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Christmas isn’t about us as much as it’s about the love of God. If Mary makes anything clear, it’s that Christmas isn’t about us, our status, our accomplishments, or our success. It’s about the gracious and abundant love of God.
There are things in life that make us stop and reflect, things that make us look at ourselves and our lives and take stock of where we’re at. Maybe a 40th birthday or a retirement. Maybe the birth of a child or a grandchild. And Christmas is no different.
Take Christmas letters for example. I always enjoy receiving Christmas letters from family and friends and reading how they’ve been doing over the past year. But sometimes those letters make me start to reflect, to question whether I’m living up to my potential. It’s usually one of those letters that reads a little bit like a resume. I ran a marathon, my kids graduated from college and got this exceptional job, we’ve taken up a new hobby and are loving it. I read those letters and suddenly I start to wonder whether the life I’ve been living measures up. How come I’m not living such a fantastic life? What have I been doing this whole time? Rarely do these letters express the humbling and humiliating parts of life; you know, something like, I got cancer this year, my life has been overwhelmed by tests and treatments, I’m exhausted and consumed by fear and uncertainty. We tend to use these letters as an opportunity to share the best of ourselves.
Or take presents. At Christmas, presents are a great way to bless the people we love and to give them something they’ll really enjoy. And maybe it’s just me, but sometimes presents turn into a measure of my self-worth. Did I give my kids the right presents; you know, the presents that make them happy and that they’ll really enjoy? Do I know them well enough to know what they really enjoy? I mean, I don’t what to be “that parent” who never gets his kids the right thing. Presents can be an opportunity to take out the measuring stick and see if we’re living up to expectations.
The same can be true with decorations. Decorations are a great way to celebrate Jesus’ birth, to mark the occasion by adorning it with joy and festivity. But sometimes I can’t help but wonder if I’ve done enough. Do the decorations I have up for Christmas show that I’ve got my life together? Or are they so lame that they can’t help but show that I’m clearly a loser who doesn’t have my act together.
Christmas can easily become a time to prove ourselves, to measure up, to succeed. It’s easy to get the impression that Christmas is about us and where we’re at.
But if anyone tears that all down, it’s Mary. Mary makes one thing clear: honor, wealth, and might are nothing in God’s eyes. God chooses Mary to be the mother of the Christ, the Son of the Most High, who will reign on David’s throne forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. But Mary has nothing to recommend her.
For one, she’s from nowhere. Luke says, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth.” Galilee is a territory at the northern end of Israel. It’s somewhat of the backwoods border region of Israel where you wouldn’t expect anything important to happen. And Nazareth is just as insignificant. When one of Jesus’ disciples learned that he was from Nazareth, he said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It’s that kind of place. And here the arch-angel Gabriel is sent to this backwoods town of no significance whatsoever.
And Mary picks up on how strange and unusual this is. When the angel Gabriel says, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Mary is greatly troubled and wonders what sort of greeting this might be. What is the angel of the Lord doing here? And what could he possibly want with me?
After all, Mary is a person of no worldly significance whatsoever. She’s a virgin. Now, normally we think this means that she’s pure and holy. And she may well be. But in the ancient world, this is more a marker of status. The term simply means a young woman who doesn’t have a husband yet, probably someone around the age of thirteen or fourteen. She has nothing of her own in the world. And it’s true. Joseph, for example, may be from Nazareth in Galilee, but at least he’s of the house and lineage of David. But Mary doesn’t have any family background to recommend her. Her only claim on that status marker is that she’s betrothed but not even married yet to Joseph.
You can see how strange it is. Mary has nothing in this world to recommend her. And yet, the one to be born to her “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.” God promised David that one of his descendants would reign on his throne forever. This is the king God will send to rule not just over his people Israel, but all peoples forever. Of his kingdom there will be no end. It is through this king that God will bring his plans for his creation to fulfillment and set all things right once and for all. And the mother of this king is Mary, the virgin from Nazareth, betrothed to Joseph.
And what’s more, “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.” Mary is the mother of God. Think about that for a moment. Of all people on earth, God chooses to be found in the flesh of this woman who has no worldly status whatsoever. The one who will carry God in her womb, the one who will nurse God on her breasts, the one who will carry God on her hip is Mary. God’s Son, the one through whom the heavens and the earth were created, the one who is the exact image of the invisible God, will be the flesh and blood of this woman, Mary from Nazareth. To know the son of this woman Mary, is to know God himself! God, the creator, ties himself to this woman Mary, who has no worldly significance whatsoever.
Martin Luther puts his finger on what’s going on here. Luther says, “The love of God does not first discover but creates what is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through attraction to what pleases it.” Human beings love what is attractive. We have affection for something because we find it good or pleasing or beautiful. In order for us to love something, it has to meet certain qualifications first—it has to be something that draws our attention and affection and meets our standards. The love of God is the opposite. It doesn’t go around looking for what is worthy of its love until it finds it. The love of God has no qualifications or prerequisites. It creates what is pleasing and lovely. Luther, again, puts it this way: “the love of God that lives in man loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong…Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.”
This is the love of the cross, as Paul says in Romans chapter 5, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one might dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
It’s easy for Christmas to become about us, our status, our accomplishments, and our success. And it’s easy to live this holiday season as a test to see if we measure up and whether our lives have been worth it. But Mary reminds us that Christmas isn’t about us. It’s about the love of God, which does not count successes or measure accomplishments, but gives generously and abundantly, purely out of divine fatherly goodness and mercy. It’s a season to rejoice!
As long as Christmas is a time to take stock of ourselves and measure up, it seems like one big burden where you have to get everything done and there are a thousand people in your way. But the measure of our lives isn’t our Christmas cards or the presents we give and receive, or the decorations we put up; it’s the steadfast love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man. Christmas is a time to rejoice in the undeserved love of God, and to share in that joy and love with the people around us.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 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, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
35 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. 36 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. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 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.