December 20, 2015 – Fourth Sunday in Advent
Friday afternoon a white truck going far too fast plowed into a line of backed up cars on the Bay Bridge in California. Twelve vehicles tangled together in a pileup. But only two people were injured and everyone survived. Last month near Palm Springs, a van full of senior women was struck by a pickup truck. Five out of the six women were killed, but Kathleen Gratz walked away. She says, “Why I survived, I have yet to figure out. I consider myself a miracle.”
You can read dozens of stories like this on the Internet, and they are often recalled around Christmas, when people express gratitude to God for the blessings of their escape from tragic disasters. But Gratz’s question remains, “Why?”
Why does God bless and save or allow some people to survive and not others? We might ask that question about our text today. In verse 42 Elizabeth identified Mary as the most blessed of all women. She had been tipped off in verse 41 by the response of the six-month-along baby inside her, who leapt for joy when Mary greeted her. Starting in verse 46 Mary went on to sing about her blessing. But why? Why out of all the women in the world, even out of all the young Jewish women in first century Palestine, was Mary blessed?
Why does God dole out His blessings in such mysterious and unpredictable ways? Why let five women die in a crash, but save one? Why bring God’s Son into the world through one poor young Jewish woman while ignoring everyone else? Why bless one tiny nation more than all others? Why is God’s blessing so mysterious?
You and I might ask that question about our own circumstances. Some of us will enjoy peaceful Christmas blessings with family present, few problems and much for which to be thankful. Others wait for Friday with clouds hanging over us, unemployment, illness, financial worries, or dysfunctional family. It’s so unfair. Why does God bless some people and not others?
Let me tell you a Christmas story. It’s the aftermath of Christmas morning. The family room floor is strewn with paper, boxes, ribbons, half-eaten candy, and toys. Mom and Dad sit on the sofa drinking coffee, worn-out and mellow. Seven year-old Jeremy and four year-old Melissa are busy playing with their gifts.
Everything is fine until Melissa takes her Christmas stocking, half-full of hard candy, twirls it around her head and wops her brother on the side of the head! In two seconds, Jeremy is crying, Melissa is screaming, and Mom and Dad aren’t so mellow anymore. What happened? Their children usually get along. Earlier Melissa had been so pleased about the present she gave Jeremy. They hugged each other. So what was going on now?
It took awhile to find out. Mom dried Jeremy’s tears and Dad put Melissa in time out. Then Melissa started crying and Jeremy started teasing her. Finally, everyone was settled down and they talked it out. Not too surprisingly, it was about presents.
These parents tried to be fair in their shopping. They spent the same amount on both children. Melissa got the doll and accessories she had been requesting for months. There she was under the tree, Microbiologist Barbie, complete with white coat, a gleaming laboratory, and her own little scale model electron microscope. It was Melissa’s dream come true.
Jeremy, however, got a talking interactive BB-8 droid. He had eyed that orange, gray and white plastic blob for weeks. On Christmas morning as Jeremy guided the droid around the tree and taught it new words, Melissa’s Barbie didn’t look quite so wonderful to her. And she had discovered that the little electron microscope didn’t really work after all. She was disappointed and jealous.
It might have been O.K. if Jeremy had taken his droid to his room while Melissa played in hers. But they were together in the living room and Jeremy was having so much fun. He whistled the Star Wars theme and even sang, “BB-8, you’re so great!” After about twenty minutes of that, Melissa clobbered him.
Compare Mary with Jeremy and Melissa. God favored and blessed her. The angel said it when he announced the coming birth in verse 28 of this chapter: “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” Elizabeth said it to her in verse 42, “Blessed are you among women.” If anyone is blessed, it’s Mary. She sang her own song about it, “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” We call it the Magnificat.
Mary doesn’t just sing about her own blessedness. She sings about how God has favored and blessed her nation. The song is full of contrasts between people whom God helps and others He seems to spurn. Verses 51-53 say, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
God blesses a few and punishes the rest. It’s what non-believers often complain about these days, the arrogance of Christians in claiming that God is going to bless them and send everyone else to hell. What shall we make of this mysterious divine blessing?
We may think of ourselves as blessed. Here we are, the Sunday before Christmas, gathered in a warm place with a beautiful tree and bright poinsettias, pretty sure that God loves us. We are singing songs about how good God is to us. We’re celebrating the fact that He’s given us Jesus — and lots of other stuff to boot. There are some people out there and around the world who, if they heard us, would like to clobber us, like Melissa did Jeremy.
Why us? Why Mary? It’s there in the Christmas story. Some people are favored and other people get nothing, or worse. In fact, you know the song the angels sang to the shepherds, “Peace on earth, good will to men?” That’s not how it went. That’s from a bad text that found it’s way into the King James Version. If you’ve got any translation but King James, turn over to Luke 2:14. What’s it say? Something like the New International Version, “on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” The New Revised Standard is even clearer, “on earth peace among those whom he favors!” God’s peace is selective. It goes to the favored, the blessed.
God’s blessing is a mystery to our sense of justice. How does God select those He blesses? Is the good news of Jesus Christ a message for only a chosen few? Is Mary just the clearest case of the fact that God likes some people better than others?
Maybe, but let’s explore the mystery by hearing more about Melissa and Jeremy. Their parents did not plan to play favorites. In fact, they made every effort to distribute their gift-buying equally. Their blessing on their children was meant to be as generous and even-handed as they could possibly make it.
They were more than fair with Melissa. To tell the truth, her Barbie and all the accessories cost $3.56 more than her brother’s toy. But explain that to a four year-old. She felt cheated. She felt like Mom and Dad loved Jeremy more. He got a bigger, nicer present; that’s all there is to it. She felt hurt and angry and lashed out. She couldn’t understand her parents’ justice.
The first thing to say about God’s mysterious blessing is that we do not understand it. We cannot see the picture the way God sees it, cannot see His distribution of blessing from His point of view. The person who appears blessed may be struggling in ways we can’t perceive. That blessing may come with invisible suffering.
Mary’s story tells us her blessing includes a fair share of pain. In the next chapter of Luke, when Simeon blessed baby Jesus, he told Mary of the greatness of her son. Then he said what was to come for her would be like a sword piercing her heart. The hymn we sang a few minutes ago said that all those women who hoped and prayed to be the mother of the Messiah did not know what pain would go with it. God’s blessing is a bigger, more complicated story than we can often see.
Now look at it from another point of view. Ponder how Melissa’s parents resolved the situation on Christmas morning. She felt unloved, left out, less blessed than her brother. So she socked him with a sock. Then she got punished. But now what? Melissa felt bad before, but now she’s really hurting. From her point of view, not only did she get a lesser present, but now she got punished on Christmas. It doesn’t matter what they say. It’s pretty obvious to her whom Dad and Mom love more.
What do those parents do? Subtly, quietly, Melissa would get a little extra attention the rest of the day. After time out, she would get a hug. She might get to blow out the candles after dinner, and she might be allowed an extra piece of Christmas candy. If Jeremy were paying attention, it might look to him like Melissa is the favored one now.
Jeremy and Melissa’s parents love them both. As much as is possible for a man and a woman who are merely human, they love their children equally. But in order to show that, there are times when one child or the other needs extra attention. The one who is feeling unloved is just the one that calls for additional care right then. It feels mysterious when you are the child on the short end, but the purpose is to even things out. Ultimately the message is that both are loved.
God’s mysterious blessing is meant to even things out. God blessed Mary because she embodied the truth that He wants to bless everyone. By choosing someone humble and poor, God made it clear He has no favorites. He lavished extra attention on a person the rest of the world ignored. In her song, Mary sang of God’s extra love for the meek and the hungry. And she sang of what looks like punishment for the proud and the rich.
Yet no one is finally left out. God had no favorites on Christmas morning. The gift He gave to Mary is Jesus. She received the blessing of being the mother of the Son of God. But she was blessed so that God could bless everyone. Her blessing required something of her as well. It was not all unmitigated happiness. Her blessing included the burden of watching her son die a painful death as a young man.
God’s aim in sending Jesus was to balance out His blessing. No one is without His love, but many people feel like they are. They feel left out, forgotten, unloved. So when He sent Jesus, God blessed the forgotten and lowly in particular. He heaped blessing on those who seemed to have none. He sent Jesus to a poor family. He announced His birth to humble shepherds. He reached across the world and guided foreigners to come and worship Him. The poor and hungry, the humble and insignificant, the stranger and alien. They were all given extra attention at the first Christmas.
Jesus is God’s gift for everyone. But just so there was no doubt about it, God sent Him especially to those who might feel left out. He blessed those who seemed to be on the outside, to show that in His love everyone belongs on the inside.
God’s blessing is really a grand display of fairness. Even human beings like Melissa and Jeremy’s parents have enough sense to show they love both their children by giving now one and then the other a little extra when it’s needed. How much more should we see that when God’s love goes out to those who need it most, it is going out to us all!
You are all blessed by God. You share equally in the gift of His grace in Jesus. God bestowed His blessing on Mary so that He could bless you. The song she sings beginning in verse 46, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” doesn’t belong only to her. It is a song for everyone. God is your Savior too. He came as your Savior whether you are well-to-do or struggling-to-get-by, whether you have lots of friends or don’t have any, whether you are a leader in this world or whether you’ve been a follower all your life. He has done great things for you and holy is his name.
You may be either Jeremy or Melissa. You could have come here feeling very sure of God’s blessing and favor. You know the Christmas story well. Jesus came into the world to give His life for you. You are happy as we sing and truly grateful for God’s goodness to you. You’re a Jeremy. Don’t forget Melissa. Don’t forget your sister who is poor, jobless, foreign, lonely or scared. Remember she needs extra attention in order to know what you know, that God loves her. God wants to use you to show a Melissa how much He loves her.
Or you could be a Melissa, feeling alone and stuck with a smaller gift than the Jeremys are getting. You wonder why God sent you so much pain or trouble. You don’t feel blessed at all and have a hard time hearing glad songs. You wonder if God really loves you and why if He does He doesn’t show you a little more blessing. Mary’s message to you is that there is a blessing. Her song is the Gospel. It is the good news that God will bless even the last and the least and so He will bless you.
Jesus said it this way, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Those Beatitudes are blessing on both Melissa and Jeremy. Jesus blesses those who feel like they belong to Him and He blesses those who do not. Blessed are you when you feel on the outside because God has placed you on the inside. Blessed are you when you are inside because God’s love for those on the outside takes nothing away from His love for you.
God’s mysterious blessing is the gift of Jesus for everyone. You all get the best gift: the grace of the Son of God. God has no favorites because He favors everyone. He favors you. May you feel that today. A joyous, favored, blessed Christmas to you all.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj