Christmas Through Mary's Eyes
Text: Luke 1:46–55
Topic: What Mary declared as the core of Christmas
Big Idea: Christian celebrations of Christmas are only set apart from the rest of the world when they focus on Jesus.
Keywords: Celebration; Christmas; Holidays; Jesus Christ
Filters: Worship, Seekers
Illustration: Different cultures have celebrated the Winter Solstice (Dec. 21st) for thousands of years, and several Christmas traditions stem from those celebrations.
Christmas as a celebration is not inherently Christian.
We would probably recognize the celebrations of many ancient cultures around the end of December, even if Jesus hadn't been born yet.
Illustration: Christmas was first celebrated as the birth of Jesus between A.D. 325 and 350.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these celebrations.
Illustration: When the Puritans first came to America, they outlawed many of the holiday traditions we observe today.
Christmas means different things to different people.
Transition: I wonder what would happen if you were to ask Mary, Jesus' mother, the question, "What does Christmas mean to you?"
Mary is central to the Christmas story.
Illustration: Dr. Alexander Whyte said, "We must give Mary her promised due; we must not allow ourselves to obtain a grudge against the mother of our Lord because some have given her more than her due."
Mary had a strong faith and was well-grounded in the Scriptures.
Transition: I want to repeat three things Mary said about the birth of Jesus.
Mary knew that Jesus would be mighty (v. 49).
Mary knew that Jesus was God in the flesh.
Mary knew that Jesus would be holy (v. 49).
Saying that Jesus' name was holy was very significant in the Jewish culture.
Our world is craving for contact with something that is powerful and just.
Mary knew that Jesus would be merciful (v. 50).
If it wasn't for God's mercy, we would still view Christmas in the same way that the ancient cultures did.
Jesus is the core of Christmas for Christians.
Illustration: If Mary were to see the way we celebrate Christmas today, she'd lament that we've missed both her son and the point of it all.
Christmas Through Mary's Eyes
December 21st is the shortest day of the year. On that day, something happens that makes human beings look out at the world—and particularly look at the sun, look at the light, the darkest day of the year—and say, "Now, that is as bad as it's going to get. From now on, it's all down hill. The 22nd will be brighter, the 23rd will be brighter, the 24th will be brighter, and on down through January will be brighter." For thousands of years, regardless of their culture or regardless of how barbarian they may have been in other areas of their lives, people have always chosen some time just after December 21st to have an enormous party, where they celebrated the fact that the darkness was over.
And after that party, the light started to increase again, and they said, "From here on end, if we've made it up to this point, if we haven't died, if sickness hasn't taken us, if age hasn't taken us, if we've managed to get over this hump, there is a good chance we'll make it through the spring. And we'll make it through the summer. And we'll make it to the fall."
And so the world has celebrated that time of the year, we call it the solstice. It's that time when, to the human eye, the sun appears to be standing still. In the Roman Empire they celebrated it. Emperor Aurelia declared in the year A.D. 274 that December 25th was going to be a special vacation or holiday to commemorate the birthday of the unconquered sun. And you know how they had celebrated it? Listen to some of this: they decorated evergreen trees, they exchanged gifts, they did a lot of feasting, they sang songs, they decorated their houses with greenery and with lights, and they were particularly kind to poor people. Do you realize that if somebody from the Roman Empire were to be put down in the middle of Toronto tonight, he would feel almost completely at home? He would say, "This is holiday time! The people of Toronto are worshipping the unconquered sun! Let's eat! Let's drink! Let's be merry! Let's have a ball!" And he'd feel right at home, the same kind of man that would have put a Christian in an amphitheatre and have him attacked by lions celebrated this time of the year exactly as you and I celebrate it. I mean, with all the details correct.
Then, of course, the Germans, whom the Romans looked upon as Barbarians, kept coming south farther and farther and eventually sacked Rome. Those Barbarians and the Norsemen, the Scandinavians, also appreciated December the 21st as a sort of turning point, and a few days after it they had a great big celebration. They called it Yuletide. And one of the things they did was to get a log—a Yule log, ever done that?—and burn it. You know what for? They burned it as on offering to their god of thunder and lightening. His name was Thor.
Have you ever heard someone say, "Hey you Christians, you with your virgin birth and your miracles and your story of creation, don't you know that every nation in the world for thousands and thousands of years has had the same kind of mythology and folklore as you say is real in the Bible?" In some ways, that's true. If you'd have gone into the Roman Empire, or if you had visited the Germanic tribes when they were still Barbarians, or if you'd gone north into Scandinavia and met the Norsemen at this particular time of the year, you would look around at what they're doing you'd say: "Oh my goodness, I didn't think they'd ever heard of Christmas, but they're celebrating Christmas. Hey look, they've got evergreen tress, they've got beautiful lights, they've got decorations and they're having a ball with each other. They're caring for the poor; there is a lot of good will going around. Man these Romans have really got it on!"
Christmas was first celebrated as the birthday of our Lord somewhere between A.D. 325 and 350. It was a natural thing, when Christians were looking for a good time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It was very natural to look at what the Roman Empire was doing and what the Germans were doing and what the Scandinavians were doing and—at a time of the year when everybody was celebrating something— say, "Why don't we just choose that day to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ?"
Now at this point, I think some of my friends get a little bit carried away and illogical. They say, "Look, if everything we do can be traced back to the Roman Empire, which was made up of heathens, or to the Germanic tribes, who were Barbarians, or to the Norsemen, who had some oddball ideas about their gods, and if we use Christmas trees and we use lights and have a big dinner, then Christmas is a heathen kind of an activity." I don't really think so.
You see, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with evergreens. God made them. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with lights. God is light. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with singing. God gave us voices. I was behind the door when voices were given out, but most people got them. And we can sing. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with gifts. God gave his only begotten son. There is nothing wrong with food. God created us to be people who eat and, in our eating, we socialize. There is nothing wrong with any of that.
But when the Puritans first came to the United States, some of them learned that all of these activities came from the Barbarians and the Roman Empire, long before Jesus was ever born. So they said, "Okay, we're going to ban everything that is connected with that kind of celebration. No more evergreen trees to celebrate with." Do you know that for a while they actually banned mince pies? That was an illegal thing. You see, when the Puritans were here, they not only ran the church, they ran the country as well. And mince pies were connected with Yule cakes.
And so it took quite a while before Canada and America began to again celebrate Christmas in some of the same ways that the Roman Empire and the Germanic barbarians had celebrated their solstice. Now, say you ask one hundred people, "What is Christmas?" They'd say, "Boy that's a dumb question, everybody knows what Christmas is." I don't know if that's correct.
For instance I go up to one person and say, "What does Christmas mean as far as you're concerned?" He might say, "Oh, Christmas, it's a warm, happy time. We get the old Yule log out and we put it on the fireplace and we light it and the family gathers around and we get a bit of Yule time grog and we…oh, I love Christmas. It's Yule time."
But if I go to somebody else and say, "As far as you're concerned, what is Christmas?" She might say, "Well, at Christmas we really go out of our way to fix our house up. We get a lot of cookies in and fruits and nuts, all that kind of thing. We really want everybody to know at Christmas that we are a home of great hospitality."
Or someone else might say, "It is a time we have reunions and parties, we express good will to everybody. Good will to our next door neighbors (we never talk to them the rest of the year, but it's good will on Christmas), and we kind of swing the good will around a little bit so everybody can have some. That's what Christmas is to me. Everybody kind of gets in a huddle, like a football team, and dedicates each other to something. Good will. That's Christmas."
Another person: "Oh, Christmas is a time when we try to help the forgotten. We try to help the poor. We'd like poor people to realize that once a year we think about them. And we try to take baskets to them and flowers to them. That's Christmas to me, it's giving. It's giving to the poor people, the unfortunate, the lonely people of the world."
I ask somebody else, "What's Christmas to you?" "Oh, Christmas to me is Santa Claus. You know, the old fat guy who comes down the chimney and puts gifts under our tree, and we sit and exchange gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Everybody's happy. We all show each other how much we love each other. I can hardly wait for the exchange of gifts at Christmas. This is what Christmas means to me."
I wonder what would happen if you were fortunate enough to be able to talk to the girl that was the human vehicle that God used in order to visit this world. The girl that made the incarnation possible. She was a virgin, of course, and her name was Mary. Probably the most highly favored eighteen-year-old girl that ever lived. You know, it's kind of sad that in Protestant churches we almost totally ignore Mary. And yet, she takes up quite a little bit of the gospel story. Dr. Alexander Whyte, the great Scottish Theologian who preached many, many years in Edinburgh, said this: "we must give Mary her promised due, we must not allow ourselves to obtain a grudge against the mother of our Lord because some have given her more than her due."
Mary undoubtedly was an extremely dedicated girl, a girl of enormous faith. You see, when the angel gave his talk to Mary, he asked her to believe some totally impossible things: that she'd give birth to a baby while she was a virgin, that she'd give birth to a baby as a result of the power of the Holy Ghost, of God. She was asked to believe that she could call his name Jesus, because this baby was going to save the people from their sins.
Imagine it, an eighteen-year-old girl and boom, right out of heaven, and angel comes and says, "You're a virgin. The Holy Ghost is going to come upon you. You're going to have a baby. You'll call the baby Jesus, because he'll save his people from their sins. Further, he will be called the son of the highest, so you can call him by any name that we now call God and it will apply to Jesus." That's what the angel told Mary. "Son of the highest, he'll sit on the throne of his father David, he'll rule forever, he'll be called the Son of God."
This eighteen year old virgin loved the Lord so much, she was so totally dedicated, she had such an enormous faith, that she believed. Remember what she said to her cousin when she went to visit her? It's in Luke 1:46. We call this the magnificat. Mary said, "My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior, for he hath regardeth the humble state of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things, Holy is his name, his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He has showed strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart, he hath put down the mighty from their seats and exalted them of low degree, he hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent away empty. He hath helped his servant Israel in the remembrance of his mercy, as he spake to our father Abraham, and to his seed forever."
Now let me repeat three things Mary said about the birth of Jesus. See, she knew her Old Testament, and she knew that Isaiah had prophesied that a virgin would conceive and bear a child and be called Immanuel, which is God leaving heaven and becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us. Mary knew that. She was the first human being that ever knew that. She knew that before Joseph knew it. She knew it before Simeon knew it. She knew it, but for a long, long time she had to just keep it in her heart until it began to happen.
But as Mary talked about her God who was going to be born by way of her virgin body—even though she couldn't understand that—she believed it. She said: "Remember as you're worshipping Jesus—he is the mighty God. He isn't a crying baby, helpless, useless, that needs his diapers changed, that needs to be fed on the hour every hour. This baby is not like any other baby in the world. This is the mighty God become flesh and dwelling among us."
Mary thought back to the Old Testament where again and again and again Jewish people looked up to God and called him the Lord of Hosts. What's a host? Well it's a big cloud. No, it isn't. It's a big cloud of soldiers…it's a military term. The Israelites called God the Mighty One of Israel all the way through the pages of the word of God. God is described, amongst other things, as all mighty, all powerful, invincible, the Lord of Hosts, the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords. Mary knew that, and so she connected that theme with the birth of Jesus Christ. She says, "For he that is mighty has done to me great things…."
And the second thing Mary knew was that he was absolutely holy. "He is mighty," says Mary, "and holy is his name." Now you know enough about Oriental culture, particularly eastern ways of life, to know that among the Jewish people a name was so closely attached to a person that they became inseparable. Whatever a person's name was, that was the person. In other words, Mary is not saying that Jesus Christ as God is going to act in a holy manner. She's saying that he is holy. Is holy. He is holy!
You'll see it. As we look around in this world, if there's any one thing that we need, it's contact with a God who's got some power. It's contact with a God that's got some justice. Mary says, "God has that. He is the mighty one. He is the holy one." I think back over the last year or two and in our world I think of the hostages in Iran. The Korean aircraft shot down. War in the Falkland Islands. War in Granada. Russia moving into Poland. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, the slaughter of the marines in Beirut, the power that nobody knows how to control, organized crime that gets away with just about everything they wish to do. The drug traffic…yesterday a bomb attack right in front of a department store in London, killing nine people. That list can go on and on and on and on and if you look honestly at your list and at the world, unless you know that there is a God in heaven that's going to make things work out right eventually, you would lose your sanity in this world. How can a person who isn't anchored to the rock possibly read the newspaper everyday and go on living with a degree of sanity?
Finally, she said, "His mercy is on them that hear him." You see, Mary knew that all of us need mercy because we can't pay our own bail. We just can't. We can't forgive our own sin. We can't save our own souls. If there's any one thing in this beautiful poem that reaches my heart, it's the word mercy. But for the mercy of God, none of us would be here. But for the mercy of God, we would be with the Barbarians in the Roman Empire, still celebrating the dead, helpless gods. But for the mercy of God that looks at a sinner such as I and says, "Paul, I can forgive you, I can cleanse your sin, I can pardon you, I can change your life." Ladies and gentlemen, that's the kind of God that I have to have. "'Tis mercy," says Wesley, "'tis mercy, mercy, mercy, 'tis mercy, all, and it found out me."
I wonder if we could bring the Virgin Mary into the service this morning, over a period of say nearly two thousand years, and ask her to comment on our celebrations, I wonder what she'd say. I think we'd ask her to stand about here, and I imagine the first person that comes along is the owner of the store in Toronto that has the largest Christmas sales. And this man comes excited, he says, "Mary, Mary, it's time for the dinner. Man, have we got it laid on today. You won't believe the size of turkey we've got and the number of vegetables there are going to be and the English Plum Pudding. Mary come with us, we're going to celebrate! Don't…hey, don't bring Jesus! Couldn't you get Elizabeth to look after him? See, we wouldn't enjoy our dinner if Jesus were there. It'd put kind of damper on the whole thing."
I imagine Mary would say, "My dear friend, why don't you forget your dinner and go out and find your God. Christmas isn't dinner. Christmas is God in the flesh."
The next person that comes along is a mother of a big household, six kids, two boys and four girls, a mother and dad. She comes to where Mary is and says, "Mary, you know what we did this year? Man, it was great. We took our family to the North and actually cut down our own Christmas tree! Beautiful Scotch pine, about six feet tall and bushy. We took it home and the entire family decorated it together. Man, we had a ball and you should see the gifts underneath the tree. Wow! What a time we're going to have! Mary, come on in and visit us at our tree. We're going to celebrate with our family."
"But mother," Mary would say, "Christmas is not a Christmas tree, it's not decorations, it's not food. Christmas is when I gave birth to the Son of God, and if you can't make a prominent place for the Son of God around your tree, you are simply repeating what the Romans did two thousand years ago."
Finally, another person comes in and says, "Mary, you know what we're going to do tonight? We are going to sing. Hey, we've got this group together and we're going to have a couple of drinks first so we'll feel alright, loosen up our voices a bit, then we're going to go out in the street, we're going to carol until midnight tonight! What a ball we're going to have! Come on, Mary, leave him, come out with us, and let's go caroling!"
"Man," would be her reply, "when are you going to get this straight? Christmas isn't caroling. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against the tree or against the caroling or against the dinner, but I'll tell you what I am against. I'm against the fact that millions of people are celebrating the birth of my son, and they've never given him a place in their lives."
Mary might say, "I have a friend who I think explained it better than what I am doing. His explanation went something like this:
'I thought it was tinsel, I thought it was the tree, the girls and boys and fancy toys made Christmas real for me. But, one day, I discovered how wrong I'd always been. For there was something missing, I couldn't find out what it was until someone showed me Jesus, and I trusted him. Now, you may say you're happy, that Christmas really swings, it's prairie time and the whole world forgets its woes and sings! For you're still missing, there's so much more than this. For you're still missing something that can turn your life around. That something, that something is my Savior and I tell you this because it isn't Christmas until you know the one who came so long ago. It isn't Christmas until the holy child becomes your risen Lord. It isn't Christmas until the Christ of Christmas lives within your heart.'"