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Upside Down Christmas

Christmas caroling is meaningful to almost everyone who goes because as Will Ferrell observed in the movie Elf, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”

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Christmas caroling is meaningful to almost everyone who goes because as Will Ferrell observed in the movie Elf, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”

Some of us are not great singers, but people don’t seem to mind too much (except for the folks who actually know what a musical key is as opposed to a key that opens a door). I feel badly for them.

We’ve sung to patients who have Alzheimer’s who remember so little yet they can recall the words to the songs they learned as children. A week ago, Saturday (December 15) we got to sing with and visit a number of folks from our church including Corinne and Lawren Cowen, Vincent and June Fasano, Jan DeBoer and Lynn Van Hoeven and others at Maplewood, and Jean Sears as well as residents and staff at the Terraces in Orleans before finishing at Wise Living in Orleans where Janet Bantly puts on a lovely reception for the carolers and her neighbors. Jean Sears spoke movingly to our group about how much it meant to her and her family when we came to their home two years ago. Her husband Henry died the following month. Inevitably when we go caroling, I find myself thinking about the folks we sang to last year who are spending their first Christmas singing in heaven.

Singing is something that is so associated with Christmas―whether it’s going caroling or the Whos down in Whoville (the tall and the small) or driving in your car singing those brilliant, deep, soul-stirring songs like Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, or I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas (“Only a hippopotamus will do. Don’t want a doll, no dinkey tinker toy. I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy.”). In the Gospel of Luke, singing is associated with the birth of Jesus and not just from the angels heralding Jesus’ birth. Months before that, Elizabeth and Mary both end up breaking into songs of praise to God when they greet each other and learn that both are pregnant and expecting to give birth to a son.

Listen to Luke 1:39-55, “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 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 powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’”

In Luke 1:39-55, we meet two women (actually three) who, moved by the Spirit, raise their voices in praise of God. First is the older cousin of Mary, Elizabeth wife of Zechariah (a temple priest in Jerusalem), who will be the mother of John the Baptist. Like her ancestors Sarah (Genesis) and Hannah (1 Samuel), Elizabeth was unable to have children; until the unexpected birth of John. Elizabeth is not just important because of her family relationships, however.

When she greets her pregnant cousin Mary she is filled with the Holy Spirit, and “exclaimed with a loud cry….” This phrase in Greek means to shout as though one is using a megaphone, literally a “big” voice. This is how Elizabeth speaks a prophetic word to Mary and to us―in what we might today call her “outdoor” voice.

The second woman is Mary (we actually meet her first, but her song comes second): cousin of Elizabeth, wife of Joseph, mother of Jesus. Like Elizabeth, Mary is important for what she has to say, in addition to whose mother she is. Mary’s spiritual situation and words are very similar to those of her cousin Elizabeth. They each express their own song of faith praising God for acting in their lives.

Christmas is a time when God invites us, like Mary, to make a decision about the direction of our lives. Mary had faith that God’s promise to her would be fulfilled; that’s what Elizabeth commends her for. Mary needed to trust God and so do we. Just as some of us like old songs at Christmastime, Mary’s song is patterned after the ancient song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, and it’s a classical statement of God’s activity: God brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly.

Hannah, Mary and Elizabeth all had to trust God in difficult circumstances and we’re challenged to do the same. What Christmas song is the one you like or identify with most this year? What song are you singing?

Some of us may find it hard to trust God after the many tragedies we’ve witnessed this year; it’s beyond our comprehension how God can allow some things to happen. But we can struggle with trust over issues smaller or less dramatic than mass shootings. Some of us have trouble trusting God if we’ve been in Elizabeth’s position―of years of waiting, hoping and praying, and not seeing an answer, or getting an answer we didn’t really want.

We may find it hard to trust after years of emptiness and seeming silence from God. “What have I received for my faith, service, devotion, and prayers―there are still problems in my family, with health, with finances, God why haven’t you done something?”

Sometimes it’s like we’re holding one piece of a puzzle and wondering why it doesn’t seem to make sense to us. God had something special planned for Elizabeth and Zechariah in their old age, which enabled them to be a blessing to the world in a way they couldn’t have imagined when they were younger.

Sometimes people think life has passed them by or that they have already made their greatest contribution, but like Elizabeth and Zechariah God may surprise you when you’re older with a very significant contribution to make. And we still remember Elizabeth’s song of praise all these years later.

Some of us may identify with Mary. She’s a young woman with hopes and goals of her own, but God gives her an opportunity to be the instrument of tremendous blessing to the world. But it means changing her goals and expectations and trusting God. God invites her to something unheard of and unexpected. For Mary, following God’s plan requires being vulnerable to having her own heart and hopes pierced, which is true not only of her but of all parents.

Mary stays with her older relative Elizabeth for three months and then goes home, presumably after Elizabeth gives birth to John. Remember that Zechariah had doubted the angel’s word to him about having a son so he was silent and unable to speak for nine months, which, who knows, might have been a blessing to Elizabeth. After six months though she may have been ready to have someone close to talk to, and she and Mary had three months together to talk and support one another.

I think someone could write a good story picturing and imagining those three months. What a joyous time it must have been for those two women. What mother has not waited for the first stirrings of a child? The joy of Mary and Elizabeth is the joy of all who look forward with wonder and thankfulness to the birth of a child―even as we do at this time of the year. Joy is peaked by waiting. Just ask a child in these last days before Christmas.

Joy is a recurring theme throughout Luke’s Gospel. The joy bursting forth in the angel’s visits and announcements and the births of John and Jesus is heard and seen again in the joy of forgiveness, healing, new beginnings, redemption, and the transformation that we see in those who trust Christ. The Gospel ends with the disciples returning to Jerusalem with joy and praising God in the Temple.

Our response to God’s sending Jesus to save us and to save the world, is one of joy. Elizabeth praises God and blesses Mary for two reasons: She’s been chosen to be the mother of Jesus. She’s believed the word of God. We can be thankful that Jesus came for our sake and we also can believe that God’s word is trustworthy.

How are you feeling as we approach Christmas? John Lennon’s song Happy Christmas, begins: “So this is Christmas and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.” Christmas is a good time to reflect on how we have invested the last irreplaceable year of our life―what have we done with it? A new year will begin soon―what will we do with it? Like Mary and Elizabeth, what is God longing to birth and bring to life in and through you if you believe? What song captures your hopes for Christmas and the coming year?

And so this is Christmas: a time of angels and dreams and mystery; a time of reversals and surprises; a time to believe and trust and dare to say yes to the Mighty One whose name is holy; a time to remember the words of Mary’s song, whether we like them all or not, that God opposes the proud, the powerful and the rich, and is on the side of the humble, lowly and poor; a season in which a merciful God will helps us no matter who we are if we will ask.

Whether we’re struggling with grief, loneliness or pain; with finances, health or hunger; or whether we’re grateful for the abundance of God’s blessings in our life, or some combination of all of the above; we can lift our voices in praise because God has sent Christ for us and especially Mary says for those who recognize their need for him the most―the lowly, the humble, the poor.

Philip Yancey wrote in a recent column for Christianity Today about “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Writing a friend, Bonhoeffer describes Advent in prison, as bombs fall and window panes shatter and fellow prisoners cry out in fear. ‘Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.’ Even so, he adds, faith can provide comfort in such times: ‘the calmness and joy with which we meet what is laid on us are as infectious as the terror that I see among the people here at each new attack. …We are neither of us dare-devils, but that has nothing to do with the courage that comes from the grace of God.’”

Unlike Peter’s experience as recorded in Acts, no angelic messenger rescued Bonhoeffer. He died waiting and hoping; the Nazi SS executed him a few weeks before his prison camp was liberated. Bonhoeffer understood the constraints of power exercised from the bottom up, not from the top down. In one of his Christmas sermons, he wrote, “God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

At Christmas, God joined the human race, opening the door from the outside, to free us for the day when we will join the angels in an unrestrained heavenly chorus. One of my favorite songs at this time of year is, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day which is based on the poem Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day, 1864 in the midst of the American Civil War after learning that his son Charles had been wounded in battle. It says in part,

“And in despair I bowed my head:  ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’ Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.’”

In these uncertain times when hate is strong, those of us who wish to be found with Christ and the Mighty One whose name is holy want to make sure that we’re among the humble, the lowly, and the hungry because Mary tells us that is where God’s mercy is found and with whom God’s mercy and love are to be shared. Mary says it’s for those especially that Christ comes to earth and turns the world’s values and priorities upside down.

Prayer:  O God, help me know how much I need you. And, if I think I don’t need you, or that I can get by without you on some days, or for months and even years at a time, then help me see my folly and lead me home to you. I need you to be there for me, Lord, I need you to come on my behalf, to be my strength, my guide, my advocate, my help, my healing, my hope, my Savior. Teach me to hunger for time with you, for prayer. Teach me to thirst for your truth, your wisdom and your counsel. Teach me to long for the peace that only you can give, the peace I so much want and need. Teach me to be poor, Lord, and help me know that your love is the greatest treasure I might ever find and possess. You hear the cry of the poor, Lord: hear the cry of my poor heart and help me hear the cry of those in need. Amen.

Blessing:  May God bless you with hope, joy and peace this Christmas.

Questions for Reflection or Discussion

  1. The words Elizabeth speaks to Mary in Luke 1:42-45 are crucially important to Mary’s confidence and trust in God and the future. Can you think of a time when someone spoke to you in a similar way to give you hope and assurance? Try and recall that conversation and why it was important to you.
  2. What is one of your favorite Christmas carols or songs? Why do you like it?
  3. In Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55, she celebrates a number of the attributes of God―which do you appreciate the most? Why?
  4. Mary’s song declares some very forceful things about the proud, the powerful and the rich, and what God is going to do to them. What do these verses mean for us? What do we take from them?
  5. How does your life reflect God’s concern for justice, mercy and deliverance? Do you think Mary would perceive you to be more proud and rich or God’s humble servant? What evidence would she have to reach that conclusion?

Joy is a recurring theme throughout Luke’s Gospel. The joy bursting forth from Elizabeth and Mary, in the angel’s visits and announcements and the births of John and Jesus is heard and seen again in the joy of forgiveness, healing, new beginnings, redemption, and the transformation in those who trust Jesus. How is the joy of the Lord present and demonstrated in your life?