December 24th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passage: Luke 1:26-38, 46-55
Candle of Love
Promises – the word for today is ‘Promise.’
What is your first reaction to this word? Promise. Do you think of promises made to you or promises you have made? Promises kept, or promises broken? What are promises have you made? Wedding promises, promises to love and care for a child, promises to a dying parent, promises to guard a secret? What promises have you received? Promises in friendship, partnership promises from a spouse, job promises, someone promised you their prayers, or a special favor, or promised you a family recipe?
Christmas is all about promises: promises made and promises fulfilled. Christmas centers around the promise that is contained in the names for the baby whose birthday we remember and celebrate. Jesus, Messiah, Savior, Son of God; Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. These were promises made over many centuries.
These promises go back to the very beginning of the story of God and humanity in Genesis. The rainbow is a sign of a promise God gave to Noah and his family and to all living things on earth. The Lord makes a promise that Abraham and Sarah would have a child and that their descendants would rule nations; the Lord promises them land, and promises to be with them, walk with them. In the story of Abraham’s grandson, Joseph, the writer of Genesis reminds us again and again that the Lord was with Joseph, in the ups and the downs, just as promised. During these weeks of Advent we have been considering some of the promises from God that were delivered through the prophet Isaiah. Promises that captives would be set free, that the brokenhearted would be healed, that ruined cities would be rebuilt. Promises of comfort, of light in the darkness, and of a child that would be born. A child, born to a virgin, who name will be Emmanuel, which means God is With Us. That child will be a ruler, in the lineage of King David, whose leadership will last forever. The prophet Jeremiah also shares words of promise: “I am with you and will save you,” declares the Lord (Jer.30:11).
That promise is contained in the name the angel tells both Mary and Joseph that they are to give to the son born to Mary. The angel says to Joseph, “You are to give him the name Jesus, which means the Lord Saves, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt.1:21) That promise comes true on Good Friday, it’s the only reason that the day Jesus was nailed to a cross can be called ‘good’. And then after Easter, as he is with his disciples, Jesus renews the promise of Emmanuel, of God With Us, as he tells them, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of this age.” (Mt.28:20)
Promises. Over the ages people had betrayed God, or forgotten God, turned their backs to chase after other gods and after empty promises, but still God promised again and again, through many voices and in different ways, “I am with you.” Even the psalmists sang of it, as in psalm 23, “Even though I may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You Are With Me.”
Promises. The story of Christmas rests on promises. Promises received; promises given.
Joseph and Mary had made a promise to one another. They had promised to be married to each other. Joseph considers breaking this promise, when he thinks that Mary may have broken their promise. But God sends word to him through the angel that Mary had not broken her promise. Through the angel God promises Joseph, “I am with you. I know you are afraid, but don’t be, for in this child I am fulfilling my promise to be Emmanuel, God with you. I am with you now, and will be with you soon in the form of this child that is to be born.” Joseph then kept his promise to Mary. It was a dangerous promise, one that made no social or cultural sense, to care for a child that was not his own. Yet Joseph whispers, “I am with you, Mary. I am not afraid to take you as my wife for God is with us both.”
God made this promise to Mary through the same angel. That initial greeting the angel gives her includes the words, “The Lord is with you!” And God was not just with her, but would be within her. The second person of the Trinity, the Son of the Most High, would be in her womb. And somewhere between the angel’s appearance and the angel’s departure, Mary chooses to make a promise, too. It’s a promise that turns her life upside-down and has changed the world ever since.
Have you ever wondered how Mary came to the decision to make that promise? So often we get caught up in Mary’s yes. We marvel at her response, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said,” and we don’t pay much attention to the steps of her discernment that lead to her choice to make that promise.
First, Mary is perplexed, and she ponders the angel’s words of greeting. Some translations say she was greatly troubled, or that she was very confused. We see some of the confusion expressed in her song, when she must be shaking her head and saying, “but God took notice of me, a servant-girl in a humble position.” Mary ponders that; she wonders and searches her mind to figure out how an all-powerful, all-mighty, holy God might call her ‘favored’. What does it mean to be ‘favored’? That word ‘favored’ is from the word charis, grace. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel says, “you are being given a special grace, a special honor, from God.” Mary has absolutely no sense of entitlement to God’s blessing; she feels undeserving of that special grace. She’s amazed and humbled that God’s promise of Emmanuel, God With Us, might be for her!
Next, Mary pays attention. She listens carefully to the angel’s promises and the words he speaks echo the promises that she has heard from scriptures. Her family had recited again and again, the promises from Genesis, from Isaiah and Jeremiah. God will send a Savior, the Son of the Most High. He will rule on the throne of King David; He will reign over God’s people forever; His kingdom will never end. Mary pays attention to the promises the angel makes and recognizes them as the promises of God passed on by prophets and psalmists and angels before. She can hear the Truth of her faith in God.
Then Mary considers the plan, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” It is not so much a protest, as a need for information, a need to plan and prepare and understand her part in the promise. The angel clues her in – that God can do what seems impossible for a human. Through the mysterious, powerful, infilling, holy, Spirit of God the promise will come true. The angel provides proof through another miraculous sign, another part of God’s preparation for the Savior Son: Mary’s elderly cousin, Elizabeth, whose great sadness in life had been her inability to have a child, was now pregnant. Again, the stories recounted by scripture, the stories long told and retold by her people, stories deep in her heart, stories on which Mary built her faith, come flooding into her mind. God keeping His promise of a child to Abraham and Sarah when they were way beyond the childbearing years and God did what seemed impossible. God giving special grace to Jacob and Rachel, when Rachel spent many, many years watching other women have children while longing for a child of her own. God hearing the prayers of the people for rescue from Egypt and from suffering, and coming through with a miraculous plan to save them. All these stories of God faithfully fulfilling promises enables Mary to believe that God will keep His promises in the present. In fact, that is exactly what Elizabeth remarks about when she sees Mary. She says, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (NIV)
• Mary ponders the amazing grace that God might use her, humble, undeserving.
• Mary pays attention to what God has to say, and puts it together with the stories and promises in the scriptures.
• Mary prepares herself for God’s plan and remembers God’s faithfulness in the past.
So it doesn’t take her long to make a promise herself, to God. “I promise to serve you, Lord. I promise that what you have said can take place inside of me. I promise to be with you, baby Jesus.”
At Christmas time, we too are invited to ponder how it is that we have come to be so favored, so blessed. We have our weaknesses and struggles, we are not always faithful, we can be selfish, and prejudiced, and greedy; we are undeserving of such love and grace that comes to us on Christmas. Like Mary, we are also invited to pay attention, to listen for God speaking and recall the promises made and fulfilled by God. We celebrate the promise of rescue and of amazing grace given to us in the One who was God With Us, Emmanuel in Bethlehem. We celebrate God’s faithfulness in the past that has brought us to the place we are today. We receive the promise and reassurance yet again that Jesus will continue to be God With Us, till the end of time.
But Christmas doesn’t end with just promises received. It requires a response. It requires first a response of faith, that we believe these words, these promises. And then it requires that we each make a promise of our own to God. “I am the Lord’s servant,” we too must say. Would you say that with me: “I am the Lord’s servant.” We actually say that to God every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: May your will be done… we just forget that God’s will at times may be done in and through us. That God invites us to participate in bringing His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Mary participated by carrying Jesus. Joseph participated by being a father, by loving and caring and teaching. In her song, Mary reminds us of some of the ways we might be called to participate in God mighty deeds. You may be called to help bring down a proud earthly ruler, a tyrant, from his place of power, or to lift up a victim who has been knocked down and traumatized. You might be asked to prepare food for the hungry poor or to call out the callus rich. You might be called to participate in fulfilling the promises of comforting, healing, rebuilding, restoring. It will be done through God’s power, through the Holy Spirit overshadowing you with courage and with faith, but it starts with a promise: a promise to be with God, as He is with you.
Behold, people of God,
The promise is given!
A cry in the wilderness;
a babe in the night;
a star in the sky;
a Savior for the world.
Hear, listen, and see
That the Lord is very near!
Amen and Amen. Pamela C. Hawkins, Behold!
Closing Song: “Emmanuel, Emmanuel” #140
glistening thread on the prophet’s loom;
weaving frayed remnants of what has been
into fresh textures of what can be.
Over you some hearts are crossed;
because of you some hearts are broken.
Mending, stretching, hemming, creating:
Swaddling bands, garment fringe, linen cloths.
Come, slip around and not through
our waiting hope,
that we may be bound to you now and in every season.
Amen. Pamela C. Hawkins, Behold!