In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
I like presents. No…that’s an understatement…I love getting presents. In fact, I don’t just celebrate the day of my birthday; I celebrate the entire month of my birthday. And for me, the Christmas season is the epitome of a surprise birthday party. The anticipation of putting up the Christmas tree in my living room; shopping for presents for my family and loved ones; wrapping each gift and envisioning the look on its future owner’s face as it is opened. Now I admit, while I love giving presents…it really is so very exciting to get them. I mean, really, we all can be a little self-indulgent sometimes!
I will never forget Christmas morning as a child. I loved it. I would sneak out of bed on Christmas Eve night and lay under the Christmas tree, watching the lights twinkle and…count my presents under the tree. But I didn’t just count my presents, I counted everyone’s presents. One particular Christmas Eve, I was around 12 years old; I counted all of my siblings’ gifts. I went as far as putting everyone’s presents in little piles on the living room floor…and counted every one of them. One particular Christmas Eve I discovered an upsetting surprise. All of my brothers and sisters each had eleven gifts…except for me. I only had ten.
Now even as I retell this story, I feel a bit guilty. Not because I counted them, but because of what I did that next morning. I certainly expected after everyone had opened their presents, my eleventh present was hidden somewhere, either in a closet, or out in the garage. And just at the right moment, when all of the gifts had been unwrapped…Dad would emerge from his bedroom with my amazing, exciting, exhilarating…and very expensive, eleventh gift. I was just sure of it. And I just knew that this eleventh gift was a bright, shiny new bicycle. Not one of those little tike bikes that was no taller than my waist, but an adult sized bike. This was my year. I was ready for that bike.
I waited with anticipation…unwrapping each of my gifts…still thinking of what lay beyond my pile of presents. And yet when all was said and done, the living room floor full of wrapping paper and toys and gifts scattered about…there was no surprise eleventh gift for me. I sat there in the middle of the floor, a bit stunned and anxious. But wait, something’s wrong I thought. I went over to the tree, surveyed underneath its tinsel covered branches, looked behind the couch, peered into the closet, searched through my own collection of gifts…perhaps I had missed it. I couldn’t hold my grief and disappointment any longer. “Mom” I exclaimed, “Is that all there is? I only have 10 gifts and everyone else has 11 gifts each!” Why, I thought I was making a fair claim. Something was not right. I had been wronged. Surely things were not as they seemed. I demanded an explanation!
Well, our gospel text today suggests that there was someone else that really needed an explanation, probably more than me. Can you imagine what was going through Mary’s mind when she got this strange news from the angel Gabriel? Right from the start it seemed like an odd kind of salutation. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you! Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Found favor? Are you kidding me? Getting pregnant by someone other than the man she was engaged to was a death sentence for the likes of Mary. In ancient Palestine the amount of an engaged woman’s dowry was based on maintaining celibacy before the wedding. She could have been stoned to death as punishment for being unfaithful. But what is even more shocking than that? Even knowing all of these potential consequences, Mary said yes to the angel. She said yes to bearing the child that would reign over the house of Jacob; the one who would become the long awaited King of Israel. Mary did two important things in this text that is relevant for us today; she believed and she chose. She believed in the good news she was given by the angel in spite of the desperate situation it would put her in. And she chose to respond to what was being asked of her. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord;” Mary said. “Let it be with me according to your word.”
Belief and choice are the two most powerful gifts we have been given as creations in God’s image. In fact, some progressive theologians suggest that being made in the “imago dei,” or in “the image of God” means we have the same creative ability as God does. We are “co-creators” with God of our lives and our reality. This ancient formula for creation was that God thought it, then God said it, and it became reality. Belief + Choice = Creation.
Now believing in something might seem easy to do, but you really don’t know what you believe until you choose to act in accordance with that belief. Most of us recognize the importance that belief makes in the successful accomplishment of any endeavor. Whether you believe you can or can’t, you will probably be right. Mary teaches us in this text that developing a self-image based on positive expectancy and positive belief cannot be left to chance. Too many of us have been conditioned to believe in fear, shame, guilt, and scarcity. We’ve heard so many negative messages and learned from negative experiences that belief doesn’t make much of a difference anymore. We only believe what we can see. Most churches are dwindling in attendance because there is fear that the good old days of overflowing sanctuaries, generous giving and magnificent mission work are over for good. The messages have even been ingrained in us. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” “Don’t try to be somebody you’re not,” “Don’t risk too much, you might lose,” or “This is too good to last.” We are conditioned in so many instances to look to our weaknesses than to our strengths—to look at problems rather than opportunities. But positive belief and positive expectancy can be developed by choice, and once developed; they will lead you to whatever you want. (Excerpts from Terry McBride’s DVD course, “Everybody Wins” at www.terrymcbride.info)
Now hear me about this. I am not talking about some new age concept like “The Secret” or a motivational seminar on the power of positive thinking. These popular self-improvement movements are secular versions of this Gospel truth. This is about acknowledging and using a gift that God has given to each of us; being created in God’s image. And that image is co-creator of our life and our world. Jesus tells us in Matthew 21:22 “And if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” The season of Advent is about positive expectancy; expecting that we can have power over our lives and we can change our world. We are changed by first believing in the simple self-emptying gift that God gave to us, and then choosing to give ourselves wholly and completely back to God. Belief + choice = creation.
During the past four weeks we’ve been unpacking the significance of the Gospel symbols of Christmas. From the hope of new life symbolized by the greenery hanging in our church and homes; to remembering our baptism through the new falling snow of Winter; followed by the twinkle bulbs and candles representing the light of awareness that shines brightly in our hearts and minds; and landing today at the base of our Christmas tree, cluttered with gifts and presents we’ve offered to each other and to this community. The Christmas tree comes from an old Germanic custom where bringing a tree into the house was like bringing God into the house. Offerings to God were adorned on the branches as ornaments. This custom evolved into putting wrapped gifts under the tree that are intended for those that we love. These are gifts that draw our attention to who and what is really important in our lives. Our connection to everyone around us is the gift we celebrate. And it is simply called ‘presence.’
I never did get an eleventh gift on that Christmas day 42 years ago. As you can imagine, my parents were not too happy with me. After all, they had given me more than they could really afford. And of course the uneven number of presents wasn’t intentional. What was intentional was their love for me even in the midst of my self-centeredness. I learned a valuable lesson then…that has hopefully stuck with me now. It’s not what you get…but what you give that blesses you.
What priceless gift do you possess that may seem worthless on the outside? What can you give as an expression of your love for the Christ-child? It may be a positive word or smile for that depressed or grouchy person in your life. I could be a warm embrace for the unlovable relative, or a kind word for the sarcastic or hateful comment thrown in your direction. It may simply be believing in the potential of a wayward child, grandchild or sibling, even when they can’t believe it themselves. It could even be a church believing they have the ability to do great things for their community in their hometown, even when the future is uncertain. Saying yes with these seemingly valueless gifts can miraculously transform any situation or relationship this Christmas.
There is one present that I got that Christmas morning that I still have today. It’s these old cowboy boots. Boot that I’ve worn since I was 12 years old. These are the boots that carried me through some rough times in junior high and high school. They took me into the Air Force and a transfer to Germany. They brought me back to the U.S., protected me as I wandered and worked in some dangerous places, led me to college, transported me while I traveled, gave me a kick in the pants when I needed to go to seminary, and eventually led me on my journey to you. Yeah, these boots were made for walkin’. And I would have missed out on their specialness had I stayed asleep and kept looking for that eleventh gift. What’s the surprise gift on this fourth Sunday of Advent? That a baby is coming—to love the world. I for one, hope to stay awake for that! Amen. (Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Don’t Go to Sleep on Me” for November 27, 2005 – www.fernstone.org)