- Vienna McCarthy
Christmas Eve Sermon 2020
By a show of hands, who’s Christmas plans have been upended this year?
Yeah, I guess that’s all of us! I don’t know about you, but it feels like my plans have been reimagined…rearranged…and ultimately canceled repeatedly throughout this year more generally. This time around I’ve felt nearly numb going through the same process regarding my Christmas plans.
But, perhaps there is something that we can learn about rearranging and cancelling plans from the original Christmas story which we have heard in part here this evening.
Growing up in a neo-Calvinist protestant church, I never really considered what Mary might have been experiencing on the months and days leading up to Jesus’ birth. I was focused on the main event-God coming into this world in human form. That’s not a bad focus, I must admit, but in a year of uncertainty where I’ve had to give up the reigns of my own life quite a bit, Mary seems like an apt character to delve more deeply into.
Now, first off, let’s remember that Mary was a YOUNG woman…no, a young GIRL—she was somewhere between 12 and 14. An angel appears to her and tells her that she is pregnant with the Son of God. Yes, Mary was betrothed to Joseph at that age, but she wasn’t planning to have a baby yet—let alone Immanuel, Son of Man, Word Made Flesh, and the rest. I’d like to think that she might instead have been in the process of planning with her parents how her dowry would be exchanged with Joseph’s family or planning to learn how to cook her mother’s stew before she got married.
Instead, this young girl’s plans were rearranged as she was chosen to play an unforgettable role in the world’s salvation. I, myself, cannot imagine accepting such a position! But, as we all know, she did!
And although that sounds like the hard part of the story, Mary’s plans get thrashed again as they learn they must journey to Bethlehem whilst she is in her final days of pregnancy because the government has called a census—which feels oddly familiar in 2020-an announcement from a government that then dictates the populous’ movements!
90 miles they journeyed from their home in Nazareth. I looked it up on google maps and it would take 33 hours continuously walking to reach Bethlehem. For those of you here that have been pregnant, I’m sure you can testify to the rest of us that doing that journey at the end of a pregnancy would be a bit rough.
For any of the children here tonight, I have a question for you. Can you remember the last time that you went on a really long walk? Ask the grownup that went on that walk with you how long it was. Shout it out for the rest of us to hear!
I imagine that Mary had planned a more noble birth for the Son of God—at least in a bed of some sorts. I imagine that she had planned for her female relatives to be around her to help with the birthing process. But, as we know, that wasn’t what happened. I can imagine that on the journey while Mary is struggling along, Joseph looks over to her and promises that once they reach Bethlehem, he will find them the best, most cozy little inn for her to have Jesus in.
But again, their plans changed. There was no room left in Bethlehem as so many people had arrived to be counted in the census. Finally, Mary and Joseph are offered to stay in a stable. I think in looking at our beautiful nativity scenes or creches each year, we forget what a stable behind an inn might have actually looked like. Yes, there was hay, but when was the last time you were in a barn where they kept animals? I’m imagining some pretty strong smells, and more than hay dotted around the floor.
But despite all of the changes in Mary’s plans, Jesus enters this world in that stable. She wraps him in some cloth and lays him in a food trough for those animals that they were cohabitating with.
Reading the Bible, we don’t get any sense of Mary complaining about her plans changing. She seems nervous at times perhaps, but she understands that she is part of something so much larger than herself. She prays to God for comfort and guidance. She knows that despite the frailty and uncertainty of her own plans, God’s plan is steadfast, unwavering, and Good, with a capital G.
God’s plan, as we know from the Prophets of the Old Testament, was that He would enter this world in the humblest way possible—and folks, fulfilling this plan as a baby of an unwed migrant girl born in a barn, I can’t fathom a humbler entry.
Whenever I first read today’s passage from Isaiah, I had a hard time coming up with the energy to “rejoice…as with joy at the harvest”. But we aren’t left just that in Isaiah. God goes on to make a promise and then sticks to His plan. And with our own plans crashing down around us, the Christmas story, the story of Mary particularly provides us with a sort of how-to guide for coping with this year’s uncertainty.
We may not have all the normal energy that we would to rejoice and take joy in this Christmas, but my hope is that we might at least find a bit of comfort. You and I might be on Plan F…moving down the alphabet with each new government announcement, but God is on Plan A and we can take great refuge in that.
I would like to close with the words from Isaiah:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.