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  • Adam Schell

Christmas Isn't Canceled | A Christmas Blessing

So last week, we started our Christmas sermon series at Melbourne Heights. But, as I kind of alluded to last Sunday, getting ready for this year’s Christmas sermon series hasn’t been easy. And that’s because we are living in a world right now where a potentially deadly virus is raging. Just last month, we saw over 3 million people infected with COVID-19 across our country and, if those infections weren’t bad enough, COVID-19 also contributed to the deaths of more than 25,000 Americans. So epidemiologists are warning us that things are going to get worse before they get better if we don’t start taking the necessary precautions to slow the spread of this novel virus again.

And what that means for us all is that this Christmas isn’t going to be a normal Christmas.

This Christmas isn’t going to be a normal Christmas.

We’re not going to be coming together to sing Christmas carols and read the Christmas story inside of sanctuaries that are filled with people. We’re not going to attend Christmas banquets or holiday parties where we spend the night mingling with dozens of different people. If things keep moving in the direction they’ve been moving in with COVID-19, we may even have to decide if we’re going to get together with our families to open gifts or sit down for Christmas dinner this year.

And because of all of this, a lot of us are struggling right now. The truth is, I’m struggling right now. I mean, it was hard enough to have to make the decision to miss out on celebrating Thanksgiving with my parents and my siblings this year. And then, when Thanksgiving Day actually rolled around, it just didn’t feel like Thanksgiving. Even though I was with my wife and my daughter and even though we had the turkey, and the dressing, and the mashed potatoes, and the cranberries on our just wasn’t the same. And that was just for Thanksgiving. But Thanksgiving is nowhere near as important as Christmas.

So there is a part of me that wonders if we can celebrate Christmas without seeing our family and our friends in person. There is a part of me that wonders if we can celebrate Christmas if we can’t sit down around the Christmas tree and watch everyone we love to take turns opening up their Christmas gifts. There is a part of me that wonders if we can celebrate Christmas without singing “Silent Night” together in our sanctuary on Christmas Eve. And, if you’re being honest with yourself, there’s a part of you that’s wondering the exact same thing.

And it’s because we’re all wondering about how we can celebrate Christmas this year that we’re going to remind you every Sunday between now and December 25th that even though this Christmas isn’t going to be normal, Christmas isn’t canceled.

Christmas isn’t canceled.

Even if we can’t celebrate Christmas the way that we’re used to, Christmas isn’t canceled. Even if we have to change all of our typical plans, Christmas isn’t canceled. Even if we can’t see any of our family and friends, Christmas isn’t canceled.

And Christmas isn’t canceled because Christmas isn’t about how we celebrate, Christmas is about who we celebrate.

Christmas isn’t about how we celebrate, Christmas is about who we celebrate.

So this Christmas, instead of wondering and worrying about how we can celebrate Christmas, I want to talk about who we celebrate at Christmas. And we started doing this last week by taking a closer look at part of the story of Jesus’s birth to see what it told us about who Jesus is.

And today we’re going to look at another part of the story of Jesus’s birth. We find this part in Luke 1. And, just as a reminder for you, the book of Luke is an account of the life of Jesus. So in the book of Luke, we’ll find stories about Jesus’ life, his ministry, his miracles, as well as his crucifixion and resurrection. But right now, we're focusing on the story of Jesus’s birth and today we’re going to be looking at the part about his mother, Mary.

So let’s start reading in Luke 1:26. 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)

Now I gotta tell you, I love that last sentence where Luke says: “Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.” The angel had just called Mary a “favored woman” and she can’t understand why. And Mary couldn’t figure out why this angel had said that she was a “favored woman” because Mary had a very distinct idea of what it meant to be favored--or to be blessed--by God.

And the truth is that Mary’s idea of what it meant to be blessed by God probably isn’t that different than what we think it means to be blessed by God today. In an article written for The New York Times a few years ago, Jessica Bennett wrote about how we misunderstand what it means to be blessed. Here’s part of what she wrote, she says:

There’s nothing quite like invoking holiness as a way to brag about your life. But calling something “blessed” has become the go-to term for those who want to boast about an accomplishment while pretending to be humble, fish for a compliment, acknowledge a success (without sounding too conceited), or purposely elicit envy. Blessed, [which once meant] “divine or supremely favored,” is now used to explain that coveted Ted talk invite as well as to celebrate your grandmother’s 91st birthday. It is carried out in hashtags (#blessed), acronyms (#BH, for the Hebrew “baruch hasem,” which means “blessed be God”), and even…emoji.

“‘Blessed’ is used now where in the past one might have said ‘lucky,’ ” said the linguist Deborah Tannen. “But what makes these examples humble-brags is not ‘blessed’ itself but the context: telling the world your fiancé is the best or that you’ve been invited to do something impressive. Actually, I don’t even see the ‘humble’ in it. I just see ‘brag.’”

Athletes and entertainers have long used “blessed” in earnest, explained the linguist Ben Zimmer. In 1977, Smokey Robinson told The Chicago Tribune that he felt “blessed” to have accomplished so much in his career; the track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee called it a “blessing” when she set a world record in the heptathlon.

Of course, blessed has long been used in religious settings. It means to be made holy; it can also serve as a kind of casual well-wishing. “I grew up in a Baptist household where everybody went to church, and I often heard ‘Have a blessed day,’ ” Erin Jackson [a stand-up comedian from Virginia] said.

But the overuse of the word has all but stripped it of its meaning. “Now it’s just like, ‘Strawberries are half-priced at Kroger. I feel so blessed,’ ” Ms. Jackson said.

So what Jessica Bennet is getting at in her article is that we think that being blessed is about having good things happen in your life. Here’s the way that one of the most prominent Christian speakers in our country has explained it:

“Who would want to get in on [a religion] where you’re miserable, poor, broke, and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven?...I believe God wants to give us nice things.”

But does being blessed by God mean that we have nice things? Does being blessed by God mean that we drive a luxury car? Does being blessed by God mean we own a home in a gated community? Does being blessed by God mean that we always have the latest iPhone in our pocket, or that we vacation on remote tropical islands? Does being blessed by God mean that we always have perfect health, that there’s never a problem with our family, and that we never have to worry about the bottom line in our bank account?

Because if all of that is what it means to be blessed by God, then there is no wonder why Mary was confused and disturbed when the angel said that she was favored by God. Because Mary didn’t have any of those things. And Luke tries to point that out for us when he tells us where Mary was from. Luke tells us that Mary was from a little town in Galilee called Nazareth. And you may not know a whole lot about that little town, but let me tell you Nazareth would’ve been the last town that anyone would’ve expected the story of Christmas to start in.

The story of Christmas should've started someplace more important, someplace more significant than Nazareth. The story of Christmas should've started in a place like Rome, the capital of the great empire of that day, where everyone from emperors, to generals, to senators lived. Or the story of Christmas should've started in a place like Jerusalem where God's holy temple was built. Or at the very least, the story of Christmas should've started in a place like Sepphoris, which was a city that was about ten times the size of Nazareth and was only an hour walk from that tiny little town. Sepphoris was where all the important people in Galilee lived. There was affluence and culture in Sepphoris. There was fine dining and luxury shops in Sepphoris. There were homes constructed by the finest materials available in Sepphoris.

But Nazareth, well Nazareth was just a place that people who were too poor to live in Sepphoris called home. Nazareth was a place where the maids and butlers lived when they weren't working in their masters’ homes in Sepphoris. Nazareth was where the construction workers, who built the opulent estates in Sepphoris, set up their shops. Nazareth was a place where nothing good ever happened, and nothing good ever came out of it.

So the truth is, that Mary was probably a pretty ordinary person from a pretty ordinary town. So even though Mary may have walked the streets of the city of Sepphoris, she lived a life that was far from opulent. Instead of relishing in the riches of a princess or a queen, Mary may very well have worked as a servant in Sepphoris, mopping the luxurious floors of someone that everyone would’ve thought was better than Mary. 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.

And that would’ve been pretty ordinary in Mary’s time. You have to remember that the whole Christmas story took place long before a middle class had risen to prominence in American culture. In Israel, just like the rest of the ancient world, there would’ve been the haves and the have-nots...and Mary didn't have much. So Mary would’ve known what it was like to put in an honest day's work and not receive an honest day's wage. And Mary would’ve known what it was like to go to bed hungry, and what it was like to see her parents offer what little they had to feed their children.

So, if being blessed means that you’re not miserable, poor, or broke then Mary wasn’t blessed. But that’s not what the angel said in the scripture that we read earlier in this sermon. The angel said that Mary was a “favored woman”, someone who was blessed by God.

So that must mean that being blessed by God isn’t about having good things happen to you. Another one of America’s most prominent speakers and pastors, Rick Warren sums this up pretty well for us. In an article for Time magazine, he’s said:

“This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy?…There is a word for that: baloney. It's creating a false idol. You don't measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn't everyone in the church a millionaire?”

And Rick Warren is absolutely right. Being blessed by God doesn’t mean that we’re going to be rich. So what does it mean to be blessed by God? Well, if you turn to a dictionary, you’re going to find out that being blessed means that you’re consecrated or sacred…but those words are awfully churchy, and we’d all have to look them up in a dictionary to figure out what they mean.

So since “being consecrated or sacred” doesn't really help us understand it any better, maybe we need a different approach. So instead of trying to understand what it means to be blessed in some vague way, let’s keep reading Mary’s story and see what it meant for her to be blessed by God.

As Luke continues the story, he tells us:

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? She must have been freaking out. Because, first, Mary's told that she'll soon conceive a child...and I'm sure all she can think is, “Yeah right.”

Remember, Mary was a virgin and Mary intended to stay a virgin until her wedding night. And this wasn't just about some commitment card she signed during a true love waits retreat when she was a teenager. For Mary, if she was found to be pregnant before she was married, she likely wouldn't live long enough to welcome her child into the world. You see, Jewish law required that she be stoned, and nobody was going to buy that she was somehow carrying God's child. And even if she managed to escape her capital punishment, Mary would never make it to the altar for her wedding day. She'd be a single mother, cut off from her family and her community. And that doesn't exactly sound like she was “favored” to me.

But that's when the angel hits her with the real kicker in this story: Mary's not just going to conceive a child, she will be carrying the son of the Most High 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 mean, I know that I had a few sleepless nights after Ashley and I found out that she was pregnant with Hannah because I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be a dad. So I can’t even begin to think about the pressure Mary must’ve felt when she found out she was going to be the mother of God. So 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.

So Mary must have asked God over and over again why he chose her. Surely the son of God should have been born to someone with wealth and power. Surely the son of God deserved to grow up in the opulent estates of Sepphoris, instead of playing on the dirt floors of Nazareth.

But it was by playing on those dirt floors in Nazareth that the son of God would learn what real wealth truly was – and that’s not something measured by the size of a bank account, it’s something that was determined by the way you treated other people. And it was by following his mother through the little town of Nazareth and hearing the snickering crowd question his paternity that the son of God would really learn about the golden rule that he’d later teach – and that’s that you should treat other people the way you want them to treat you. And it was by sitting at an almost bare table, where the bread would have been if Mary's boss hadn't stiffed her that day, that the son of God would learn what it meant to be poor. And it was when his mother offered him a second slice of bread, instead of eating one herself, that the son of God learned about sacrificing for those that he loved.

And those were all lessons that Jesus would learn from his mother. And he would learn those lessons because he was always with Mary. Jesus wasn’t just with Mary when things were going well. Jesus wasn’t just with Mary when she had an abundance of food to put on the table. Jesus wasn’t just with Mary when her boss gave her a Christmas bonus each year that put a little extra money in her pocket. Jesus wasn’t just with Mary when everything was going her way. Jesus was always with Mary.

And that’s what it means to be blessed by God. Being blessed isn’t about the stuff that you have. Being blessed is about having God with us.

Being blessed is about having God with us.

And God shows us in the Christmas story that being with us is part of who God is.

If God was with Mary when her own family threatened to kick her out because she got pregnant before she was married, then God is with you even if you can’t celebrate Christmas with your family this year. If God was with Mary when she didn’t have the money to buy Jesus a birthday gift, then God is with you even if you can’t open gifts with your grandkids on Jesus’ birthday this year. If God was with Mary when she had nothing, then God is with you even when you feel like you’re missing out on everything.

That’s just who God is. God is with us. And COVID-19 can’t change that. Canceling Christmas plans can’t change that. Nothing can change that. So this Christmas remember that God is always with you...and because God is with you, you are blessed.

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