December 16, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, December 18, 2016. The final sermon for our Advent series, “The King is Coming!,” at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA.
Text for this week is Luke 1.26-49.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.
“In the Bleak Midwinter” is one of my favorite songs of the season. The words, by English poet Christina Rossetti, describe the newborn King Jesus being born:
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone.
Now, there’s always spoilsports who take great delight in glibly pointing out that Jesus was probably not actually born in winter.
Don’t let them steal your joy, though. They’ve just missed the point. Badly. Winter is symbolic. In winter, the earth grows cold and dark and hard. And it’s easy for the cold and the darkness and the hardness to make their way into our hearts. A sense of hopelessness might even begin to settle in. When Christina Rossetti wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter,” she was using symbolic language.
She was speaking of the world Jesus was born into. Jesus was born into a cold, dark, harsh world. The remnant of Israel had been waiting hundreds of years for God to come and rescue them. But the land was still overrun by Roman invaders. The cold, the darkness, the harsh oppression of their time was settling into their hearts. God’s people were running out of hope.
And just then—as Paul says in Galatians 4—when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son. In the bleak midwinter of oppression and hopelessness, while God’s people mourned and cried out for deliverance, Jesus was born.
And so, when the days grow cold and dark and the earth turns hard, God’s people celebrate Advent and Christmas. We remember how God sent us a Child to be the light for the world. And like God’s people way back then, we await his coming to rescue us again.
Luke’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus as God’s visitation. Through Jesus, God comes to both Israel and the rest of the world. To rescue all peoples. To be God’s justice. To make things right again.
As Luke’s Gospel opens, the angel Gabriel visits the old priest Zechariah. He tells the old man that he and his barren wife Elizabeth are going to finally have a baby. We’ve heard that story before—with Abram and Sarai, the First Parents of Israel. And when God gives Zechariah and Elizabeth their promised son—John, whose work will be to go out and announce Jesus to the world—Zechariah joyfully says: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them (Luke 1.68).
And Zechariah’s words set the tone for Luke’s Gospel. The story of Jesus is the story of God coming to rescue Israel. And all the peoples of the earth.
Our lesson today picked up about six months later. Once again, the angel Gabriel comes bringing news of an impossible birth. This time he comes to Elizabeth’s cousin, young Mary. He tells her she will soon birth a child named Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, Gabriel says. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
Mary is confused and protests: How can this be, since I am a virgin? But Gabriel says her cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant with an impossible child. Elizabeth, who was barren and old. Whose womb had been as fruitless as the land in the bleak midwinter. So Gabriel reminds Mary: nothing will be impossible with God.
So when Mary—the virgin—comes up pregnant, it’s Elizabeth she goes to. These two women God has blessed with impossible pregnancies.
Mary was named after Moses’ sister, Miriam. In Exodus 15, it was Miriam who led Israel in songs of praise to God when he rescued his people from Egypt. The child in Mary’s womb is coming to rescue all peoples from sin and shame and fear and despair and death. To lead all people and creation itself on an Exodus out of death and into life. And so, like her namesake, Mary sings. She sings to celebrate God’s rescue of his world. She sings to celebrate God’s kindness to her—a poor girl no one would ever have noticed, from a little town no one had ever heard of.
With the baby in her cousin’s womb dancing for joy, Mary sings:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And Mary keeps singing. Her song moves from God’s kindness to her, to God’s kindness to everyone who finds themselves lost or forgotten or abused or ignored. Mary knows that this child God has placed in her womb is coming to shake up everything. Nothing is impossible with God, and Mary has to sing about it! She praises God because he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. Like Mary and her people. Mary sings about how God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed (Luke 1.52-53). This is nothing new for God. God has done these things for his people in the past. And the baby King growing in her virgin womb is God’s promise that he’s going to do these things again. He’s going to act to lift up the people who’ve been put down. He’s going to fill the bellies of the hungry.
Mary sings of God’s faithfulness to his people: He has helped his servant Israel … according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever (Luke 1.54-55).
And God’s faithfulness to Abraham and his descendants is God’s faithfulness to all peoples. Because the promise God made to Abraham was: in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen. 12.3). God is sending his King not only to rescue the lowly and the hungry of Israel, but those of every nation.
Jesus was born into a world in the grip of a bleak midwinter. Dying because of sin. Frozen over with despair and poverty and war and disease and shame and injustice and fear. With people’s hearts growing hard like the cold ground during winter. God sent his Son into the world to break the ice.
We find ourselves now in a world that often seems caught in the grip of that same winter. It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s harsh. Out there, and often even in our own hearts. During Advent we remember how God sent his Son to thaw our hearts and lives out of the winter this world has long been frozen in. And during Advent, we remember that Jesus will come again, to break the grip of winter forever.
In the meantime, the church lives in the bleak midwinter of the world. How should we, as Advent people, live? Christina Rossetti finished her song, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” by answering this question for herself:
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.
And when we give our hearts to Jesus, we feel them begin to thaw. Compassion stirs in us. We begin to see our neighbors and our world the same way Jesus sees them. And we get busy continuing the work Jesus came into this world to do. We lift up the lowly. We fill empty bellies with good things. We become a blessing to all the families of the world.
Like Jesus, we become God’s sign to the world that this bleak midwinter can’t and won’t last forever.