Here we are, at the very beginning of the Christmas season. Oh, I know the malls and stores have been playing Christmas music and hanging decorations for months now—but we all know better. Now is the actual starting line for Christmas because now is when we can all begin to listen to Christmas music and watch Christmas movies without feeling like weirdos. Or is it just me?
So what are you really looking forward to this Christmas season? What is it that you're eagerly anticipating about this season? Of course, we all have high hopes and dreams for Christmas. We all look forward to some unique, magical moments with family and friends that only Christmastime seemingly brews up for us. We all anticipate moments of real joy, pleasure, and even enchantment coming from parties, dinners, and gifts that only Christmastime can muster. We all envision and hope for our Christmastime to be some Norman Rockwell painting come to life, with simple pleasures of reunion, joy, affirmation, and connection with people we love. That's our wish for this whole Christmas time.
But what inevitably happens? What predictably happens to our wishes and dreams of Christmastime? There are always those moments when the kids melt down and descend into absolute chaos: from the sugar consumed or from the gifts opened revealing underwear and socks. There's always that one family member who always seems to bring up that one topic of conversation that makes everyone feel awkward, angry, or both. There's always that sense of loneliness and loss that sneaks up on us and surprises us—even though we're around lots of people. There's always that sense of disappointment that comes with how Christmastime has actually gone; or how we're not happier, just more tired; or how we feel like we're in some insulated bubble with a brutal world swirling all around us that bombards us in the news. And there's always that sense of absolute terror that comes with that little tag line going along with any toy we get for the kids: "Some Assembly Required."
We all have wishes and hopes of a Norman Rockwell painting come to life during the Christmas season, but inevitably we end up experiencing it devolve into some version of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. This gap between our expectations of Christmas and the reality we actual experience triggers some profound and honest questions about Christmas: questions about the meaning of Christmas, its actual relevance in our world and for our hearts, the real hope to be found in it, and the actual opportunities Christmas has for us. But those are actually the real questions surrounding Christmas. Those are actually the real questions involved with Jesus Christ's coming that we mark during this season of Advent.
Here's the ironic thing: Most of those questions we pose were some of the very questions people asked and wrestled with in the very first Christmas. That's right—that rather sentimental scene of Mary and Joseph sitting over a manger with a child glowing with light all around, while being surrounded by farm animals and angelic beings? That scene teems with this tension of a gap between expectations and the reality of it all. That tension forced them to wrestle and come to some sort of conclusions with these real questions of Christmas.
So during this Advent season, let's actually tackle some of these questions arising out of this gap between Christmas expectations and our actual experience. We're doing it so that we can capture and glimmer some of the wonder of Christmas—even when we're living in the gap between our expectations and reality.
The first real question is this: What difference does Christmas make? Besides giving us a holiday where we deck the halls, exchange gifts, go to parties, and have some time off. What difference does Christmas actually make in our heart and life, in our world today, and in history even more generally?
Surprisingly, the best answer to this question comes from an unwed, pregnant, teenage girl who was around 13 to 16 years old. Usually, those adjectives describe something else, like some reality show. But this unwed, pregnant, teenage girl was Mary, the soon-to-be mother of Jesus. She has a very unique perspective into the dramatic coming of Jesus and its meaning for her as his mother, which compels her to sing out in praise for the wonder of it all, when she is in seclusion and visiting a relative named Elizabeth.
This song is referred to as "the Magnificat" because that is the Latin translation of "magnifies," which is the very thing Mary leads with in this song and wants to do with God at the thought of Christmas.
Did you catch what difference Christmas makes? Christmas makes a difference personally, globally, and devotionally. Let's have a look at Mary's answer to this question of the difference Christmas makes.
Praise for God being personal
Notice that first stanza and how Mary praises God for what he's done for her personally in Christ coming.
From deep down in her soul, Mary wells up in happiness, excitement, and gratitude to God. She does so in ways that echo the Old Testament and the poetry there, which she was steeped in ever since she was a little girl. This is Mary praising God in categories and language she's familiar with—though we may be unfamiliar with it—and it simply pours out of her from the deepest recesses of her being, much like the emotion gushing out from someone who has been snatched from certain death by doctors or firemen.
So why such strong emotion and outpouring? Because of how Mary perceived that God had reached down to her to do great things for her. Mary knows who she is in that world. She's a nobody. She's an unwed, engaged, teenage girl living in a world where age and marital status mattered, and where being a man mattered.
What's more, she's pregnant without a legitimate husband anywhere in sight. Everyone knew how the birds and bees worked. They knew enough science that Mary couldn't just say, "Hey! Good news! I'm pregnant, but don't worry, no man was involved!" That's ridiculous now, and it was also absolutely ridiculous then. It was about as believable then as it would be today for any teenage girl to say that to her parents. If it weren't true and verified, this would have been laughed out of existence in the first century. But at this point, that reality is shrouded, so she's got another black mark against her in that world and it looked like a great big red "A" around her neck.
Then if that were not enough to put her down on the social scale, she also lives the furthest away from the center of power and influence because she lives in the backwater, inconsequential village of Nazareth. So Mary is fully aware of her place in her world. She's an unwed, engaged, pregnant teenage girl, living in the sticks. She's scrapping the bottom of the barrel when it came to influence or prominence in her world. She's a zero, a nobody.
But despite that humble standing and relatively unimportant state, God reached out to her through his messenger, Gabriel—that angel of his who delivers messages for him. Gabriel had informed her that God would reach even further and more personally into her life because she would supernaturally conceive and bear Jesus Christ.
She would actually be the mother to the Son of God who would become human, the one whom all Jews had been looking for and anxiously waiting for to come from God to rescue them, the great king of the ages. That's why she sings there that generations of people would look upon her as fortunate to have been in her position, as the mother of the one around which history is formed: the very thing that has happened in the ages since she birthed Jesus.
You see, Mary recognizes that in Christ coming, God was doing great things for her: even though she was totally undeserving of it, even though she couldn't muster anything to warrant it. That's why she praises God from the depths of her soul.
Let me use an analogy here. Have you ever met a hero of yours or a celebrity? Have you ever beamed because they acknowledged your existence, smiled at you, or actually spoke to you?
Personally, I'm a bit of a church junkie, and I just love to process church, preaching, ministry, and the like. So being a pastor isn't just a profession for me. It's a calling, an interest, and a hobby—all wrapped into one.
I share that because about 10 years ago, I was invited to a dinner for a whole bunch of ministry leaders in Massachusetts. At that point in time, I had just moved to the area and was beginning to plant a church, so I really have no idea why they even invited me. I was a pastor in name only, with a church in theory only.
But I went, and to my surprise, Tim Keller was the featured speaker. Yes, the Tim Keller—the senior pastor of Redeemer in New York City who's in high demand as a speaker all over the place and who's written more books in recent years than most of us have read.
He gave some incredible talk about ministry and how the gospel is still powerful in a place like Massachusetts. People were laughing, crying, and dumbfounded with his insight and simplicity. Then afterwards, I had a thought: Hey, I'm going to go up and talk to Tim Keller. I don't know what got into me, but I got up the nerve and made the very long walk up from where I was sitting to the front, where he was interacting with some other pastors.
Then, when there was a small break in the action, I introduced myself. He was so gracious and interacted a little bit with me about life and ministry. That's right! I had this small conversation about life and ministry with Tim Keller!
If I thought it wasn't in bad taste, I would have asked for him to sign something, take a selfie with me to post on Instagram and Facebook, and then ask him over to our house for dinner. But I knew he was being kind. I knew that it was a gift he was giving me in that little conversation to encourage me as a young buck who was planting a church. I was brimming with positivity afterwards.
So if a church junkie like me would beam from a little conversation with Tim Keller, because he did something for me that I knew I didn't deserve—if we can understand why we gush over a hero or celebrity talking with us—can we then understand why a teenage girl would gush from the depths of her soul because the God of the universe visited her to do something great for her that she didn't deserve?
And if so, then can we also appreciate how Mary recognized that God made Christ's coming very personal for her: beyond just being a womb or a holding tank for Jesus? You see, Mary is reflecting something very important about Christ coming and that it is deeply and profoundly personal. Obviously, it was for her as Jesus' mother-to-be, and even uniquely so. But Christ's coming is also deeply personal for us.
Christmas isn't just some quant holiday on the calendar, or some sentimental moment in history. Christmas is also deeply and profoundly personal for us because God did something great for us: he sent Christ for each one of us. God didn't just send Christ at Christmas for the nameless, faceless, masses of humanity. He sent Christ at Christmas for me, and for you.
This is far beyond a celebrity or hero doing something nice for us. This is way beyond some celebrity or hero inviting us to join them for dinner. This is leaps and bounds beyond any celebrity or hero of ours taking notice of us and really talking with us. That's enough to make us giddy, but this personal extension of God toward us is so much more profound.
To see Christ coming is to see God—the great and ultimate ruler of the universe, the ultimate creator and sustainer behind all that is, our very own Maker who fashioned us in our mother's womb. It is to see him personally extend himself to us to do great things for us: not to do great things like he did for Mary in being the mother of Christ, but to do great things for you and me, by entering into this world to be like us so we might become God's son or daughter through faith in the one he sent for us. If that's not enough to make us giddy from the depths of our souls, then I don't know what is. That's the difference Christmas makes for us personally.
So join in with Mary to praise God during this Advent season, because he has personally extended himself to you in sending Jesus. Thank him because he's initiated something none of us deserved or earned. Welcome him in because he's God—not merely some celebrity or hero—and he's come to you through Christ. Magnify God in that you show him bigger and more significant in your life and in this world by prioritizing what he thinks, what he's like, and how he would have us live, because the greatest one has come to you through no effort of your own.
Christmas makes a difference because God has personally extended himself to us in sending Jesus. But Mary doesn't stop there for all that long, though it's a profound place to sit in. She continues singing and moves to a chorus of the global implications of Christ's coming.
Praise for God making things right
Notice the global tone here and how God turns this world upside down with Christ's coming.
From Mary's vantage point, God revolutionizes this world through the strength of his arm in sending Christ. Follow her reasoning here; there are two sides of this coin in how she sees that Christ's coming is a display of God's strength.
On one side of the coin, God shows the strength of his arm in extending mercy to those who fear him, in the sense of those who look to God in faith and dependence. How? Well, for one, that mercy comes in the form of exalting them who have humbled themselves before God in this way. But for another, it comes in the form of filling those who are literally and spiritually hungry with good things. So on one side of the coin, Mary concludes that with Christ's coming, God shows his strength in bringing the low and hungry to be high and filled.
But on the flip side of this coin, Mary also sees how God uses the strength of his arm in sending Christ to confront the powers and wealth that be. How so? Well, again, for one, he comes against those who aren't humble but proud of what they attain and how they prove their worth. To them, God raises his arm and brings them low. And God even does this all the way to the pinnacle of human power, the throne—where God overthrows them who proudly sit there, wielding their power to ensure their worth. Then for another, God comes against the rich who claim total self-sufficiency and have a white-knuckle grip on their money. To them, God's strength comes against them to send them away empty-handed. On this flip side of the coin, Mary concludes that with Christ's coming, God shows his strength in confronting the powerful and self-sufficient rich to overthrow and empty them.
This is dangerous stuff to whisper, much less sing at the top of our lungs. We may not see the danger because we're used to freedom of speech. But this is dangerous stuff to sing about: how God is going to stick it to the man. So inflammatory is this that back in the 1980s, this was banned from being read publicly in Guatemala because it was deemed so politically subversive. A Christmas song was banned for being too threatening to the powers that be! How crazy is that?
But this was even more dangerous for a teenage peasant girl to sing back then. What do you think King Herod would think about this? Remember, he's the king of Israel at this time. When he got wind of Jesus being born a king in Bethlehem, do you remember what he did?
He made plans to have him killed. When that failed, he slaughtered all boys younger than two years old in that whole area to scorch the earth and exterminate the threat. Herod would have come unglued with Mary saying his rule was as good as done. And if that's how Herod would react, then how do you think his king and superior, Caesar Augustus, would react? For certain, he'd kill her for treason, because this sort of talk was grounds for execution—which Rome wasn't afraid to do and actually did many times for promoting such ideas.
But despite that danger, Mary belts out that God's justice is initiated with Christ's coming. God's strength is on display with Jesus' coming because through it, he vindicates the humble and hungry, and he confronts the proud and rich.
But this even gets more audacious, so stay with me. We can't exactly see it with our translations here, but Mary originally doesn't sing these verses with future tense verbs, like optimistically singing some sort of wish that the dominoes will fall in such a way that all this will happen in the future. That's not at all how she's singing this song here.
She sings this song in the past tense to declare that this is as good as done. There's no wish involved here with her song. She sees this vision of God's reversal and justice coming through Jesus so clearly that Mary belts out this portion of her song in the past tense—as if it has already happened. With Christ's coming, she sings that God's justice is initiated. And she sings it in such a way that you can bank on it more that you can count on death and taxes. The humble will be lifted up. The hungry will be fed. The proud will be brought down, even those on thrones. And the rich will be emptied. So why is this so sure with Christ's coming?
Well, Jesus didn't just come as some religious figure. God sent his own Son to install him as the rightful king of the ages. It's just that he wasn't a king in the classic sense, where they use their authority to push people around. He came as a king who would use his authority to lay down his life on a cross. That way, he'd pay the penalty of our sin so that God's justice would be satisfied for all who'd trust Christ for that. Then in that way, we'd become his instruments of justice in help and generosity to the poor, hungry, and oppressed because we've experienced how far God went to give us justice with the Cross.
In fact, this is the very thing that happened with the earliest followers of Christ, to the point that the widely respected scholar and religious sociologist Rodney Stark would write this: "In the midst of squalor, misery, illness, and anonymity of ancient cities, Christianity provided an island of mercy and security … It started with Jesus."
But also by laying down his life and dying on a cross, Jesus would be raised in power as the true King that even sin, evil, and death couldn't resist, and whom everyone would have to reckon with one day. By that, Jesus will fully and completely make all things right one day.
You see, Christ's coming at Christmas means the humble are being lifted up and will be lifted up, the hungry are being fed and will be fed, the proud are being brought low and will be brought low, even those who are on thrones. The rich are being emptied and will be emptied.
Let none of us be mistaken here: Justice delayed doesn't mean justice is denied because he knows the whole truth, in detail, about every story and every situation. Eventually, one day, all accounts will have to be reckoned and reconciled with him because Christ is the true king who has come at Christmas.
So all of those things that so depress us about our world, with ISIS, the Syrian refugee crisis, the images of the poor we see on TV that make us squirm, and the stories of the oppressed and murdered we hear about in the news: Christ's coming at Christmas means God will sort it out, and his justice is already initiated. Christ's coming began to reverse all of that, and he will fully complete that reversal one day when all accounts are reckoned and reconciled with him. Let me say that again: Christ's coming began making all things right that God will complete one day in perfect and complete justice.
So join Mary in praise of God this Advent season, because not only has he personally extended himself to you, but he has also initiated his justice that will be completed one day.
Thank him for that reversal, that we see in Jesus lying in a manger, that will be completed one day. Magnify him by getting on board with God's movement of justice.
Magnify him by embracing God's justice, done on your behalf, in receiving Christ and what he did at the Cross, to pay the penalty of your sin. Then continue to magnify him by looking to that justice God exacted for you in faith so that you'd use what talents, influence, and resources you have to help the poor and oppressed. Magnify God by using your talents to serve others by helping the homeless, hosting international students, supporting foster families, and serving your city in a host of projects. Magnify God by using your influence to speak for the oppressed in defense and awareness to others, even politically so. Magnify God by using your resources to be generous with the poor, maybe starting in something like sponsoring a child that absolutely does work to bring justice.
Christmas makes a difference because God has personally extended himself to us in sending Jesus, and he has initiated his justice for our world. But Mary won't even let us end there, as profound of a place as it is. She simply continues singing this song beyond the personal and global implications of Christ's coming. She keeps singing to another verse in her song that touches on the devotional aspect of Christmas.
Praise for God keeping his promises
Notice the devotional ring out of the state of God's promises to his people.
This is how Mary rounds out her song. It is a high note in this song because she reminds us that these personal and global implications of Christ's coming came about because God remembered his mercy. That doesn't go to say that God forgot something and then remembered it: like he forgot where he put his car keys and finally remembered where he put them. It is that God has now remembered by acting on his word and promises that he made so many years before to Abraham.
You see, going back thousands of years, God had always promised his people that he'd send the Messiah—or in the Greek version of that title, the Christ. When times were hard and sinful, God would lift their eyes to the time when the Messiah would come as a balm and healer to make all of that right. When times were good, God would point them forward to the Messiah coming where even better times would be. In either good or bad times, God wanted them to put their hope beyond their situation and in the coming of the Messiah, where God would rescue them from oppression and enfold them in to a people living under the rule and reign of God.
God had always said he would do it, and he'd even give more details to fill out that picture as time went on. So they waited and looked for the Messiah's coming. And they waited. And they waited. And they waited. But this Messiah never seemed to come.
That is, until this unwed, pregnant, teenage girl sings about God now making good on that promise because she's carrying the Messiah in her womb. So Jesus' birth wasn't a matter of happenstance. His birth wasn't the unlikely fulfillment of a bunch of coincidences that some random people wishfully spoke hundreds of years prior. Jesus Christ's coming was a matter of God fulfilling his long-standing promise to his people.
It reminds me of a story I heard years ago. I couldn't even tell you who originally told it. But it's a story about a particular Saturday morning in a small town diner. You know the kind of diner—or you can well imagine the kind—where the whole town seems to gather for coffee, doughnuts, and catching up on all the latest news. As you also can imagine, on this particular Saturday, there was that typical dull roar in the diner with all of that eating, drinking, and talking.
But one morning, in a secluded corner booth, there was a young couple having breakfast alone. When they were done and got the check, the husband got up and went up to the diner's register to pay. Then he came back to their booth, and then he did something rather odd. He picked up his wife and carried her through the diner because she was crippled.
Then, as he carried her through the diner, the noise level slowly went down until you could almost hear a pin drop, and everyone's eyes were fastened on this young guy carrying his wife through the diner and on out the door. Then everyone saw that he somehow managed to open the door to his truck so that he could tenderly set his wife inside.
In that pregnant silence, with everyone's jaws hitting the ground and no one having a sense of what to say, a waitress broke that silence and said, "I guess he took his vows seriously."
God is as serious, if not more so, about his vows and promises, too. He is a God of his promises and vows. To see Christ's coming at Christmas means to see God fulfilling his promises and demonstrating how he treats all of his promises—including and especially the ones still to be fulfilled.
Think about it. All those promises God has made to us through Christ. We know he's good for them because we see Christ's coming at Christmas. That promise of forgiveness by receiving Christ. That promise he'll never leave us or forsake us. That promise of life with God now that extends beyond our graves into an eternity with him. And any other promise God has made to us that comes to your mind.
Know they are sure. Take it to the bank because God is a God of his word. Just look at Christ's coming at Christmas. That's why Mary sings here as she does, and that's why she invites us to praise God, as well.
So follow her lead and praise God. Praise God during this Advent season, because in sending Christ, God has not only personally extended himself to you and initiated his justice for our world, but he has also shown his promises to be sure.
Thank him for the promises he's made and how they're sure in a world that can be so unsure. Then magnify God by sinking your heart and life into those promises by meditating on Christ coming at Christmas, dying on a cross, and what that accomplishes for us by faith in him: the justifying of our lives, the acceptance with God, the adoption by God, the presence of God in our lives, and the future consummation done by God to bring irresistible and lasting peace within, among, and around us with the creation.
Christmas makes a difference—a profound and lasting difference—because God has personally extended himself to us in sending Jesus. He has initiated his justice for our world, and he shows his promises are sure.
That's why Mary sang here in the Magnificat as she did. But she doesn't just sing for us to sit on the sidelines and listen to it. She sings it for us to join in with her, praising and magnifying God with Christ's coming at Christmas, because Christ's coming is so sweeping and significant that it cries out for our song in this season too.
So sing, praise, magnify God this Christmas season, because Christmas makes that big of a difference personally, globally, and devotionally.
Steve Luxa is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Davis in Davis, California.