All I Want for Christmas: The Gift of a New Understanding
Luke 1:39-56; 1 Cor. 12:1-11
For many, traditions at the holidays can be a wonderful thing, bringing a sense of connection with the past and contentment coming from familiarity. That’s not only true in our homes, but in the church where we decorate the sanctuary, sing well-known Christmas carols, read Luke’s story of Christ’s birth, and gather on Christmas Eve to worship as a church family. We will shortly be celebrating one of the first church traditions, the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. Traditions can provide a sense of belonging, but they can easily become meaningless rituals, things done or said out of a sense of obligation rather than renewing in us a sense of wonder and joy that our faith and that the Christmas season should bring. This year in our Advent series, our focus is on the statement “All I want for Christmas,” as we open Christmas gifts given to us in the birth of Christ. Last week we looked at the account in Matthew’s Gospel when Joseph receives word from an angel that Mary is pregnant. From Matthew 1:23, the birth of Christ is summed in one word, “Immanuel,” which translated from the Hebrew means “God with us.” This is the first gift, the message at the very heart of Christmas: God came to earth in the form of a baby and gave us himself: so that we could experience the wonder of faith, hope, and love. Now we come to the next gift of Christmas: the gift of new understanding. What does this gift look like? Opened up, the box might contain a pair of glasses, a mirror, a magnifying glass, a lightbulb, or a telescope.
The Jewish people thought they had it all figured out. They had the law handed down to Moses and they had their traditions passed from one generation to the next over hundreds of years. For centuries they had been promised a Messiah, a savior and deliverer, but that message had been buried under the weight of all their traditions as the years went on and on. Like many of us, they said they believed God would send a Messiah, but they weren’t so sure anymore. Like many of us, they said they believed God loved them, but their view of God was dependent on how well they obeyed all of the laws and regulations. It was time for a new understanding.
This morning our Scripture turns our focus to two women, Elizabeth and Mary. We encounter two expectant mothers-to-be, but for all their expectancy there is much in this story that is unexpected. As a start, neither were expecting to be pregnant at all. Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, had for decades been unable to conceive a child. We don’t know the reason, but what we do know is that Elizabeth was past the typical child-bearing years. For Elizabeth, the news of her pregnancy brought joy to her and her husband. She was finally, after years of hoping and praying, having a baby. But for Elizabeth’s much younger cousin, Mary, the news at first was much different. Mary was pregnant when she shouldn’t be. She wasn’t married, her future was uncertain. But then, like Joseph, she had an unexpected visitor and in response we hear her sing these words: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked on me with favor.” The gift that Mary received in that moment is the same Christmas gift we also receive. Mary gained a new understanding of God, of others around her, and of herself, and at Christmas we gain that same new understanding.
First, how we understand God changes. Ask people how they think of God and the descriptions vary greatly: some people think of God as far off, an old, gray-haired man sitting on a high-up throne. Some see God as a puppeteer and themselves as puppets – God pulling the strings and jerking them to the left or to the right. Others think of God as angry, vengeful, and punishing, allowing or even causing bad things to happen. At Christmas, Jesus shows us a God who comes down to not just be with us, but become one of us. A God who is born in a stable, not a palace. A God whose earthly father is a carpenter, rather than a king or CEO of a big corporation. A God who understands what it means to be tempted, to experience pain, to cry. A God who, despite all that, brings hope and peace and most of all, love. Author James Moore, in his book, All I Want for Christmas, says: “Christmas gives us a new picture of God’s compassion and tenderness, out of which we can form a new relationship with God, built not on fear, but on love!”
Second, the gift of new understanding changes our view of our world and the people in our world. In her song in Luke 1, Mary doesn’t just sing her understanding of God’s greatness, she sings about God’s love for others. God’s mercy is from generation to generation, God lifts up the lowly, God remembers his promises to all Abraham’s descendants (which is all of us by the way) forever. The gift of Christmas is a new regard for others, an understanding that the best way to love God is to love God’s children. In 1895, author Henry Van Dyke wrote a Christmas story entitled, “The Story of the Other Wise Man.” The story tells of a fourth wise man named Artaban. Artaban sets out to meet up with three of his friends, the three wise men of Christmas tradition, to follow the star leading to the Christ-child. He had with him three gifts for the young child: a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl. Artaban was riding hard to meet his three friends at the place they had agreed upon. The time was short. If he was late, they would go on without him. Suddenly, Artaban saw a figure on the ground in front of him. It was a traveler, sick with fever and dying. What should Artaban do? If he stayed to help, he would miss his friends. Artaban decided to stay and help the sick man, but he missed the caravan and the others left without him. He figured he could still catch up, but they had purchased the supplies needed for the trip. Artaban had a desert to cross and needed camels, food, and water so he sold the sapphire. Artaban was sad because the King of Kings would never receive the sapphire, but he still had two gifts to give. He journeyed on and in due time came to Bethlehem, but again, he was too late. Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus had fled to Egypt to escape the decree of Herod to kill all the children of the town under two years of age. Artaban was in a house in Bethlehem where there was a little child. Soldiers came to the door, and the crying and screaming of mothers could be heard across the darkness. Artaban stood in the doorway with the ruby in his hand. He bribed the captain of the soldiers not to enter the house. The child was saved, but the ruby was gone. Still, he had one gift left to give.
Artaban continued his quest with his last gift, and for years he wandered looking for the Christ-child. More than thirty years passed, and finally Artaban came to Jerusalem. When he arrived, he heard of a crucifixion about to take place, the crucifixion of a Jesus of Nazareth. This was the very person Artaban had been chasing for much of his life. He hurried toward Calvary. Maybe his last gift, his pearl, could buy the life of the King. But as he rushed toward Golgotha, Artaban came upon a young girl running from a squad of Roman soldiers. She called out for help. Her father was in debt and she was being taken to be sold into slavery to pay the debt. Artaban hesitated for just a moment, then gave his pearl to the soldiers and bought the girl’s freedom. He had no gift left to give. Suddenly, there was an earthquake and Artaban was struck by flying debris. As he breathed his last, he heard these words: “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” Artaban died knowing that the King had indeed received all of his gifts. Christmas serves as a reminder of the reality that what we do – or fail to do – for others matters. In other people, even people we dislike or disagree with, we see a reflection of God.
Finally, the gift of new understanding allows us to understand ourselves differently. Mary, in her song, refers to herself as a lowly servant who will now be called blessed, not because of what she has done but because of the great things God has done for her. She has a new perspective of herself and a new purpose for living. Most of us don’t like to look at ourselves too closely in the mirror. We see the outward imperfections and are reminded of the passage of time. We see the inward imperfections and are reminded of our faults and our failures. The Christmas gift of new understanding reminds us that when God looks at us, God sees a child God loves. God’s gift to us is that we should see ourselves as God sees us – created, adopted, cherished, and loved – and born with a purpose to do our best to live for God. Just as Elizabeth and Mary were different and yet both chosen by God, 1 Cor. 12 tells us that each person here, while different, has been chosen by God and given the abilities to achieve God’s purpose; whether you’re an older man like Zechariah, an older woman like Elizabeth, a young man like Joseph, or a teenage girl like Mary.
There may well have been things Elizabeth and Mary didn’t understand. Questions they wanted to ask that didn’t get answered. Why them? For one, why did she have to wait so long and for the other, why did it have to happen when she was so young? Why did both their sons have to suffer and die? What they did understand was that their lives were about to change forever, and that God was doing great things through them. Our Christmas gift this morning is all about seeing and understanding. We can see things we don’t understand; understanding takes us to the next level. God’s Christmas gift this week for you is to see yourself through the eyes of God’s love, to know how deeply favored you are, and to have the incredible privilege of sharing that gift with others.
Sermon series based on the book by James Moore, All I Want for Christmas.