Updated: Mar 30, 2019
The gospel reading for today (Luke 1:39-55) reminds us that Christmas is a time of supernatural blessing. In fact, there is little about the events of Christmas that might be considered normal.
Luke commences his Gospel by stating in v.3 that, after investigating everything carefully, he is undertaking to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled.
I find some amusement picturing Luke solemnly writing this orderly and factual account and getting to the part where he records the contrasting great excitement of Mary and Elizabeth when Mary raced off to visit her cousin in the country. (I wonder whether Luke couldn’t help but smile at the picture of two very excited women that he was recording.)
When Mary, who was pregnant with the baby Jesus walked through Elizabeth’s door, Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, … ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
Mary’s excitement and exaltation was just as great; because she immediately broke into a hymn of praise - what we now call Mary’s Song, or the Magnificat!
Both these women clearly recognised the supernatural blessings that they had received from God through the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit in the conception of Jesus and responded appropriately. They both recognised two things that we too must note:
I. The blessings celebrated at Christmas were enabled through Miracles
Firstly, there is the miracle of Elizabeth’s conception. (I think that this story would have featured on the front of the Guardian Gazette.) Elizabeth was the older relative of Mary whom God had chosen to be the mother of John the Baptist. We are told back in verse 36 that Elizabeth had been considered to be barren - she had never fallen pregnant, and to top it off she was now in her old age. And yet God had miraculously caused Elizabeth to fall pregnant with the child who was to become John the Baptist.
Secondly there is the miracle of Mary’s virginal conception. Mary was pledged to Joseph but was not living with him. The Angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her that through the power of the Holy Spirit, she was to bear a son who would be the Son of God.
And thirdly, there is the miracle of the incarnation. The baby that Mary was to bear was the incarnate God – God who emptied himself and took on the form of man. Jesus is not mere man – He is God. Even as we look at the circumstances of his birth, the action of the Holy Spirit and the miracles that accompanied Jesus’ birth, we can sense that this was no ordinary birth of an ordinary man.
Something really special was happening here. And this was certainly recognised by Elizabeth, who, when Mary walked in to visit her, felt the baby in her womb leap for joy. And she was filled with the Holy Spirit and called her younger relative, ‘the mother of my Lord’.
Now, there is one more miracle – the one that was enable by all of these three Christmas miracles - and that is the miracle of salvation. Through the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we can receive salvation. This particularly is the miracle that leads to the second thing that we must note from todays passage, and that is …
II. The blessings celebrated at Christmas requires a response
Clearly the response must be a personal response. It is a response that you make, to God. Mary’s response that we have in the Magnificat is a wonderful example of an appropriate response. I suggest that there are three ways that we might respond:
1. We should respond with joy and hope for the future.
Last week we discovered that our response should be joy and hope. Both Elizabeth and Mary recognised that through the birth of Jesus, they would receive the greatest blessing that a miracle working God could possibly give – the love of God, and the opportunity to receive unconditional forgiveness, acceptance and eternal life.
We also saw last week that we receive the Holy Spirit and all of the blessings that the Holy Spirit brings – the comfort, the power and the strength to live as God would have us live. So, our response can be one of joy and hope as we look forward to the second coming of Christ and his judgement.
2. We should respond with gratitude and love for others
Let us be realistic here. Not everyone this Christmas will know the joy and hope of Christmas. For many, regardless of whether they are Christians or not, it is a time of great loneliness and depression. Particularly those who are not able to celebrate Christmas with their family, who have lost loved ones, or who do not have the material blessings that many of us take for granted.
For others, Christmas sharpens the hurt and resentment that may exist over breakdown in relationships.
When you think about it, Elizabeth could so easily have been resentful of her younger relative, Mary, for being chosen to be the mother of our Lord. But instead, Elizabeth chose to accept Mary into her home, to give her kindness, hospitality, honour and unconditional acceptance.
This is the example that we should follow with those less fortunate than ourselves, with those who are different in some way, and with those in need.
3. We should respond with trust in God.
Mary and Elizabeth both trusted completely that God would do as his messenger Gabriel said he would. In verse 45, Elizabeth commended Mary for her faith in the words, ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ This is actually a wonderful definition of faith - believing that there will be a fulfilment of those things that are told us by the Lord.
Have you ever considered the implication of Gabriel’s message to Mary? Mary was pledged to Joseph. Under Jewish law, the pledge, or engagement, was as binding as the actual marriage - so for a young lady to become pregnant during the engagement was considered to be adultery. And the penalty for adultery under Jewish law was death! The adulterous woman would be taken out and stoned to death. Mary would certainly be a lady with a dilemma once the pregnancy began to show!
When you look at it, the story of Mary’s conception is a story that could rival the best TV soap opera plot. The ‘promo’ would probably go something like this:
A young lady of good character has a proposition put to her which has the most serious implications. Her good character will be placed in question, she is likely to be rejected by the man that she loves, and she could very well end up having to suffer the full consequences of the law of her country - in this case, the death sentence. And yet she is being asked to trust that God will clear her good name and vindicate her!
The amazing thing is that unlike the TV soap opera, this is a true story. And, Mary was willing to trust God totally to sort it all out for her – which we know He did.
Christmas is a time of supernatural blessing. Both the women in our gospel passage, Elizabeth and Mary, recognised the supernatural blessings that they had received from God through the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit in the conception of Jesus and responded appropriately. Their story encourages us to also recognise that, the blessings celebrated at Christmas were enabled through miracles, and that the blessings celebrated at Christmas requires a response.
Mary’s response was to praise God in a song that expressed her exaltation, trust and faith in God. We too are encouraged to respond with joy and hope for the future, gratitude and love for others, and with trust in God.
As we do this, remember the words of our previous Bishop, Sarah, in her Christmas message in which she wrote:
“As we celebrate God’s gift of Jesus to us this Christmas by giving gifts to others, I encourage you to remember that the greatest gift we can offer to others is the faith we hold: the knowledge of the love of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Our faith is expressed not just in what we say but also in what we do. St Francis of Assisi is famously quoted as having said ‘preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary, use words’.”
“In a world which at times seems selfish, consumerist and hard-hearted, let us speak of God’s transforming love, forgiveness and kindness in all that we do and say. Let us speak of the freedom and redemption we find in Jesus.”
“In Jesus, God is born as one of us, heaven touches earth and we are offered new life. In awe and wonder, we gather around the crib.”