The Year Christmas Becomes Thanksgiving
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, December 20, 2020
Reading: Luke 1:46-55; 12:5-7
It was twenty years ago, almost to the day, when I went down to a shelter for homeless people here in Toronto. It no longer exists but was called Street City. It was a difficult place to visit, but I went down to provide some financial assistance from our church to individuals who were there, something that, unfortunately is hard for us to do right now with new rules and regulations. I saw a man sitting on the bench outside. It was a very, very cold day, just like this past week. I sat next to him, and he was holding a coffee close to him, we just chatted away. I wanted to know a little bit more about him.
I found out that he was from Newfoundland and had been in the city just a few months. He had come looking for work and shelter. I asked him, “How do you find life in Toronto?”
He says, “Padré” – he must have a military background – “Padré, it’s as cold as hell.”
I said, “I've never heard that expression before. I’ve heard hotter than hell, but never cold as hell.”
He laughed, and said, “No, no, hotter than hell is Toronto in August.” Then he said. “I really am not ready for this, I thought Toronto would be a lot easier on me than living in the Avalon Peninsula.” And we had a laugh. We talked about his life and where he was from and what he had done. Then he says to me, “You know, Padré, I don’t understand this Bible, and now I’ve got you here, maybe I can ask a question. There are strange things in the Bible and my grandson, he was bringing home a story from Sunday School and it says that Jesus even counts the hairs on your head. Is that right?”
Before I was able to give an answer, he whipped off his toque, and there was an entirely bald gentleman, and says, “Clearly Jesus doesn’t have to spend much time on me, does He?” And we laughed. We ended the conversation with a little bit about what that story meant, but it stayed with me. It was hard to leave him, but I'm hoping and praying that his life in Toronto got better than it was then.
At times the Bible is hard to understand. The man is right. The Christmas story is hard to get our minds around, with angels and special messages, and all kinds of people visiting from all over – very unusual. There are texts like the one he mentioned, that seem very strange on first reading. Yet I believe that if we understand the purpose of scripture, and the reason for Christ’s coming, and that the God who is revealed through this, it gives us a greater appreciation of its power and importance. While we don’t always understand everything written in it, when we know that God is engaged in it that opens up a new vista into the scriptures. It also gives us a greater sense of thanksgiving to God. When we look at God’s Word, we should feel an awesome sense of thankfulness and gratitude.
In many ways I liken this Christmas to Thanksgiving 2.0. It is time for us to give thanks for God’s self-revelation, and in that self-revelation, to know a supreme gift has been given to us. To give us an insight into the depth of that, I’ve selected two vignettes from Luke’s Gospel, two moments of revelation; one that occurred before Jesus’ birth, and the other at the beginning of his Galilean ministry. Together, they draw us into the thanksgiving that I'm talking about this Christmas, because they reveal ultimately who we are thankful for this Christmas.
The first vignette is taken from Luke, Chapter One: the Magnificat of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is anticipating the birth of her child. It is a remarkable passage in many ways. It speaks about the rise and the fall of nations, the elevation of the poor, the bringing down of the proud, and the fulfilment of God’s promises. It is very Jewish in its origin, rooted in similar words – not identical, mind you, but similar, by the great Hannah, the mother of Samuel in the Old Testament. Hannah had this prayer about the coming of Samuel. You can find it in 1 Samuel, Chapter Two:
The Lord makes the poor and makes the rich. He brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust, He lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them He has set the word. He will guard the feet of His faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might does one prevail.
Powerful, revolutionary words by Hannah. Powerful, revolutionary words by Mary. God, you see, is up to something here, doing something special and doing it in His Son, Jesus.
The twentieth century painter, David Negron, created a beautiful painting called The Infant Jesus, and I encourage you to look it up. In it you see a Middle Eastern woman. This is not some Renaissance painting from Europe, but a Middle Eastern woman holding a child gently against her breast, looking down lovingly. There is a countenance of peace about it, and Negron has captured the love that Mary had for Jesus – you can almost feel it as you look at it.
As I read the Magnificat, I felt the profound sense of love for God, for God is doing glorious things through Mary. The love for the people because her Son is going to set them free. For Mary, this was the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, and to their descendants forever – that’s the very last phrase. There is this sense that Abraham, who was chosen and called by God, would have success. In fact, all the monotheistic religions have as a core, Abraham – Avraham in Jewish thought, Ibrahim in Muslim thought, Abraham in our language.
There is this incredible sense within the Old Testament that Abraham was called that the whole world might know the wonder of God. Mary sees uniquely, in the person of Jesus, the child she’s about to bear, the coming fulfilment of that prophesy. This was God with us, fulfilling Abraham’s wishes and dreams. It was a dream. It was a revolution. It was God acting that turned the whole world upside down.
I had forgotten, but I saw online an advertisement for Hammacher Schlemmer. If you don’t know this, they make some very unusual and odd products. Some of them are marvellous. One of them is an upside-down Christmas tree. Yes, an upside-down Christmas tree with the narrow point at the base. The idea is that if you live in a very small space, it takes up less room. But it’s also been suggested – and this is quite clever – that it makes more room for you to be able to put gifts underneath the tree. It’s kind of the ultimate materialistic Christmas tree.
In many ways, Jesus is like an inversion of the way the world sees things. Jesus is trying to find ways to bring the world together under the tree of his love and grace. This is what Mary hoped for in the Magnificat, that Jesus would turn the world upside down, that those who are lowly are lifted up, those who think highly of themselves will be brought down. Amid this, God is gathering the descendants and bringing them together in the form of His Son.
In 1503 Raphael, a long time before Negron, also did a painting of Madonna and Child. If you look closely at it, you see something else: a countenance of peace, but also in the eyes of the mother, a great sorrow. There’s a sense that she knows what’s going to happen to her son, that it is not going to be easy, and there is a cost to be paid. So, Mary, even in the Magnificat, must have known, and certainly, after she gave birth to Jesus, she knew he would turn the world upside-down. One of the ways that he does that is by letting us know what we should be thankful for, which leads me to our second vignette.
Now, if you were listening carefully you probably wondered why on earth would you take a passage like Luke 12 and preach on it the Sunday before Christmas? It talks about fear and about those who can kill. Yes, there is a need for fear, because you fear God more than you fear the world. But it also talks about love and grace. This Christmas I never thought in a million years that I would sing, “All I want for Christmas is a Vaccine”. Yet, here we are, giving thanks, and getting excited about a vaccine.
Now, there’s always going to be controversies about vaccines, and I know some clerics in certain places have questioned whether we should take the vaccine, that Jesus is the vaccine and we don’t need anything more. Oh, absolute piffle that is. I’ll tell you how I know. I know, because I’ve read Francis Collins, the great scientist of the National Institute of Health. He is the founder of the genome project, and a very devout Christian. In an article this last week, he wrote this powerful statement:
God gave us both a sense of God’s love and care and compassion, but He also gave us the brain and the opportunity to understand God’s creation, which is nature, which includes things like viruses. And I think God expected us to use those gits to understand how to protect ourselves and others from the disease. If we have the opportunity to heal through medicine, I think God expects us to do that, and not count on some supernatural intervention to come and save us, when He’s already given us the chance to be saved by other means.
Here, salvation is health, it’s not eternal. Collins is right. He understands that through our prayers, through our interventions, through our wisdom, God does show His love and care and mercy towards us, and that is one of the powerful messages that we have in the New Testament. It is the importance of human life, and how God can use all kinds of things to help and to save and to protect human life.
But there is more. There is a deeper sense that God providing the means through science or nature to heal us goes further than that. He talks about the value of human life, and God being the author of that life. He uses the image of little sparrows that are the most vulnerable, the most innocent of creatures. Those that are on the edge of life and are sold and bartered in the marketplace. He says, “Are we not more valuable than those sparrows? Are not the hairs on our head counted? Are we not valuable in the eyes of God?”
On Christmas Eve Jesus came to tell us that, to reveal that vulnerably, in the flesh, precisely because he wanted us to know the value of the life that he had given. In the time Jesus came, and Mary spoke the Magnificat, life was cheap. The Roman Empire had a very stratified view of the human person in society, and life was given importance in accordance with this. The patricians were the highest of all of those. The equites came next, the plebeians came next, the free person and then the slave. Those near the top had the right to take the life of those at the bottom, with impunity at times.
Life was wasted, treated without importance. Nobody counted those who died on a battlefield, no one made memorials to the soldiers, no one cared about how you bury and dispose of people who weren’t considered important. The Roman world, for all its brilliance and intellect and codified law, treated life with an unreasonableness. It was harsh and it was hard.
Jesus of Nazareth comes into the midst of this, and he said, “Although there are those who can take your life and you fear them, there is One who is greater, and that is the One for whom you must not be afraid, and do not be afraid, because you are greater than the sparrow, and the hairs on your head are counted, and God knows who we are.”
This Christmas, of all Christmases, I think our culture needs to take stock of the importance and value of human life. We should make sacrifices to keep it for others. We should offer ourselves. There are those who are on the frontlines, who are paying the cost, and there are those who are disciplining themselves for the sake of the greater good. This is precisely what God wants for us right now. Why? Because the love of Christ is so great, we are greater than sparrows, and the hairs of our head are counted.
Mary knew that in the Magnificat. This is what she talked about by lifting up the lowly, turning the world upside-down, showing us a different way. That way is in Jesus of Nazareth, and that way is the way of the Lord. That is what I think I should have said to the man from Newfoundland on the bench. Don’t you?
Happy thanksgiving at Christmas, and may the joy of our life, our life in Christ, be celebrated.