Read the passage here.
Two thousand years ago, the people of Israel had been living under Roman rule. In many ways, this was better than when they lived under the Babylonians or the Assyrians. They had been allowed to return to their land, after all, from which previous generations had been exiled, even though they were still under the rule of a foreign power. But this wasn’t what they had expected. Many years before that, they had escaped slavery in Egypt, led by Moses to take possession of the land promised by God. They were supposed to be God’s favoured people. They were supposed to be blessed by God to be His treasured possession.
But it had been many hundred years since anyone had heard from God. It had been many hundred years since the prophets had spoken, telling them what God wanted from them and what God was going to do for them. Make no mistake, there had been individuals who many people thought was the Messiah – the one chosen to deliver Israel from their oppression. This Messiah was supposed to restore the kingdom of Israel, to restore the people to their favoured status as God’s people. But all of these so-called Messiahs had failed. All of these so-called Messianic movements had amounted to nothing.
So the people still waited.
The opening verses of the gospel according to Luke say:
1:1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.Luke 1:1-4
Luke, the gospel writer, tells us that his intention is to write an account of the life of Jesus, “So that [we] may know the certainty of the things [we] have been taught.” That is, the truth about the gospel message that Jesus is the true Messiah – the one who would deliver God’s people, restore God’s kingdom, and bring about God’s peace in creation.
The first story that we see in Luke is the account of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. We know that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, are righteous in God’s sight, but that they had been unable to have a child. But an angel of the Lord comes to Zechariah to announce that Elizabeth would conceive, even though she was old, and give birth to John the Baptist. And John the Baptist would prepare the people for the arrival of Jesus.
Zechariah’s response is one of disbelief and doubt. He asks for proof and assurance. And because of his disbelief, Zechariah becomes mute until John is born.
This same angel appears to Mary, the mother of Jesus. He tells Mary that she would conceive, even though she was unmarried, and that the baby she bore would be the Son of the Most High, heir to the throne of David, and that his kingdom would reign forever. He tells Mary that, even though this seems impossible, “No word from God will ever fail.”
And when Mary visits her relative, Elizabeth, John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy in Mary’s presence, recognizing the faith of Mary and the promise to be fulfilled through her.
Our passage today is Mary’s response.
46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.Luke 1:46-55
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. Christmas is another week closer, and we are another week further into the pandemic. For many of us, where we are, things are not too different. Things have not been too bad. Certainly, things are a little more inconvenient, we have to be a little bit more careful, but we have been very fortunate. Nevertheless, this whole year has been very difficult for some of us. Some of us have found that restrictions around gathering, guidelines around masks or physical distancing, not being able to meet together as a whole congregation have been discouraging, exhausting, or just plain annoying.
And for many people, this is on top of the normal difficulties of negotiating life. For many of us, this past year has been difficult in new ways – but life itself has enough troubles of its own. For many folks, the pandemic is actually the least of our problems.
So, as we think about these things, both particular and perennial, do we have mixed feelings about Christmas? Do we look forward to the Christmas season? Or do we approach it with anxiety, resentment, and doubt? In fact, we know that for many this is the normal experience of Christmas.
And here, I’m talking about the Christmas season. I’m talking about the particular time of year, and I’m talking about this particular season of our lives. Because it’s not surprising that many people would look at this Christmas season with mixed feelings. And again we know that every year, some people always face Christmas with a certain amount of trepidation (Christmas is hard for some people).
But what I also want to think about is how we think about the Christmas. I want to think about how we think about, how we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ. What does it mean to expect God’s arrival in the midst of our earthly lives?
Before the introduction to the gospel of Luke, before the angel appeared to Zechariah and Mary, Israel had been waiting; Israel had been anticipating. And for hundreds of years, there was nothing – no word from God. And the people – to varying extents, undoubtedly – became settled into their context. They figured out a way to live, a way to get along, or a way to stand apart. In other words, they continued to live. (I’m not making any comment on how well they lived, how faithful they remained, or anything of the sort – simply that they continued).
And at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, after hundreds of years of silence, God appeared. God appeared, through His messenger Gabriel, first to Zechariah. And God announced that God was coming. And because God was coming, the people had best get prepared (God was even sending someone to prepare the people).
And what was Zechariah’s response? His response was essentially, “Really?” His response was, “Prove it.”
And again, I’m not going to evaluate Zechariah or his response. I simply want to say that his response was understandable. After centuries of silence, centuries of the people trying to figure it out on their own, his response to the God’s messenger is understandable.
But what I do want to do is pay attention to Zechariah’s response in contrast to Mary’s. When Mary received the word, through that same messenger, her response was: “I am the Lord’s servant…May your word to me be fulfilled.” And then (after a brief interlude – Mary and Elizabeth), we get Mary’s song.
The song is profound. The song is a song of joy; the song is a song of thanksgiving; the song is a song of faith.
And what I want to suggest (with no real evidence other than my own musings) is that Mary was open to the new. Mary was open to the eternal God breaking into history in a way that did not make sense, but somehow made sense out of all of humanity’s history of sinfulness, brokenness, and lostness. And I think that this was because Mary’s trust was not in a particular outcome – she didn’t know what that would be. Mary rejoiced not because she approved of God’s plan of action. Rather, Mary rejoiced because she trusted in the character of God.
We’ve talked a lot about the Israelites’ expectations. And we’ve talked about how the Israelites’ expectations of the Messiah were based on how they understood the world was supposed to work. They wanted the Messiah – they wanted God – to fit into those expectations.
Zechariah, based on what he knew, didn’t understand what the angel was saying. It didn’t make any sense to him that he and his elderly wife would be able to have a baby. I don’t really know what Zechariah thought about John’s mission, but this seems to be where he was stuck.
But Mary, when the angel told her something impossible, something that didn’t fit into her understanding of how the world worked, was open to God doing the impossible. She was open to God doing something entirely new.
I know that it’s been a hard many months. It’s been a hard year. And we can’t wait for things to get back to the way they used to be. But maybe God is doing something different. Maybe God is going to do something that has little to do with what we expect. Maybe God is going to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”
Our expectations can be so limited. Our expectations, by their very definition, means looking towards something that we already know. Christmas – and not just this Christmas – means that God is doing something more, that God is doing something new. Christmas means that God has heard the suffering of His people and that He has purposed to do something about it. Joy can be found in knowing that God’s ways are greater than our ways; God’s wisdom is greater than our wisdom; and that God’s love for us is infinitely greater than we could possibly hope or imagine. It’s in that love, in that hope, that we can find our joy; find our hope, and find our peace.
This Christmas, this season, let us make room in our hearts for God to do something new.