Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Text: Luke 1:38
Mary said, "With all my heart I praise the Lord, and I am glad because of God my saviour. God cares for me, his humble servant (Luke 1:47,48a CEV).

 Mary sings

Christmas without carol singing just wouldn’t be Christmas. Every year we join together and sing both new and old carols. And this year is no different. As we draw closer to Christmas Eve special programs will be televised of crowds of people joining together around the country, around the world, to sing Christmas carols. 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"
(From O little town of Bethlehem, Phillips Brooks (1835-1893).

For some it’s just a nice tradition to have carols at Christmas.
For some the carol remind them of special times in their childhood and Christmases when their children were growing up.
For others these songs about a baby born in a stable bring a certain joy and peace to troubled hearts in these weeks leading up to Christmas.

Nowhere is there more singing and praising than in Luke’s Gospel. Luke tells of the birth of Jesus with song and poetry.
Zechariah becomes a father in his old age– he praises God.
Mary hears that she is going to be a mother – she sings and praises God.
Elizabeth praises God when her own unborn child "jumps with gladness" when she meets the pregnant Mary.
When the angels announce the birth of Jesus – they sing.
When the shepherds saw the child in the manger - they sing praising God on their way back to their sheep.
Old Simeon praises God as he held the Christ-child in his arms.
When the elderly prophetess, Anna, saw the child in the arms of Mary and Joseph, she praised God.

So you see that in Luke’s Gospel there is so much to sing about, and if you add the joy of the Wisemen in Matthew’s Gospel, you can see why singing carols has become one way we can join all these people in their joy. We add our voices to those of Christians over the past 2,000 years and happily sing, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those with whom he is pleased".

What is amazing is that Mary sings praises to God.

Why do I say that’s amazing? Well, put yourself in Mary’s shoes. Would you sing if you were Mary? After all, Mary's pregnancy is not something she could explain or understand, not something Mary had chosen or planned.
It put her in a bad way with her fiancé. How would he react to finding out she was pregnant? And even though she had a perfectly good explanation, would he believe it anyway?
Besides this wasn’t the beginning of their life together that she had always dreamed about.

Mary’s pregnancy put her in a bad way with the community in which she lived. Being pregnant before marriage just wasn’t on. Who was going to believe that she had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit?

When she met Simeon in the temple he told her that this child will bring her a great deal of pain and grief when he said, "A sword will also pierce your side." Motherhood would not be easy for Mary. Yet, Mary could still sing, ""With all my heart I praise the Lord, and I am glad because of God my saviour."

You see, there is also fear and apprehension in the events of the first Christmas. When Gabriel first told Mary that she was going to have a child she was both fearful and puzzled.
When Zechariah was told her would have a son in his old age he was sceptical and disbelieving.
When Joseph was told again and again there was no room for them to say in Bethlehem, he must have been filled with fear for the safety of Mary and their soon to be born baby.
When the shepherds were greeted by angels, they too were afraid.
When an angel appeared to Joseph warning him of Herod’s anger and the danger Jesus was in, getting out of town safely and the long trip to Egypt must have been a worrying time for Joseph.

We are encouraged by the fear and apprehension of those involved in Jesus’ birth because we see that this fear was turned around into songs of praise to God. I like reading about the mixed feelings and emotions in the Christmas story. It would be just too unreal if all we had was joyful praising, happy faces and lives that were so much in control. For me the fear, the apprehension, the troubles, the puzzling nature of how events were unfolding, and the difficulties and uncertainties faced by Mary and Joseph, make the Christmas story very down to earth and real.  The simple and uncomplicated faith and trust in God mixed with the joy, the peace and the unrestrained joy are more like the way our lives unfold.

Jesus’ birth wasn’t without its difficulties – in a stable; his first bed a manger of hay, his first visitors some rough looking characters from the fields around Bethlehem, then just a short while later a refugee in a foreign land

But it is into this ordinary, fear-filled, apprehensive world that God came in the form of a helpless baby so dependent on others and helpless in the face of Herod’s jealousy and anger. This is what Christmas is all about. Jesus is God with us – Immanuel. He is God with us in all the muck and mire of our world and the insanities and insecurities of our lives.

It can happen that we can be so focussed on the joy of Christmas, carol singing, and the happiness of receiving gifts and celebrating with family and friends that we forget that the joy of the first Christmas had a background of harshness and trouble. Behind Mary’s song of joy when she sings, "With all my heart I praise the Lord, and I am glad because of God my saviour. God cares for me, his humble servant" (Luke 1:47,48a ) is the true joy that comes from knowing that in spite of everything God can be trusted and that all things are possible with God on your side. Wasn’t that her response to the bewildering message of the angel when she asked how can she have a baby since she is a virgin?

I’m sure she didn’t understand fully how she could become pregnant let alone bear the "holy child who will be called the Son of God" but she responds with an affirmation of her willingness to trust God and be the means through whom God would carry out his plan of salvation for all humanity. "I am the Lord’s servant," said Mary, "may it happen to me as you have said." Or to give this a bit of an Aussie slant, "God's in charge. If that’s what he wants, that’s what I want" (The Aussie Bible, Kel Richards, Bible Society NSW 2000).

Some here have experienced recent grief, others faced surgery, others worrying reports from your doctor, still others have the worry of work, money, family discord, and tense relationships with others. These won’t go away easily and certainly not dissipate with a bit of Christmas cheer and tinsel. This is where the baby in the manger – God with us – becomes so important.

False merriment won’t do but the true joy of knowing that God's love is so powerful for each of us and his commitment to helping and saving us so amazing will. This is God's great gift to each of us as we face the difficulties and tragedies that come our way – Jesus is with us in the muck and mire, the insecurities and insanities and it is our knowledge and faith in his love for us that helps us rise above all of this and join with all those who were part of the first Christmas and sing praises to God. Our voices might be weak and trembling, but they speak volumes about the God who loves us so dearly.

A five-hour bus ride along muddy jungle roads from Colombia in South America there is a small congregation with about 20 believers. The pastor of this congregation was a young man who travelled there on weekends. A visitor to this congregation made this report,
"The home of a village woman, Dona Maria, served as their meeting place. The worship services left 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 worship. But the prayer time was inspiring, especially the prayer of Dona Maria. This woman had been a widow for 20 years, and her six children had all died in early childhood. She supported herself by doing laundry and sewing. She had given the two front rooms of her home over to the congregation for their services and lived in the two remaining rooms.

As she prayed, great tears streaming down her face, her words spoke gratitude for the richness of her life. She thanked God for the people gathered, and it was clear she was intimately involved in what God was doing among them. She thanked him for the privilege of having them in her home and the richness of the time they were enjoying together."

Dona Maria had plenty to be upset about. She had more than enough grief and heartache in her life and yet she could still find it in her heart to praise God. Both this woman in South America and the Mary of the Scriptures knew where true joy comes from; it comes from knowing the God who does not abandon his children and will always be there to give help and strength. Mary says, "With all my heart I praise the Lord, and I am glad because of God my saviour. God cares for me, his humble servant (Luke 1:47,48a CEV).

Into our perplexities and problems come hope, peace, joy and love. There is every reason to celebrate. God has sent us his Son, born in Bethlehem. He came to show us the way of salvation just as the angels announce to the various characters in the Christmas story - he is our Saviour; he is Christ the Lord: he is Son of the Most High God; he is Immanuel (God with us); he is God become flesh to help, comfort and strengthen us at every turn of our lives.

We, too, are challenged to trust like Mary and Joseph. God will help us to see our way through the most difficult times. St Paul reflected this kind of trust in God and reliance on his Saviour in some of the toughest situations. He was able to triumphantly say, "If God is on our side, can anyone be against us? … Nothing in all creation can separate us from God's love for us in Christ Jesus our LORD!" (Romans 8:32,39).

Sure, there were dark days ahead for Mary. Her joy as a mother will be mixed with much pain. And your life too, is not all Christmas carols and joy. But for now, our faith enables us to sing. We sing because we believe; we believe and praise God for being ‘God with us’ in his Son Jesus, not just at Christmas but every day. We believe and we sing because God's love came down into our world in the form of a baby at Christmas.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
20th December 2009

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