Sunday’s sermon: The Life of Christmas Present

Text used – Luke 1:46-55

  • Nearly 40 years ago, American physician and author Spencer Johnson wrote a little book – a modern-day parable of sorts.
    • May be familiar with Johnson’s name from some of his other books – all fall under the “self-help” category
      • First book: The One-Minute Manager[1]
      • Book from the late 90s: Who Moved My Cheese?[2] (about dealing with change in healthy ways)
        • Sequel: Out of the Maze[3] – published posthumously (about finding your way through life’s “stuck moments”)
    • Now, admittedly, these were not the books I was reading as they came out – certainly not as a baby with his earlier books, and not as a middle schooler or even as an adult with his later books. Johnson’s work came to my attention with that little modern-day parable that he wrote in 1984: The Precious Present[4].
      • When I joined the speech team in 7th grade, my very first piece was The Precious Present. I spent 3-4 months reading this piece aloud at least 4 times a week – once in practices, then again in each of three rounds during the speech tournaments every Saturday from Jan.-Mar.
      • Short story about a little boy and an old man → old man promises to give the little boy the most precious present → “present” = play on words → as he grows into a man, the old man continues to try to teach the boy that the most precious gift is finding the joy and blessing in the present moment
        • Not exactly a smooth journey for the boy, especially not as he grows into an adult preoccupied with material pursuits like wealth, success, and distinction → And though he eventually comes around to the true value of the gift – the precious present – the grown boy is initially very angry when he finds out that this valued gift that he’s built up in his mind and his imagination has nothing whatsoever to do with money or worldly success. It is not the treasure he expected at all.
  • A reality that is far from the expected … from the anticipated … from the imagined. That certainly sounds like both Mary’s story and Scrooge’s story to me.
    • Last week – left Scrooge reeling after his visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past → visit that reintroduced him to his former self
      • Self he was before his love of and desire for money consumed him
      • Self who had certainly experienced the stinging cold of rejection but had also experienced the loving warmth of family and friends – his sister, Fanny; his old boss and mentor, Fezziwig; his former fiancé, Bell
      • Encounter that seemed to thaw Scrooge’s heart, if only just a little → also left two promised spirit visits to go
      • What is to come this week – Rawle: The Ghost of Christmas Present is about to take Scrooge on a journey, offering Scrooge a window into the way things are that he could not experience by himself. If anyone can tell it like it is, the Ghost of Christmas Present certainly can.[5]
    • Scripture last week = portion of Esther’s story in which Esther is called to action “for such a time as this” → Esther called to act in a place and manner and time in which only she can act
      • Gateway into this week’s Scripture reading: Mary’s words of praise and thanksgiving most often called “The Magnificat”
  • Though our Scripture reading this morning comes relatively early in the book of Luke – toward the end of only the first chapter – a lot has already happened in this gospel story.
    • Angels have been busy!
      • Announcing the coming of John the Baptist to John’s father, Zechariah → John’s subsequent birth[6]
      • Announcing the birth of Jesus to Mary[7]
    • Mary going to visit her cousin, Elizabeth (mother of John before his birth)[8]
    • Mary’s words of praise in our reading today are in response to Elizabeth’s own words of praise and thanksgiving: When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. With a loud voice, she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”[9] → I love this because as far as we can tell from the text, this joy-filled exchange between Elizabeth and Mary happens immediately upon Mary entering Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house. They haven’t observed any of the hospitality rituals expected at the time – no foot washing, no welcoming embrace or kiss of peace. Frankly, we can’t even tell whether Mary’s hasty visit to Zechariah and Elizabeth was expected. Nothing in Scripture indicates that they knew Mary was coming. We’re just told that Mary hurried to their home after her encounter with the angel Gabriel. I imagine Mary being welcomed into the home by Zechariah and calling out for her cousin Elizabeth who was in another part of the home making preparations of some kind – the meal, maybe, or some light housework. I imagine that Elizabeth heard Mary before she saw her, and that was when baby John jumped in her womb.
      • Fascinating exchange because both of these women find themselves in unexpected circumstances
        • Elizabeth and Zechariah are old – well beyond expected child-bearing age, especially at that time → They weren’t as old as Abraham and Sarah when Sarah became pregnant with Isaac, but they were old enough for Zechariah to scoff in the face of an angel when the Gabriel tried to tell him about John’s birth!
        • Opposite end of the spectrum: Mary is young and not yet married → By historical cultural standards, Mary was probably in her early teens – 12-14 yrs. old – and while she is engaged to be married to this presumably older and successful carpenter, they aren’t married yet. Still, she finds herself pregnant with God’s own child! “Mind-blowing” doesn’t really even begin to cover it!
    • And yet, in the face of these wholly unexpected and uncertain circumstances, we find both Elizabeth and Mary deeply inhabiting this present moment and finding utter and absolute joy in it! – Mary’s words: With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name.[10]
      • Gr. makes it clear that Mary’s entire self is invested in this praise[11]
        • Gr. “heart” (“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!”) = word that encompasses the breath, the individual, the soul → It’s the word for what makes each person unique – their identity, will, personality, affections. It’s our individuality. So everything that makes Mary her true and genuine self is giving glory to God.
        • Gr. “depths of who I am” = much more general word for spirit, wind, breath – usually denotes that part of our humanity which is rational → So even setting her surging emotions aside, Mary recognizes this moment as one that is profound and extraordinary – a moment that requires praise.
      • Truly, friends, I think few texts within the whole of the Bible convey joy in the way that today’s passage does. It is joy that encompasses the whole history of the people of Israel, to be sure. Mary speaks of God’s mercy “from one generation to the next” as well as all the ways God cares and provides for those who are in difficult states – those who are without power, without food, without justice. But it is also a joy rooted firmly in the moment.
        • Rooted in the joy of sharing this miraculous thing that has happened to her
        • Rooted in the joy of being chosen by God for this incredible task
        • Rooted in the joy of truly embodying faith in a way that she never has before – that no one ever has before or ever will again!
  • The abundant joy of Mary’s present moment is reflected in the abundance the accompanies the Ghost of Christmas Present when he visits Ebenezer Scrooge.
    • No sooner had he returned from his journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past than Scrooge is awoken once again by the striking of the clock and a visit from yet another spirit – the Ghost of Christmas Present → read from Stave Three:

The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove. The leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that petrifaction of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped upon the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and great bowls of punch. In easy state upon this couch there sat a Giant glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and who raised it high to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door. 

      • This is probably the visit that people tend to be most familiar with because it is this spirit that brings Scrooge to the house of his horrendously overworked and underpaid assistant, Bob Cratchit. It is here that Scrooge observes just how little the family has – using the word “meager” to describe their Christmas dinner would be generous! – and yet how much love and joy they find in one another. And it is here that Scrooge learns about Bob’s youngest son, Tiny Tim, and his health struggles.
        • But visiting the Cratchits is not all the Ghost of Christmas Present does → takes Scrooge around to see all sorts of other Christmas festivities as they’re occurring – all celebrations bathed in the warmth of love and joy despite the circumstances the participants find themselves in
          • Rawle ties this to the Christmas story that we continue to inch ever-closer to: At its heart, the first Nativity is as story born out of poverty, where scarcity is transformed into abundance by a God who will stop at nothing to be with us.[12]
        • Spirit even takes Scrooge to the Christmas celebration he himself had been invited to – that of his nephew, Fred, and his wife → Scrooge observes everyone else around the table making fun of him and talking poorly about him, yet still his nephew defends him: “I have no patience with him,” observed Scrooge’s niece. Scrooge’s niece’s sister, and all the other ladies, expressed the same opinion. “Oh, I have!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “I am sorry for him; I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself always. Here he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence? … he loses some pleasant moments, which could do him no harm. I am sure he loses pleasanter companions than he can find in his own thoughts, either in his moldy old office or his dusty chambers. I mean to give him the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not, for I pity him.”[13] → Even in the face of Scrooge’s own cruelty and dismissiveness – in the face of all his abuse and “bah! humbugs!” – Fred continues to give Scrooge a chance to open himself to the joy of the moment. And now, in no uncertain terms, Scrooge knows And that knowledge continues to bring about a slow dawning of change in Scrooge.
          • Rawle: This is what happens when you let Christ in. Christ transforms fear itself into an embodiment of hope.[14] → The first week of Advent, we talked about how we necessarily find hope in the waiting places – those in-between places of uncertainty. Mary’s words of praise and joy this morning remind us that, when we open ourselves up to God in those waiting places – and in all the other uncomfortable places in our hearts and our lives – we can find joy there, too. It may not be the bursting, overabundant joy of Mary’s Magnificat. It may be a subtler joy … a quieter joy … a joy that simple twinkles every now and then like a single candle flame instead of beaming bright light a searchlight. But it is still joy. It is joy because there is where we have found God among us. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Spencer Johnson. The One Minute Manager. (New York: William Morrow and Company), 1982.

[2] Spencer Johnson. Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and In Your Life. (New York: Vermilion), 1998.

[3] Spencer Johnson. Out of the Maze: An A-Mazing Way to Get Unstuck. (New York: Portfolio), 2018.

[4] Spencer Johnson. The Precious Present. (New York: Doubleday Publishing Group), 1984.

[5] Matt Rawle. The Redemption of Scrooge. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 81.

[6] Lk 1:5-25.

[7] Lk 1:26-38.

[8] Lk 1:39-45.

[9] Lk 1:42-45.

[10] Lk 1:46-49.

[11] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy:

[12] Rawle, 97.

[13] Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol. (White Plains: Peter Pauper Press, Inc., 2022), 82, 83.

[14] Rawle, 90.

One response to “Sunday’s sermon: The Life of Christmas Present

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: The Hope of Christmas Future | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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