This time of year is a time of year that is filled with traditions…and we all have our favorite Christmas traditions. Some of us can’t wait to put up our Christmas trees and cover them with decorations. Some of us look forward to finding Christmas cards in our mailboxes in the weeks leading up to December 25th. Some of us love to wrap presents…and some of us love to unwrap presents. But we all have our favorite things that happen this time of year.
And one of my favorite things about this time of year is all of the Christmas movies you can find while you’re flipping channels. That’s right, I’ll admit it: I love Christmas movies. There’s just something about these movies that always draws me in.
So I can’t help but root for Ralphie to get his B.B. Gun at the end of A Christmas Story. I can’t help but laugh hysterically when Clark Griswold can’t get his lights to turn on in Christmas Vacation. And I can’t help but celebrate when John McClane saves Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard – and yes, Die Hard takes place on Christmas Eve, so it is a Christmas movie.
But if you really know me, there’s one movie I look forward to more than any other this time of year. In my mind, it is the quintessential Christmas film…a movie that reminds us what Christmas is all about. Because Christmas isn’t about getting cards in the mail. Christmas isn’t about having Santa leave tens and twenties in your stocking. And Christmas certainly isn’t about winning a spectacular, super colossal neighborhood lights and display contest.
Christmas is about…well, here’s the way Linus explains it.
And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.”
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
And that’s what Christmas is all about…but it doesn’t always feel that way, does it? And no, I’m not talking about the way that consumerism and commercialism have replaced Christ at Christmas because I think people of faith – followers of Jesus – do a pretty decent job of celebrating the birth of Jesus this time of year.
What I’m talking about is the last thing that Linus says, when he quotes from Luke 2:14, he says:
Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and goodwill toward men.
Luke 2:14 (King James Version)
Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace and goodwill toward others…but it doesn’t always feel that way. Instead of being a season of peace, this time of year can feel like a season where our lives are constantly interrupted. We have special events and activities happening at church every weekend. And when we’re actually able to be at home it doesn’t take long before one of our kids, or grandkids, or distant relatives reminds us of some Christmas tradition we forgot to do this year. And then there’s the ongoing interruption of Christmas gifts, because even if you’re able to get all of your shopping done in one trip to Target or visit to Amazon, you still have to wrap the presents, put them under the tree, and pull them back out to haul to somebody else’s house.
I mean, let’s just be honest here, Christmas can be a little overwhelming.
Christmas can be a little overwhelming.
And it’s okay if you feel that way sometimes.
But I also don’t want you to feel overwhelmed as we keep moving closer to Christmas this year. So today, I want to talk about how we can find a little peace on earth this time of year. But to do that we’ve got to take a step back from all of the hustle and bustle of the season, we’ve got to step back from all of the commotion and chaos that comes this time of year.
If we want to find peace this Christmas, we need to go back and look at the story of Jesus’ birth through the eyes of one of the characters of Christmas. And that’s what we’re doing at Melbourne Heights all Christmas long. This Christmas, we’re working our way through a series of sermons called “The Characters of Christmas.” And each week, we’re looking past the figurines we find in our nativity sets and we’re taking a closer look at the real people we meet in the Christmas story to see how the first Christmas changed their life so we can understand how Christmas changes our lives.
And if we want to learn how we can find a little peace during what can be an overwhelming season, there’s no better character to look at than Mary. Because if there was anyone who shouldn’t have felt very peaceful that first Christmas, it was Mary.
We find Mary’s story in the book of Luke. So, if you’ve got a Bible close by go ahead and grab it and turn to Luke chapter 1. Luke 1, and we’ll start reading in verse 26. Luke writes:
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”
29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.
Luke 1:26-29 (New Living Translation)
So in these couple of verses the angel, Gabriel, appears to Mary. And the first thing that this angel says to her is, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!” And I love the last sentence we read in this passage because it tells us exactly how Mary felt. It says, “Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.” Confused and disturbed Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. The angel called her “favored woman” and she couldn’t figure out why the angel said that.
And we get just enough context in this passage to understand why Mary would never consider herself to be a favored woman. It starts when we’re told where Mary lives. Mary lives in a town called Nazareth. Now, Nazareth is one of those ancient places that many of us have heard of simply because it’s Jesus’ hometown. But one of Jesus’ future disciples, a guy named Nathaniel, pretty well sums up how people felt about Nazareth in Jesus’ time. He says, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
You see, Nazareth was nothing like Rome. Rome was the center of power. Emperors lived in Rome. Generals lived in Rome. Senators lived in Rome. But nobody lived in Nazareth. And Nazareth was nothing like Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where God’s holy temple was built. Jerusalem was the religious and political capital of Israel. But Nazareth was nothing. Nazareth wasn’t even like a city just three miles away, a city called Sepphoris. Sepphoris was a city of opulence and extravagance. Sepphoris was a city of wealth and power. But Nazareth was a city where the people who were too poor to live in Sepphoris lived, Nazareth was a city where the maids and butlers of Sepphoris lived when they got off the clock.
That’s where Mary was from. So Mary probably grew up poor. Instead of relishing in the riches of a princess or a queen, there’s a good chance she was a servant, mopping the floors of someone that everyone in the world thought was better than her. And at the end of a hard day's work, she likely went home with only pennies in her hands...barely enough to buy her daily bread.
But that didn't mean life was all bad for Mary. Like any of us, Mary had her dreams. And like most young women her age – especially in those times – Mary must have dreamt of her wedding. Even before the angel appears by her side, Mary’s engaged. And at some point over the next year, her wedding day would arrive. In her mind, the wedding party – which lasted for days – would be spectacular...but did that mean she was “favored”?
Well, as we're all well aware, there’s more to Mary's story than this. So let’s pick back up in Luke 1 and see what happens next. We’ll pick up in verse 30, which says:
30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. 36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. 37 For the word of God will never fail.”
Luke 1:30-37 (New Living Translation)
If Mary was confused and disturbed when the angel first appeared and called her “favored” by God, how do you think she felt when she heard the rest of this angel's message? First, she's told that she'll soon conceive a child...and I'm sure all she can think is, “Yeah right.”
Mary was a virgin and intended to stay a virgin until her wedding night because, if she was found to be pregnant before she was married, she wouldn't live long enough to welcome the child into the world. Jewish law said that she should be stoned. And even if she managed to escape capital punishment, she'd never make it to the altar for her wedding day. She'd be a single mother, cut off from her family and her community. That doesn't exactly sound like she was “favored” to me.
But that's when the angel hits her with the real kicker: she's not just going to conceive a child, she will be carrying the child of God. Now, as we sit on this side of the story, it sounds like Mary is extremely blessed. She has been handpicked as the mother of the son of God. But try imagining what it must have been like to be in her place. I'm sure Mary spent more than one sleepless night during her pregnancy feeling overwhelmed by her own inadequacies, wondering how she was ever chosen for such a big responsibility.
Mary must’ve asked over and over again why God chose her. So how did Mary find peace with all of the commotion and all of the chaos swirling around her?
Well, to understand that, we have to understand what the word “peace” means. You see, sometimes we forget that the Bible we read wasn’t originally written in English. So the word that we translate as “peace” in Luke 2 – the Greek word eirene – means so much more than just an absence of conflict or stress. The word eirene is really about creating wholeness, it’s about restoring what’s broken…especially when it comes to relationships.
So Mary won’t find peace because her life is easy. Mary won’t find peace because God waves some magic wand and all her problems disappear. Mary finds peace because she knows that when her son – the son of God – is born that our broken relationship with God will be fixed.
Mary finds peace because she knows that when her son plays on the dirt floors in their home in Nazareth that God himself will know what it’s like to be poor. She knows that when her son walks around town and hears people snicker as he passes by that God will know what it’s like to be ostracized. She knows that when her son sits down at their dinner table and there’s no bread because Mary’s boss stiffed her on another check that God will know what it’s like to be hungry and taken advantage of.
That’s ultimately why Mary can pray this prayer not long after she is visited by that angel. In Luke 1:46 she says:
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!...He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy.”
Luke 1:46 (Common English Bible)
Mary can find peace because she knows the answer to a question that we as people have wrestled with since Job first asked God, “Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as mortals see?” Mary knows that when her son walks this earth, God will clearly and definitively answer that question, “Yes!”
I’ve experienced that “Yes!” too, and just like with Mary, I heard it during a time when I wasn’t experiencing much peace in my life. I had gone on a mission trip with my youth group when I was a junior in high school. We went to inner city Dayton, Ohio, and spent our days working with kids who were growing up in almost unimaginable situations, and we spent our nights holding worship services for the entire community.
But even while I was doing God’s work, even while I was surrounded by other people, I felt alone. I still remember sneaking into the sanctuary of the church we were staying in one night after dinner. I remember sitting in the back row with tears running down my cheeks. And I remember crying out to God, “God do you have any idea what I’m going through?”
And I can tell you, I didn’t have an angel appear before me. The stained-glass windows in the sanctuary didn’t start speaking to me. I didn’t have a vision of God coming and sitting beside me. But at that moment, when I felt like I was alone in the world, I started a journey…a journey that led me to a new sense of peace.
And it’s not a peace that comes because I don’t have any problems. It’s not a peace that comes because my world is perfect. It’s a peace that comes from knowing that no matter what I’m facing that God has been there and that God is with me while I’m going through it.
That’s the kind of peace I want for you this Christmas because Christmas shows us that God is with us.
Christmas is a promise that God is with us.
So that even when our normal lives get interrupted this time of year, even when our lives feel overwhelming, even when our lives feel like they're filled with chaos and commotion – we should have peace because we know that we’re not alone.