For weeks now, the shops have had a soundtrack of Christmas carols and Christmas songs. (Or is it months? It feels like it.) Slade with ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’, Wizzard singing ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, Elton John inviting us to ‘Step Into Christmas’, Wham recalling ‘Last Christmas’, and Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ now soundtracking mass consumption rather than relief for the poor.
Oh – and Johnny Mathis crooning ‘When A Child Is Born’. Musically it’s not my taste, but he sings of the hope that a child’s birth will bring. And as Christians we think of the particular hope brought by the infant Jesus.
Not that the announcement of a pregnancy or a birth is joy for everyone. Debbie and I know how carefully we had to release the news of her pregnancies for the sake of dear friends who had been unable to have children, and it was only right we tried to be sensitive about that.
However, when Mary and Elizabeth get together for their first-century NCT ante-natal meeting, the vibes are all positive. Not because both pregnant women are merely excited about the prospects of motherhood, but because both prophetically know something about the significance of their forthcoming arrivals. It is those responses I want us to think about this morning.
The first response is joy. Being six years older than my sister, I have a few memories of when my mother was expecting her. One is of how Mum invited me to put my ear to her tummy to hear the baby. Unfortunately, all my ear got was a kick from the womb!
Elizabeth feels John not kick but leap in her womb when Mary arrived and greeted her (verse 44). Elizabeth herself is filled with joy in her own response to Mary. She is filled with the Holy Spirit (verse 41) and says, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (verse 42). None of this is to give Mary some unique status, for Mary only sees herself as a humble servant of the Lord. But it is to illustrate the great joy that surrounds the forthcoming arrival of God’s Son in the world.
Joy, however, is not always our instant reaction to Christmas. Either we witness alcohol-powered celebrations, or our to-do list becomes so crowded with writing cards, buying and wrapping presents, getting decorations down from the loft and a hundred other things that the simple joy of Christ’s coming is squeezed out of us. For me, if it’s a Christmas with a lot of church services, I can just get to Christmas afternoon and collapse. Not that two young children, and one big kid of a wife want me to!
However, in this story, Elizabeth and her unborn son bring us back to the source of true joy:
The attitude of Elizabeth is representative of what Luke desires in any believer. What a joy to share in the events associated with Jesus. What a joy to share life with him.
We too ‘share in the events associated with Jesus’ and ‘share life with him’. For although we do not feature on the pages of Holy Writ with him, we are part of his ongoing story. The invitation to faith is an invitation to share in the story of God through Jesus Christ. We have the privilege of sharing life with him, because he came, because he called us and because he sent the Spirit.
So perhaps the Christmas story is a time to recover the joy at the heart of faith in Jesus. it’s a fair criticism that many churches seem devoid of joy, even when you account for the fact that not everybody expresses joy in a loud, exuberant way.
Now I can’t somehow command people to be joyful – although in various places Scripture certainly exhorts us to have joy. But what I can suggest is that we take time this Christmas simply to meditate on the great story of Christ’s coming again. As we dwell on it, unwrapped from the paper and the tinsel, we shall find our sense of wonder being renewed, and with it the joy that the coming Christ has made us part of God’s story of salvation. How astonishing is it that God took on human flesh?
Martin Freeman, the actor best known for his portrayal of Tim in ‘The Office’, has recently appeared in a film called ‘Nativity!’ It’s a comedy based on a nativity play at a primary school. In an interview to promote the movie, Freeman said he couldn’t help but be impressed by the fact that in the Christmas story greatness is expressed in humility. He couldn’t think of a better story. To my knowledge Martin Freeman is not a Christian, but if he can get excited by the nativity, surely we can recover a spirit of joy, too?
The second response is faith. In her final words attributed to her in the story, Elizabeth praises Mary’s faith:
‘And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Verse 45)
Mary is blessed in this sense: she is
‘happy because God has touched [her] life. Such divine benefit rains down on those who trust him and his promises. Blessing emerges from God’s ability to bring his promises to completion, but to share the benefits, we must be confident that God does what he says. The first sign of such faith in Mary was her willingness to let God use her (v 38). The second was her immediate (hurried) visit to Elizabeth, who herself served as a sign that God keeps his word and can give life (vv 36, 39).’
Elizabeth and Mary are both examples of faith because they trust God’s word. He will fulfil his promises. They act accordingly, and such is Christmas faith. Our faith is not merely to ‘ooh and aah’ at a newborn baby. It is to stake our lives on God’s promises.
If that is the case, then how crazy it is to celebrate Christmas with schmaltz and sentimentality. If a true Christmas response is about faith in the promises of God, then our celebration should surely be marked with acts of daring belief in our God, because he has spoken and he will deliver on what he has said. Here, there and everywhere in the Christian Church we seem to have contracted a disease which makes us play safe all the time. We are like the man with the one talent who buried, rather than those with more who risked all in the name of serving their master.
For if with joy we have been incorporated into the story of God by the gift of Christ, then one consequence is surely to start going out on the edge for him. Not just for the sake of it, I mean, but because that is what God did for us in the Incarnation: he went out on the edge.
Many of our churches are dying of good taste, where everything has to be ‘nice’ and inoffensive. We’re doomed by a combination of Einstein’s definition of insanity – ‘Insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result’ – and ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – except it is broke. Isn’t it time for daring faith in Christ who took the risk of human flesh?
So perhaps we could give Jesus a Christmas present. We could be willing to go out on a limb for him. Not just for the sake of it – otherwise it’s like the temptation he faced in the wilderness to thrown himself from the Temple – but actually to get on with listening to the promises of God and then get on with risky faith.
The third and final response is one of praise. Mary’s great response is praise, and it comes to us in the form of the song we call ‘The Magnificat’. But what kind of praise does she offer?
Put simply, Mary praises God for his works of salvation, and she does so comprehensively. She covers his salvation in the past, present and future – in the past with God’s people, in the present as he is at work in her, in the future as people recall what he has done in her and with all who revere him. She celebrates God’s grace and mercy to those who humbly trust him, and his justice against the rich and proud.
There is so much we could draw from Mary’s song of praise, and I, like many other preachers, have preached whole sermons just on the Magnificat in the past. But for this morning, let me just be content to say that a key aspect of Mary’s praise is that she praises God for his mighty deeds.
Maybe you think that’s unremarkable. So what? Let me suggest that sometimes we base our praise of God on other criteria. How often is our praised based on our feelings? We praise, depending on whether we feel up or down about God, faith or life in general. If our circumstances are good, we feel inclined to worship. If we are down in the dumps, we may not think about praising God.
But what Mary shows us is that God is worthy of praise purely on the basis of his deeds – what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do. Worship may be emotional, or it may not. But regardless of our feelings, God is worthy of praise. ‘I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,’ said the Psalmist. It’s why we rehearse the story of salvation from creation to the Cross and on to the return of Christ when we say the Thanksgiving Prayer in Holy Communion.
God has done great things. He is still doing great things. He will continue to do great things. Sometimes the thought of this will stir our hearts and we will be lifted to raptures. Other times we won’t, but our praise will be no less genuine, because we are giving God the praise due to his name as an act of obedient faith. It may well be a ‘sacrifice of praise’ on those occasions, but it is true praise when we choose to acknowledge the truth of God’s mighty deeds in Christ.
So if this Christmas you are feeling disheartened about your faith, it may be an act of faith to choose to praise God. Meditate on his creation, his persistent wooing of a wayward humanity, leading to him sending his Son, who one day will rule the created order unchallenged. You may or may not feel any different for doing so. But you will find your perspective on life more truly aligned with God’s.
And that is good. It’s what the Christmas message and the entire Gospel does.
 Darrell Bock, Luke (IVP New Testament Commentary), p44.
We’re all equal, but some people are more equal than others.
So goes the truism. It’s not far from what John the Baptist says about himself and Jesus here. I’m not concentrating today on the material about showing the fruit of repentance, because I said something about repentance in last Sunday’s sermon about John. Hence today I have chosen to concentrate on the contrasts between John and Jesus.
It’s a mark of John’s humility that when he draws the crowds and the attention, he doesn’t garner the praise for himself. Instead, he fulfils his rôle as the forerunner to the Messiah by pointing to this cousin, who is about to appear on the scene. Preparation for John is Jesus-centred, and as we look at the three ways in which he says that Jesus is superior to him, I pray that John’s example will be one for us as we prepare this Advent for Christmas.
Firstly, Jesus is superior in authority. It may not have been the most watched movie in 1992 among many of our people here, but Wayne’s World, the affectionate spoof of teenage heavy metal fans, provides a way in here. Wayne and his friend Garth get to meet some of their musical heroes, such as Alice Cooper. When they do, they prostrate themselves before them and utter the famous catchphrase of the film, ‘We’re not worthy.’
John’s whole attitude to Jesus is that he, too, is not worthy: he says he is ‘not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals’ (verse 16). Removing a master’s sandals from his feet was ‘one of the most demanding and least liked’ of a first-century slave’s duties. ‘This is like a CEO saying he is not worthy to take out Jesus’ garbage,’ says one commentator.
In other words, as the same commentator continues,
Human beings are not Jesus’ advisers or equals; they are greatly honoured to know him and serve him. John does not draw attention to himself; instead he points to the superior greatness of the one to come. To direct others to Jesus is the call of God’s servant.
None of us, I’m sure, would ever remotely say we are Jesus’ equals. We too would say we’re not worthy. But however much we know that in our hearts, is it not true that sometimes we slip into the habit of being Jesus’ advisers? How many of us have prayed at times, virtually telling Jesus what his will should be? It’s a real test sometimes to change our prayers from requesting that our Lord do something we want to seeking his will and striving to pray in line with that. Yet how often when we look back after having initially being disappointed with his answer do we see that he knew best all along? We are not his advisers, because he as the Son of God has superior authority.
And not only that, we have our subtle ways of drawing attention to ourselves. It is a maxim among preachers that you cannot set out to show yourself as a wonderful preacher and at the same time demonstrate that Jesus is wonderful. We may not be as blatant as the corporations which like to wave their big cheques in front of the cameras on fund-raising telethons like Children In Need or Comic Relief, but we have our little techniques, and some of ours involve the use of money, too. Donations or buying equipment for the church are not always done innocently. Sometimes I have found the donors want to get a message across that they are admirable people. However, when they do, they rob Jesus of his glory, the glory that is rightfully his as the Son of God. John the Baptist would have none of it. Jesus has superior authority, and we should never undermine it.
Secondly, John tells us that Jesus is superior in blessing. Many people have problems conceiving of God as Father, due to bad experiences in their upbringings. I certainly never had a violent or abusive father as some have suffered, but I still found it difficult to think of God as Father in certain ways. Most especially it was a problem to accept that God could give abundant gifts to his children. That was because my parents were never well-off, and could rarely afford the treats for my sister and me that our friends often had. I remember Dad’s agony about buying tickets for my first football matches. I recall friends who had much more spent on them at Christmas. If God was a Father, then, that didn’t mean One who could give heaps of generous blessings.
However, with our children, it’s different. Debbie and I shall never be as affluent as some of their friends’ families are, but whenever Rebekah or Mark complain about something – whether it’s something they don’t have or something they perceive not to be very good – we can reel out a whole list of things they enjoy that we never did as children. Some of that is about economic and social progress, of course, but we won’t complicate young minds with those thoughts yet!
When it comes to John pointing to Jesus, he talks of the blessings that Jesus can give which he can’t: ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’ (verse 16). Leave aside the ‘fire’ reference for a moment, and think about this: you will know the verse in Matthew where Jesus says how much more your Father in heaven will give good things to those who ask him. When Luke writes that up (admittedly in a different context), Jesus says, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit. In Luke’s Gospel (and, of course, in the New Testament generally!), the gift of the Holy Spirit is a Good Thing. Jesus can bless you like no-one and nothing else in all creation.
That isn’t to say that the gift of the Spirit is simply for some selfish ecstatic bless-up, but it is to say this: what could possibly be better than the presence of the living God at the heart of our lives? That is what Jesus gives.
The other day a friend of mine asked this on Facebook: why do we give presents when it’s Jesus’ birthday, and Jesus is the best gift to the whole world? When I read it, I thought at first, oh Peter, you Puritan! But I know he isn’t the sort who would fail to buy something nice for his wife and children. I think he simply meant to say that there is nothing like the gift of God in our lives. We celebrate the gift of God in human flesh in our midst at Christmas. But beyond that, we celebrate the gift of God who not only lives in our midst but lives within us – the Holy Spirit. There truly is no better gift. Does that put our Christmas in perspective?
And to return to the word ‘fire’, that may sound troubling and perhaps in some sense it is, but that surely simply refers to the work of purging the darkness from us and strengthening us with divine power. After all, when Luke writes his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, and describes Pentecost, you’ll recall the Spirit comes like tongues of fire. And it certainly isn’t a traumatic experience for the disciples.
No, we have reason to believe all year round – not only at Christmas – that Jesus gives the best gift of all.
Thirdly and finally, Jesus is superior as Judge.
‘His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (Verse 17)
Well, we were never going to get away with a completely comfortable sermon with John the Baptist on the case. There is no room in his preaching (or that of Jesus) for the idea that everybody goes to heaven. Both of them deny that. It is clear that where we stand with regard to Jesus affects our eternal destiny.
Not that it is a ticket to heaven and we then sit back and wait, of course. For the fire that came with the Spirit purifies those who follow Christ, and also weeds out those who are not serious about the demands of discipleship. Wesley was right: we are saved by the free grace of God in Christ through faith, but true faith shows itself by deeds of love. The division is between those who have a faith in Christ which leads to a changed life, and those who either claim faith but do not change or who deny Christ.
No, that doesn’t cover everyone, because John doesn’t consider here those who don’t get to hear about Christ, but he is dealing with a situation where he is preparing people for Christ and they will encounter him. Hence his focus.
Put it this way: I once heard a man say after many years of marriage that if he still loved his wife the same way today that he loved her on their wedding day, then their marriage would be in trouble. Real love grows and develops.
It is the same with faith in Christ. He draws us to himself, we entrust our lives to him, and that sets us off on a lifetime journey of change. It is only reasonable to look back and ask, “Have I changed? Am I continuing to change, by the grace of God?”
The good news in this part of John’s message is that God is a God of justice. He is so full of love that he draws sinners to himself, but scandalous as forgiveness is, he does not jettison his moral compass. But of course, if we recognise what he has done for us in Christ, then we shall want to change. And this is possible by his Spirit. All of which makes us wheat, not chaff, entirely by his grace.
Overall, then, John has again given us the Advent mixture of warnings and promises as he has made us focus on the superiority of Jesus. In bowing to the superior authority of Jesus, we stop seeking our own glory and have a passion only for his. In welcoming the superiority of his blessing, we find that Jesus fits us for the life of discipleship. And that means we need not fear his superior rank as Judge, for when we are open to the work of his Spirit in our lives, he makes us into wheat, not chaff.
Even among the warnings of John the Baptist, there is Good News.
 Darrell Bock, Luke (IVP New Testament Commentary), p73.
 Op. cit., p73f.
 Op. cit., p74.