St Barnabas 13th December 09
What is it that you are most looking forward to this Christmas?
I guess different people look forward to different things at this time of year. Some of us are looking forward to receiving all those presents, and maybe that one special gift we’ve always wanted. Others of us are looking forward to time off with the family, seeing folk we don’t usually see at any other time of the year. While still others are perhaps looking forward to the Christmas dinner, and the chance to enjoy good food in a warm, comfortable home.
But maybe it’s just me, but I have plenty of memories from my childhood of Christmas not always turning out as I had expected. There was a time when I was very little – it may not even have been at Christmas – when I was given a red plastic tool set, just the thing for a little boy to play with and start bashing the furniture with. But almost as soon as I got home, the tools began to crack and split, and it was nothing to do with how I was using them (honest!). Or again, when I was little older, we were all looking forward to having a family Christmas with my great-aunt who had come to stay, and everyone except for myself went down with flu. Somehow something nearly always seemed to go wrong at Christmas.
And one thing you learn as you grow up is that it’s not only at Christmas that the plans and hopes you have don’t always work out. Sometimes, of course, they do and that’s wonderful. You meet the man or woman who will be your partner for life, or you end up doing the job you’ve always wanted to do, and that’s great. But, for example, you move into the home you’ve always wanted and you discover too late you have the proverbial neighbours from hell. Or you save up for that dream holiday of a lifetime only to find out the hotel hasn’t yet been built. We all have our own idea of how things are going to turn out, but sometimes they just don’t happen as we intend.
Now we have no real way of knowing how Mary ended up engaged to Joseph. We can almost certain that it’s wasn’t because their eyes met over a candle-lit dinner in a restaurant one night. In Bible times people didn’t get married in that way. Marriage was an arranged affair between parents, and unless you had good reason you ended up with the man or woman they chose. But I’m sure that, no matter how much or how little Mary expected to end up engaged with Joseph, it must still have been a shock when it actually happened. After all, she would still have been quite young, maybe only fourteen or fifteen, and from that point on all her hopes and dreams would have been secondary to the knowledge that in a few years time she would be married to the local carpenter.
So how did Mary cope with this unexpected news? First of all, she was open to God. We don’t know exactly the circumstances under which the angel Gabriel came and appeared to her. But you do get the impression that she was in the habit of spending time with the Lord, of praying, of reflecting on the words of Scripture she’d heard at the synagogue, of thinking about the great hope set out the in prophets of the Old Testament. After all, if you look carefully at the account of the angel’s visit in Luke’s gospel, it wasn’t the visit of the angel that took her by surprise. It was the words that he spoke. Mary, it seems, was used to listening to and hearing the Lord speak, even if on this occasion the content was more than a little surprising.
Secondly, she was honest with God about her difficulties and her questions. I don’t know why it is, but some people think they have to pretend when it comes to prayer, as if God was too big and too mighty to really listen to their concerns and their fears. Mary on the other hand was not afraid to ask the Lord how it could be possible that she of all people could bear the son of God. Not, and this is an important point to note, that she doubted the Lord could do what He said He would do. But that she asked in faith and trust exactly how this miracle could come to pass.
And when she received the reply from Gabriel, she was, thirdly, obedient, to his message. I love the answer she then gives him in Luke 1:38: “I am the Lord’s servant…may it be to me as you have said.” Mary may still have had some questions – like, how do I tell my mother? – she may still not have fully understood, but she was prepared to do whatever the Lord asked of her. Because she understood that to believe and trust in the Lord means to be the Lord’s servant, that faith in God is not, as we so often make it to be, having God there to do whatever we want Him to do, but being there for God do in and through us whatever He wants us to do.
And what about Joseph? Dear Joseph, I think we so often fail to realise just how important he is to the Christmas story and how much we too can learn from him. Because even after the angel had appeared to him in a dream and told him to take Mary home as his wife, Joseph could still have decided not to go ahead with the wedding. After all, he knew he would have to put up with all the tittle-tattle from the village, with all the awkward questions, and with the knowledge that this child would not be his own. But what did Joseph do? When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him. He too recognised that His calling was to obey in simple faith and trust, and allow God to work His purposes in Him.
So then what about us? It seems to me that Christmas is a time of year when we often take stock of our lives. Maybe we look back to the previous Christmas and think about all that has happened in the last twelve months. Maybe we look forward to the next Christmas and consider all the changes that are going to take place – well, at least the ones we know about, any way. But the question I want to ask you is this: what place does God occupy in your life? Are you open to whatever the Lord may say to you and are you willing to listen to His still small voice, leading and guiding you? Is your relationship with the Lord real and honest, as a child with his or her Heavenly Father? And above all, are you prepared to obedient to the Lord and put His plans for your life above your own?
You see, the Christmas story isn’t just the tale of God’s Son being born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago which we happen to remember once a year. It’s about God revealing His plan for the world in the form of a weak, helpless baby whose mission, as the angel told Joseph, would be to save us from our sins. And as we gather in worship around the crib, the question God asks of us is whether we want to be part of that plan. Yes, it might mean yielding to Him our own hopes and dreams, yes, it might mean recognising that He has to be the centre of your lives, but all that is as nothing to realising that when we put and trust in Him, He really will be “Emmanuel”, God with us, who will never let us down, who will fail us through all the twists and turns of life, who will give us a strong, secure relationship with Him that will last forever. And surely that is the best Christmas present of all. Eternal life, sins forgiven, a fresh start with God as your Heavenly Father.
So let me ask you this evening: what is it that is stopping you from claiming this gift as your own?