Scripture Readings: Micah 5:2–5a | Psalm 80:1–7 | Hebrews 10:5–10 | Luke 1:39–55
“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.” (Luke 1:48-49).
What do you want for Christmas?
If we ask some of our younger members of St. Luke’s this familiar question, we might expect to hear, with some excitement, about their gift wish list… the presents that they’re hoping to receive from those who love them.
If we ask this question to some of our less-young Christian brothers and sisters, the answers might get a bit harder to gift wrap, but not at all less longed for… like spending time with family and friends, and other festive traditions.
This year, no matter our age, I think we’re all longing for some normality this Christmas… for being able to celebrate this special time of year with freedom and ease. Not anxious about each other’s health… or the stability of our whole community. I think it’s safe to say we’re all longing for those seemingly simpler days we all took for granted.
Even so… even now as we head into our second COVID Christmas, we have much to be grateful for, and much to look forward to… especially as we consider the Good News that Advent and Christmas have to share.
Today we mark the fourth Sunday of Advent, the last before we celebrate our Saviour’s birth, and today we are asked to contemplate the theme of love… a word that we often associate with giving, and which stands at the centre of the sacred story we Christians believe. In our reading today from the first Chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we hear of God’s gift of love… to Mary, to Israel, and to us all.
In today’s passage we heard how Mary travels to see her cousin, Elizabeth, right after a visit from the Angel Gabriel, who tells her that she will give birth to God’s Messiah, the Christ. Elizabeth herself was expecting her own miracle child, a gift to her and her husband Zechariah in their old age… a baby destined to take part in preparing his people to get ready for God’s salvation, and the coming Saviour.
We heard how as soon as Mary spoke, the baby inside of Elizabeth jumped for joy… and how Elizabeth confirmed the Angel’s message to Mary, calling her blessed. And in response, we heard Mary bursts out in praise of God: “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she says “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.” (Luke 1:46-49).
Why would she respond in this way to the words of her cousin Elizabeth? The bishop and scholar N.T. Wright offers us this helpful insight:
“Mary and Elisabeth shared a dream. It was the ancient dream of Israel: the dream that one day all that the prophets had said would come true. One day Israel’s God would do what he had said to Israel’s earliest ancestors: all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s family. But for that to happen, the powers that kept the world in slavery had to be toppled… God would have to win a victory over the bullies, the power-brokers, the forces of evil which people like Mary and Elisabeth knew all too well, living as they did in the dark days of Herod the Great, whose casual brutality was backed up with the threat of Rome. Mary and Elisabeth, like so many Jews of their time, searched the scriptures, soaked themselves in the psalms and prophetic writings which spoke of mercy, hope, fulfilment, reversal, revolution, victory over evil, and of God coming to the rescue at last.”
She was still wrapping her head around the story that she was being drawn into, but the beautiful truth had begun to sink in: the Living God was giving to her and her people the gift they had all been longing for… God’s rescuing love was on its way through the child growing in her womb. Though insignificant in the eyes of the world, she now knows she is deeply blessed, “for the Mighty One has done great things” for her, and through her.
She didn’t have to see things this way, or to respond with words of praise. In fact, from the outside it might seem like the Mighty One had actually ruined her future. How would she explain her pregnancy to her fiancé, her family, and neighbours? What about all of her own plans for a simple, normal life?
Even so, even with all the complications and upheaval, Mary believed… she trusted the LORD’s word and had faith in His rescuing love, even if it would change everything. And as Elizabeth had said: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
None of us will bear and give birth to the Messiah like Mary, but we may all have our lives turned upside down by His rescuing love… raising us up beyond expectation… humbling us as well… experiencing the goodness of God at work within us, and through us in ways we never would have asked for or imagined.
That’s because love goes way beyond giving us what we want. Love gives us what we need… even, and maybe especially, when we have no clue what that is.
Everything that Mary said in our reading today was true of course, but she had no clue at this point how God’s rescue would actually be accomplished. She knew that her baby would bring about the salvation she and her people longed for, but not that it would completely consume the life of her child.
Like her people, Mary had expected God’s Messiah to come and bring victory, to rescue Israel right away from all its enemies. But as the Gospel story goes on, we find that Jesus, God’s true Messiah, actually gives up His life to rescue His enemies… dying not only for His own people, who had rejected and abandoned Him, but also to reach out and rescue all the peoples of the earth… including oppressive and ungodly nations, like the Roman Empire… and places as far away in distance and time as Gondola Point. Jesus, God’s Messiah, gave His own body to be broken, and His blood to be shed to draw us all together in His rescuing love… even when it was the furthest thing from our hearts and minds.
In his letter to the Christians in Rome, St. Paul the Apostle wrote these life-changing words:
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11). God proves His love for us in that Jesus His Son gave His life to save us while we were sinners… while we still wanted nothing to do with Him, God wanted us to be with Him.
This passage from Romans has played a huge role in my own story of receiving God’s rescuing love… which He first made known to me at the moment I felt the least lovely. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God really loves the real you… the real me… our real family members, and friends, our loved ones, and strangers… the people who hate us, or drive us to distraction… God loves them all too. There’s plenty we all do that He doesn’t love… and He longs to set us free from all that stuff… but none of it keeps Him from loving us all, and offering us New Life.
This may not be what we had expected or asked for, but this is what the Living God has given to us in Jesus… what He knows you and I and everyone around us needs, not just for Christmas, but always.
And what does it look like to receive the gift of the rescuing love of God? That’s actually what the whole Christian life is all about: Again and again encountering and believing in the love of God given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord… and empowered by His Holy Spirit, sharing His love with our world.
So whatever this Christmas looks like for us… and whatever else happens after it, may we believe and be transformed by the love of God in Jesus Christ. May we be convinced that in Jesus, God has given us everything we truly need. And may we start to see everybody around us as beloved by the Lord, who gave up His life on the cross, and rose again from the dead so that they too can be reconciled to God, and receive the blessed New Life in Him. Amen.
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 15.