by Chris Ritter
Christmas is a season of singing and music. We have experienced some amazing music in our church throughout December, including virtual choirs, bell choirs, bluegrass, and dance. But the singing is not limited to church. On Halloween some radio channels switched over to playing Christmas music exclusively, 24/7. At what other time of the year are groups of people maraud the neighborhood, singing from house to house? Our home was blessed by a group of carolers only this week. They brought cookies.
Christians have been singing about the birth of Jesus from the beginning. The earliest fragment of Christian thought may be found in the second chapter of Philippians where Paul quotes words believed to be an early hymn honoring the incarnation. It explores the mystery of Christ laying aside his divine rights in order to take on the form of a servant. We might say the oldest Christian song was a Christmas carol.
St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, wrote a hymn on the incarnation in the Fourth Century that is still sung to this day. The first list of Christmas carols appeared in English in 1426 when John Awdlay named twenty-five Christmas carols used by Wassailers, folks who went from house to house singing at Christmastime… drinking wassail. (I had wassail once… it’s sort of a warm spiced punch.) The first published collections of Christmas carols appeared in the 1800’s and included songs we sing today like “”God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “The First Noel,” “Good King Winseslas,” and the greatest Christmas hymn of all time (in my humble opinion): “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
My friend, Jim Slone, sent me the following text two days ago:
Charles Wesley was born 313 years ago today, December 18. He wrote more than 6,000 hymns; many have endured and are still sung throughout Christendom. You probably have heard “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and maybe “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” this advent season. He wrote his most widely sung hymn, which he entitled “Hymn for Christmas-Day,” in 1739, the year after his own second birth. His friend George Whitfield altered the first line to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and edited the original fourth and fifth stanzas into one. A Mendelssohn melody was adapted for the words about a hundred years later.
I think it is the clearest, most thorough yet succinct statement on the incarnation of Jesus Christ that I have heard besides that of the apostles Paul and John. Most modern hymnals print three stanzas and omit the fourth. Its theology is too rich and its prayer addresses so well our deep need to let it pass in to arcane oblivion:
“Come, Desire of Nations, come,
Fix in us Thy heav’nly home,
Rise the woman’s conqu’ring Seed
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness now efface
Stamp Thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above
Work it in us by Thy love.” Amen.Rev. James Slone
Luke: The Musical
Have you ever been watching a movie that you thought was just a normal film… and all of the sudden, mid-scene, one or more of the characters starts breaking out in song? Maybe you love musicals, hate them, or you are somewhere in between. When reading through Luke’s stories of Jesus’ nativity, the narrative is interrupted four separate times by spontaneous songs of praise.
One is by Simeon at the dedication of Jesus. Another is by Zechariah when his mouth was opened at the naming of baby John. The angels erupt in praise in the passage we will study on Christmas Eve. And then we have The Magnificat, the song of praise uttered by the Virgin Mary in the passage we will study today. “Magnificat” refers to the fact that the song begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
Luke only includes singing around the story of Jesus’ birth. Maybe he is telling us that Christmas is uniquely something to sing about. Let’s read:
39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.
57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.Luke 1:39-66 (NIV)
We are learning the story of Jesus from Dr. Luke, described by Paul as “the beloved physician.” He set out to write “an orderly account” of the life of Jesus so that we can be “sure about what we have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4) We always read from Luke this time of year because Luke gives us more about the birth of Jesus than any of the other Gospel writers. But this year we are studying these amazing nativity texts in light of the entire Gospel of Luke.
Luke’s story opens in the temple where the angel Gabriel appeared to an old priest named Zechariah and brought the news that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a child they were to name John. This child would be a prophet who would turn hearts toward God and prepare people for the coming of Messiah. Then Luke took us sixty-five miles north to Nazareth where we met a young virgin named Mary. She was also encountered by Gabriel who shared the news that she would give birth to a royal Savior through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Next Luke tells us that Mary “arose with haste and went to the hill country.” Why was Mary so eager to travel over sixty miles to go see Elizabeth? Luke doesn’t spell that out, but I think she simply needed someone to talk to. She wasn’t sure yet what to say to her parents or Joseph. But she learned from the angel that Elizabeth, her godly relative, was also expecting a baby given to her in a supernatural way. This formed a sisterhood of the Spirit.
Elizabeth was old enough to be Mary’s mother… maybe her grandmother. Mary is looking for someone who could celebrate with her and not judge her. She was looking for someone who could see that the Holy Spirit is at work. They are going to have three months together. (Old Zechariah is struck dumb, so he doesn’t have anything to say about it.)
A Little Church
This is a picture of the church. In church we recognize that the same Holy Spirit that is moving in me is also moving in you. God has gifted you. Your gift does not compete with my gift. Those gifts are designed to work together. There is no competition in the Kingdom of God because the focus is not on the vessel but on the treasure.
If you don’t have an Elizabeth in your life, do what Mary did and make haste to find one.
When Mary enters the house and greets Elizabeth, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why is this granted to me that the month of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believes that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
Mary and Elizabeth become a beautiful picture of Christian community.
A Community of the Holy Spirit
I just want to point out that the Gospel of Luke is the first in a two-part series. The other book by Luke is the Acts of the Apostles. Luke opens both with stories about divine visitation, Holy Spirit impartation, and unique gifts designed to bless the entire world.
You know the story of Pentecost from Acts 2 where the Holy Spirit is poured out on the church. In Luke 2 Anna and Simeon are filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit in witnessing the Messiah.
In Acts 4, John the Baptist begins his ministry with the words, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus at his baptism in the form of a dove.
Jesus’ first sermon out of the wilderness is from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” When Jesus sends his disciples out in Luke 10, he rejoices in the Holy Spirit. In Luke 11, Jesus tells earthly fathers that they know how to give good gifts to their children… how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.
It is no wonder that the power of the Holy Spirit is so evident in these meeting between these two amazing women. If you wonder how to get your focus back with all the disruption that has happened in 2020, let’s look for what the Holy Spirit is doing and join with that. The Spirit is life. The Spirit is joy. The Spirit is purpose. The Spirit is power.
A Community of Life
Another thing we notice about this little church is that it is a community that honors life… including but not limited to life in the womb. This is the story of two women, but it is really obvious that there are four people in the room. All four have names. All four have a special calling. All four have divine purpose. All four are touched by and are responsive to the work of the Holy Spirit.
On Twitter last night I saw a post by a man about my age with his lovely adult daughter. He wrote:
The Doctor came in to tell us that the cysts he saw on the brain of our first baby’s x-rays moved him to recommend we terminate the pregnancy. We emphatically said no. We prayed. That baby is graduating tomorrow as a Nurse. Next month she starts her new job. In Labor and Delivery.
My friend, David Watson, is Academic Dean at United Theological Seminary in Dayton. He also has an amazing son named Sean with Down’s Syndrome. I follow his posts on this subject. For instance, in 2018 the Gerber baby food company named a baby boy with Down’s Syndrome as their new Gerber Baby. That is good news. But David also drew attention to the fact that Iceland bragged recently that they have nearly eliminated Down Syndrome. What they meant by that is that they screen pregnant mothers for the chromosomal condition and routinely perform an abortion if Down Syndrome is suspected. They haven’t cured anything. They are just killing everyone who has it!
Because of what we believe about God and about people, the church must be a community that values and defends life at all ages and stages, including the womb. A life that can leap in the womb at the presence of Jesus is a life worth defending.
We have men and women in our church for whom abortion is part of their story. These people deal with tremendous pain. To say I am talking about a sore subject would be a gross understatement. We have women who have had abortions and men who have encouraged it in some way. We are talking about the value of unborn life today because Luke is talking about it. We are not a community of shame, but a community of redemption. Christmas is all about our need for forgiveness and second chances and God’s willingness to provide that.
A Community Under Authority
I don’t want you to miss what Elizabeth speaks to Mary: “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth is the first person to call Jesus her Lord. This phrase first spoken by Elizabeth will become the core Christian confession: Jesus Christ is Lord.
Jesus will ask the question in Luke 6: “Why do you call me “Lord, Lord” but don’t do what I say?” The journey of discipleship is learning to yield ever more readily and completely to the will of our Master. Elizabeth recognized the Lordship of Jesus. Mary provides a beautiful model of complete yielding… body, soul, and spirit.
A Community of Faith
Elizabeth pronounces blessing on Mary, not just for being the mother of Jesus, but believing what God spoke to her. Notice that these women are encouraging one another to trust God.
Meeting in the hill country of Judea, Mary and Elizabeth are not far from the tomb of Sarah. Sarah and Abraham believed God and it was accounted unto them as righteousness. They following God into unknown territory and received God’s promise of a miraculous birth. Mary and Elizabeth stand together in that lineage of faith and encourage one another in it.
Faith needs encouragers. I think that is what Jesus invented the church. We need our brothers and sisters to uphold us because life is hard. Despair is easy. We are so prone to slink back when God is calling us to move forward. Elizabeth blesses Mary for believing God’s Word.
A Community of Praise
Finally, it is just so clear to see that Mary and Elizabeth are filled with joy. “The Kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17) Elizabeth’s joy will cause her neighbors to rejoice with her. And Mary, of course, famously breaks forth into praise. She rejoices that God has looked on her lowly estate. She rejoices that God is upsetting thrones and establishing his rule. She says, “From now on, everyone will call me blessed.”
Want to Join?
I love this little church that Mary and Elizabeth shared together for three months. That is the sort of community I would like to join. It would have been easy for them to slip into competition: “My baby is better than your baby.” We see none of that here. What God is doing in one blesses what God is doing in another. A few years later, people would come to John the Baptist and ask if he were upset people were leaving him to go follow Jesus. He laughed at the thought. “I am the friend of the bridegroom. The bride belongs to the groom. He must become greater. I must become less.”
It also would have been easy for Mary and Elizabeth to get together and fret over the future. What will people think? How can they raise such special boys? What will the people in Nazareth think? Will Zechariah get his voice back? Will they live long enough to raise their son?
We see none of this nervous fretting. There is no drama. There is only rejoicing, hope, faith, and love.
Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship reminds me that my life gets better when I find a way to make your life better. What God is doing in my heart does not compete with what God is doing in your heart. It is all connected. It is the work of the same Holy Spirit. I pray that we become this kind of church.