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Sermon for Sunday 19 December 2021

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a

2But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. 3Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. 4And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. 5And he shall be their peace.

Psalm 80:1-7

1Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim. 2In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, stir up your strength and come to help us. 3Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved. 4O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people? 5You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have given them bowls of tears to drink. 6You have made us the derision of our neighbors, and our enemies laugh us to scorn. 7Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10

5Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; 6in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. 7Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” 8When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. 10And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Gospel: Luke 1:39-56

39In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” 46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.

Mary’s Song

It was a cold and blustery evening in late November 1989.  The Hotel was quiet, only a few rooms were rented.  However, because it was the Thanksgiving weekend, the banquet complex was full.  The bar was hopping, and the Dining Room was packed.  There weren’t many guests roaming the halls.  Down one of the quiet halls, one of the few overnight guests was disturbed in his room.  Out in the hallway, he heard a baby crying.  He left his room and spotted a box.  When he looked in it, he saw a tiny baby!  Alarmed, he immediately he ran to the Front Desk, screaming, “Come quick!  There’s a baby in a box!  Please come quickly!”

The Assistant Manager quickly followed the guest down the corridor and there, in the box, was a tiny newborn baby.  He picked the box up and ran!  The General Manager immediately took charge.  Holding the baby under her jacket, to keep the child warm, Bev instructed her staff.  The police and an ambulance were dispatched.  The need was urgent.  The tiny newborn was critical, suffering from hypothermia and blood loss.

At the hospital, the pediatric critical care doctors worked desperately, long into the night, trying to save the tiny new life.  After hours of intensive care, the little girl was stabilized.  Police officers, a detective and the General Manager of the hotel conducted a room-to-room search, but they found nothing.  Between the intensive search, and the extensive questionings, the evening became long and confusing.  What could have happened?  Who could have left their baby?  Why was the little girl abandoned?  As the hours passed, it became obvious that the mother had delivered somewhere else and then abandoned the child at the Hotel.  The media went crazy!

The next day, the newspapers were telling the story . . . The Hotel guests, the employees and the locals brought gifts, clothing, and money for the Holiday Inn’s youngest unregistered guest, newly named Holly Lynn.  Adoptive parents brought Holly Lynn home from the hospital, just in time for Christmas and all involved rejoiced that this special little girl had found a loving home.  To this day, the parents bring Holly Lynn and her brothers to visit the Holiday Inn where she was born.  Would that all the stories of abandoned children had the same happy ending!

Considering the story of Holly Lynn and our gospel reading for today, I wonder if Mary and Joseph ever took Jesus back to see the stable at Bethlehem.  I wonder how often, around the dinner, table they told the story of the shepherds and the wise men and the midnight flight to Egypt.  However, as we read in Luke chapter 1, the Christmas story doesn’t begin in the stable, it begins with Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth in the little town of Ein Kerem in the hill country of Judah.  When you stop and think about what has transpired up to now, it only makes sense that one of the first things Mary did upon discovering that she was “with child” was to visit Elizabeth, her older kinswoman. 

Mary’s journey into the Judean hill country, was no leisurely stroll along a country road.  Given the difficulties and dangers that the landscape posed, her support network, that is Elizabeth and family, must have been especially valuable to her. . . the hill country was rather bleak.  The eastern slopes were mostly impassable desert, stretching 10 to 15 miles from their highest point, 3000 feet near Hebron, down to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth at 1,300 feet below sea level.  The vast wasteland was broken only by imposing cliffs and canyons and a few forts and oases.  It was an area fit for fugitives, rebels, and hermits, certainly not for a pregnant woman.

At the time of Mary’s visit, Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her own miraculous pregnancy.  Luke tells us that the babe in Elizabeth’s womb leaped when Elizabeth first heard Mary’s voice.  And Elizabeth greeted Mary by saying, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

To this greeting, Mary responded with a hymn, a hymn we know as the Magnificat, it’s named for the key word in the Latin translation of the first line: “My soul magnifies the Lord . . .”  It’s said that a university student got his English history mixed up with the Bible and wrote, “When the Virgin Mary learned that she was to be a mother, she sat down and wrote the Magna Carta.”  Mary sang the Magnificat.  In her appreciation and humility, Mary sang praises that God had chosen her to bear the Savior of the world.  And by her willingness to be receptive to God, Mary became the model for all who are touched by the hand of God.  It’s in this event that we see several examples for us to follow, the first of which is that Mary believed that God was at work in her life.  

Elizabeth said it beautifully: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”  To a great extent, life is a matter of perception and interpretation, isn’t it?  All kinds of things happen to people.  But God’s people sense and see God’s hand in their lives.  When something good and wonderful happens to them, the first thing they do is thank God.  And when they’re in one of life’s lonely and desperate hours, they also know where to turn.  They turn to God.  Furthermore, they believe that not only does God hear their prayers, but that He also is responsive to their prayers.  What is our reaction when good things come our way?  And where do we turn when we’re desperate for hope?  When we simply need some sign that God is still in our life?  

In the March 1997 issue of GUIDEPOSTS magazine, Lisa Ford shared a story of hope found in a bird’s nest.  One day, Lisa happened upon a swallow’s nest tucked under the roof of her porch.  She looked on enviously as the small birds created a comfy home for their anticipated clutch of eggs.  Lisa wished that she and her husband, Wayne, would be doing the same thing.  They had tried unsuccessfully for years to have child.  They were ready to have a family.  But despite their prayers, they couldn’t conceive.

In May the swallows laid their eggs, and Lisa watched with interest to see when they would hatch.  She had become fascinated by the little domestic drama of the swallow family, and it kept her from dwelling on her own unrealized hopes for a family.  But after a month, the eggs still hadn’t hatched.  This was unusual for swallow eggs and could be a sign of some problem.  Lisa hoped not; she had a bit of an emotional investment in seeing that the swallow family was complete.

Six weeks passed, and still the eggs didn’t hatch.  Lisa called around to various nature agencies to ask for their advice.  They all said that the eggs would never hatch this far past their due date.  Lisa’s hopes about her own chances for a family had been tied up in seeing the swallow eggs hatch successfully.  Now her heart was breaking over this turn of events.  But then one evening, Lisa and Wayne went to a banquet at which a high school choir sang “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”  It’s a song of reassurance, a song about trusting a loving God who watches out for all His creatures, no matter how small.  Lisa came away from the banquet with a new sense of peace.  She knew that God was still in her life, and that she could trust God’s timing in all things.

Occasionally, Lisa would still visit the nest.  She didn’t have much hope of seeing a change, but she just couldn’t give up after all this time.  Then one day, Lisa went out to the nest and found it full of baby swallows.  After 10½ weeks of anticipation, the eggs had hatched.  As Lisa watched the little birds, she began to cry.  Throughout the wait for the eggs to hatch, she had learned to let go of her own impatience and to trust God’s timing.  This seemed to be proof that God can work things out in His time and in His way.  Today Lisa is even more sure of this truth.  

She and her husband Wayne are reminded of it every day as they look at their two young boys, the children they were finally able to conceive.  Now many of us will hear that simple story and put it all down to a nice coincidence.  And who knows maybe it was.  But we must admit that the mind of God is too deep for us to know.  Yet, it is interesting how often such coincidences happen in the lives of those who trust God.  Why did God choose Mary to be the mother of God’s own Son?  Maybe, it was her simple trust that God was at work in her life.  

For Mary, there were no coincidences.  All good things come from God.  Mary sings: “My soul does magnify the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior; For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden; for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.”  Mary believed God.  And Mary also believed in God’s promises.

Notice the rest of Mary’s song.  Mary sings: “He has showed strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud . . . He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.  He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent away empty.”  Bruce Larson tells us it’s a mistake to spiritualize the Magnificat.  These are the most revolutionary words ever spoken.  Through the Messiah, the mighty will be brought low; the humble, the lowly, will be exalted.  It’s a reversal of worldly expectations.

William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, warned his missionaries to India never to read the Magnificat in public.  Christians were already suspect in that country, and they were cautioned against reading verses so inflammatory.  Jesus, the ultimate revolutionary, completely reverses all human values.  What Mary was prophesying about her unborn son is terrifying to the establishment, whoever and wherever they are.  They cannot hear these words gladly.  We may attempt instead to spiritualize these values, but deep down we all know that Jesus has come to instigate the kind of revolution we need. 

Bruce McIver tells about a Christmas service that spoke to him of this other side of the Christmas story.  It was a crisp, beautiful day, everyone was in a good mood, and crowds of well-dressed worshipers filled the early morning service.  As part of his sermon that morning, Bruce read a snippet from The Saturday Review: “Last night John Elzy, watchman at the Grand Eagle Department Store, while making the rounds of the bargain basement, found the body of a man lying under a counter.  He was thin to the point of emaciation, apparently in his middle thirties, and was shabbily dressed.  His pockets were empty and there were no marks of identification upon his person.  Store officials believe that he was trampled in the Christmas rush and crawled under the counter for shelter.  But they are unable to account for what appears to be nail wounds in his hands.  The police are investigating.”

After the service, Bruce had a few minutes to refresh himself before the second service.  As he headed toward his office, he saw a small group of people and two police officers gathered outside the glass window to the church nursery.  Bruce looked into the nursery to see a man sitting there.  He was around thirty, extremely skinny, dirty, and ragged.  He was sitting at a miniature table looking at a children’s book.  He didn’t seem to notice the small crowd of concerned parishioners outside the nursery window.

Everyone turned to Bruce, asking him what he was going to do.  Bruce didn’t know.  No one seemed to know the man’s name, how he had gotten there, or why he was so ragged and poorly dressed.  The policemen didn’t see the man as a threat, so they left.  Bruce was confused by his own thoughts and fears as much by the insistent voices around him demanding that he “do something.”  And then he heard the music signaling the beginning of the second service.  The congregation was singing “Joy to the World.”  The ragged man in the nursery stood up and walked out of the nursery, not even looking at the people standing in the hall.  He stood for a second in the doorway, facing a very chilly day with only thin, threadbare clothes on his back, and then he walked out.  Bruce and the parishioners stood there in total silence.

At the second service that day, Bruce couldn’t just deliver his sermon in the same way as he had already that morning.  Suddenly, it was very difficult to read the passage about the ragged man in the department store.  It just hit way too close to home.  Christmas reminds us of the least and the lowly.  Jesus wasn’t born in a palace but among the animals in a stable behind an inn.  Today, perhaps he would be born to immigrant parents in a parking garage behind a crowded hotel.  In our affluence, we would do well to remember Mary’s song, Christ came to lift up those who have fallen.  The first thing we see in this account is Mary’s faith.  The second thing we come to realize is Mary’s devotion to God’s promises.  Finally, we come to realize Mary’s utter confidence that the child she carries is the answer to humanity’s need. 

In Edward Bellamy’s nineteenth century classic, Looking Backwards, the hero, Jeremy West, goes to sleep in 1887 and wakes up abruptly in the year 2000.  He finds himself in an advanced, high-tech society.  But the most remarkable thing about this society isn’t its technology, but its humanity; it has been planned as if people mattered.  Edward Bellamy envisioned a future in which all people are treated with dignity and equity, a future in which everyone has an opportunity to participate in the society.  That was Jesus’ desire as well.  It’s still Jesus’ desire today, and He’s at work in the lives of those who love Him to bring His kingdom into full reality.

A certain king had a dream.  In his dream, he saw a huge pair of scales held in the hand of Justice.  The scales seem to reach from earth to sky.  In one side of the scales was a pile of gold, jewels, lumber, houses, lands, all the symbols of earthly, material power.  In the other side of the scales was a nest of straw.  The gold, jewels, houses, and lands had tipped the scales down until the nest of straw was high in the air.  The gold-laden side of the scales touched the earth.  Then, a woman came from the sky with a baby in her arms.  She put the baby in the nest of straw.  The king in his dream saw the scales immediately begin to move until the child outweighed the side loaded with gold, jewels, houses, and lands.  The side with the baby touched the earth, and the materials side tipped to the sky.

Mary foresaw that kind of tipping of the scales in the still unformed life of her baby boy.  And that’s what we’re celebrating this Christmas season.  Like Holly Lynn and her brothers, we’re returning to the site of a very special birth, for in the manger of Bethlehem, as Mary foretold in her song, lies all the hopes and dreams of humanity.


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