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Sermon for Sunday 20 December 2020

First Reading                              2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

1When the king lived in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, 2the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” 3And Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.” 4But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, 5“Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? 6I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. 7In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” 8Now, therefore, thus you shall say to my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. 9And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.

16‘“And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’”

PSALM                                                 Psalm 89:1-5, 19-29

1Your love, O Lord, forever will I sing; from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness. 2For I am persuaded that your love is established forever; you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.

3“I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn an oath to David my servant: 4‘I will establish your line forever, and preserve your throne for all generations.’” 5The heavens bear witness to your wonders, O Lord, and to your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones; 19You spoke once in a vision and said to your faithful people: “I have set the crown upon a warrior and have exalted one chosen out of the people. 20I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him. 21My hand will hold him fast and my arm will make him strong. 22No enemy shall deceive him, nor any wicked man bring him down.

Second Reading                         Romans 16:25-27

25Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — 27to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.

Gospel                                                         Luke 1:26-38

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32He 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 father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” 35And the angel answered 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 called holy — the Son of God. 36And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

The Angel’s Message

As I mentioned in last week’s sermon and is the subject of today’s gospel lesson as well, the angel Gabriel brings an announcement, to a young virgin named Mary, that would have a profound and lasting impact on the world forever.  One could say that God sent His messenger to a child with an announcement about a child the was to come.  A child that would change the nature of our relationship with God forever.  And speaking of children and angles, I ran across some thoughts on the Internet that children have expressed about angels.  

I thought they were interesting and humorous, so I thought I’d share them with you.  The first comes from Gregory, age 5: “I only know the names of two angels he said, “Hark and Harold.”  “Everybody’s got it all wrong,” says Olive, age 9.  “Angels don’t wear halos anymore.  I forget why, but scientists are working on it.”  Matthew, age 9 contends, “It’s not easy to become an angel!  First, you die.  Then you go to heaven, and then there’s still the flight training to go through.  And then you got to agree to wear those angel clothes.”  Mitchell, age 7 forwards that “Angels work for God and watch over kids when God has to go do something else.”  Eight year old Henry says, “My guardian angel helps me with math, but he’s not much good for science.”

According to young Daniel, age 9, “Angels talk all the way while they’re flying you up to heaven.  The main subject is where you went wrong before you got dead.”  Sara, age 6, has an interesting take on angels.  She says, “Angels have a lot to do and they keep very busy.  If you lose a tooth, an angel comes in through your window and leaves money under your pillow.  Then when it gets cold, angels go north for the winter.”  I have to be honest, that’s a new one on me.  Finally, here’s a young man with a lively imagination.  According to 10-year-old Regan, “When an angel gets mad, he takes a deep breath and counts to ten.  And when he lets out his breath, somewhere there’s a tornado.”

Centuries ago, in a remote corner of our planet, God broke into our world through the voice of an angel named Gabriel.  No tornados, no money for a lost tooth, just an important message from God to a young betrothed woman named Mary.  As was the custom of the day, Mary’s parents made all the arrangements for her marriage.   At the proper age she would marry Joseph the local carpenter.  The negotiations were made between Mary’s parents and Joseph’s parents, with the couple having no say in the matter.  Since Nazareth was a small village, Mary probably knew Joseph quite well.  Perhaps, she had seen him working in his carpenter’s shop.

Then came the day when Mary and Joseph were betrothed to each other.  Betrothal was for a period of one year and was as binding as marriage.  It was so official that, during this year, if Joseph died, Mary would be considered a widow.  It was during this betrothal period that our gospel lesson for today takes place.  One day, perhaps as Mary was preparing for her upcoming marriage to Joseph, she was startled by an angel standing before her.  Of all the things she could have imagined happening to her that day, I’ll bet Mary could have never dreamed that she would be getting a visit by one of God’s messengers.

Gabriel suddenly appears and begins his announcement by saying, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you.”  Pause here for a moment and consider this greeting and to whom the salutation was being directed.  First, “You who are highly favored.”  Presumably, Mary was just an ordinary Jewish girl, barely a teenager. The tradition of the day was for a young girl as young as 12 years of age would be betrothed, although many believe Mary was closer to 14. 

That aside, on the surface, there was nothing special about Mary that we know of.  She didn’t come from a wealthy family.  She wasn’t listed in the society pages of the Nazareth times.  Her only claim to royalty or social status was that both she and Joseph were descendants of king David.  So it’s doubtful that anyone outside of Nazareth had ever heard of her.  By every Sociological indicator, Mary was just your average young woman.  Therefore, Mary was understandably perplexed by the visit. 

Gabriel must have sensed her confusion and fear, so he next tries to comfort her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  Another thing I feel confident of, is that Mary never even entertained the notion that God would chosen her for a very special purpose.  Then comes the real bombshell: “You will conceive and give birth to a son,” said Gabriel, “and you are to call Him Jesus.” Mary was mystified.  What could this all mean?  Mary listened intently to the angel’s words.  “[Your child] 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.”  Mary’s response was naturally one of bewilderment—particularly with her role in this amazing drama.  “How can this be?” she asked the Divine’s messenger, “since I am a virgin?”

To this Gabriel 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.”  To satisfy her confusion about bearing a child while still being a virgin, Gabriel informs her that her cousin, Elizabeth, despite being far past the child-bearing age, was now six months pregnant.  Mystery solved, this was God’s doing, the angel told her, for nothing is impossible with God.  That was all it took for Mary to be convinced.  “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”  Then Gabriel left her.

Mary believed Gabriel’s message and the rest, as they say, is history.  What an amazing statement of faith.  Hang on to Mary’s response for a few moments.  “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”

Although we know very little about Mary and her family, we can assume that she was a devout Jewish girl who had listened and believed the scripture lessons read at the local synagogue.  Although she was certainly startled by the appearance of an angel, his words didn’t seem foreign to her.  Deep in her heart she believed that one day the Messiah would come.  She just never realized that she would be the one chosen to play a part in the Messiah’s birth.

It’s a sacred and foundational story to the 2.5 billion people on this earth who call themselves Christians.  That’s approximately 1 out of every 3 people on earth.  What an amazing impact Mary’s baby has had on the world.  There are some elements to the story of the first Christmas that will live forever in our hearts.  The first is Mary’s faith and obedience to God.“I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”  My Catholic friends accuse me of making too little of Mary’s importance.  They do have a point.  Stop and consider the words of Mark Lowry in his famous song Mary Did you Know, “when you kiss your little baby, did you know you kissed the face of God?  Mary was favored and is an important part of the Christmas story.

When a pastor asked a class of boys and girls, “Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem?” one boy in the class raised his hand and replied, “Because his mother was there.”  True.  Without Mary’s obedience to God, the Christmas story would be quite different.  “Obedience,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “is the key to all doors.”  I read recently about another remarkable young woman named Maria Dyer.  

Maria was born in 1837 on the mission field in China where her parents were missionaries.  Both of her parents died when Maria was a little girl, and she was sent back to England to be raised by an uncle.  Like her parents Maria felt a call to be a missionary.  At age sixteen she, along with her sister, returned to China to work in a girl’s school there.  Five years later, she married a well-known missionary named Hudson Taylor.

Life wasn’t easy for Hudson and Maria Taylor.  Their ministry was criticized severely.  Of their nine children, only four survived to adulthood.  Maria herself died of cholera when she was just forty-three.  But she believed the cause was worthy of the sacrifice.  On her grave marker these words were inscribed: “For her to live was Christ, and to die was gain.”  She certainly took St. Paul’s words in Philippians to heart (1:21).

Pastor Paul Chappell makes this comment about the Taylors’ ministry, “In a day when many are self-absorbed and care more about what they can get rather than what they can give, we need a renewal of sacrificial love.  It was God’s love for us that sent Jesus into the world to die for our sins, and it’s that kind of giving love that our world needs so greatly today.  When we love God as we should, our interests fade as we magnify Him.”

That was true of Hudson and Maria Taylor.  Without obedient servants like the Taylors, many would not have the Gospel today.  Certainly without the obedience of a young woman named Mary we wouldn’t have the story of Christmas.  This is the first thing we need to note this morning is Mary’s faith and her obedience.  The second element that endears the Christmas story to us is how God chose to work to accomplish His mission.God chose and many times still chooses, to work through the least and the lowest of people and places—reminding us of our responsibilities to the least and lowest as well.

Many of the deprived and outcast of this world identify in a special way with the Christ child who lay in a feeding trough for a bed and was attended by shepherds, donkeys, and cattle.  Everything about Christ’s birth affirms God’s love for the least and the lowest.  Maybe we can bring this into a better context by saying that Galilee, the region where Christ grew up was sort of an Appalachia of its day—up in the hills, and a bit backward compared with Judea.  Furthermore, Nazareth, the village that Mary and Joseph called home, had such a poor reputation that, in John 1:46, Nathaniel sums up its disrepute like this: “Nazareth!  Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

Even the little town in which Christ was born—not Jerusalem or Rome—but Bethlehem, was held in little regard.  As cities go, there was little reason for anyone to recommend it.  It was one of the many small towns located not too far from the holy city of Jerusalem.  However, while Bethlehem may not have been a teeming metropolis, it was the city of David and it was there that the Messiah was to be born.  And then there were the cattle and the shepherds and the bed of straw because there was no room for them in the inn.  

You know, I bet Mary and Joseph would be absolutely astonishing if they realized that the birth of the Christ child would today become a celebration of extravagant materialistic indulgence.  However, for those who remember that the first Christmas was aimed at the humblest of people, it’s a reminder, that we who follow Jesus have a responsibility for those for whom life is a constant struggle.  And there are many today who struggle in these difficult times.

There was a story that appeared in AARP magazine a few years ago.  It was about an unemployed salesman in 1971 who received an act of kindness that changed his life.  “He was scraping by, living in his car, when a local diner owner gave him $20 and a tank of gas.”  Fast forward eight years.  Our unemployed salesman is now hugely successful.  He begins giving away money anonymously in order to repay the kindness of the diner owner.  What started as a small gesture of gratitude has grown into a wonderful Christmas tradition. 

Over the last [few decades], this anonymous businessman has given away tens of thousands of dollars every Christmas to people on the streets of Kansas City.  “And just a few years ago, the businessman returned to the old diner to thank the man who changed his life.  The diner owner was retired and caring for an ailing wife.  Imagine his surprise when a man showed up on his doorstep and handed him $10,000.”

It’s amazing how often things like that happen at Christmas time.  Christmas brings out the generosity in us.  And it should.  Christmas began in a stable surrounded by shepherds and animals, and a humble young couple and a babe in a manger.  First, we need to take note of a young woman’s faith and obedience.  Second, we need to see how God chose the least and the lowest to accomplish His plans, which should remind us of our responsibilities to those who struggle to get by in life.  Finally, we need to recognize that Christmas is the celebration of God’s greatest gift to humanity—His own Son.

The tradition of giving gifts at Christmas is usually tied to the story of the Magi giving gifts to baby Jesus.  But surely the greater gift at Christmas is the gift of Jesus Himself.  “For God so loved the world,” St. John writes, “that He gave His only Son . . .” There is no greater gift than that.  Most of you will remember the late Dave Thomas, founder and long-time CEO of the Wendy’s fast-food chain.  Dave Thomas wrote a book in which he told about an incident out of his own experience.

Dave was scheduled to film a short television spot urging people to consider adopting children.  Dave himself had been adopted as a child.  He and a friend were to meet with a brother and sister, potential adoptees, to talk with them before they filmed the TV spot.  It was shortly before Christmas, but these two children had little hope of celebrating the holidays with a loving family.  Dave hoped the TV spot would help.  Unfortunately, the little girl had a problem that could not be hidden.  She had an ugly scar across her face where she had been hit with a beer bottle by her father. 

As they were talking with the children the little boy blurted out, “I don’t want to be adopted with her.  Just look at her ugly scar!”  The boy wanted a family, and he was afraid his little sister’s appearance would scare away potential adoptive parents.  Dave knew how important it was that the children be adopted together, but he was at a loss for what to say.  Fortunately, his friend saved the day.

Dave’s friend took two one-hundred dollar bills out of his wallet and gave one bill to each child.  He told them that the money was for buying Christmas presents.  He wanted them to go out and buy something very special.  But there was a catch: they could only use the money to buy something for their sibling—something that would make their brother or their sister very happy.  So, that was the condition: each child would only get the $100 if he or she promised to spend it on the other.  Then he asked them to write him a letter, telling him what they had bought. 

The result of this experiment was beautiful.  In the process of buying one another gifts, the children had bonded more strongly.  The brother no longer rejected his little sister because of the scar.  As a result, they were adopted together, and their adoptive parents remarked on how well the children took care of each other.  A gift given in the right spirit can carry with it a wondrous amount of love.

That was God’s intent in the gift of His Son.  In the Christmas story we see a young woman’s faith and obedience to God, we see God’s love for the least and the lowest and, most important of all, we see God’s love for each of us as well as all the people on earth through the gift of Jesus Christ our Savior.  


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