SCRIPTURE – Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Eat the Cookie!
Dec. 23, 2012
This is just one of the best Sundays of the year. I know we’re technically still in Advent, but Christmas is so close you can almost reach out and touch it. The kids are so excited about unwrapping the presents, parents are excited about not having to buy any more presents, and despite all that we have dealt with in the past few weeks, we are excited for the hope and peace and joy and love that Jesus is bringing to us on Christmas.
Then why is Christmas a time of conflict? I’m not talking about the battle among parents to get their hands on the most popular toy or the parking lot warfare at the mall. I’m talking about the war that’s going on in our country around Christmas and what it means. This conflict reaches down past our gut and into our souls, and we’re in the middle of the time when the fighting is intense.
On one side of this war are you and me, good, upstanding citizens and faithful Christians. And our opponent is that plate of cookies that are so fresh from the oven that the chocolate chips are still gooey. And that piece of pumpkin pie with the dollop of whipped cream on top. And Grandma’s cobbler. And chocolate cake. This my friends is not mere spiritual warfare; no, this is gastrointestinal warfare.
This battle of the bulge takes place every year around this time, doesn’t it? The double whammy of Thanksgiving and Christmas causes us to puff up like a Macy’s Day parade balloon. Our cholesterol and blood sugar say no, but our eyes and stomachs say yes, and before we know it we’ve conspired with the enemy, and have to retreat to gnaw on a carrot stick and gather our troops while we lick the frosting from our fingers. And we always end up losing this battle, which means we have to make bold New Year’s predictions about eating tofu and drinking soy milk for a month, which lasts until we open the fridge on New Year’s Day afternoon and see there’s one more piece of pecan pie left. We have met the enemy, and it is a pastry!
Well, I’m here today to let you off the hook. I’m here to tell you to go ahead and raise the white flag now, to surrender yourself to all the delectable treats you want this Christmas season. Don’t count the costs, just dig right in and enjoy every bite of everything that fits on your plate. With the craziness of this time of year and all that we have dealt with in this weeks leading up to Christmas, joy seems like an awfully scarce commodity.
Is there any season more stressful than Christmas? One trip to the mall or post office is all we need to remind us of how easily this season of anticipation turns into one of frustration. The problem is we add to that stress ourselves, and one of the ways we do that is by being obsessed with counting the costs of the season, of meticulously measure the joy we let ourselves experience.
I’m just as guilty of this as anybody. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to find happiness with a few Christmas-tree-shaped sugar cookies, only to end up once again spooning a small portion of salad onto my plate while staring longingly at the dessert table. Commentator Phillip LeFebvre makes an interesting point about this exercise. He says that if you stand in front of the dessert table, calculating calories in your head, trying to decide if that chocolate chip cookie is going to end up on your hips, you are actually doing more damage to your heart from the stress than if you simply ate the darn cookie in the first place!
We’ve been taught or trained or conditioned by our culture that we have to count those calories and calculate those grams of saturated fat, and that produces great stress within us. And in this season, that stress added onto all the other stress of Christmas completely distracts us from what Christmas is all about.
Here’s a great irony: Of all the times of the year, this is not supposed to be the season of stress. It’s not “God Fret You Worried Gentlemen” or “O Come All Ye Frazzled.” The arch-angel didn’t tell the shepherds that he was bringing tidings of great stress. He said he was bringing tidings of great joy. But in the midst of our stress and the challenges to our faith that our violent world gives us, we sometimes miss out on that joy, that happy, healthy, life-giving joy.
What if Mary had been so stressed out that she had refused the joy offered her? She had every right to, you know. She was in no position to take on the responsibility the angel was putting before her. She was engaged to Joseph. How would she explain this pregnancy? She could tell the truth, but who would believe that? She was young, poor, and female, all characteristics that people of her day would say made her utterly unusable by God.
But the angel Gabriel comes and tells Mary that she is going to have a baby, and that he will be named Jesus, and that he will be the Son of God. And then Mary finds herself smack dab in front of the dessert table, stressing out over this news. If she accepts, she will be the earthly vessel for a divine gift; she will be the mother of the son of God. But it also means that very soon it will be obvious that there’s more than a cookie in her belly, and along with the demise of her girlish figure will be the destruction of her marriage and her reputation. She could even be put to death for this.
And yet…she says yes. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” She takes the risk, she takes a big bite out of the opportunity put before her, and she accepts God’s joy. There are a lot of reasons she could say no: not the right time, not the right place, not the right partner, not the right family planning, not the right future plans. And yet, instead of weighing the pros and cons, instead of counting the costs, she simply says yes.
So I want you to say yes this Christmas. Come on, it’s Christmas. Eat. Enjoy. January’s coming soon enough. There’ll be 11 months for resolutions and diets and soy milk. There will be 11 more months where we can eat right, drink bottled water, take vitamins, get plenty of sleep, and still get hit by a bus full of gluttons who didn’t think twice about eating that cookie. Eat the cookie. Accept the joy that is given this season, both spiritual and culinary. Receive the gifts, those given in a cookie tin and the one that comes in a manger. This season is about joy, first and foremost, regardless of what our world tells us.
I almost forgot that once. A church member dropped off some M&M cookies by the office for us to share. It was a wonderful gift, and she told us that a lot of love went into those cookies. After she left, I stood there agonizing over whether to eat one or not, those red and green M&Ms staring up at me symbolizing my inner turmoil: “Stop!” “Go!” “Stop!” “Go!” I was saying to myself, “Gosh, I don’t know. It’s only a few hours until dinner, and I didn’t go to the gym yesterday, but I did have a salad for lunch. But I also had two donuts for breakfast. OK, three. I probably shouldn’t.” And then I realized what I was doing. These cookies were a gift, made with love, and I was rationalizing why I shouldn’t accept this gift. It’s not the right time, it’s the not the right place, I don’t deserve such a gift.
True Christmas is about more than the joys of an M&M cookie. The joys we refuse are not merely gastrointestinal; they’re spiritual. The joy that we are guilty of leaving behind is the joy of accepting God’s loving gift, of letting Christ bless us, and giving ourselves to follow Jesus. That’s what Mary did. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she said. Does the coming of Christ into our world fundamentally change us? Does it create this sense of hope and expectation? Or are we too busy fretting over credit card bills and waistlines? This incredible, wonderful, magnificent gift is coming! Are we going to miss it?
Christmas is more than a chance to eat and open presents. It’s also a chance to open ourselves to Jesus, and to be filled, to be satisfied, to be nourished, to be strengthened for growth. It’s a time to recommit ourselves to God and to recommit our lives to worshiping and serving God. It’s a chance to let the birth of Christ lead to a new birth within us. His birth was not only life-changing 2000 years ago; it can be life-changing for each of us today if we allow his light to shine through the clutter of this season. We already have a sense of what changes we can make, no matter how small, to open ourselves to God’s gift. Tis’ the season…
We don’t have to accept God’s joy, you know, any more than Mary was required to accept the angel’s offer. We can continue to let stress rule in our lives, to be more concerned about saving than serving, more concerned about counting costs than reaping rewards, more concerned about what we can’t have in our lives than what we’re truly missing in our lives. We can say, “It’s not the right time, it’s not the right place, I don’t deserve such a gift.” Well, none of us do. But we’ve been given it just the same, and there’s never a wrong time or a wrong place to recommit our lives to following Jesus. This is the season of joy which marks the coming of Emmanuel. Will we let ourselves be open to that joy, or will we get so caught up in the chaos that we won’t even notice God with us?
Now, I know what’s going to happen. You’re going to come to me in January with a frown on your face. Your belt will be a notch looser, and you may be waddling a bit. And you’ll say, “Kory, I did what you said, I ate that cookie, and now I weigh five pounds more than before Christmas!”
“Yeah, I did the same thing with those M&M cookies. How did your cookie taste?”
And your eyes will glaze over, and you’ll look up, and this big smile will come across your face, and you’ll say, “It was awesome.”
And I’ll say, “Mine, too.”
Would you rather have those five pounds gone, or that wonderful memory? Would you rather have a few extra dollars in your account, or the feeling of giving to someone who had so little? Would you rather have your Sunday mornings to yourself, or to have them with God? Would you rather have a little more time to watch TV, or the knowledge that the service you’re doing for the church or the community is making a difference in someone’s life? The gift of Christ is once again being offered to each of us.
It’s up to us really. But if you ask me, I’d thank God and eat the cookie. Merry Christmas!