True Glory in Humility

I speak to you in the name of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Sing to the Lord a new song;
    sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, praise his name;
    proclaim his salvation day after day.

 Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvelous deeds among all peoples.Spirit.  Amen.

Since the beginning, people have looked up at the night sky and marvelled.

From time immemorial, every culture, every race, every people, language, tribe, and nation has looked at the universe around them and have come to the conclusion that there is a great Creator behind it all;

they look at the stars in the heavens or the might of a river breaking up; they look at the invisible power of love and anger, of desire and revenge, and, across history, every people come to the evident conclusion that there are great forces at work, far beyond our comprehension or control.

And, as Christians, this should not surprise us.

As we prayed tonight, all of creation declares God’s glory.   The heavens proclaim the glory of God: though they use no speech and have no words, all of creation proclaims the fundamental, universal truth that God is great, that He is worthy of worship.

We Strive for Glory

But, human nature being what it is, it’s also true that, from the beginning, rather than acknowledge God’s greatness, every people, language, and nation have set out to harness it, to lay claim to it for themselves. 

Throughout history, we see the greatness of God declared in creation itself, we see the mighty power of God at work in the world, and rather than bow down in worship, we try to puff ourselves up.

We build towers to reach up to heaven.

We place altars on the high mountains of the world.

We build sacred circles beside the mighty waterfalls, hoping some of that power will rub off on us.

From the beginning, humanity has seen and experienced the greatness of God, and our response, all too often, has been the struggle to make ourselves look great, too.  We see God’s greatness, and behind so much of human history lies the statement: “look at me, God.  Look at the name I’ve made for myself, I’m great too.”

And that’s why Christmas is so very different.

I don’t know if you’ve stopped to think about it, but the message of Christmas is a total reversal of everything human history would have us expect.  This night, if we let it, and the this baby in a manger, if we let him, flips everything on its’ head.

Humanity looked up at the vastness of the night sky or the strong forces of nature, and, all too often, came to the conclusion that glory comes from might.  Glory comes from making a name for yourself, from not being dependent on anyone, from winning the affection of others, and looking out for #1.

…And then we face the reality of Christmas.

God is great, he fulfilled the longings of a nation and the words of countless prophets, but he didn’t come as a mighty warrior.

He didn’t come in a great show of power guaranteed to win our adoration.

No.  Christmas proclaims the glory of humility. 

The earth-shattering, mind-blowing proclamation of this night is that true glory doesn’t depend on the adoration of others or a tight grasp on power.  True glory – the Glory of God – is such that God Himself can become weak, helpless, defenseless, taking on the fullness of humility, without feeling threatened. 

The proclamation of this night is that glory isn’t earned, and certainly not by puffing yourself up to make yourself appear worthy. 

The message of Jesus is that, if you want to share in the glory of God, learn the way of humility.  And if you want to learn that way, Jesus says, “come and follow me.”

A Glorious Invitation

Now I know there are all sorts of reasons why each of you have come here tonight. 

Some are here as an act of worship that they’ve been preparing for over the 4 weeks of the Advent season.  Some are here because it is a link to an important family tradition and brings to life many dear memories.

Some of you aren’t sure why you’re here: you, like all of humanity before you, feel drawn to acknowledge that universal and self-evident truth that ‘there must be more than this’, but maybe you’re just starting to grapple with what that means.

And, then lets be honest, some of you were dragged here – chances are it was your wife or your mother who said “come on, we’re going”, and you knew better than to put up a fight.

But however or whyever you’re here, I want you to hear that completely unexpected, perhaps even ridiculous-sounding message of this night: true glory isn’t found in puffing yourself up, in being independent, in bearing your own load, in keeping your head down and minding your own business, in piling up a few good deeds along the way. 

No, as you, like those shepherds long ago, like our ancestors in every nation, look up and marvel at the wonder of Creation, maybe not yet knowing who God, the Creator is, hear the message of the babe in the manger: true glory is found in humility.

And in that, we see that familiar, life-changing first step of the gospel truth: to finally give up all our striving and struggling and pretending and mask-wearing, and to admit that we are powerless.  To admit that, even if I do my best, I can’t add a single breath to the span of my life, I can’t hold back the forces of nature, I can’t guarantee that my children will continue on the path that is right: to end the denial, and, as we see the great power of God revealed around us, to acknowledge our need for help.

God could have come as the rightful king, but he came helpless and homeless.  

True glory is not threatened by riches, and cuts through appearances. 

The angels appeared in the glittering sky and announced not to the rich, but to shepherds, that the Son of God had come, and more glorious still, that he wasn’t far off, but was in their very neighbourhood, ready to meet poor, ragged, weary guys like them.

Men, hear that message here tonight: glory is not found in independence, in keeping everything to yourself, in not letting anyone share your load, in trying not to be a bother while you try to find your own way.  No, the good news of Jesus is that glory is found in admitting the need for help, in learning to follow; in learning to be an apprentice of Jesus, the Master.

Ladies, hear the message of the prophet: you don’t need to be weighed down by darkness as you try to hold it all together; daughters trying to hold together broken generations, trying to keep the family together and keep up appearances, all while losing yourself in the process.  No, “on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned”.  Jesus comes to offer a light yoke and an easy burden, and peace that passes understanding, but nothing changes until something changes: it requires that first step, ending that denial, and turning to God for help.

Maybe you know why you’re here tonight. 

Or maybe you’re one of those, like those shepherds, and like every people, language, tribe, and nation in history, marvelling at the greatness of God and wondering where you fit.   

In either case, hear this: I bring you good news of great joy.  To you is born the saviour, the wonderful counsellor, the prince of peace.  But he’s not far off; he’s not far away.  You don’t need to build a tower or puff yourself up.  No, the great message of this night is that Christ the Lord will come and meet you where you are, that His power is made perfect in weakness, and that He offers for you to share in that glory…

…but only if we’re willing to admit that true glory comes through humility.

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.   

Four Songs of Christmas: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel”

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 1:68-79, ICEL translation.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always enjoyed a good musical.  Growing up, I have great memories of watching the Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, back when Disney movies used to come on TV on Sunday nights.

I’m of the generation that was raised on The Lion King and Pocahontas, with hit songs that made it off the screen and onto the radio, and I can remember riding the school bus, screaming along as Elton John belted out “The Circle of Life”.

I’ve always had a soft spot for musicals.

Part of it, I’m sure, is the musician in me, appreciating some well-written tunes.  But part of it, I think, is that music, as an art form, communicates meaning in such a special way.  A good song can summarize a thousand words of complex feelings in just a few memorable lines.  …and memory is part of it, too: one of the realities facing any preacher is that you can come to church every Sunday and hear sermons your entire life, but you will probably never remember even one sentence of a sermon word-for-word.  But, each and every one of us, even the youngest children who cannot read, have memorized the words to our favourite hymns.

Music, too, across cultures, has a way of communicating those things that are too deep for words.  Think back to a Remembrance Day ceremony: the speakers can read poems and deliver speeches about the meaning of remembrance and sacrifice; but nothing makes it sink in like those first blazing notes of that solo trumpet playing the Last Post; it’s a sound that gives goosebumps and calls us to focus in a way that words never could.

This Advent, as we prepare ourselves not only to celebrate Christmas, but to make ourselves ready for Christ’s coming, his advent into our hearts and lives both every day and at the last day when he comes in glory, we’re going to focus on a wonderful but often-overlooked musical.

That musical is the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus.

A Grand Production: More than a Christmas pageant

If you sit down and read the start of Luke – something I encourage you to do when you go home today, it’ll only take 5 minutes – you’ll see that this account of Christ’s birth is no dry news article or history book. 

St. Luke, as the apostles were entering old age after long lives of preaching and teaching by word of mouth, was called by God to record, to write down, their teachings so that they could be carried to the ends of the earth.  And as you read about the birth of Jesus, you’ll see that he included the oldest Christian hymns that we have; hymns sung by the earliest Christians, summarizing exactly what the birth of Christ means, and, like all great songs, saying in the most efficient and memorable way possible how it is that this unlikely birth — an unwed teenage mother giving birth to a helpless baby in a shed in a forgotten farming town — is, amazingly, exactly how God intended to keep his promise to restore and redeem a broken world.

So today, we zoom in on the first song from that musical: the Benedictus, on page 88 of your BAS. 

The Setting

Luke starts us off in his wonderful account of Christ’s birth, not in Bethlehem, but in Jerusalem.

It isn’t Mary and Joseph on the stage, but the story begins with an old priest and his old wife.  In art this priest, Zechariah, is shown as a kind, old man: a long beard, a warm smile on wrinkled cheeks, with a once-strong body now slightly hunched over by the weight of time.  By his side, centre stage in the Gospel, is his wife, Elizabeth, her rosy, wrinkled cheeks framed by her gray hair.

They were faithful believers in God’s promises, and Zechariah was a faithful priest, serving in the temple in Jerusalem. 

But, in spite of their faithfulness, in spite of their faith in God, they were childless.

And that’s an important point – and, if we think back to the Old Testament, it’s a familiar point.

In the days before Old Age Pensions and RRSPs, without welfare or income support, your children were your retirement; your children were your insurance policy for when your body became too weak to work.

Children are a blessing from God, not least because it’s their God-given duty to honour their father and mother, to care for them and provide for them in that great role-reversal of each generation, as the one who once cared for, fed, and changed a helpless baby is now the one being cared for by that child.

Elisabeth is barren; this faithful couple, entering old age, has accepted that they are entirely dependent on God and the good will of others for their survival.

And that should sound familiar, if we look at God’s plan of salvation.

Abraham and Sarah were childless.  They were practically ancient, and God says “your descendants will be like the sand of the sea”, something so ridiculous that Sarah laughs in the face of the angel.

God gives them Isaac, who marries Rebecca.  Clearly, it’s up to Isaac and Rebecca to produce these great descendants, but guess what, Rebecca is barren too. 

God gives them Jacob and Esau; Jacob is to inherit the promise of God, and God changes his name to Israel and says he will make a mighty nation through whom the knowledge and saving truth of God will reach the whole world… except, guess what, Rachel can’t have children either, until God intervenes and she becomes the mother of the tribes of Joseph and Benjamin.

Hannah, too, is unable to conceive until God intervenes and she gives birth to Samuel, the prophet who is responsible for anointing David as King of the Jews, as we know God’s ultimate plan was that that earthly throne would be united with God’s throne in Jesus, who reigns as both Son of Man and Son of God.

The Message

And that’s the first important point that this song teaches us about the message of Christmas: God’s mighty intervention isn’t for those who are “sort of” dependent on God.  God’s outstretched hand and mighty arm doesn’t flex his muscle for those who are faithful but who are “getting along just fine, thank you very much”.

No, God’s promise to lift up the humble and meek, is, throughout history, for those who reach the realization that there is nothing they can do to ‘fix’ their situation. 

God doesn’t want a chosen people who can look back and say, “wow, look how great we are”.  He doesn’t choose mighty heroes, models of human strength.  No, he chooses to raise up a people out of those who are barren. 

That’s the point: God does the impossible for those who love him and have a holy fear, the fear, the awe that comes when you recognize that you are powerless but he is powerful; he does the impossible not when we’re “trying their best” or when we think we’ve “got this under control”, but he does the impossible when those who love him admit that they’re in an impossible situation.  When we admit that He is God and we are not.

This is the story that Luke is proclaiming as he opens the Gospel with this great song: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has come to his people and set them free.  He has raised up for us a mighty saviour, born of the house of his servant David” – a house built, not on might, but on unlikely people lifted out of impossible situations by an almighty God.

…Just as He promised.

And that’s the second point being made as Luke opens with this great musical number, this great hymn of the Church.  This – what we’re about to see – “is the oath God swore to our forefather Abraham”. 

The message of Christmas, the message of the Gospels, is that God keeps his word. 

Now, it might not be as we expect – and that’s part of the point.  In our Bibles we just need to flip a few pages to see where God’s promises were fulfilled.  But, for the people of Israel, for Zechariah and Elizabeth standing here on centre stage, it’s been 700 years since the prophets said the Messiah would come.  700 years.  That’s like someone making a promise to your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother in the 1300s; it would take a lot of faith for you today to wait for that promise to be delivered; but that’s where we have to remember that God’s timescale isn’t ours; as we sing, a thousand years for Him are like an evening, as the ever-rolling stream of time carries its’ sons away.

But God swore an oath.  Have you ever sworn an oath?  Have you ever made the declaration that your very life and freedom depend on what you’re about to say?  Now, imagine, God, the very Creator of life, has such a plan for our Redemption that He, the Eternal One, swears an oath – swears on His Life – that his people, the holy and righteous, will be free.  Free from the hands of our enemies; free to worship him without fear, all the days of our life.

As we begin the Christmas story, as the first characters walk onto the stage, we sing “God will do the impossible”, and why?  Because this, this birth in a manger, as unlikely as it seems, is God keeping his promises – just wait and see.

And then the song closes with a surprising twist: Zechariah says “you, my child” speaking of John the Baptist, the baby that God sent to this old man and his barren wife, “You will be the prophet of the Most High”. 

That’s the twist: in each of these situations where God has intervened, where God has done the impossible, the end is the same.  Your life is not your own.  When you admit you’re powerless; when you accept God’s promises, you become part of God’s plan.

This child from this barren womb would be the last of the Old Testament prophets, born to prepare the way for the Lord, to preach salvation by the forgiveness of sins.

John the Baptist is no hero: he’s a strange man living in the desert wearing camel skin and eating locusts; he’s not what you want your child to be when they grow up.  But, by the grace of God, he’s an essential part: it’s through Him that God reveals Jesus as his beloved Son when he is baptized in the River Jordan.

Do you ever wonder about your purpose? 

I’m not talking about work or ‘success’ – after all, by all accounts, John was a madman in the desert. 

But, as we prepare for Christmas, as we prepare for Christ to enter our lives in our own day, once we accept that we are powerless and depend on God for the impossible; when we finally come to believe that God will keep his promises, then the clear message of Christmas is that our lives are not our own; that each of us has a purpose, each of us, as we acknowledge God as Lord, has a part to play in God’s plan, a part in this great musical, this great drama playing out from the foundation of the world.

That’s why a wrinkled old man and his wife will hold the baby that baptizes Jesus. 

That’s why a teenaged mom lays the Saviour of the world in a bed of hay

That’s why you and me have been called to bring the Good News of healing, and forgiveness, and freedom from the past and fear of the future to a world …and neighbours… who don’t know that God will do the impossible; who don’t know that God keeps his promises; who don’t know that they, if they’re willing, have a part in this story too.

This is the first song of Christmas, and it’s no “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”, but it’s more than a classic – these are words to live by, words to teach our children, words to bring to the ends of the earth, as we prepare, one day, to see our Saviour face to face, when, like the shepherds and the angels above, we fall on our knees and veil our faces as we come and adore Him, as we worship Christ, our Risen King.

Gospel Lesson: Luke 1:5-24a
Hymns: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence”
and “Lo, He comes with clouds descending” (Easily sung to the tune Regent Square (“Angels from the Realms of Glory”) if the traditional tune is unknown).

The general idea for this series — but not the content — is borrowed from Alistair Begg’s book The Christmas Playlist