2nd Sunday of Advent Series: A Different Kind of Christmas Text: Luke 1:26-38
The sermon opened with this video clip…
Can you relate? It is beginning to feel more and more like Christmas. It helped last Saturday when so many were here decorating the church. The Christmas music has begun to play in my car on a regular basis, and it is fun to drive around and look at all of the Christmas lights. Finally it is starting to get a little colder making it feel more like it is supposed to at Christmas time.
All of this may bring you great joy, or you may feel the pressure mounting. If you are like me, you fluctuate between the two, sometimes hourly. I love the season, but there is also so much that needs to be done in the next 16 days.
We often feel like we need to make Christmas perfect – do all the right things, meet all the expectations, and create memories for our children and ourselves. What is the perfect Christmas for you?
The Perfect Christmas?
Is it the year you, like Ralphie Parker, got the “Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle”? Or the year like Clark Griswold, you got the bonus to put in the pool? Maybe it is a special vacation you took with your family, or your first Christmas as a spouse or parent.
One of my most vivid Christmas memories is from my childhood, when Christmas lights were enormous and the tinsel hung from the tree in clumps – if you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch A Christmas Story again. One year my brother and I got new bicycles, and at something like 5:00 in the morning we were out in the street taking them for a test drive. Since the sun was not up yet, the only light came from my dad and the 8mm video camera with which he recorded every Christmas. My brother somehow rode his bike into the garbage cans – maybe because he couldn’t see them. That image of my brother’s accident caught on video tape is burned into my brain for all time. Funny how the things we don’t plan are often more memorable than the things we do.
Somewhere along the way our culture bought into this idea we are expected to have a perfect Christmas, whatever that means. We want the Rockwellian dinner scene, a tree with a ridiculous number of presents underneath, snow on the ground, and – as Pastor Bob mentioned last Sunday – a Christmas miracle. The wreaths need to be hung in the same place they were the last seven years, people need to stop outside of our house to admire the decorations in our yard, and we need to sing “The First Noel” as the second hymn on Christmas Eve, or Christmas is ruined.
It seems for many, Christmas is either “perfect” or “ruined” – and there is nothing in between. And for some it doesn’t take much to ruinChristmas. What makes us think that turning the calendar to December is supposed to magically make everything special, magical, perfect?
Less-than-perfect first Christmas
Several years ago it hit me just how “not-perfect” the first Christmas was. Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish world, would have been the perfect place for the messiah to be born. Instead, his birth happened in Bethlehem, just outside of Jerusalem. It would have been perfect to have been born in a house, where other babies were born. But no, Jesus comes just outside the house, in a stable. It would have been perfect for him to be born to a priest and his wife. But no, Jesus is born to the relative of a wife of a priest, who is betrothed but not yet married. It would have been perfect for priests and prophets to bring him gifts, not astrologers from another land and religion. The perfect announcement of his birth would have reached the rich and powerful. The angels instead went just outside of town to the shepherds.
I am more convinced each year that one of the major themes of the story of Jesus’ birth is he has come not to the perfect, but to the imperfect – and that’s too nice of a word. When I think of Jesus being born in a stable – among the straw, feed, and let’s face it, manure – it is difficult to deny that Jesus came into the mess that is the world in which we live.
And the mess doesn’t wait until Christmas to come. Right from the start of the story, we sense this is a far from “perfect” arrangement. We must try to read it with eyes that don’t yet know “the rest of the story,” to begin to see just how messy it is.
In the scripture lesson we read this morning, Mary hears the voice of Gabriel say to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Can you imagine? Many would think that meant we’d hit the lottery. Favored by God! Ask any TV preacher and you will hear that means success in your job, more money than you know what to do with, kids who never act out, a long life without illness, and more. Our Wesley Study Bibles put it this way, “In the contemporary church, being a Christian is often presented as a technique for happiness and prosperity, a helpful way of getting what we want” (note on titled “Salvation” in book of James). By that standard favored by God means prosperity, happiness, and getting what you want.
Unfortunately, that is not how it works.
Ask Mary. Favored by God for her meant an unplanned, teen pregnancy that would jeopardize her relationship with Joseph, subject her to persecution, and open her up for life-long glances and whispers as the one who had a baby before she was married. Favored by God meant giving birth to her first child alone in a stable in Bethlehem rather than surrounded by her family – as she had probably dreamed. Favored by God meant living in exile in Egypt for years soon after the birth of her son. Favored by God meant watching her son accused of being off his rocker, and to hear him say when he was told his mother was nearby that anyone who follows the will of God is his mother, brothers, and sisters (Matthew 12:48, et al). Favored by God eventually for Mary meant watching her son being brutally executed by the Roman Empire through crucifixion. Prosperity? Happiness? Getting what she wanted? Hardly!
Not knowing all of that, but certainly aware of the life-altering call being asked of her, Mary responds to Gabriel with what may be some of the most beautiful words in all of scripture: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Wow! What a yes! She makes herself available to be used by God, to bear his presence in the world. She agrees to allow God to use her to bring his son into the world.
Mary, Mother of God
One of the titles often given to Mary, especially by our Roman Catholic friends, is “Mother of God.” We are most familiar with the Latin, mater dei (mater=mother; dei=of God). This is actually a mistranslation of a title she was given in Greek by some in the early church. The Greek word is theotokos, a compound word made up of two others. Theo means God, which is where we get words like theology. Tokos is one who bears a child. So the word theotokos is a more precisely God-bearer than Mother of God. Some in the early church objected to calling Mary theotokos, lobbying for the use of Christotokos, Christ-bearer, instead. They thought might infer from God-bearer that God was created rather than the one who is creator.
Eventually theotokos won the day, and Mary became known as God-bearer. The primary reason God-bearer won out was the early church wanted to affirm the doctrine of incarnation – that Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, the second person of the Trinity, fully God while fully human. Mary as the mother of Jesus, was by extension then, the mother of God as he came to earth in the person of Jesus.
I like this title because it reminds us that Mary’s call was not to be perfect, to make things perfect, or even to live a perfect Christmas. She was instead called to be the bearer, or bringer, of our perfect God into the messy world in which she lived.
This, of course, is also the work her son was called to throughout his ministry. Throughout his ministry Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, which is here now, but has not come in all its fullness yet either. The Kingdom, Jesus taught, is among us, even in our imperfect, messy world.
This role of God-bearer is not simply the work of Mary and Jesus. This is the call of all who follow him today. We are asked to be God-bearers as well, bringing the perfect God into our imperfect lives, our imperfect work, our messy family, our crazy finances… wherever we go. We should not expect the world to be made perfect for us because we are followers of Jesus. Instead, we announce the perfect Kingdom, the full, perfect presence of God, breaking out in the world around us – even when it is messy.
One author put it this way, “God is within us, waiting to be born. God is outside of us, asking for our openness. We open our spirits to this great mystery and discover that we also are God-Bearers” (Warner). We are God-bearers. We are Kingdom-bearers. We continue the ministry of Jesus by allowing him to work in and through us to bring the Kingdom of God into the world. This was Mary’s role. This was Jesus’ role. This is our role as well.
We know the world is not the Kingdom of God, but we see evidence of it breaking out around us. We know and proclaim that God is in the process of redeeming the world to himself.
I recently read Eric Metaxas’ wonderful biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian during World War II. A remarkable intellect, plugged in to the power structure in Germany, Bonhoeffer quickly recognized Hitler for who he was, and was an early mover in the resistance. He never bought into the way the Third Reich used to church to meld politics with faith. Because of this Bonhoeffer suffered horrible evil, including many arrests and his eventual execution. Yet he understood the world as a good place, created by God and loved by him, and he longed for the day when God’s Kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven.
As a pastor and professor to young seminarians, Bonhoeffer was sometimes invited to participate in the weddings of his former students, a role he seemed to relish. In the midst of this great war and the oppression of the German people by the Führer, people challenged whether marriage was the right thing to do at the time. Many thought weddings ought to be delayed until after the war had ended and Hitler was no longer in power. Bonhoeffer refused to accept that, even when he received wedding announcements while in prison. Instead, he celebrated the weddings of his friends and former students, and at the time of his death was engaged himself.
To one of his students, on the occasion of his wedding announcement, Bonhoeffer wrote:
Over the years I have written many a letter for the wedding of one of the brothers and preached many a wedding sermon. The chief characteristic of such occasions essentially rested in the fact that…someone dares to take a step of such affirmation of the earth and its future. It was then always very clear to me that a person could take this step as a Christian truly only from within a very strong faith and on the basis of grace. For here in the midst of the final destruction of all things, one desires to build; in the midst of a life lived from hour to hour and from day to day, one desires a future; in the midst of being driven out from the earth, one desires a bit of space; in the midst of widespread misery, one desires some happiness (Metaxas 408 emphasis added).
In the midst of all the darkness of the Third Reich, in the face of persecution, imprisonment, and eventually for Bonhoeffer martyrdom, he found places to celebrate, to affirm the earth and its future. He saw a sign of the Kingdom of God in a wedding. He felt God’s presence in music. He experienced the Kingdom in friendships. Bonhoeffer found God and his Kingdom even in the darkest of circumstances. He lived the role of theotokos– a God-bearer even in the face of evil.
We are called to be God-bearers today, to bring glimpses of the Kingdom of God into our messy world. We are God-bearers when we buy gifts for those whose wishes were on the ornaments on the Tri-Lakes Cares Angel Tree in the Great Room. We are God-bearers when we fill a shoebox with gifts to be sent all over the world through Operation Christmas Child. We are God-bearers when we buy some extra at King Soopers for a food-drive, donate money to the Red Cross to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy, and when we go Christmas caroling tonight in a neighborhood changed by the Waldo Canyon Fire. We are God-bearers when we give to our church that is seeking to change lives for the Kingdom of God. We are God-bearers when we take the time to get on the floor to play with a child, teach a Sunday School class, or give our loose change to the beggar in the street. We are God-bearers whenever we are affirming life and the goodness of God, even in the face of a fiscal cliff, a war on Christmas, or whatever other evil we see out there.
In large ways and in small, we have opportunities every day follow the example of Mary to be the bearers of God to the world around us. This will not lead to “perfect.” Perfectis not out call. We are not to be perfect, but to bring perfect.
I don’t know about you, but I expect to be perfect. Some would chalk it up to my birth order – I am the oldest child in my family, and we firsts tend to be perfectionists. But it is also because I have been a Christian for a long time. I know what I am supposed to do. I know what I am supposed to believe. I want to make God proud of me.
The good news of the gospel is that God is not looking for us to be perfect. He is looking for us to be willing to be bearers of the perfect into the messy world.
A blogger asks, “What would our lives look like if we were to live in recognition of our identity as genuine participants in the coming of the Kingdom, bearers of God to a needy world” (Rigby)? I too wonder what it would look like if we were able to give up on perfect this Christmas – trying to create it or even expecting it. Could we relax a little? Could we enjoy it more? Might we be more sensible? And might we worship better as we serve others a little more?
Christmas is the season we celebrate the coming of the perfect to our imperfect world; the day we celebrate that God will one day redeem the world back to perfect. Christmas is a day for celebrating that God has come to dwell in the mess with us, and our opportunity to participate in it.
The Message says it so well in its rendering of John 1, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14a Msg). This is what Christmas is about. Not a magical story, in a magical time, and a magical place. It is not a fairy tale about a perfect moment.
Instead it is a very real, gritty story about the God of the universe coming in flesh and blood and moving into the messy part of town. And it is a call for Christians, not to hunker in our churches longing for God to make things right, waiting for all of those who don’t believe to get what’s coming to them. Instead it is a call for us follow Mary’s example. To say yes to God – “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” – to using us to bear him in the world around us.
May we become theotokosthis Christmas. Not wishing and hoping for perfect, but bearing the perfect God in our world every day. Amen.
Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy : A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. Kindle.
Rigby, Cynthia L. “What Do Presbyterians Believe about Mary?: A New Look at Mary.” Presbyterians Today. Apr. 2004. Web. 06 Dec. 2012.
Slaughter, Michael. Christmas Is Not Your Birthday: Experience the Joy of Living and Giving like Jesus. Nashville: Abingdon, 2011. Print.
Warner, Jenny. “The God-Bearer: Advent Reflections on Mary.” Patheos.com., 5 Dec. 2011. Web. 06 Dec. 2012.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.