*Sorry, no audio this week.
People, as much as they are creatures of habit, are also addicted to novelty. I think it’s part of the coming of sin in the world that humans not only hate change but we get bored if things stay the same for too long. Have you noticed this?
We have things we consistently like– traditions, foods, favourite toys, certain authors, or styles of movie – and we will get quite put out if someone messes with them, right? But then, at some point, we look at that thing and we’re just sick of it and want something else. We wait all year for some special Christmas treat, but after a couple days we don’t ever want to see it again – but somehow it’s not Christmas if it’s not there.
This happens in pop-culture all the time. Right now, in Hollywood, a lot of people are wondering if we’ve reached peak saturation with superhero movies. No one was making them 10 years ago and this year we had 6 of them, and together they made over 4.5 Billion dollars. But everyone is wondering when the bubble will burst. This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. This happened years ago with Westerns too. First, there were none, then they were being cranked out by the dozens, and then audiences got tired of them.
It’s that same give and take we just talked about. We love it for a while but end up getting tired of seeing and hearing the same story over and over, so we want something new. But ironically, it’s not even that new. If you think about it, there’s a lot of similarities between the old westerns and the new superhero movies, right?
There are clear distinctions between good and evil. The problems are usually solved with some mashup of personal sacrifice and violence. The archetypes are similar. There’s the very good guys, like the lawful sheriff and then the antihero outlaws. The good guys are usually traditional North Americans and the bad guys are often people with different coloured skin – then it was red or brown, now it’s purple. And then, at some point, instead of lone ranger defending one place, they put a whole bunch of them in the same movie.
So, it’s not that we get tired of the story – what we get tired of the package the story comes in. We still want a story about good conquering evil, heroes overcoming villains, the strong protecting the weak, and people sacrificially working together for a common cause that is greater than them. We just want the packaging to change.
Bored with The Christmas Story
Christians believe that the Christmas story is one of the most important stories in history and that we need to keep telling it. The incarnation of the Son of God as a human baby, announced by angels and miracles, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, fulfilling thousands of years of prophecy, is a really big deal – but, after so many years of telling it, we somehow get tired of the story.
I think this is how we end up with so many retellings of the Christmas story from so many different perspectives. We see it from the perspective of Mary and Joseph, like in the Bible, but after that we get bored. So then we watch it from the perspective of the Shepherds, King Herod, or even the Wise Men (who weren’t even there when Jesus was born). But then we get tired of that, because it keeps coming around to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in some cave or barn somewhere and we want even newer packaging, so we stretch things. Then we get the story from a few more obscure characters that don’t have a lot of backstory, like the Angels, the citizens of Bethlehem, or the man running the overfilled Inn.
But then that gets boring, so where else do we turn? Well, then it’s time to start really getting creative by changing the story a bit, making it funnier, sending people back in time to have adventures – and then finally of course, we come to where we are today – a non-Christian celebrity voiced, comedic version of the Birth of Jesus from the perspective of some random animals who are tasked with using their animal kung-fu skills to save Mary, Joseph and Jesus. And the main song they use in the trailer is by Stevie Wonder and is about how what Christmas really means is “lots of mistletoe, kissing, pretty trees, and snow”.
Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s Christmas parade because I like stupid Christmas stuff too. I’ve told you guys over the past month how tired I am of disliking things, right? My personal motto has become “Take serious stuff serious and not serious stuff not serious”, and I’ve always liked silly stuff anyway. I think dumb songs about red-nosed reindeer and magically animated snowmen are fun. I think that watching a movie with Santa in it is fine, the Grinch is awesome, and having an upside down tree is cool, so whatever.
But, from a pastoral perspective, I think there is a spiritual danger to getting bored by the actual Christmas story and concentrating not only on the peripherals, but everything else. Why do I think this? Because the current problem of the day isn’t that we have heard the Christmas story so many times that we are too familiar with it, but that we’ve spend so much time on the edges of it that we’ve forgotten the actual story.
We don’t know the prophecies being fulfilled, why it was in Bethlehem, why Joseph being of the house of David matters, who Gabriel was, the actual meaning of the name Jesus means, or the other titles He’s given in the Christmas story. We’ve lost the drama of the virgin being with child and then almost divorced and what an incredible person Mary was. We feature Shepherds and Wise Men in our Christmas play, but have forgotten Zachariah and Elizabeth whose story is interwoven with, and takes up just as much space in scripture, as the birth of Jesus. It is not that we are too familiar with the Christmas story, it is that we think we are too familiar, but many have actually forgotten it.
The Nativity Story
Turn with me and let’s read Luke 1:26–55. We talked a bit about John the Baptist last week, the forerunner of Jesus, and if you scan back a little bit you’ll see that his story is told first, before Mary and Joseph are even introduced. If you recall, the miraculous conception of John the Baptist by Zechariah and Elizabeth was the natural place to start the story after the last lines of Malachi 4, because John the Baptist was the one who would come in the spirit of Elijah (Matthew 11:14; Mark 9:11; Luke 1:17). The story of the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist are interwoven in the first chapters of Luke. But for today we are going to start with the announcement of the birth of Jesus by the angel Gabriel. Look at Luke 1:
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.
And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern 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. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He 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, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’
And 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. And 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. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ And 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.”
There’s a lot packed into that part, some of it is pretty amazing.
It begins, “In the sixth month”. That’s the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, not the sixth month of the year, because it’s tying the two stories together. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, an angel also came to one of her relatives, a young girl named Mary. Gabriel connects these two women together by informing Mary that God is already at work and has worked miracles to prepare for Jesus to come. Mary’s worry is to wonder how this is going to come about since she’s not married, nor has she ever been with a man before, and the angels response is, “The Holy Spirit will take care of that part. Do you know your old, barren, relative Elizabeth? She’s pregnant too. Nothing’s impossible with God!”
Mary and Elizabeth would have a very special relationship. The much older woman would be a great support to the nervous, young Mary whose life had been completely shaken up by God’s gift. In fact, Mary almost immediately goes running to Elizabeth for support.
Look at verse 39:
“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby 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.’”
We have no indication that Elizabeth knew Mary was coming, and it was unlikely in that culture that Mary’s pregnancy news had travelled that far so quickly, so it must have been so encouraging to hear these words of prophecy about her obedience, God’s plan, and the truth of who her baby would be coming from someone she knew and trusted.
The mother of John the Baptist, the prophesied forerunner of Jesus, and the mother of Jesus, the Saviour of the World, coming together to care for, support, and wonder at God’s work together. It’s a beautiful picture – one I don’t see very often in many Christmas stories.
And what is Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s encouragement? One of the most beautiful songs in all of scripture: one that we call “The Magnificat”. She says,
“And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.’”
God’s Plan of Salvation Shakes Our World
That’s a beautiful song of faith from a young woman in a very difficult situation. There’s so much happening in this story, but I want to point at just one thing I think we can learn from today. I want to notice that God’s Plan of Salvation Shakes Up Our World.
The coming of Jesus, the Saviour of the World, was the best news in the world, but it wasn’t news that made everyone’s life comfortable. Jesus coming into the world sent shockwaves everywhere and caused a lot of problems for a lot of people – but it was still God’s perfect plan and was the way He would work out our salvation.
Mary was betrothed to Joseph, that meant they were engaged but not living together, and both of them would have to wait a year and remain pure while they got their house in order for the marriage. Jesus’ birth messed all that up. Now Mary was pregnant out of wedlock, Joseph almost divorced her, and there was no doubt – even though it doesn’t say it in the story – that the family faced fallout from that for a long time. We know from second century writings that the Pharisees wrote in the Talmud that Jesus was the son of adultery. Another anti-Christian writer of the second century said Mary cheated on Joseph with a Roman soldier. Some people even take some of names the Pharisees called Jesus during their arguments as indication that there was a rumour that Jesus was an illegitimate child (John 8:41; Matthew 13:55)
Not only Mary and Joseph’s lives were turned upside down, but everyone around Jesus. Remember that after the Wise Men went to King Herod his response was to murder all the male children in Bethlehem under two years old (Matthew 2:16) causing Mary, Joseph and Jesus had to flee and live in a foreign land for a few years.
The faithful words of Elizabeth and Mary stir our hearts, but we must remember the context. The coming of the Lord, the long awaited Saviour, is good news, but it brought much trouble to those who God blessed to be part of the story. Mary declares that God will feed the weak, save the powerless, bless the nation – but it doesn’t happen immediately. Mary declares that she is blessed, and certainly was, blessed beyond all other women, but at times that blessing brought a lot of trouble.
And when baby Jesus was only 40 days old, and comes to the temple to be dedicated, what does Mary hear from Simeon? “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34–35). The greatest blessing in the world comes with a sword to the heart.
Hebrews 11 says faith is, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I’m amazed at young Mary’s strength and even more amazed at her faith. She is troubled by what she hears from the Angel but doesn’t argue or demand a sign. She accepts God’s plan immediately – with her only hesitation being a quite natural wondering about how it’s going to work. She relents to God’s plan because she is sure she can trust Him. She doesn’t understand, but believes is convinced God knows what He’s doing.
Over and over, from the moment Jesus’ came into her life, everything got more complicated and more frightening. There’s the nervousness of being pregnant. Joseph almost divorces her. Then she walks three days to Elizabeth’s house and when she gets back it’s not long until she’s big and almost nine months pregnant, and then there’s the census requiring her and Joseph to travel a 10 day journey to Bethlehem! Then there’s nowhere to stay and she ends up giving birth in a stable and laying her baby in a feeding trough, maybe with people helping, maybe not. Then there’s some weird shepherds visiting and a month later Simeon’s bad news. Then, when Jesus is only 2 years old, they have to flee the country for a few years on fear of death, staying away until the heat dies down.
Sometimes God’s plan for our life is as complicated and troubling as it is amazing. Mary’s faith was in something she hoped for – the Salvation of the world through her Son Jesus, but it took years and years, from the manger to the cross to the resurrection, for her to start to understand God’s real plan – and then some troubled years as a persecuted Christian after that – and sure, maybe she had moments of doubt (Mark 3:21) (though so did John the Baptist!) – but overwhelmingly we have the story of a woman who trusted God, trusted Jesus, kept the faith, and knew that no matter the trouble, believed God knew what He was doing.
For us today, this application is pretty clear and important. God’s plan of salvation is amazing and life changing. Having Jesus in our lives is an incredible blessing, but His coming also stirs everything up. There’s nothing like the knowledge and hope that comes from being a Christian – to know we are saved from sin and death, forgiven of everything we’ve ever done wrong, adopted into God’s family, and secure in Him forever, is amazing and it is right for us to worship and be excited about that – but it doesn’t mean that our life is necessarily going to get easier and more comfortable. In fact, the more we follow Jesus, the more we act in faith, the more our life is going to look like His – and He had a lot of trouble, right?
But that’s why we turn to scripture and prayer (I’m sure Mary did a lot of praying!) and other believers (like Mary did), because it is how we are reminded that God is faithful. For every trouble that came to Mary, God had a way to save her. When she was young, alone, and under great stress from Gabriel’s news, God provided Elizabeth. When Mary was about to get divorced, Joseph had a dream. When the soldiers were coming to kill Jesus, God warned them to leave. When it was time to come home, God brought them. Mary was never in the wrong place because she and Joseph were always following God’s leading. Sure it was tough, but God always saw them through.
That’s the simple message today. First, don’t get bored with the Christmas story and miss out on what the Bible actually says, because in doing so you will miss out on the best parts that help our faith in Jesus to grow. And second, remember that whenever we follow Jesus, exercise our faith, step out and do what God has asked us to do, it’s going to bring trials and troubles and shake up our world, but that’s normal and God has it under control. Our job is to trust Jesus each step of the way, lean on each other, and keep going, accepting whatever method He provides to help us.