December 15, 2019
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
CHRISTMAS JOY: TO ALL THE PEOPLE
Luke 1:39-44, 46-49, 52-53
The second in a series of three.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” (Luke 1:28). Who spoke those words? An angel named Gabriel spoke those words. This was his greeting to Mary when he appeared to her to tell her she was going to have a baby. She was not expecting a visit from an angel, so this was a surprise. But seeing an angel was not nearly as much a surprise as learning she was pregnant. Because she was a virgin. And even though she was young and uneducated, she probably knew enough to know that virgins don’t have babies.
Those words, “Hail Mary” have taken on a couple of different meanings down through the ages. In the Catholic tradition, the “Hail Mary” is one of their most sacred prayers. It is a prayer asking the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In football, the “Hail Mary” is a desperation pass thrown as
far as you can throw the football – it has to reach the end zone – but even if it does, the chances of someone on your team catching it are almost zero. It would take a miracle. As in Boston College vs. University of Miami, 1984 – the Catholics v. the Convicts.
(YouTube: Doug Flutie’s “Hail Mary”)
I think we might get more men coming to church if we showed more football highlights.
Mary lived in Nazareth, which is where Jesus grew up. He was born in Bethlehem but he didn’t spend much time there. Nazareth was his home town. And it was kind of like Madras, my home town. Small. Not many people had heard of it. And those who had heard of it didn’t think much of it. It didn’t have the best reputation.
Remember when Jesus was calling his disciples, when Nathanael heard where Jesus was from he said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
We’ve probably all heard of Nazareth. In fact, there is an entire Christian denomination, prominent in Nampa, Idaho, that takes their name from the hometown of Jesus. The Church of the Nazarene.
In Jesus’ day, a lot of people hadn’t heard of Nazareth. It was tiny. The big city in that day in that part of the world was Sepphoris. Nazareth compared to Sepphoris was kind of like Melba compared to Boise. Not that I have anything against Melba. It’s a lovely town. But it’s not Boise. And Nazareth back then was small enough it would have made Melba seem like a major metropolis.
That’s where Jesus grew up. More to our point, that’s where Mary lived. She was maybe 14 when the angel appeared to her. She was poor. It is unlikely that she had ever learned to read or write. She was an insignificant person living in an insignificant town. The Bible says she was “of low estate.” Which I guess is a nice way of saying she was a nobody.
That’s the person God told the angel to go see. Don’t go to Sepphoris. Go to Nazareth. Don’t go to a high status person. Go to Mary. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”
That word “hail” comes from the Greek “kara”, which means both “joy” and “grace.” So we could translate this: “Rejoice Mary, be filled with joy, the Lord is with you.”
But Mary was not filled with joy. Not yet. Instead we are told:
She was greatly troubled at the saying and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.” And the angel said
to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1:29-30).
That word “favor” is again from the Greek “kara”, which means both joy and grace. So: “Rejoice Mary, be filled with joy . . . you have found joy in God.”
Yet another of example of joy in the Christmas story! Our series continues as we talk today about “Christmas Joy: To All the People.”
Mary in the Christmas story is shorthand for “all the people.” For God chose the lowliest of the low to give birth to the most important person who ever lived.
In our day we can’t seem to get away from the debate over whether Mary really was a virgin. In the early church, they had no problem with that. It made perfect sense to them that the Savior of the World would be born in such a miraculous way. Their problem was that the mother of the Savior of the World was a peasant girl. A nobody. Couldn’t God have found someone with a little more social status? But that is the point. God does not have favorites. Or if he does, God’s favorite is “all the people.”
So when God chose the one woman in all the world to bear his Son, he chose the one no one else would have chosen. He chose Mary. That’s God’s way. When God needed someone to take the Good News of Jesus to the ends of the earth, he chose the one no one else would have chosen. He chose Paul, who hated Christians. And Paul is the one who wrote about this:
But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life – what is considered to be nothing – to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing (I Corinthians 1:27-28).
So if God chooses the least likely, the lowly, and the nobody, where does that leave us? Most of us have had all kinds of advantages and privileges. Born in an advanced and wealthy nation. Good families, good teachers, good opportunities. We aren’t nobodies. We are somebodies. That’s great, but if God consistently chooses nobodies, not somebodies, what does that say to us?
Here’s what I think. It says we need to humble ourselves. Jesus talked about this. “The first will be last. The last will be first. Those who are great are not those who are high and mighty but those who are great servants.”
Jim Collins wrote a book a few years ago called Good to Great. He studied corporate America, looking for the difference between good companies and great companies. Here is one of his findings: Leaders of the truly great companies tend to have “a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will.” They were humble. That means, “it’s not about me. I am here to serve you – my employees, my customers, my shareholders, my community.” But also professional will. They were also driven to make their company the best it could possibly be and not to settle for anything less.
Then he wrote a book called How the Mighty Fall, which was about companies at the top of their game that have now faded away. In some cases with spectacular collapses that no one saw coming. The number one reason he identified was this: “pride or hubris born of success.”
It reminds me of that verse in Proverbs: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18). And it reminds me of what Mitt Romney’s dad said back when he was president of American Motors, a company that no longer exists: “Nothing is more vulnerable than entrenched success.”
When Jesus was born, Rome had the power. Herod had the power. Caesar had the power. But what happened to the high and mighty back then is what always happens eventually to the high and mighty. They fall. And lowly Jesus, born to a nobody named Mary is King of kings and Lord of lords.
So back to where we started today. The angel comes to Mary in Nazareth and tells her she is going to have a baby. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” What does Mary do next? She goes for a walk. A long walk. “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city in Judah” (Luke 1:39). This would have been about 65 miles. Why? Because she had to tell Elizabeth, her elderly aunt, who also was expecting a baby. Elizabeth’s baby would be John the Baptist. Here’s what Elizabeth said when she saw Mary:
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! . . . For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy (Luke 1:42,44).
So here again we find joy in the Christmas story. John the Baptist, even before either he or Jesus had been born, leaps for joy!
What follows is a remarkable passage of scripture that seldom gets the attention it deserves. It’s called “Mary’s Magnificat,” which is the first word of this passage in Latin: “My soul magnifies the Lord” (1:46). The whole Bible was written by men. Pretty much. But this one part of the Bible was written by a women.
It’s a revolutionary statement.
[God] has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away (1:51-53).
Which is good news if you are lowly and hungry, and not such good news if you are proud and rich. There is going to be a great reversal of fortunes. It’s already underway in that Mary of all people has been chosen to be the mother of Jesus. And it is also a prophecy of the good news Jesus will preach. Good news to some. Not such good news to others. But really good news to all. Because all are loved by God. No favorites. And all are called by God to live lives of joy and to bring that joy to all the people. Provided we humble ourselves. Because God uses humble people. Proud people are not very useful as far as God is concerned. “He has scattered [them] away in the imagination of their hearts.”
So two points today on where we find joy in Christmas. The first point has already been made. We find joy in humility. As long as it’s all about us, we are going be up when things are good for us and down when things are bad for us. And the truth is that even the rich and powerful will get bored eventually with ever greater self-indulgence. Often those who have the most are the most miserable and those who have the least are the most joyous. Why is that? Because joy is found when we look away from ourselves and look to others and find a way to bless them.
Here’s how Paul said it:
Make my joy complete by [doing] nothing out of selfish
ambition or vain conceit. Rather in humility, value others
above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but
each of you to the interests of others (Philippians 2:2-4).
Sometimes people confuse humility with having a low opinion of themselves. God doesn’t want us to have a low opinion of ourselves. Because God sees in us the person we can become and that’s way beyond our wildest imaginations. God saw that in Mary before Mary saw that in herself, but I think even lowly, humble Mary eventually realized how precious and worthy she was in God’s eyes. You are too! You can have a high opinion of yourself and still be humble.
Here’s how C.S. Lewis said it: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
So first we find joy in humility, and second we find joy in generosity. Let’s go back to Mary’s “Magnificat” and that verse that may have bothered you. “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” Nothing wrong with the first part. We don’t want anyone to be hungry. But the second part may have offended some rich people. So it’s a good thing we don’t have any rich people in this church. My experience is that no one thinks they are rich. Even people with great wealth think they are not quite rich yet. Almost, but not quite.
Of course the truth is that compared to the rest of the world, we are all fabulously wealthy. The median annual income in the developing world is $3,000. That’s with mom, dad, and kids all working. The median income in America is twenty times that. Right around $60,000. Yours may be less than that. Yours may be more than that. You may be independently wealthy. You may be just barely scraping by. But compared to the rest of the world, we are all doing pretty well. Compared to the rest of the world we are all “rich.”
So what does that mean for us when it says “he has sent the rich away empty”? Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much more is expected” (Luke 12:48). So whatever we have in terms of money, time, ability – whatever resources we have – God expects us to use it to make this world more the world Jesus showed us this world can be. If we are followers of Jesus, we have a responsibility to do that.
Here’s how Paul said it:
Command those who are rich in this present world (that’s us!) not to be arrogant, nor to put their hope in wealth . . . but to
put their hope in God . . . Command them to do good, to be
rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.
In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of
the life that is truly life (I Timothy 6).
We humble ourselves, and we find joy. We practice generosity, and we also find joy. And so too those who benefit from our generosity. It’s win – win – win.
In fact, apart from the teachings of the Bible entirely, these two simple things – humility and generosity – can lift our spirits in a powerful way when we are depressed. Getting our minds off ourselves and how miserable we are, how just a little more self-indulgence will surely make us feel better, or how important we are, and how if we can just get other people to be as impressed with us as we are with ourselves we will have it made . . . humility and generosity work wonders!
Adam Hamilton tells the story of a note he got from someone in his church. Unsigned. His church, The Church of the Resurrection had distributed big red bags to be filled with Christmas presents for lower income families in Kansas City. A woman filled her bag, brought it back to church, and then handed this note to her pastor:
I just wanted to share . . . I am over 50, live alone, no family, and I work as a cashier at Target (so she is probably not earning the median income in America today). I took a red bag from church a couple of weeks ago but then I was feeling guilty and depressed because I didn’t have the money to fill it. Then out of nowhere a man wants me to babysit his dog while he goes out of town and he pays me in advance, cash. Yesterday I went shopping and today I brought my red bag to church. I am so full of joy! God is so great! So able! So abundant! Praise God! Be thankful!
So here’s how I think it works. Those who humble themselves before God and those who are poor and powerless find each other. God sees to that. They find each other. They meet other’s needs. And together they find joy.
Dear God, that woman was right. You are great. You are able. You are abundant. We praise you. As we sang earlier this morning, “Jesus came for everyone, everyone alive.” That means us. That means all. No exceptions. When we are feeling low, rejected, unloved, lift us up. Restore us to our rightful place as your beloved daughters and sons. And when we are feeling just a little too big and too important, humble us. Restore us to our rightful place as servants who find meaning and joy in helping others. Lead us day by day through this Advent season. May we grow, however we most need to grow, to become more like Jesus. In his name, Amen.