Here’s the link to Luke 1:46-55, 67-79.
In general, I’ve had two experiences in my life when it comes to Christmas “wish lists.” When I was growing up, I would make a “wish list.” Sometimes I got items on my list, sometimes I didn’t. Truth is, while I was growing up my Mom was limited in what she could do for Christmas. My other experience was my first Christmas as a part of Alisha’s family. I was asked to make a “wish list,” so I did. And to my surprise, on Christmas morning I ended up receiving most of the items on my list. And then some! Honestly, I remember feeling a little overwhelmed. In our family now, we do usually make “wish lists” so that we have an idea of at least a couple of things each person would like. Usually everyone gets one or two things they asked for, while other gifts are a genuine surprise.
Now, if I were to ask you, what do you want for Christmas this year, what would you say? What’s on your Christmas “wish list”? Maybe you do have a list with a few items. Maybe you really don’t want anything because you have all you need. But I want you to keep this question in mind: What do you want for Christmas? Because we don’t have to mean gifts under the tree. Maybe there’s something else we’d like to have for Christmas. I want to suggest that asking this question — what do you want for Christmas? — is to ask how we want God to act in our lives and in the world around us.
“He has looked with favor on the humble”
This morning we’ve read two passages from Luke’s infancy narratives — two songs of praise — from Mary and from Zechariah. Both of these poetic expressions of praise speak powerfully to what God was doing in their lives and in the world. Both songs are a response to God’s actions in the world — in their world, in their lives. More than that, their songs reveal what the people of God had been longing for and praying about for generations.
Mary, of course, was a young Jewish woman who had recently learned that she would be the vessel that would bear the Christ into the world. Her song, traditionally called “The Magnificat,” begins with words of rejoicing. She is overjoyed at how God has looked upon her with favour and chosen her to bring the Messiah into the world.
But the predominant theme in her song is the overturning of expectations, the way God flips the story of history around in favour of the humble and lowly, those who are quite aware of their need for his action in their lives. We’re told: He looks with favour on the humble but has scattered the proud. God has toppled the mighty and exalted the lowly. He has satisfied the hungry and sent the rich away empty.
This is not what we expect in life. Doesn’t the script of history favour the strong and wealthy, the powerful and the elite?
Mary’s song is infused with a genuine humility — with a recognition of her status in her world and her need for God. Like ours, hers is a world where the outcasts and the poor usually get the short end of the stick. This has not changed much throughout history.
And her song reveals that what she and her people — the people of Israel — had been waiting for is for God to act, for God to do something about their situation. Her deepest longing and most heartfelt prayer — which shines through in this song of praise — had been for God to be God. The God of the covenant. The God of the promise. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Particularly in the lives of the poor and lowly and oppressed.
Now, there’s no shortage of examples in our world today of situations where we want God to act. Injustice. Violence. Corruption. Oppression. Conflict. Real people living in real situations where they are mistreated and dehumanized.
So: What do you want for Christmas? Asking this question is asking about what we want God to do, about how we want God to act, how we want God to be who he has revealed himself to be. And who has he revealed himself to be? In Mary’s song we hear of God as Savior. He looks with favor on the humble. He is merciful. He acts to redress wrongs and to provide fo the needy.
And, of course, don’t we want God to do something about these things? Don’t we long for God to step into our world’s biggest problems, its most intractable situations, its most difficult places? And in this way Mary’s song reminds us that Christmas — the real meaning of Christmas — is about realizing our own need for humility. Mary’s song reminds us that we need God to act. And the biblical story of Christmas reminds us that in Christ he has begun to do this. We are not capable on our own of addressing or solving the dilemmas we face in our world.
It’s God who topples the mighty and proud, who exalts the lowly and satisfies the hungry. It’s God who frees the oppressed and brings justice. It’s God who will speak his mercy into our lives and into the world. Yet at the same time we also know that on this side of history, before the second arrival of Christ into the world, we will continue to have these problems. And this is why we keep praying your kingdom come and your will be done.
But maybe it’s more personal than even that. How do you want God to act in the lives of people you know and love? Who are the people you know whose circumstances seem to keep them down and discouraged? How should Mary’s song change our Christmas “wish list”? Think of that question again: What do you want for Christmas? How does Mary’s song change your answer?
“Guide our feet into the way of peace”
Zechariah’s song is similiar to Mary’s. Traditionally called “The Benedictus,” we see the connections between what’s happening in the story and Israel’s history. We see mentions of the prophets and king David. What’s happening here is the fulfillment of prophecies and promises from generations past. The difference between Zechariah and Mary’s songs is that while Mary speaks of God acting on behalf of the powerless and needy, Zechariah speaks of God defending Israel from her enemies. God comes to rescue. God arrives to deliver his people from those who would wish them harm.
Now, we have all known bullies. We have all known mean people, people who are mean almost for the sake of being mean. Whatever else is going on with them, or whatever has happened in their lives, it has turned them bitter and angry. And they take it out on others. And there are others who are simply greedy and are willing to step on others to get what they want or think they deserve.
Zechariah’s song reminds us of the reality of — and let us simply be honest — evil people. Enemies. People who simply are opposed to God and his ways — and therefore to those who love God and his ways.
So far we’re quite fortunate in our part of the world that we have not really had to experience the weight of persecution or opposition simply because we are Christians. However, this is not true in many other places around the world. Think of what it must be like to be a follower of Jesus in China, in North Korea, in Iran, in Pakistan, and in the Sudan.
What if there were people even here in our local community who hated us and who sought to do us harm simply because we follow Jesus, simply because we go to church, simply because we read the Bible, simply because we want other people to put their faith in God?
Zechariah’s song looks back on all the ways God has faithfully delivered and rescued his people from those who would do them harm, perhaps with an eye towards what God might do to their Roman oppressors in the present. And as he turns in his song to speak to his son John, and about how he will herald the arrival of the Messiah Jesus, he speaks also of God guiding the feet of his people into the way of peace.
Rescue from enemies. The way of peace. God comes in Jesus to bring reconciliation and to heal broken relationships.
The way of peace is never only about the absence of conflict. Peace — shalom in Hebrew — is about the flourishing of relationships on all levels. Peace means not only that our enemies stay away from us, but that there are indeed no more enemies.
What do you want for Christmas? Perhaps that God would be with his people around the world as they contend with enemies? Maybe even that in some cases enemies might become friends? Or maybe you’re in a situation where you feel like you can’t speak openly about your faith. Maybe there are people in your life who simply don’t want to hear you talk about God, about church, about the Bible, about Jesus.
Maybe what you want for Christmas is the slight opening of the door of conversation, an honest moment of spiritual opportunity.\
Maybe what you want is for God to pry open the hard heart of someone you love so that they might catch a glimpse of his grace — of his love for them.
Maybe what you want for Christmas is for people you know and love to experience the way of peace Zechariah sings about.
There are occasions and situations where our emotions become heightened, where we’re more likely to experience stress and anxiety. The Christmas season can be one of those times for some. There are expectations and fears, hopes and worries about how it will all go.
When I was a university student and was away from home, it seemed to me at the time that whenever I came home for Christmas vacation my desires for Christmas always ran into certain difficult realities. One Christmas my Mom had recently broken her ankle in a fall. So when I came home that year from Mount Allison, she was in a cast and she was experiencing discouragement and depression. She physically couldn’t help and really wasn’t in the mood for helping decorate and put up a tree. So when she was resting I decorated our living room. What I remember most was foregoing our larger tree and putting a small tree on a plant stand that was covered with a cloth. That same Christmas — on Christmas morning, in fact, if I recall correctly — she slipped and fell and we had to go to the ER to make sure her ankle was ok. What did I have on my Christmas wish list that year? All I really wanted to do was to encourage my Mom.
You know, there is a big difference between having a “wish list” at Christmas and a prayer list. A “wish list” means hoping that God is at least a little like Santa Claus, the kind of God who might bring us what we want because we’ve been trying hard to be pretty good.
Having a prayer list, however, means trusting in the God of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, a God who hears the deepest cries of our hearts and is present to us in Jesus. Having a prayer list is not about hoping God will give us stuff on our “wish list” because we’re good but that God will act on our behalf because he is good.
And the story of Christmas is about how God does this by arriving into our world in Jesus. That in Jesus he reveals and redeems and meets us right where we are.
What do you want for Christmas this year? How are you hoping and praying God will act in your life, in the lives of your loved ones, and in the world around you? In what way do you want God to show up, for God to be God? Because our answer to that question is more important than whatever might be on our Christmas “wish list.”