimony of God’s hand in her life, and surely each of us could tell of his work in ours. Mary recounts God’s work of deliverance in the history of mankind – his mighty deeds. Not only does God work in the lives of the faithful, but he knows those who would work against him. He challenges the status quo and upsets the power structures of the world by giving the humble a victory the self-sufficient can’t understand. If you have ever been able to sing in the face of daunting circumstances – because you know your redeemer lives – then you understand what I mean. It is not that you do not deal with those things in reality, but it is that you are confident in the one who walks alongside you as you deal with them. Do not misunderstand – many times the things you encounter, endure, and walk through in life are downright awful. Mary herself was about to face some of these things – Joseph wasn’t sure what to do with her news until an angel changed his mind. I’m sure she didn’t anticipate that God’s provision for the Messiah would include a stable, a flight to Egypt, or a trip to the cross. The song of promise must have seemed a long way off in many of those circumstances. But Mary knew that God was working.

Fourth, we know of God’s promises. Mary knew of those to Israel, but we have the promises of Jesus: he will never leave us or forsake us, he has sent the Holy Spirit, he has overcome the world, the grave, and death – and he lives! I mean, friends, what better promise than this – that the one who has overcome the world lives in us and works through us! Our hope is bigger and better than Mary’s because her hope was a little smaller and less glorious than what God actually had in mind. Mary hoped for deliverance from the Roman empire – God was planning deliverance from the very clutches of sin! Mary hoped for freedom to worship at the temple – God was planning to accept worship in spirit and in truth. Mary hoped for longevity of the kingdom of Israel – God was planning a forever Kingdom of his own that Mary had no context for understanding.

Sometimes our expectation of God’s work in a particular situation limits our trust in him. We know how God will best work things out. Mary’s trust was bigger than that. How do we know? Because she was in the stable, on the trip to Egypt, and at the foot of the cross. She may not have understood – but she trusted. We too can learn that lesson. We may not understand what God is doing, but we can certainly trust him anyway.

The song of praise that Mary sings may have been the first Christmas carol. But it was certainly not the last. One researcher estimates there are nearly a million Christmas songs. The most commonly recorded, according to the research is “Silent Night.” But really, any song that extols the merits of our God and King is a Christmas song. Worship songs are Christmas songs – because we worship the one who made Christmas possible. We worship God because that Christmas gave us Jesus. And Jesus is our hope. Jesus is our redeemer. Jesus saves.  

 Mary may not have understood the method, but she understood the purpose. She knew salvation was at hand. She anticipated and celebrated it. We have an obligation to do the same. Every year, whether you start in October or with the first Sunday of advent – anticipate what God did, recognize the wonder of it, the miracle of it, the grace of it, and then celebrate the fulfillment of it. God promised and then he did it. Because of his filled promises, we can trust him with what’s next.

I would ask each of you to think about the ways in which you perhaps do not always trust him. Perhaps you are sure you know exactly how something is going to turn out. Perhaps you have an understanding about what will happen next. Take a moment and offer that circumstance, that challenge, that area to him. Praise him for who he is, remember his holiness and grace, remember his past work, and trust him to be true to his promises. In that act of trust, may you find renewed peace in the midst of trouble, and greater joy in the moment of trial, as you lean in to the faithfulness of a God whose word never fails.

That is the hope Christmas gives us and the truth that Mary’s song reminds us.

  • Let us pray
  • O God of Elizabeth and Mary, 
    you visited your servants with news of the world's redemption
    in the coming of the Savior. 
    Make our hearts leap with joy, 
    and fill our mouths with songs of praise, 
    that we may announce glad tidings of peace, 
    and welcome the Christ in our midst. Amen.

 

 

 

 

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