St Michael’s and St Barnabas 24th December
Readings – Isaiah 55:1-13; Luke 1:39-56
Sometimes it can be hard to remember all the details, can’t it? Whether it’s the objects on a tray, or the things we need for Christmas, it can be very easy to forget something important. We are only human, after all. And we all know what it is like to accidentally leave someone off your present list, or fail to take the turkey out the freezer, or not to record your favourite film. Every one of us has tales of things we have forgotten, indeed it’s almost part of our Christmas story.
Yet one of the great comforts of the Christian faith is that we have a God who does not forget. He knows us, He loves us, He cares for us, whether or not we can necessarily see that love or that care for ourselves. So if there is nothing else you take away from this morning, I want you to hold onto this: God will never forget you or overlook you. You may be feeling particularly on your own today; you may be dreading getting through Christmas; you may be especially missing a loved one at this time of year. Nothing alters the fact that thanks to Jesus you are and always will be a child of God, and by His grace you are and always will be held in the arms of His love.
So if all this is true – as indeed it is – and if our God isn’t a God who forgets, why then does the Bible so often talk about God remembering? Let’s take a closer look at our reading this morning …
Luke 1:46-48: And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”
When, I wonder, was the last time you were thankful that the Lord took notice or was mindful of you? It seems on the face of it a slightly strange thing to thank God for. But then again, in Mary’s time, just as now, it was always the rich, the powerful and the famous who made the headlines, and it was so easy for a poor, ordinary girl like Mary to feel she didn’t really matter. She had every expectation that she would marry, and she would bear children, and from that point on, her whole life would be devoted to bringing up, clothing and feeding the next generation. That was her role according to the culture of the day, one that was taken for granted by a society who by and large would scarcely realise she existed.
But by this stage of the Christmas story Mary is at least a couple of months pregnant. She has had time to reflect on the angel’s visit and all the strange events that have happened to her. And as she has wrestled with the enormous fact the Lord has chosen her, she has come to realise a very important truth – that despite what they might think, God is not on the side of the rich, the powerful and the famous. They may make the headlines and attract all the attention. But God is on the side of those who appear to be nobodies, those people who are never in the papers, and never make a big impression on the world.
And if you want any proof of what Mary is saying, you just have to carry on reading through the gospel of Luke. Where is Jesus born? In a place that is just about as far removed from the comfort of a royal palace as you possibly imagine. Who first hears the news of Jesus’ birth? Shepherds out in the fields, just doing their everyday work like their fathers and grandfathers before them. Where does Jesus grow up? After exile in Egypt, in an obscure town called Nazareth that really looks no different from any other town in Galilee.
The message is clear, God is on the side of ordinary people like you and like me. Indeed the ones who find it hardest to accept the good news of Jesus’ birth are the ones who believe they have most to lose: the religious leaders who value their position and their authority more than obedience to God; the rich and powerful who will not give up the good things of this life; the proud and the arrogant who think God must already be pleased with them.
That is why there is an element of warning in Mary’s song. Verses 51-53: He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. Because what the proud, the rulers and the rich all find so hard to do is recognise there is nothing they can do to earn the mercy of God, that all their wealth and all their fame in fact only hinders them accepting the good news of Jesus born in poverty in a manger for us.
But, of course, it’s very easy to criticise other people. What about us? Time after time again I come across folk who believe the Christian faith is only good news for those who are somehow special; those who have lived good lives, for example, or have a certain level of education, or have some kind of influence in the world. This Christmas I really want you to take on board that the story of Jesus’ birth is good news for you. God is on the side of those who feel insignificant, vulnerable, marginalised, and indeed longs to hear the prayers of those who feel those who have nothing.
If that isn’t a cause of praise and rejoicing, then I don’t know what is. God has not forgotten about you, nor will He ever forget about you. He knows you, He loves you, He cares for you. That’s what the birth of His Son Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem is all about. And once you realise that, then surely our only response can be to glorify the Lord like Mary and rejoice in God our Saviour.
So Mary praises God because He is mindful of ordinary people. Secondly, she praises God because He always keeps His word.
Verses 54-55: “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants for ever, even as he said to our fathers.”
Now I don’t know if you have ever been in the position where you have really, really wanted a Christmas present. You tell your Mum and Dad, they look at each other, and then say, yes, they’ll buy it for you. You are so excited, you keep on reminding them about the present until finally they tell you not to mention it any more. The weeks to Christmas tick by, then the days, then the hours, until on the morning itself you tear open the wrapping paper… and it’s something else. Mum and Dad are looking rather embarrassed, while you are just sitting there, trying to feel grateful for something you didn’t actually want.
Again, it’s only human to sometimes fail to keep our word, not to stick to our promises, or indeed to completely forget what we have promised. But the point of the Christmas story is to show that God always keep His word. That’s why at every stage of that story there is a quote or a reference to a verse from the Old Testament. Not simply to show how every detail of the story was planned by God right from the beginning, but to remind us of the truth that when God says He will do something, He will do it.
Of course when God says He will do something, it doesn’t mean He will immediately do it there and then. When God made a promise to Abraham that one day all nations would be blessed through Him, that promise was only fulfilled hundreds and hundreds of years later through the birth of His Son Jesus Christ. Indeed the whole of the story of the Bible up until this point has been about the people of God waiting to see when the one promised by God would come, or in fact, more often than not, giving up the waiting and turning to other gods instead.
That’s why I believe there is also an element of challenge to us in the Christmas story. On one level it is perfectly true to say that all God’s promises have been met in Jesus. To us a Saviour has been born who is Christ the Lord. Through this Jesus we can be restored to that new relationship with God the Father we were always meant to enjoy; we can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; we can be welcomed into a new and loving family called the church, and all that is wonderfully and profoundly true.
But on another level we are still looking for that greater fulfilment when there will be peace on earth and goodwill to all men. To a certain degree we are always living in the season of Advent when we are looking for this same Lord Jesus to come again, not as a tiny baby in a manger, but as Judge and Ruler over all the earth. And the challenge to us is not simply to bow down in praise and wonder this Christmas but to keep living by the promises of God – as we go into the New Year, as we return to work or to school, as we face whatever lies ahead. Will we live lives that are based on the hope of Christ’s return? Or will we be distracted and turn to other gods, just like the Israelites of old?
That is why as the hours and minutes tick down to Christmas day, it is so right and proper that we gather as the family of God to celebrate Holy Communion. Because at the heart of the service of Holy Communion is this whole theme of remembering. As we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are remembering how Jesus came not only to be born in a manger but to die on a cross, not just for the sins of the rich, the powerful and the famous, but also and especially to bring forgiveness, peace and hope to the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised.
So this morning if you want to make any response at all to the good news of Jesus Christ, whether or not you have been confirmed, I want you to come forward simply as an act of faith to say “Yes” to your Saviour and Lord. If you are used to receiving bread and wine, then please do partake. If that’s something you’ve never done before, then come forward anyway, holding your service leaflet in your hand, as a sign this Christmas you want to offer your life to Jesus, and we will pray for God to mightily bless you and fill you with His presence. Because whoever you are, whether you would consider yourself a churchgoer or not, we have a God who always keeps His word, who can be trusted with our lives, who is worthy of all praise and worship.
But please don’t think of this service of Holy Communion as just a seasonal ritual, something you do maybe once or twice a year. Because this service also challenges us to consider our ongoing response to the promises of God. God always keeps His word to us; will we on our part remain faithful to God? When Jesus first shared the Last Supper and said, “Do this, in remembrance of me”, He wasn’t simply inviting us to take part in a church service once in a while. He was inviting us to join and be a regular part of His body, the church, living hour by hour, day by day on the promises of God, not getting distracted, but encouraging one another to stay focused and committed to Jesus, our Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.
That’s why this morning I want to particularly address anyone here today who perhaps has recently been coming less regularly to church, who has found the pressures of life getting in the way of their commitment to the Lord and His people. Listen to the words of our first reading, from Isaiah 55:1-2:
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.
That is God’s invitation to you. Come back to the Lord regularly, faithfully, to receive what is good. Because it is through Christ alone you will find true riches for your soul, and the life that really satisfies. Don’t let your faith become a passing passion. Return to the Lord with all your heart, and you will find more grace and love than you can ever possibly imagine.
And for all of us this Christmas, let’s take some time reflecting on this song of Mary. Let’s with glad and joyful hearts remember that whether this season is full of happiness, or indeed full of sorrow, that God never forgets us, that He knows us, loves us and cares for us. Let’s remember that God always keeps His word, that He can be trusted in every situation we face. And let’s respond with a new desire to live by faith, until one day His kingdom comes and His will is done, here in Stoke and Devonport as it is heaven. For His name’s sake. Amen.