It’s nearly Christmas. For many people, this is their favourite time of year. It’s a time to have a break from work. It’s a time to celebrate, which often means parties and food. It’s also a time for peace. We seek peace in our relationships at work and at home. We even seek peace among enemies. It is a time when we desire to stop making war and make peace, if only for a day.
Christmas is often a time to compare the reality of the world with the hope of the world. When we do that it can be a decidedly depressing time of year, because we are reminded that we are still very far from an ideal that seems to be built in to human nature.
On Christmas Day in 1914, the British and Germans were at war. They faced each other across no man’s land in France and Belgium. Late on Christmas Eve, the sound of Germans singing Stille Nacht echoed across no man’s land. The British were perplexed, but soon joined in. Then came shouted messages – in English – from the German trenches. “Tomorrow is Christmas; if you don’t fight, we won’t.”
All up and down the front there was peace on Christmas. They mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. And there were football matches between German and British soldiers. And the next day they started killing each other again.
What is it that makes Christmas so special?
Our Bible reading this morning might help us understand why people have profound feelings for Christmas, even people who aren’t Christian.
Something rather strange has happened. A girl has seen an angel. Not only has she seen an angel, she has talked to an angel. She was young. She believed what the angel told her. She went to see someone she trusted. A much older woman, a close relative, in whom she could confide. It’s a hard journey of several days from where she lives in Nazareth over 100 miles to the hill country of Judea.
The girl’s name is Mary. She is visiting the home of Elizabeth. The angel, whose name is Gabriel, had told Mary that he had already visited Elizabeth and that Elizabeth was now six months pregnant. Elizabeth was old and had been barren, but she had conceived a son by God’s power.
We don’t have any idea what was going through Mary’s mind during the few days it took to prepare for the journey, or during the four hard days of walking. The angel had said precisely, “You will conceive and give birth to a son.” Her first question might have been, “When?”
But in fact it was, “How?”
The angel answered that the how was, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
Mary, being a girl of remarkable trust and faith and an example to us all, just said, “Let’s do it!”
Or in the more elegant words of Luke’s Gospel, “May everything you have said about me come true.”
I guess the angel didn’t say when it would come true and Mary didn’t ask. It could take a long time. Abraham waited until he was 100 for God’s promised son. Mary just had faith and went to visit a close relative, who may have been her cousin.
When my children were young we took them on holiday by car. It was a long journey, but they had no concept of what that meant. We were only about five minutes into an eight-hour journey when they asked, Are we almost there yet? And they kept asking. Yet it always seemed to come as a surprise when we actually arrived.
Life with God seems to be a lot like that. God gives a promise, but we really have no way of understanding how long it will take for that promise to be fulfilled. Our children never for one moment doubted that eventually we would arrive at our holiday destination in Wales.
Mary never doubted that God would give her a son or that “the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.” It sounds outlandish, but she believed the promise. For that reason, Mary is a great example of faith.
In verse 45 Elizabeth says to Mary, “You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.”
Most theologians believe that by that time conception had already occurred. This is because Elizabeth says “your child is blessed” rather than ‘will be’ blessed.
Christmas is a time of promise. It is a time of God’s great promise to us. At the first Christmas we see promises fulfilled by God and promises made by God. Christmas is thus a time of great hope for the human race.
This hope is expressed for us by John the Baptist proclaiming the great and glorious coming of the Messiah from Elizabeth’s womb. At that moment Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Three months before he is born, John is already preparing the way for Jesus.
Mary’s response to this is called ‘The Magnificat’, because in Latin the first words are ‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum’. It is a song.
Mary sings of the joy in her heart at what God is doing.
She sings of what God has done in her life. She sings of God’s nature and character.
Mary has joy because God cares for and works with people who are ‘lowly’ such as her. She has joy because God brings down princes from their thrones and exalts the humble.
Mary is filled with joy that God listens to the underdog. God comes to those who cry out.
God feeds the hungry with good things.
She is also singing with joy over God’s justice. He sends the rich away with empty hands. He scatters the proud.
Look at what God is really like. He is not the least impressed by any of your pride, power, or opulence. He has mercy on those who fear him, who humble themselves and turn from the ego boosting accumulation of wealth to the lowliness of self-denial for the sake of others. This is the way God is. This is how his holiness expresses itself.
Mary is singing of what Jesus came to accomplish. Jesus came to make real these promises. Jesus was born so that God could do what Mary sings about.
Here is God. God is born on earth in human form. His name is Jesus. Nobody was saved when Jesus was born. He was born to keep God’s promises, however long it may take. We have no idea. One week or one millennium, we don’t know. We do know that God keeps his promises.
Are we hoping for such salvation in him or not? Do we live with simple childlike faith as Mary did and sing praises to God? How does a soul magnify God? A mouth magnifies God by saying ‘God is magnificent’, by speaking his praises.
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”
Your soul praises God when your soul feels the greatness and holiness and mercy of God. And the feeling is primarily one of joy. ‘My spirit rejoices in God!’
Christmas is a time of rejoicing because God promises to bring peace to the world and end wars. Guns will fall silent. We rejoice because the warmongers and mighty figures who are proud and exalted will be brought low. The people who cause the wars will be humbled. The weak and the victims or wars will be filled with good things. Because Jesus was born these things will happen.
Not just the wars of guns, but all of the injustices in the world. Corporate greed will be thrown down, unjust rulers will lose their power. All will be set right, because that is God’s promise.
As Mary sang to Elizabeth, it is an ancient promise.
“[God] made this promise to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children forever.”
Christmas proves that God keeps his promises. On Friday, Christmas Day, we have a chance to rejoice and celebrate our hope.