The Heart of Christmas

Prepared for and delivered at South Lake Pres on Dec 23, 2012

Primary Text: the Magnificat in Luke, also drawing on the advent candle reflections used by the congregation in advent.

Twas the Sunday before Christmas and here at South Lake
God’s people have gathered – thankful for the break…
All advent we’ve waited, 4 weeks, if you count
And it seems that for many, anxieties mount…

Did I get all my gifts bought, can I count on the mail?
Would someone toss change in that bell-ringer’s pail?!
And then there’s the TV – in between all the shows
Are commercials for cars wrapped in shiny red bows…

But deep down inside something’s not sitting right,
And I don’t think it’s gingerbread cake from last night.
Perhaps we should look for the heart of the season…
Perhaps I should stop talking in rhymes for no reason!

OK- so I’m no Clement Clark Moore, but it is the last Sunday before Christmas.  The last two days before everything needs to be wrapped, cooked and ready for the big day. Even with reminders around the advent wreath each week, calling us to consider peace, hope, love and joy, it’s hard not to walk outside and get caught up in the tinsel and the mistletoe.  A friend of mine asked just yesterday… HOW did we turn the celebration of Christ’s birth into a test of endurance?

I can honestly relate.  Adding holiday activities into our usual too-busy lives can be overwhelming.  For instance, our family hosts what we like to call a “mostly annual” open house in mid-December.  We say “mostly annual” because a few years ago, we looked at the calendar and decided that there weren’t enough hours in the day, enough days in the week, enough oxygen in the room to make it happen. So we stopped to ask, “what if we don’t?”

What if we don’t use the energy it would take to plan and decorate and bake and get all the party stuff done on a deadline? What if instead we use those few unscheduled nights to enjoy one another?

And that’s what we did.  We slowed down and watched some of our favorite Christmas DVDs together.  After all, it’s just not Christmas until

…Ralphie gets his Red-Rider BB gun and almost shoots (shoots his eye out)
…Santa comes to his senses and asks Rudolph with his nose so bright, (won’t you guide my sleigh tonight)
…George Bailey helps the angel get his wings, Buddy the Elf finds his real dad, and Wallace & Davis and the beautiful Haynes sisters dream together of a White Christmas.

Movies like these help many of us find some holiday spirit. But there are a couple of stories that draw us a little closer to  the Spirit of Christmas.

What happens to the Grinch that compels him to take the toys back to Whoville?  He hears the Whos singing in spite of his evil shenanigans, and His heart – which was 2 sizes too small – grows.

In almost every version of the Christmas Carol (even Mr. Magoo’s!), they are faithful to include the words Dickens wrote for Ebeneezer Scrooge after he realizes what the future holds for him and the Cratchetts.  Ebeneezer promises: “I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.”

These stories resonate with us because Christmas is about the heart. Not the physical organ, but the seat of our emotions and motives. That place where we ponder the deepest things that trouble us and where we treasure the things that bring us joy.

In fact, a quick run through the Christmas carols shows just how important the heart is at Christmas…

In Joy to the World, we sing: Let every heart, prepare him room.
There’s: Good Christian Men Rejoice with Heart and soul and voice.
And O Come thou Dayspring come and bind all peoples with one heart and mind.

The last verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem, though, is the one that really nails it…
How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n/ So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heavn.

The heart of Christmas has much to do with our hearts.  It also has much to do with God’s heart.

For God so loved the world that He sent his only son…

At the very heart of the Gospel, at the beginning of the Christmas story, is God’s love for you and for me. God’s love for the lost and the hurting, for the disenfranchised and the outcast.

God so loved all of us- each of us –that God came to earth in the form of a tiny baby.  A tiny baby with a tiny heart that carried all of the compassion and forgiveness of the creator of the Universe down to this sinful, broken and oh-so-needy world.

It was this tiny baby that caused Mary to leave her parent’s home to visit Elizabeth, and it was the presence of this tiny baby that caused John to leap for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.

In some ways, it’s hard for us to imagine the lives of these two women, each carrying children that seem improbable at best.  They didn’t have the sonograms or 3-D images that would allow them to see tiny bodies forming and becoming little people. But in their hearts, they already knew these children.

God had sent Gabriel to Zechariah, so  he and Elizabeth knew that John would be a prophet, set apart as one who would prepare the people for the coming Lord. And Mary? She knew Jesus.  Because Mary knew God.  Mary’s song-         what we call the Magnificat – is a hymn in praise of the God she loved.

She sings: “My soul glorifies the Lord
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.

As she recounts God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel for generations, her song echoes the praises of the Psalms,  words that Mary would have sung and prayed with her family:

50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.”

And as she recalls the deeds of  the God of Abraham and his descendants, we hear words and deeds that we recognize from Jesus’ teaching and ministry… Filling the hungry with good things, scattering the proud and lifting the humble, looking past the rich to care for the poor.

Yes- the tiny child in Mary’s womb – the Son of God – would grow up to be a living testimony to the works and wonders of the Father.

Thinking of Mary as Christmas looms, I can’t help but think back to those last few days of pregnancy when I was “great with child.” Even without the prospect of a donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem, I was more than ready to carry my baby in my arms instead of my womb.

But the one things I was loathe to give up was the sense of connection I felt at our prenatal checkups . When we listened to the baby’s heartbeat. Through the sonogram, we could hear two very distinct heart sounds.

Mine wasn’t the thump-thump sound that you get with the stethoscope.  It was a swoosh-swoosh sound, the powerful sound of blood being pushed through my arteries and veins to nourish this little life.  Then, after a little searching, we would hear another sound, more of a thunk-thunk-thunk. Much faster, but very clearly a heartbeat. And very clearly not mine.

And now- 17-plus years later, when I sing about our human hearts making room for Christ to enter in, or God imparting to my heart the wonders of heaven – I remember those sounds. And I wonder…  Did my heart sound to God like that second alien heartbeat?  And when we exchange our hearts of stone for hearts of love, do they immediately begin to beat differently, mimicking a divine rhythm? more attuned to God’s heart?

You see, when we lay claim to faith through the power of the Holy Spirit and begin to follow Christ, when we confess and repent, when we make Jesus the Lord of our lives and the Lord of our hearts, we can trust that Christ does cast out our sin and that he does enter in, and is born in us.  And we can trust that Christ is borne into the world through us today and every day, even as we wait, crying “Come Lord Jesus!”

Our advent rituals are such a beautiful reminder of that tension between the now and the not yet.  We light the candles around the wreath first, waiting, saving the one in the middle – the Christ candle. We won’t light that one until Christmas Eve, when we celebrate his imminent arrival.

The first week, we reflected on the hope of God’s promises.  God told Abraham that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed, because he trusted and put his hope in God.  The Old Testament spoke of the coming of Christ, of how a Savior would be born, a king in the line of King David. In light of God’s faithfulness, like Mary, we have deep hope and can trust in God’s promise to send Jesus again to this world to establish his kingdom on earth.

Then we lit the candle for peace- remembering the prophets who spoke of the coming of the Christ, a Savior and king. The prophet Isaiah called Christ “the Prince of Peace.”  And when Jesus came he taught people the importance of being peace-makers. He said that those who make peace shall be called the children of God.  We find our peace in Christ, and he will bring everlasting peace when he comes again.

Last week, the candle of love recalled the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Their love for God and one another outlasted their wait for a child. Their child John came to speak boldly to people in the desert, denying his own comforts and prepared to die for what he believed. All out of love for God and for the people. John taught the love that Jesus taught –that we should share what we have with others, treat each other kindly, and show God’s love.

Today’s candle – the joy candle – calls to mind Mary, who found that the path to joy is in obedience to God. She rejoiced in the midst of personal chaos and pain. She rejoiced at the blessing spoken by Elizabeth. She rejoiced at being part of fulfilling God’s promise. Mary reminds us that our joy is in serving the Lord, in finding the work that God has prepared for us.

Hope, peace,  love, and joy – they are markers along our advent journey.  And they are markers of a life of faith.

A maturing faith that celebrates the reality of the Christ who has come and who will come again.  An enduring faith that celebrates abundant life in Christ here and now and in the life to come. They are markers of a faith that makes possible the sort of radical obedience that allows us to imitate Christ.

We see that sort of faith in Mary. She was responsible for carrying the Christ child and delivering God’s son into the world. The Holy Spirit made that possible, from the moment of conception to delivery.   But so did Mary.  In spite of her fear, she had faith. She offered herself to be the servant of the Lord.  This was an act of radical obedience that changed her life forever.  And has changed our lives, too.

And when look beyond Mary…  we see Angels singing praises, shepherds leaving their flocks alone at night, the magi traversing entire continents at the prompting of a star. Those are not acts of ritual or duty, but acts of passionate response.  Joseph’s choice to stand beside Mary and raise this child who was not his…This is an act of courageous obedience.  An act that required a faithful heart.

Selflessness stretched the Grinch’s heart, making room for empathy and compassion. A generous and compassionate heart is what the Spirits of past, present, and future offered Scrooge.

So I ask you- How is it with your heart?

On this last Sunday of advent, just two sleeps before Christmas, I’d like to offer you a challenge.  An opportunity to engage in an act of counter-cultural mischief.

Be still.  Not just for a moment.  Really be still.
Take a half hour – turn off the noisemakers and silence your phones.
Let your home get quiet.  Open your heart to the Lord.

Embrace the hope of God’s promises.
Seek out the peace that passes understanding.
Immerse yourself in the love God so generously offers.
Rejoice with Mary in the light of God’s blessings.

Then listen for it: the heartbeat of the Christ Child, the one whose heart was beating from the beginning of time with God’s.   It echoes down through the ages and beats in our chests.

May the peace, hope, love and joy of Christ reign in our hearts this day and every day, nourishing our faith, strengthening us to be part of God’s redemptive work in this world.

Amen.

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