SCRIPTURE – Luke 1:26-56 – In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Mary Visits Elizabeth
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary’s Song of Praise
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
The Ghosts of Christmas Sermon Series
#3 – The Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come
Dec. 18, 2016
I remember when I was little, once of my favorite days of the year was the day the JC Penney’s catalog arrived in our mailbox. Kids, a catalog is a book of all the different things a store sells. Think of it as a paper version of Amazon.com. The Penney’s catalog had to weigh at least 20 pounds, and I would heave it up onto my lap and flip past all the boring parts like power tools and women’s underwear until I got to the toy section. Then, ball-point pen in hands, I would start circling the remote control cars and action figures that were on my wish list. I would envision all the creations I could build with those new Lego blocks or the explosions I could cause with a chemistry set. For me, the Penney’s catalog was a glimpse into a much-hoped-for future.
Ebenezer Scrooge also gets a glimpse into his future, but it’s not nearly as exciting as a chemistry set. Today, we conclude our “Ghosts of Christmas” sermon series, in which we’ve looked at the ghosts that visited Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The Ghost of Christmas Past reminded him of all the opportunities Scrooge had missed because of his greed, and the Ghost of Christmas Present showed him the joy he was missing out on this year. While both ghosts caused their share of consternation for Scrooge, it was the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that really scared the Christmas into Scrooge.
Dickens describes this ghost as “a menacing figure clad in a black hooded robe.” Movie adaptations usually show this figure as a sort of Grim Reaper. The ghosts takes Scrooge to several scenes involving death: a group of businessmen discussion the death of a rich man; some thieves attempting to pawn a dead man’s goods; a family relieved at the death of a wealthy man, to whom they owed money. The final stop is the Cratchit household, where they are mourning the death of their son, Tiny Tim. When Scrooge learns that he is the dead man in the first three scenes, he begs the phantom to undo these visions, promising to honor Christmas and live the lessons he’s learned this night. The phantom fades and Scrooge is left back in his bed on Christmas morning.
Wouldn’t we all like to know our future? I would have loved to know which of those toys from JC Penney’s I was getting. Actually, I usually DID know because I always peeked at my presents. Scrooge had the benefit of knowing what was coming, which gave him the opportunity to respond to it. But for most of us, we just don’t know. I always think of the comment my friend once made when we saw the local fortune teller had gone out of business. He said, “She should have seen that coming.” Do we know what’s going to happen? Do we want to know?
Mary knew. The angel comes to her and tells her that she is going to have a baby. That’s a little bit more significant than a chemistry set, but no less explosive. She listens to the angel flip through the pages of her future: she’ll be an unwed, pregnant, teenage mother, carrying within her womb the son of God. And she simply responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” One person told me, “If it were up to me, Jesus would have never been born, because I would have said, ‘NO!’” How would you respond?
Why doesn’t Mary say, “No”? I’d like to believe it’s because, even before she finds out she’s pregnant, that she is expecting. She knew the prophecies that talked about the coming of the Messiah, so she was expecting that God would fulfill God’s promises and send the Messiah to earth. She probably didn’t expect that she would be the delivery vehicle, but that news just solidifies her expectation.
Are you expecting this Christmas? Hold on, now, I’m not asking what you think I’m asking. The definition of “expectation” is “realization in advance.” My friend David Shirey says that when Mary agrees to give birth to Jesus, she is “running her fingers through the prospect of promises fulfilled.” What promises are you hoping will be fulfilled this Christmas? What are you expecting?
How we answer that question this year may be determined by how we voted in the election. To quote another Dickens’ book, depending on our candidate, this is either the best of times or the worst of times. And which of those it actually will be is yet to be determined. The future is still unknown. Nevertheless, we are a people of faith, and the book of Hebrews defines faith as “assurance of things hoped for.” Realization in advance. The prospect of promises fulfilled. What are you expecting? Are you expecting doom and gloom? Are you expecting prosperity? Is Jesus somewhere in those expectations?
Scrooge was not expecting what the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come showed him. He never considered that his life would end, and that his death would be a blessing to those around him. At that moment, he has an epiphany: he has the power to change the future. He asks the ghost, “Are these the shadows of the things that WILL be, or are they the shadows of the things that MAY be?” In other words, does our future have to be defined by our past and our present? What control do we have over what is yet to come?
Well, none and some. None, in that we can’t time travel forward and know what’s going to happen. We are helpless to control things that have yet to take places. But we DO have something: we have hope. We talked in our Advent small group this past week about the difference between a wish and a hope. We wish for things we know probably aren’t going to happen, but that we want to happen anyway. Or, more often, we wish for things that happened to not have happened. But when we hope for something, we believe in our hearts in can happen, even despite evidence to the contrary. There’s a big difference between “I wish I hadn’t run that stop sign” and “I hope this nice officer doesn’t give a ticket.”
When Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, she is full of hope. In fact, she is so full of hope, that she bursts into song, what could be considered the first one-person flash mob. Her song details God’s grace and mercy to her, and the promises God has made through the prophets. In fact, almost every word in Mary’s song is a biblical quotation from the Old Testament. Her song echoes the prophets with its theme of redemption, freedom, and justice.
I want you to notice something interesting about the Magnificat. She starts off in the present tense – “My soul magnifies the Lord” – but quickly shifts to the past tense – “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” These past-tense promises Mary sings about were believed to be fulfilled with the coming of the Messiah, who had yet to be born. What Mary is doing is singing about these promises in the past tense as if they have already happened. She’s running her fingers through the prospect of promises fulfilled. She is expecting.
To be expecting is one of the blessings of Advent. As we await Christ’s coming, we are all expecting, just like Mary. And our role in this story being told again is in some ways just as important. Listen to these words from medieval mystic Meister Eckhart: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place each year but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me that Mary is full of grace if I am not full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and culture?”
That’s exactly the epiphany Scrooge receives from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. While Christ isn’t explicitly mentioned, it’s clear that Scrooge is transformed into a bearer of God. When he awakens Christmas morning, still very much alive, he exclaims, “Hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been. I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” That’s about as a good an answer as, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord.”
So let’s us take our place alongside Mary and Scrooge as God-bearers in this world. God has a plan to use each one of us to make God’s love known here on earth. He comes to each of us this Christmas and says, “Jesus Christ is inside you. Will you give birth to his love in your life? Will you share him with others? Will you share him with the world?” We may not know what’s going to happen in the future, but we do know that we have the power to shape that future to look like God’s kingdom, because we each bear Christ within us.
That can be tough for us to live out when we are in the midst of pain, in the midst of grieving, in the midst of worrying about what the future holds. If you look forward through a certain lens, you could say that we have a lot of reasons to be concerned. But I choose to believe we have a lot of reasons to be hopeful, as well. Real, tangible reasons. Christ’s coming is not some pie-in-the-sky wish that all will be well. It is a very real promise that God is at work in all things to bring about good for those whose hope is in God.
Are those promises true? I believe that is up to us. As God-bearers, as people called to bring the light of Christ into the world, it is up to us. Will God’s mercy extend to others? Will the humble be lifted up? Will the hungry be filled with good things? We can wait around for God to do these things, but I believe God would say, “I’ve already sent you everything you need. What are you waiting for?”
As we move forward into unstable times, may we remember the importance of stable time, time spent in the midst of the Christmas miracle, time invested in helping Christ be born again in our hearts and in this world. If Ebenezer Scrooge can undergo the transformation from greedy curmudgeon to generous philanthropist, might there be hope for us? Look into the future. What do you see? There’s a lot I don’t see. But I do see Jesus. I know Jesus will be there. And that’s enough. Enough to transform our hearts, our community, this world. We have what we need. So what are we waiting for?