Readings: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Hebrews 11:1-3, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Luke 1:39-56
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 4 2016
The Christmas season means different things to different people. For some it is simply a welcome break in the midst of winter. For others, a time of reflection and sometimes sadness as memories of those we have lost easily surface when a family gets together. For many it is a time filled with wonderful sights, sounds, tastes and smells. Christmas Carols, a celebration meal, evergreen trees... presents to be shared.
As Christian people, while we have joys and sorrows that we share with all people, we also have a deeper message and more glorious vision upon which to focus our thoughts. Central to our vision, and central to every celebration of communion, is the love of Jesus Christ. As we gather around a table laid with bread and wine I would like to focus on three particular aspects of the Christmas story... “Faith”, “Hope” and “Fulfillment”.
The prophets declared that out of Bethlehem would come one whose influence would extend to the ends of the earth. Visions are cast and in the land things begin to stir. Elizabeth greets Mary as “The mother of her Lord”. Mary responds to an angels visitation with a magnificent song of praise to her God. By the time Jesus is laid in the manger we realize that there is a lot riding on His shoulders. In Jesus a new age will dawn.
It is hard for us to fully capture the picture. The hope of the world is coming to us as a child, vulnerable and dependent on those around Him. In our imagination we can stand by the crib, and look into the face of the child. We can look around at the people who are there and see that there is nobody of any earthly significance here... just a carpenter and his bride and their newborn child. We can imagine what it was like to be housed in a stable amid the thronging crowds of a town bursting at the seams.
If we fully enter into the scene there should also be a part of us thinking; 'No. Wait a minute. This isn't right! The King of Kings shouldn't be born here, not to these people, not in this town! This isn't the stuff legends are made of... this cannot be the dawn of a new age!” It is at this point that faith comes into the picture. Humanly speaking, it does not make much sense to pin our hopes upon such a scene.
But then, along come some shepherds talking of visions of angels and calling the child their Savior. You see in the lives and faith of the Mary and Joseph that they believe the shepherds to be right. If you stick around long enough there will be strange visitors from the East bearing symbolic gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, claiming to be guided by a star and coming to herald the birth of a new born king.
But it still takes something personal.. There is something in us that needs to make a response of faith and say... yes... I believe that in the coming of the Christ-Child a new age has dawned. I believe that through Him can be found meaning and purpose and life and love. Faith, of course, is not just to do with the Christmas story. It has to do with the whole of life and to do particularly with what we are doing here around a communion table.
As we share elements of bread and wine, so in us, there must also be faith. Faith that by receiving normal bread and wine, amid a group of ordinary people, we are actually in the presence of the living God. That God is here to bless us and to extend God's Kingly rule into our hearts and lives through the work of the Holy Spirit. We need faith this morning, to see beyond the very ordinariness of our situation, and glimpse in these things the loving intent and hand of God. Such was the faith present at that first Christmas time. A second element was...
The nature of this hope was that it changed the way people looked at their personal circumstances. Again, it is helpful to put ourselves in the shoes of Mary and Joseph when Mary became pregnant. Joseph's family, angry and protective, all gave him advice at the same time. “Put her away while you can – You marry this woman and you are in for a long time of trouble – nothing good can come out of this!”
Mary's family are heartbroken and confused over a pregnancy that made no sense. They almost had their daughter all grown up, happily married, well established with a hopeful future, and now this happens!
Some suggest that Mary and Joseph were quite relieved to travel to Bethlehem and make a new start, away from the pressures of home and family expectations! One thing is very clear from the song that Mary sings, the Magnificat, Mary's great song of praise – however everybody else felt about what had happened to her, her heart was overflowing with joy and she knew that God was with ther.
The song speaks about the mercy of God to the hungry and the humble and those who were wholehearted in their commitment to God. By implication, as Mary is the composer of the song, that is exactly the sort of people both she and her husband Joseph were.
They were living under the oppression of the might of Rome and local rulers who were little more than puppets in Rome's hand. They had little prestige socially. Religiously it does not seem that either them occupied a particularly prominent role in their faith communities.
For Mary and Joseph their hope had nothing to do with their external circumstances but to do with what was happening in their hearts. It was a hope centered upon God. “My spirit” sings Mary “Rejoices in God my Savior!”
As we come to the communion table, where is our hope? Is it resting upon the salvation of God? There's a hymn in our books, #379 that declares “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus name... On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand!”
In our lives we may see prosperity or we may face struggle, we will find both joy and sadness, life and death. We need something that anchors our present circumstances in something that transcends them; something that gives meaning and value. That something can be found through placing our faith and hopes upon Jesus Christ.
The thing about faith, is that it is not a finished product. That doesn't take away it's reality but it does tell us about it's nature. The author of the book if Hebrews puts it this way... “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1). We need faith. We need hope. Within the Christmas narrative there is a third element.
Writing about fulfillment, and it's relationship to both faith and hope, pastor and author, Rev. Thomas Conley, writes about how, when he was very young his father died. It was left to his mother to hold family and home together. Many times, he recalls that things were pretty bleak, and he often wondered what kept her going. One thing she always did, no matter what the week had brought their way, was insist on getting them dressed up every Sunday morning and going to church.
He realized later in life that there were a lot of things that he could have got up to on a Sunday in his neighborhood. But the influence of being taken to church had a good effect upon him, despite his kicking against it! He trained and graduated from college, became a pastor, counselor and writer.
Years after his graduation and while his career was blossoming, he went home and was surprised to see that his first book, one that had not sold particularly well, or that he thought was his best work, was on his mother's bedside table. He joked with her, “Mother, haven't you even finished reading my first book yet?”
His mother replied “That book was the fulfillment of every thing I worked for. I keep it there to remind me that it was all worthwhile!”
Relating that thought to the Christmas story, there must have been days when Mary and Joseph wondered if it was all going to be worthwhile. Was it worth the effort, the struggle, the journey to Bethlehem, facing their critics and opponents. Should they do what was easy or do what was right? Could they hold on to their faith and hope when everything seemed to go against them?
But when it came time to go to Bethlehem, they went. As Mary cradled the infant Jesus in her arms, she knew it had all been worthwhile. Here was the fulfillment, not only of her personal hopes, but of her peoples hopes and indeed the hopes of all the world.
For Jesus it was just the start of the story. We meet around a table of communion which speaks of the fulfillment of His earthly mission. “Do this” he invites us “To remember me.” To remember how He was born, how He lived, all the He did , how He died and how God raised Him from death. To recall how His love is always available to each of us through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Every Communion service is a milestone on our spiritual journey. We are currently traveling though Advent, on our way to celebrate the glorious day we call Christmas, the day the love of God broke h into the circle of time and creation, and we declare a new day had dawned though the birth of Jesus Christ our Lord and our Savior.
Let us be mindful this morning of these three aspects of the Christmas story, Faith, Hope and Fulfillment.
Let us approach this table in faith, faith that looks beyond outward, ordinary circumstances and sees the purpose and will of God
Let us approach this table in hope, hope that transcends personal situations and sees in Jesus Christ the possibility of our lives being transformed and renewed by His loving purposes.
Let there also be with us a sense of fulfillment. Let us echo Mary's song, “My heart rejoices in God my Savior.” Let us rejoice that all Jesus came to accomplish in His earthly ministry was completed.
For ourselves, well we still have a lot to do. Christmas is coming! But we can at least be thankful … we have made it this far... and pray God will strengthen us for whatever lies ahead.
For to God's name be all glory, honor and praise! Amen.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.