Christians in the world, what does God want from us?
Advent 4, Christchurch Stannington, 23rd December 9am and 10:30am
Mic 5:2-5a; Lk 1:39-55, Hebrews 10:5-10
Mic 5:2-5a ESV
2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
are only a small village among all the people of Judah.
Yet a ruler of Israel,
whose origins are in the distant past,
will come from you on my behalf.
3 The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies
until the woman in labour gives birth.
Then at last his fellow countrymen
will return from exile to their own land.
4 And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
Then his people will live there undisturbed,
for he will be highly honoured around the world.
5 And he will be the source of peace.
Luke 1:39-55 English Standard Version (ESV)
39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
In preparing this talk I came across the following:
“Evangelicals and Catholics together: the Christian Mission in the third Milennium”
“As we near the Third Millennium, there are approximately 1.7 billion Christians in the world. About a billion of these are Catholics and more than 300 million are Evangelical Protestants. The century now drawing to a close has been the greatest century of missionary expansion in Christian history. We pray and we believe that this expansion has prepared the way for yet greater missionary endeavour in the first century of the Third Millennium. The two communities in world Christianity that are most evangelistically assertive and most rapidly growing are Evangelicals and Catholics.
All who accept Christ as Lord and Saviour are brothers and sisters in Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have not chosen one another, just as we have not chosen Christ. He has chosen us, and he has chosen us to be his together. (John 15).”
Wow! 1.7 billion…. Yet the church in the UK appears to be shrinking.
(1) What is God’s agenda at Christmas?
(2) What is “Christmas” for?
(3) and what does this word “Immanuel” (Emmanuel) really mean?
1. God’s plan
As my hero, Tom Wright, among others has been pointing out, God always had a plan, for humanity, (not just for his chosen people the Jews), which he spoke about through the prophets, several centuries before Christ, and which began to be fulfilled around 6 and 4 BCE, which according to the latest astronomical and historical evidence, is when Jesus was born. (The calendar-makers got it wrong). (Q1) God had a plan.
Christmas, (only two sleeps away!) is our celebration of the day God broke into our world in person, “God with us” (Hebrew “Immanuel”) really means “God became one of us”. (Q 2 & 3) (REPEAT)
Do you see how unique this is – in other religions God is distant, remote (Islam, Buddhism), or everywhere (Hinduism), or unconcerned (Deism), but our Faith believes in a God who became one of us! Because he made us and loves us!! Christians of all sorts and denominations (REPEAT) our Faith believes in a God who became one of us! Because he made us and loves us!!
2. Mary the source of Luke’s information.
There is a reason we read in Scripture (in Luke) about Mary, the young woman engaged to the village carpenter/builder, her surprise pregnancy, her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s baby moving inside her:
John the Baptist “leaped in the womb” (those of you who have had babies will understand; the rest, ignore that bit), when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting. Jesus and John were related through their mothers, who were cousins (i.e. they were second cousins).
Luke records Mary’s uncomfortable confinement and birth, the lack of a proper guest-room to stay in (because other relatives had got there first), possibly born in the relative’s home, among the animals, the cot made from straw. And the reason for these stories is to emphasise the sheer humanness of Jesus’ birth. The prophet Micah describes how the “little town of Bethlehem” would be the place of birth of the Messiah – the one sent from God, traditionally in Jewish thought a royal person, a king, to rescue his people.
Luke, the Greek doctor/church leader, who accompanied Paul on his travels, and wrote the two books we can call “Luke-Acts” (because they are a continuous whole) reports Mary’s response to the words of her cousin – which we know as the Magnificat (from the first word of the Latin version).
The first two chapters of Luke are unique to the New Testament in their intimate details, which must have come from an eyewitness, and the most likely eyewitness was Mary. (Tradition has it that she lived in Ephesus, where Luke would have met and interviewed her and spent time with her). The late Jim Packer noted in an article:
“The twice-repeated picturesque statement that Mary “treasured up” all these things in her heart (2:19, 51) seems to indicate that Mary was Luke’s oral source at this point.”
When, many years ago, we visited Turkey for a family holiday we were able to visit Ephesus, and were shown the traditional site of Mary’s house, where, if tradition is true, Luke may well have spent time with the elderly Mary.
The conversations with the archangel, the visit to Elizabeth and the leaping of the baby in her womb, the beautiful prayers and hymns to God are all examples of this eye-witness nature of Luke’s account. We have an acknowledgement of Jesus’ divinity when Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit exclaims, “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43).
Mary, expressing herself in this hymn we know as the Magnificat, has understood what the OT writers meant in these passages:
“Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you (Bethlehem) on my behalf. And he will be the source of peace.” (Micah),
“7 Then I said, ‘Look, I have come to do your will, O God — as is written about me in the Scriptures.’” (Ps 40, quoted in Hebrews, our other set reading),
when Mary says in the Magnificat:
“50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
Mary in her song is saying that God is concerned for the poor and hungry, he is against pride and boasting, and is concerned to bring about peace.
Jim Packer, in a paper written for Evangelicals and Catholics together, notes:
“Luke recorded the psalm that she composed at that time, modelling it on the psalm Hannah had come up with after what she felt was the supernatural birth of Samuel. Teenagers still write poetry by adapting models; there is nothing unusual about that. What is unusual is the poetic quality and the grandeur of Mary’s vision of God in gracious action, countering the injustice of the proud and powerful and bringing to Israel and beyond Israel something of the shalom that had long been foretold.”
“Mary is a gifted poet, though still in her teens. I imagine that, because of its personal quality and beginning, she had kept it by her as something private until she let Luke have it for his gospel. Be that as it may, Luke certainly wants us to appreciate Mary as a very gifted, as well as a very godly, soul.”
The American pastor and author Eugene Peterson wrote, “Scripture without prayer has no soul; prayer without Scripture has no substance”. Mary’s song is a scripture-filled prayer! What a model for us!
3. Jesus the refugee
Here is further evidence that God is biased to the poor, because they don’t come much poorer than refugees. Herod the ruler of Palestine under the Romans felt so threatened by this “new king” he set about murdering all recently born babies, and Jesus became a REFUGEE from Palestine to Egypt, where his family stayed for two years.
In our amazing “Christmas Live” last Monday this was made very clear – that Jesus became a refugee! And by becoming a refugee, Jesus was identifying with all those down the centuries who have fled their own country to escape persecution. Today in Sheffield we welcome asylum seekers (simply refugees whose claim has not been confirmed by the host state), from all sorts of places.
Bishop David Sheppard called his book about God in the East End of London “Bias to the poor”, which pretty well sums it up. He explains how scripture frequently describes God’s bias to the poor, his favouritism towards those who cannot help themselves, and yes, “bias” is a good word for it.
4. Jesus the sacrifice – spelled out in carols.
There’s another piece in God’s plan, which I haven’t mentioned yet – at the end of his life, it appeared that Jesus was executed by the Romans as a common criminal, but it was nothing of the sort: it was a deliberate act by Jesus, God’s Son, to be obedient to God the Father to carry out the plan. It’s a whole other story, which I have told before, and no doubt will tell again! But the words of our Communion, which we lead into now, will probably say enough. Our Christmas hymns and carols often make reference to this purpose of Jesus’ coming, as in “We three kings” – “Glorious now behold Him arise, King, and God, and Sacrifice”, or, “The first Nowell”, last verse, “That hath made heaven and earth of nought, and with his blood mankind hath bought”, and in “Spout Cottage”, a local carol,
“Remember the time when our Saviour was born,
No house for a home but a stable forlorn,
His birth-place no more than where oxen did lie,
Yet he for all people most surely did die.”
So, do you see how Christmas – (only 2 sleeps now) – is the key to God’s plan?
Unless God had stepped into our world on that day in 4-6 BCE, in Bethlehem, in those very basic but adequate surroundings, unless God had stepped in, and unless Jesus had been born, as one of us, lived in Palestine for some 30 years, “gone public” by teaching and showing God’s love in practical ways, and then being executed apparently as a common criminal, but in reality as the ultimate perfect sacrifice for the sin of the whole word, UNLESS all that had happened, there would be no way back to God. In the immortal words of “Dad’s Army”, we’re all doomed.
Our Heavenly Father, thank you for loving your creation so much that you sent your only Son Jesus into our world to be born just like us. And thank you Lord Jesus, for being so humble to live in Palestine, to be a refugee from persecution, and above all to die for us all, on that Roman Gallows. Help us to grasp what this means for us today. Amen.