I caught part of a TV sermon last night (yeah, I know) and watched enough to figure out that the story of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary about the birth of Christ and Mary’s response in the Magnificat (Luke 1) had been reduced to a How-To message regarding character. Mary’s actions and attitudes demonstrated, apparently, “Christian” character, which we can learn in a few easy steps: “Christian Character Submits To God”, for example.
This is not, I’m afraid, an isolated method of treating the advent texts. Perhaps preachers don’t know quite what to do with sermons at Christmas to make them “fresh” and “relevant.” Other Christmas sermons I’ve heard fall into the same trap. One maintains that if God could use a bit-part priest like Zechariah and his dried-up wife, Elizabeth, then “he can use you, too” and “what great plans God must have for you!” Another opines that if God could use a no-place like Nazareth and a no-body like Mary, “he can use you, too” (starting to see a pattern?). One used the prophecy about John the Baptist as a stimulus for us to “always point people to Christ, as John did, in your workplace.” Still another take on the advent text says that if “nothing is impossible with God,” we should not fail to believe it when “we face that pile of work on our desk next week.” Huh?
It is, to be sure, terribly difficult to avoid being sinfully man-centered. But the only possible manner in which Christmas is centered on man is the fact that the incarnation is necessary because of man: our sinful rebellion against God left us dead and in need of dramatic rescue which God provided in the Messiah. To reduce the advent story to proof that God will do something else to make my life easier or more meaningful is dreadful, indeed.
As Gabriel told Mary, Elizabeth had also conceived, “for nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). This is not a blank check for Christians to claim God’s power to complete a project at work, or to dunk a basketball, or to win a political victory. God’s divine grant of fertility to a barren womb and his miraculous short-cut through biological reproduction to impregnate a virgin teen were not signs that God will also “use us.”
Rather than those events pointing down to man — to illustrate how the incarnation will grant me success at work — those events point back up to God, and to what he has accomplished for us in salvation. A good guide for us to know how to celebrate the first advent (and how to preach it) is found in the responses of some the immediate participants: Mary, Zechariah and Simeon.
After a brief expression of her own involvement (Luke 1:46-49), Mary focuses on what God has done (1:50-55). He has shown strength, scattered the proud, brought down the mighty, exalted the humble, filled the hungry, sent the rich away, and helped Israel. A powerful exposition of this text might explain Mary’s reference to Old Testament texts to recite what God had already done before, and how he was doing this through and in the incarnation. Why speculate on Mary’s anxiety about telling her parents when God has given us such rich text to mine?
Zechariah had been silent through Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Finally, after Zechariah witnessed the birth of his first son, John, God looses his tongue and inspires Zechariah to recite what God had done. God had visited and redeemed his people and raised up a horn of salvation so that we “might serve him without fear” (1:74). John would serve as prophet to the Most High to give knowledge of salvation to his people. What great truth is expressed here!
And Simeon, whom God had apparently kept alive just for this, upon seeing the infant Jesus proclaimed “now let me die!” (paraphrase) because because he had been permitted to see “your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples” (2:31). And not only that, Simeon reveals that Jesus was “appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel” and because of him “thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (2:35).
How impoverished is our preaching, how threadbare is our celebration of the birth of Messiah when our discussion ignores redemption from sin, serves as mere backdrop for a nativity scene, and focuses instead on what remains for God to do in my life to make things interesting. The drama of the incarnation is not some banal “application”, but the drama is God’s rescue of helpless man. As we sing in O Holy Night:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new a glorious morn.