The Songs of Christmas (Luke 1 & 2)

[Note: This sermon was preached as a dialogue with John York.]

John York: Rubel, I love the songs of Christmas! Don't you?

Rubel Shelly: Indeed! And the music this morning has been particularly wonderful to me. I must confess that I've had a hard time getting into the spirit of the season this year. You and Anne - probably most everyone else at Woodmont Hills too by now - know that my mother died last Sunday. So there have been a few distractions in my life this week.

John: Isn't that the way life seems to be always? With every joyous season, there is someone struggling with bereavement, a diagnosis, family alienation, or some "distraction" that comes from living in a fallen world. So, yes, I suspect the music this morning has helped several of us get a clearer focus for the week we are entering. Even if the distraction has been shopping and cooking and cleaning the house for guests on the way, we all need a way to center on the real reason for this holiday called Christmas.

Rubel: So what's your favorite Christmas song?

John: That's a hard question! I love listening to the Christmas albums of Mannheim Steamroller this time of year, and I've always enjoyed Handel's Messiah. If I had to just pick one song, I'm not sure I could. How about you?

Rubel: Do you ever listen to country-music radio? Have you heard Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer? Well, that's not it! I'd probably pick one of the great traditional songs like "Joy to the World!" or "O Holy Night" - the former if I felt festive and celebrative, the latter if I were in a more pensive and reflective mood.

John: Luke is the Gospel writer who must have liked music because he includes four different songs in his telling of the birth narrative. We know them as Mary's Song (1:46-55), Zechariah's Song (1:67-79), the Angels' Song (2:13-14), and Simeon's Song (2:28-32). Plus, his story is the one that serves as the basis for most of our traditional Christmas music.

Rubel: In the wake of 9/11, Zechariah's song of hope strikes a very responsive chord in my heart this year. From the first word in the Latin version, it is called the Benedictus. From the mouth of the husband of Elizabeth and the father of John the Baptist came Spirit-given words that ended the silence that had been his sign that his own son would be born in his old age. With his tongue miraculously free, he praises not John but Jesus, not the herald but the king.

When Zechariah sings of the "mighty savior" who shows mercy by rescuing us "from the hands of our enemies that we may serve him without fear" (1:74) and who will "give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace" (1:79), I think those words sound a hopeful note to human hearts in every generation. Zechariah himself may have thought of a savior from Rome. Luke and his readers clearly understand more - and think, as we do, of Jesus.

John: Rescue from enemies. Life without fear. Light, guidance, and peace. I think those would be positive alternatives to what many people have felt over the past few months.

Rubel: I think that is correct, and I want to develop that theme for a bit. It is a major theme in all literature. For example, "The Luck of Roaring Camp" is a piece of American fiction from Bret Harte (1836-1902) that captures something of the hope motif that is at the heart of the Christmas story.

Roaring Camp was portrayed in Harte's story as the coarsest, meanest, toughest mining town in the Wild West of 1805. It was a terrible place where theft and murder were commonplace, inhabited entirely by men - and one "coarse, and, it is to be feared, a very sinful woman" named Cherokee Sal. Sal died in the process of giving birth to a baby.

The men in that harsh place took her infant and put him in a box that had shipped dynamite sticks with some old flannel rags under him. After burying Sal, they tried to figure out what to do with the baby. Send him to the closest camp with women that was forty miles away? They decided there were too many dishonest, untrustworthy souls there to trust the baby's welfare to them. Try to find a woman they could hire to come to Roaring Camp to be his nurse? No "decent woman" would come there, they decided!

To make a fascinating short story shorter still, they decided to keep the baby right there in Roaring Camp - where he thrived and was named "Luck." Tommy Luck. They sent one of their number to a town eighty miles away to buy a real cradle. Another was dispatched to Sacramento to get proper blankets and supplies. But a rosewood cradle and baby blankets made the house they were in look filthy. So those tough men got on their hands and knees and scrubbed the floor clean. But that made the dirty walls more apparent. They washed them down. But clean walls only made the bare windows look like they needed curtains. And so on and so on.

Since the baby needed lots of sleep, they stopped their raucous brawling and fighting. And as the boy began to imitate sounds and learn language, they cleaned up their vocabularies and stopped swearing. As he began to try to walk and eventually was big enough to play outdoors, they planted grass and flowers in a garden.

Trying to play with little Luck, their huge hands looked so dirty. And they smelled. So pretty soon the general store was selling lots of soap and shaving gear. You're following the story now, aren't you? The baby changed everything.

That is what Zechariah sang about. The Spirit let him see the future for those whom God would favor through their faith in his Son come into this disorderly and sinful world. Those people would let the baby into their lives, and he would change everything about them. He would teach us that God is with us. No, he would teach us that God is for us, that God had come to rescue us and give us his peace. This child's name was not Luck but Jesus, not an accident in a mining town but a purposeful act of God in Bethlehem, not a fictional tale but the Truth of God in flesh.

John: As wonderful as Zechariah's words must have been for him and his family after months of silence and years of waiting for a son, imagine how different the circumstances were for Mary. I struggle with this story whenever I spend time around 8th graders. Mary is a young teenager - not even old enough to get her learner's permit! Yet she has been visited by the angel Gabriel, who has announced the birth of Messiah. She is engaged but not married; she is a virgin who will conceive and have a son by the power of the Holy Spirit. She's an eighth grader! The God of the impossible is at work again.

Rubel: The pregnancy of an eighth-grade girl in Nazareth of the first century would outdo any shame we could imagine in a similar situation today. Would her mother have believed her story? Would her family have been engulfed in shame? Was it Mary's family who suggested that - possibly for her own safety - she go to visit her cousin Elizabeth? Whatever the reason, the girl in her early teens heads for the home of Zechariah and his pregnant wife.

John: So as Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, you have two ladies meeting, one old and one young, one very pregnant, one newly pregnant; one who in the eyes of the world has had her shame removed in her old age; one who in the eyes of the world is about to endure the shame of pregnancy outside of marriage. Yet both have a very different vision of the child to whom Mary will give birth. When Elizabeth hears the voice of Mary, so does the child in her womb and the child leaps.

Rubel: Most pregnant women talk about their babies "kicking." But this child leaps, Luke says, at the presence of Mary.

John: Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit as she looks at this young girl - a girl about to endure great shame among her peers - and says "Blessed are you among women; blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" Here she is in the sixth month of her own miraculous pregnancy with a child leaping inside her that an angel has proclaimed will be great, and all she can wonder is why the privilege of being in Mary's presence has been granted her! She recounts her own experience of the child "leaping for joy" inside her and she pronounces a blessing upon Mary.

Rubel: Mary's song of praise then follows, known for centuries as the Magnificat because that is the first word of the song in Latin which was the Catholic Bible for centuries. The poem as it appears in many translations today, really has two parts: verses 46 through 50 reflect God's dealings specifically with Mary; verses 51 through 55 are written in past tense but have futuristic meaning as Mary prophetically recounts what will happen as though it already has. First she sings God's praise for what he has done. What from the world's perspective is shame, she identifies as great blessing. "My soul magnifies, extols the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior." Notice: "For he has regarded the low estate - the poverty of position in the world around her - of his slave girl." Back in verse 38, Mary responded to the angel's announcement, "Here I am, the slave-girl of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." Now she says, "In the future all will call me blessed."

John: That's not what they will be calling her for the next nine months!

Rubel: Here is the reason: "For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name" - holy is his nature. "His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation" - a reference to God's mercy towards her and all those like her.

John: There is a shift from the mercies of God given specifically to Mary to his revelation through this child for the rest of the world. "He has shown strength with his arm" - a reference to Old Testament texts that refer to the power of Almighty God with the phrase "strength of his arm." In contrast to the mercy given to Mary in her low estate as a slave girl, there are the proud, the arrogant, those imagining themselves to be somebody, that God with his mighty arm has scattered.

While the first half reflects Mary's future, we now shift to past tense, not so much in reference to deeds accomplished in past time, but stated so emphatically that the certainty of God's actions can be talked about as already having happened. The events described in vs. 51-55 still have to do with the birth of the child, just as the blessing to Mary had to do with the birth of the child. Mary was raised up out of her lowliness. But the proud have been scattered and the mighty have been pulled down from their thrones; by contrast, the low-estate folks like Mary have been exalted. The hungry have been filled with good things, while the rich have been sent away empty.

Rubel: Mary's song is the first witness to the reversal of worlds that you find throughout the rest of Luke and Acts. "This child is set for the falling and rising of many in Israel," Simeon will say. "Blessed are the poor, but woe to the rich," Jesus will say in chapter 6. "The first shall be last and the last first." "He who humbles himself will be exalted; he who exalts himself will be humbled." "He who would save his life will lose it; he who loses his life for my sake will save it." The salvation coming into the world through Mary is about to change the standards, the worldview of how humans understand blessing and curse, success and failure.

John: The coming of the Son of God would change the definitions of shame and honor for all people just as the pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary had changed the identity for each. Elizabeth's life-long shame was suddenly reversed. Mary recognized that she was blessed by God and that all future generations would call her blessed, in the midst of a culture that would otherwise have made her a shameful outcast for being pregnant outside of marriage.

Rubel: We celebrate the good news this morning - the good news that our relationship to God and to one another is no longer based on the world's standards of performance nor on our own efforts because the words of Zechariah and Mary are true. We hear their songs this morning and affirm our faith in the blessed events they describe. God has acted in his tender mercy. He still is the God of the impossible - redeeming even people like you and me through the coming of Christ into our world.

* * * * * * *

[After the song "Mary, Did You Know?" is presented, the dialogue resumes. . . .]

John: Yes, Mary, what did you know? What could you know when you sang your song, when you made that trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem? When you endured the shame of teenage pregnancy, believing that somehow the rest of the world would one day call you the most blessed teenager of all?

Rubel: Two thousand years later, we celebrate the coming of God into our world, turning our pride to humility and our shame into joy, reminding us that God's mercies never come to an end. How blessed we all would be this morning if we could see God as Mary saw God. You see, this little girl had every reason in this world to be afraid, to feel the shame and condemnation of her peers and her husband-to-be, to wonder why her life had to be thrown into such turmoil.

John: Or, on the other hand, she might have become proud and arrogant herself - "Hey, everyone. God didn't choose you. He chose me!" She understands that it is by the mercies of God that she has been chosen. She understands that God's vision of people in this world is a different vision. She encapsulates the God vision for us to remind us that, in the birth of this child, God is going to redefine honor and shame, exaltation and humiliation.

Rubel: We come together this morning and celebrate the new world opened to each of us by the coming of God in the flesh. By the tender mercies of God, we live in hope and we can sing of peace and joy in our world - and that even when our life experiences this particular year have not always been peaceful or joyous. We eat and drink this morning as people of hope, as people given identity as children of God this morning because we believe the words of Mary and Zechariah.

John: As we have done in the past, we want to celebrate our identity as family this morning as we eat and drink together. . . .


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