Reading: Luke 1.39-56

    We often think that Christmas time is different from any other time in the year and that we see the genuine “warm heart” of the community at this time. There’s a measure of truth in that. Christmas is different and does call out attitudes that lie hidden for the rest of the year. Perhaps it even creates those attitudes.

    Yet in other ways the Christmas magic that people seek is a bit of an illusion. At Christmas we express what we are within, in spite of the veneer of human kindness that is appropriate to the season.

    There are three questions many people ask at Christmas time. Children often ask one another, “What are you getting for Christmas?” We try to make it all good by teaching that Christmas is giving time. But there is this deeply-entrenched expectation of getting and we sometimes begrudge the season because we wonder whether our bank balances can really stand the getting expectation. Of course, we have appeals like the Target Christmas Tree and the Christmas Bowl. These try to focus us on giving to needy families at home and abroad. That is commendable, though it cloaks the guilt of our expectation to receive.

    A second question is “What are you doing for Christmas?” Christmas, of course, is a holiday season. Schools are in recess. Businesses will be closed down. Only essential services like electricity supply, police, nursing staff… will be on duty. Everyone else is expecting — and planning — to be doing something different from the normal routines of employment.  Please spare a thought — and a prayer — for the people who have to work over Christmas. Sometimes in the course of conversation we may ask someone, “What are you doing over Christmas?” and they reply, “Oh, I can’t do anything this year. I have to go to work!” And doesn’t that express what we all tend to feel? Our work isn’t really “doing” anything. It isn’t significant. It isn’t an integral part of what life is all about. A job has to be endured to earn the money for some real life.

    A number of years ago I was talking to a nurse who was to be on duty on Christmas Day. Hospitals try to send as many patients home for Christmas as possible — and it is a time of year when no one really wants to work (whatever we think about penalty rates, they deserve it on Christmas Day!). She was a Christian and decided to take her guitar along and sing carols to the patients.

    So much of our doing doesn’t reach beyond ourselves at all. The “doing” of our life is totally selfish. Sadly, Christmas can be one of the times when we exhibit our selfishness.

    A third question is “Where are you going this Christmas?” Well, we’re in the middle of packing. We will be “going” after Christmas! What about you? Hopefully our response reflects our commitment to home and family. It is a positive good that so many families do endeavour to get together at Christmas time. It is a sad fact, however, that Christmas is a time for family arguments and domestic violence. There are those in the community who really dread the coming of Christmas. This season ought to be a time when we evaluate the direction of our life. Too often in Australia, the only consideration is the direction of our car.

    Elizabeth and Mary

    We can only imagine the time Elizabeth and Mary spent together. These two women — the one having conceived when well past childbearing years, the other having conceived as a virgin.

    We have no idea, by the way, just how old Elizabeth and her husband were. The New International Version describes them as being “well along in years”.  They might have been in their late fifties or sixties — beyond the time when a childless couple would expect to have a baby, yet not so old that they might not survive to rear the child.

    They weren’t thinking about out three Christmas questions. “What will you get…?” Well, both of them knew their child would be a boy. No ultrasonics in those days, of course! The angel Gabriel himself had brought that bit of information! But their attitude was not getting, grasping, anyway. For each of them, there would be a load as well as a joy in the bearing of their child. They were giving of themselves, and their gracious Lord was able to give to them — and to the world — through their availability for his will.

    Listen to Elizabeth’s greeting, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?…”  Yes, what a privilege for Mary to be the mother of Jesus! And what a temptation to think of divine blessing and assumed status among women!

    Yet that wasn’t Mary’s attitude at all. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,  for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant” In no sense was she accepting Elizabeth’s words as praising her, as exalting her above others. Not only did she recognise herself as the Lord’s “servant”, but she acknowledged herself as a sinner in need of the very work of salvation her Son would be bringing into the world. “From now on all generations will call me blessed,  for the Mighty One has done great things for me…” She had nothing of the getting, grasping attitude. Having humbled herself, making herself available for the will of God, she was able to receive his great blessing and still know that it was his gift, not her prerogative.

    What has happened to me, she is saying, is simply demonstrates again God’s character towards anyone who trusts him — “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” What was happening to Mary was absolutely unique – to bear the Son of God. But the principle of divine favour towards Mary is the same as God’s favour towards us who believe.

    God’s favouritism is so very different from ours. The Bible says many times that God has no favourites. So we don’t have status with God and we can’t buy status with God. But he does show mercy to those who honour him.

    In God’s way of dealing with people, there are some surprising reverses. The proud with all inmost thoughts are scattered. Rulers are brought down. The rich are sent away empty. The humble are lifted up. The hungry are filled with good things.

    There is an idea abroad – a whole system called Liberation Theology – which takes passages such as this and says that God has a preference for the poor. But that idea is not really supported here or elsewhere. It misses the whole point. God has no favourites.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt.5.3). Rich and poor alike are called to repent and believe the gospel.

    God is no respecter of persons. He has no favourites. But he does choose people for particular tasks. He chose Abraham and his descendants to be the channel through which he would reveal himself and his purposes to the world. He chose the prophets to speak his message. He chose Mary to be the human mother of his own Son.

    He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers” Mary’s words here refer specifically to Israel, the descendants of Abraham, as the ones who had received the promises. Those promises had a wider scope – for he would be a light to the Gentiles., indeed to all who would believe in his name, Jew and Gentile alike. The descendants of Abraham had received the promises and were waiting for the light to be revealed. Though centuries have passed, God hasn’t forgotten! He has kept his promise!

    Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home” This was about the time Elizabeth’s baby was due to be born. Did Mary stay for the birth of John? We aren’t told, and writers are divided on the matter. There were good reasons for a person in Mary’s situation to depart before the crowd of neighbours and relatives started to gather. And it was important that Joseph formally marry Mary (as recorded in Mt.1.24-25) before her pregnancy was becoming too obvious. She would not want to be too public before that.

    So – what was she doing…? and where was she going…? Those weren’t questions for her. All were bound up in her initial commitment to be the humble servant of the Lord. Pregnancy can change a lot of plans and goals. It’s a commitment that can cut right across some of the other things that seemed important to us…

    And for Us…

    So what about us — and our Christmas?

    The key question isn’t what we are getting or what we are doing or where we are going – but whether we humble ourselves before God and believe in Jesus Christ his Son whom he sent to be our Saviour. That will help answer what we need to be doing or where we need to be going.

    The key question isn’t our status in the community (or the status of our bank balance) – but whether we know the love and mercy of God. And that is available to us all in Jesus.

    While Christmas is an event that is special and different from any other time of the year, the rest of the year will be different when we have grasped what is it all about. For it isn’t about a cute story, but about dealing with our human brokenness and sin. It isn’t about a spark of light in the midst of bleak news, but about the coming of the Light of the world! Draw back the curtains and let the light shine in!

    © Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill & Ayr Uniting Churches, 12 December 2004
    Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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