Clerks rarely say, “Merry Christmas.” Now it's, “Happy Holidays.” Of course, some Christians get tired of hearing “Merry Christmas.” To them this has been reduced to nothing more than “Happy Christmas” as if happiness was the litmus test of a good Christmas. You'll hear them saying, “Blessed Christmas.” “Blessed” surely sounds more spiritual than “merry.” However, in our text we find both a blessed and a merry Christmas.
Upon hearing the voice of the Virgin Mary pregnant with the Christ-Child, Elizabeth lifted up her voice in one of those loud squeals that a woman makes at finding out that another is pregnant. Then she said, “Blessed are you among women.” Catholics or former Catholics recognize this as the first verse of “Ava Maria” and the first line of the “Hail Mary.” Nothing wrong with this. That's what the text says; Mary is blest among women.
How so? As Elizabeth says, she's the mother of our Lord. Mary is the mother of the one Mary herself glorifies in the last part of our text, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Okay, try to get your head around that. Mary, only weeks pregnant, nevertheless has the Lord of all creation, Jehovah of the Old Testament, “Lord” translates the Hebrew “Jehovah,” growing in her womb! And we stumble at times over the Lord being in Bread and Wine or the Word of the Lord being in black and white letters on pages printed and passed down by humans. Here is that Word made flesh in a human womb!
Of no other woman could you point to and say, “There's the mother of my Lord.” Of no other woman could you say, “She gave birth to the Lord of all creation.” Truly she is blest above and beyond not just all woman but all men too. Yet does this women talk as the “Queen of heaven” some claim she is? No she says that she is a humble, not “servant” as the insert says, but “slave.” That's a big difference. We might say we're someone's servant, but never slave. And far from being without sin, immaculately conceived by her mother Ann, Mary says that she needs a Savior. Her sprit rejoices in “God my Savior,” and she goes on to revel in the mercy of her God!
Mary is blest because God has chosen her to bear the Christ-child. And He chose her in grace not merit. He chose her not because her skin was clear, her thoughts were pure, or her soul was dear. He chose her out of grace which means there is no explanation other than the gracious will of God. Looking for an explanation of grace is like pealing open a rose bud. You destroy the very thing you're looking for.
The Holy Spirit whom Elizabeth receives from the mouth of Mary enables her to see that Mary is blest among women and that “blessed is the child you will bear!” The NIV translation misses the raw beauty of this. What Elisabeth really says is, “Blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Catholics and former Catholics will recognize this also as being found in “Ava Maria” and the “Hail Mary.” This part of those 2 works is also straight from the Bible.
Did you catch the distinction the Holy Spirit makes through Elizabeth? He pronounces Mary blest among women because she is the Mother of the Lord. But He pronounces the Fruit of Mary's womb as blest in an absolute sense. And where our insert puts a future element in her words “will bear,” the Greek lacks it. The Fruit of Mary's womb is blest right then and there.
Do you know what an amazing statement that is? The Embryo in Mary is just a cluster of cells, but already Jesus is a blessing to us. A saying of the early Church was, “What God did not assume He did not redeem.” If God had taken on the flesh and blood of a 30 year old, everyone 30 years old and up would've been redeemed. If God had taken on the flesh and blood of a 15 year old, He would've bore the griefs and sorrows of all people 15 and up. If God had taken on flesh and blood as a 15 day old baby, He would've carried to the cross the sins of all people 15 days old and up. But God took on the sins and sorrows of humans from the moment of conception on. Is life in the womb precious to you? It was so precious to God that He sent His Son into the womb to redeem it.
Before us right now is the “Great and Mighty Wonder” we sing about in the hymn. Before us now is a wonder more wonderful than flying reindeer, snowman that don't melt, and a Grinch giving back Christmas. Before us now are some of the things that St. Peter says the angels bent over, to look down from heaven and get a clear glimpse of. The angels didn't stoop over to get a glimpse of men getting along for one day. You could find that in Buddhism or Hinduism. They didn't long to look into the joy of families getting back together. You could find that in Roman society. The angels weren't even studying people gathering together in serious religious devotion. You could find that in Judaism. What the angels were in awe over, what the angels longed to get a clearer glimpse of is God in the womb for sinners.
What the angels want to study, what we sing and rejoice and wonder at is what the 16th century Lutheran theologian, Martin Chemnitz, gloried in: “Thus the Son of God in assuming His own flesh, but without sin, also endured those things which commonly befall man in conception, pregnancy, and birth,...so that from His very beginning...He might first restore in Himself our depraved nature and so cleanse and sanctify our contaminated conception and birth that we might know that Christ's salvation applies even to man's fetus in conception, gestation, and birth.”
Elizabeth, filled by the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of the Mother of our Lord pronounces blest: Mary among women, the Fruit of Mary's Womb, and Mary herself because she “believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” Once more the Holy Spirit has communicated much with few words. In pronouncing Mary and Jesus in the womb blest, Elizabeth used the same Greek word. But here the word is different. The word for “blessed”here has the idea of “happy” or “merry” in it.
Mary is pronounced “happy” for believing the amazing words the angel Gabriel had spoken to her a few days before. The Lord is with her. She does carry the Son of the Most High who will rule on the throne of David forever. The Holy Spirit assures Mary that she is not foolish or wrong for believing that God will do what He has told her He would do.
The Lord pronounces as blest, as happy, believers. How different the judgment of the world can be at this time of year. Ann Murray sung, “Blessed are the believers,” but said all they inherit are “high hopes.” And John Lennon's carol “Happy Christmas” is a melancholy song about a Christmas that falls short of his belief that Christmas is about peace on earth between men.
Ann Murray and John Lennon speak of much less Christmas miracles and holiday hopes than our Lord has given us. Indeed we're promised far more than a wonderful life where all our friends in the end come together to support us. The Christian is promised far more than the perfect Christmas Chevy Chase searches for and the Krachit family has. So are we fools for believing such wonderful promises? I promise you that's how you will feel if, Lord forbid, you end up at the hospital this Christmas or your family ends up in a fight. But then again Mary and Joseph remained poor and living in a barn for some time. The shepherds remained outcasts of church and society. Simeon remained at death's door and Anna old and widowed. But were they fools for believing all that God said, showed, and promised them?
No, and neither are you. You are blest, happy are you who've believed that what the Lord has said to you He will do. Your sins really are forgiven for the sake of the One who came into Mary's womb to bear them. Though your conscience and those around you can point to this or that sin which you must bear this Christmas, your Lord can find not a one that you must bear. He looks and looks and He can't find any because the Christ-Child has carried them all away already.
And though the devil rage and chafe at you in many ways, what Luther says in a Christmas hymn is true for you: “Let hell and Satan rage and chafe, Christ is your Brother, Ye are safe.” O the devil will spew forth his lies this Christmas. He will do his best to stir up the Christian's house and life. He will do his best to make you doubt the true wonders of Christmas. But you are not a fool for believing that when Christ entered the womb He grabed the serpent Satan by the throat. He wriggles and thrashes in our lives still, but he's totally under the control of the Christ-Child who has him in His small but powerful hands. Happy and blessed not foolish and wishful is the Christian who sees Satan as good as crushed on Christmas morning.
But what about your sinful flesh? Doesn't it make a lie of all that God promises at Christmas? He promises life and forgiveness in Christ but you find death and sin still at work in you. We are faced with the same contraction as the pregnant Mary. Do you think she was spared any of the discomforts of pregnancy? To all the world and even to herself, she looked like just one more pregnant women. The only outward sign she had that things were different for her and that she was not a fool for believing what God had told her were the words Elizabeth spoke to her by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Shortly in the service, I am going to tell you that you can and should lift up your hearts regardless of how heavy your life is right now. Right before I tell you that you're going to assure me that I have the Lord with my spirit to tell you this. Then right before I tell you that despite what you see, feel, and even think, the Lord will bless you, keep you, lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace, you again assure me that I have the Lord with my spirit to tell you that. You're no more foolish for believing you can lift up your hearts and that you are blest, kept, and given peace than Mary was for believing she could be happy in her faith. A merry, happy, blessed Christmas indeed. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent IV (12-21-03), Luke 1:39-55