The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Third Sunday of Advent
December 17, 2017
You’ve known that it’s been coming for a year now. But I’m guessing that some of you still have Christmas shopping to do, don’t you? I’m not going to embarrass you, I know that some of us work better under pressure, we shop better with a deadline. Including yours truly. And praise God that Amazon has two day shipping.
On the flip side, I also know that you’ve been dropping hints to your family about what you want for Christmas. Somehow, against all odds, you’re hoping that they actually listened and bought you what you asked for. That being said, the best Christmas gifts are the ones that you don’t expect, aren’t they? Because the unexpected gifts are signs of love. They show some real consideration. They show that the other person thought about you; that they cared enough about you to find something for you that wasn’t just another sweater.
It was the unexpected gift. This child that the Virgin Mary is carrying in her womb. This is the greatest gift, the unexpected gift, because it shows that God had been thinking about us, about Mary. That God wanted to do something special.
Now, in the world’s power structure, Mary doesn’t amount to much. She’s a Jewish woman living in some backwater province of the Roman Empire. But God pays no attention to our little schemes and structures. The angel tells Mary that she will bear a son, and that he will be called the Son of the Most High, the Son of God. That her son will be holy (Luke 1:31-35).
It was an unexpected gift. Unwed teenage mothers who belong to a despised people living in the middle of nowhere aren’t supposed to give birth to the Son of God. Much less give birth to the Son of God in a barn. But still it is so. God gives to Mary the unexpected gift of Jesus.
Mary is so excited, so overwhelmed by this most unexpected gift, that she shouts out – “my soul magnifies the Lord! My spirit rejoices in God my savior!” She’s saying, “this is amazing! Thank you, God! You have been incredibly good to me!” But there’s more. There’s this subtle shift in Mary’s song. She praises God for the gift she has received, but then instantly knows this gift, this child, is for everybody. She says, “He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.” This gift, this most unexpected gift, is not just for Mary. No, it’s a gift for the whole world.
So she gives the gift away. Mary gives birth to Jesus. Mary watches Jesus grow up, and as we can imagine, raises him, teaches him to walk and talk. And then as Jesus grows, he leaves. Mary gives him away. Especially in the Gospel of Luke, we see that Jesus leaves home. For nearly half of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus goes from town to town preaching the good news, healing, loving, showing mercy. The great gift that Mary received was not hers to keep. The gift was hers to give. It’s a little tongue in cheek, but Mary was not a helicopter parent. She let Jesus go. She received this unexpected gift of Jesus – and then she gives him away, even to death on a cross.
In one of the most disturbing scenes in the holy scriptures, Mary stands there as her son is crucified. As she received this gift, she gives this gift away. We retain the memory of this horror in our church. In the fourteen Stations of the Cross around our nave, we come to the thirteenth station. Right there. The body of Jesus is laid in the arms of his mother. Mary held this gift in her arms as a child, and now she holds this gift in her arms in his death. His death for us.
And to me, that moment captures the essence of Christianity. The very core of what we believe. It’s all about gift. God gave it all away by becoming one of us. Like that special gift you’ll open on Christmas Day, God thinks about us, cares about us – God gives us something that we could never imagine anyone would actually get us. This gift is love. In this holy reciprocity, Mary then gives her son, the Son of God, to hardship and death for our sake. For the sake of love.
Clearly, Mary was the first disciple of Jesus, the first one to give it all away. An example to live by. And now the question is turned to us. Are we ready to give it all away? Look, I know how this world works. The whole point is accumulation. To get, to get again, and to get some more. It’s why our garages, our attics, our closets, and our souls are full of junk. We pay lip service to giving, but really, we all want more. And this is our spiritual sickness. The true image of discipleship is the image of Mary. She received the most extraordinary gift from God. For a time it was hers to cultivate and to raise, and then to let go. As hard as it must have been, to give the gift away.
The gift of the Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts. It is ours to cultivate, to foster, and then in turn, to give away. The whole point of discipleship is to pour out that gift of the Holy Spirit to the world. You can’t hold on to God’s love for yourself. It doesn’t work that way. In order for love to be love, it must be given away. Think of Jesus on the cross – he could not hold on to anything. His arms were forced wide open in the ultimate gesture of gift. If we wish to follow Jesus, to give of ourselves, there is no holding back.
And one last thing – when we actually do muster the courage to give away the gift of love, the world will not like it. No, the world will not like it. This power hungry world driven by hate does not comprehend how anybody could, why anybody would, give something away for the sake of love. Just you watch. The instant you do something for the sake of sheer love, the critics will come out. The negativity comes out. You stick up for a somebody who is being beaten down at work, but your peers think you’re crazy because it might endanger your career path. You make the radical statement that God loves the whole world, and then all you’ll here is the “what abouts?” What about those people, or those people, or those people? You make the bold choice to stop doing one thing and to do a new thing for the sake of love, and the critics come out. Especially our own inner critics, the worst critics of all; they make us second guess ourselves and our love.
But this gift, this unexpected, extraordinary gift of love will start to break down the power hungry and hateful structures of the world. And the power of love will break down our power hungry and hateful hearts, too. See, Mary knows the raw power of love. She says, “he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” To those who live in God’s love, to those who choose to give away this love, Jesus is a great gift. But to those who choose to live in hate, who choose power over service, and those whose only god is the dollar – the gift of Jesus will tear all that down. This season of Advent is our gift and our warning. The love of Jesus will tear down and will build up.
As you finish off your Christmas shopping, remember that there is one gift that only you can give. Anybody can go on Amazon and buy whatever they want. Chances are, your kids probably already have enough toys. The true gift, the gift only you can give, the only gift that matters, is the love of God that you have already received. It might tear down, it might build up, but it is still the love of God.