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Sermon - 4 Advent

In the Name…

I recently heard of some proposed Christmas movies which were never made: The Lord of the Five Golden Rings, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secret Santas, Frankincense and Sensibility, and, For Whom the Jingle Bells Toll.

Ah, the music of Christmas is everywhere. For weeks already, the familiar tunes have delighted or assailed us wherever we have gone. In the stores, people load up their trolleys as they listen to carols on the loud speakers. Parties at schools, offices, and homes have resounded to the sound of Christmas music. It seems that even if people don’t believe in Jesus as the Saviour, or even believe that there is a God, they are still happy to sing - "O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in: Be born in us today”

It seems these songs about a baby born in a stable bring a certain joy and peace to people’s troubled hearts at this time of year.

But, nowhere is there more singing than in the first two chapters of St. Luke’s Gospel. Zechariah becomes a father in his old age and he sings “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” Mary hears that she is going to be a mother and she sings “My soul magnifies the Lord.” When the angels announce the birth of Jesus they sing “Glory to God in the Highest.” And, in the Temple, old Simeon sings “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace” as he holds the Christ-child in his arms.

Everyone is singing. And, why not?

Martin Luther once said that three miracles occurred at Christmas: Mary believed; a virgin conceived; and God became human. And, he said, the greatest of these was the first. Mary believed and all the rest followed. Without that first step, nothing would have happened.

And, yet, that had to have been the hardest step of all.

Mary had every reason to question why God should choose her, just an ordinary girl from an out of the way place with no special qualifications. Shouldn't a woman who is older, wiser, nobler, high ranking, well to do, be chosen to the mother of the Son of the Most High? Shouldn't someone who is respected and honoured by everyone in the community be appointed? What kind of a home could a poor young girl give to someone so important?

And, Mary was unmarried. True, she was engaged to Joseph, but she was not yet married to him. How could she become pregnant by anyone other than him and it not be a scandal? And how could the two of them even try to explain it? As we see from the reactions to Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels, people were just as sceptical back then as they are today about divine intervention in ordinary life.

But, yet, for all that, all the obstacles, complications, and negatives, Mary rejoiced, knowing that, in some way, God's sovereign will for the world was being carried out through her. And, so she sings, and what a song. It’s really quite radical. In fact, it’s downright subversive. The proud are scattered, the mighty replaced by the lowly, the hungry fed, the rich sent on their way. About the only thing it doesn’t say is “Workers of the world, unite!” Really, one historian has said that Mary’s song was the Early Church’s version of “The Internationale.” No wonder the Romans were worried by the Christians.

From Bogota, Columbia, a five-hour bus-ride takes one to a small congregation of about two-dozen worshippers. Writing in a church magazine, a visitor to this congregation made this report: "The home of an old village woman, Dona Maria, serves as their meeting place. The worship services leave much to be desired. The singing was abysmal. The pastor was just learning to preach. It poured rain the whole time and the roof leaked terribly. The people were covered in mud from slogging through the dirt roads to go to church.”

“But”, he writes, “the prayer time was inspiring, especially the prayer of Dona Maria. This woman had been a widow for 20 years, and had outlived all her children. Her life was not easy, but, as she prayed, her words spoke gratitude for the richness of her life. She thanked God for the people gathered. She thanked him for the privilege of having them in her home and for the time they were enjoying together."

It is possible to hear in this woman’s prayer, echoes of Mary’s song. Both knew that true joy doesn’t come from outside. It comes from knowing the God who does not abandon his children and will always be there to give help and strength.

It is always easy to focus our attention on what is not right in our lives and on the problems of our world. We can do so to such an extent that the Christmas message of "Joy to the world, the Lord has come" can be lost in our own worlds of pain, or conflict, stress, bad conscience or whatever and we ask with Mary: How can this be?

It can be because God has sent us His Son, born in Bethlehem. A virgin conceived. God became human. He came to show us the way of salvation. He came for the specific purpose of saving us from our sin, and giving us life. But, before all this, the first miracle still has to occur with us as it did with Mary. Mary believed. And so must we.

Maybe that’s the reason that people of all faiths and none sing at Christmas. Perhaps, on some subconscious level, the singing itself is an act of faith. For, even though things might look hopeless in our lives at times, as they must have looked to Mary, we are reminded today that she took up the challenge to face the future in spite of the difficulties and her many unanswered questions. She trusted God and was able to say, “I am the Lord's servant; may it happen to me just as you have said."

As the story unfolds, there will be dark days ahead for Mary. Her joy as a mother was never without controversy and it was mixed with much pain. Our lives, too, are not all Christmas carols. But for now, our faith enables us to sing. We sing because we believe; we believe as we sing. Our souls magnify the Lord and our spirits rejoice in God our Saviour.

In the Name…

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