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What do you think of when you think of Santa Claus? Perhaps a fat, jolly, bearded man dressed in red? Maybe you think of his sleigh, with its eight reindeer and Rudolph at the front.
If you trace the legend back into the ages, you’ll find more than just a photo-op at the mall, or an explanation for that rustling on the roof. If you trace the legend back you find a humble Christian with a compassionate heart.
Saint Nicholas was born in the third century in what is now the southern coast of Turkey. Though wealthy, Nicholas didn’t seek to hoard his gold. Instead, he used it to bless other people in his village.
Legend says that there was one family in particular that Nicholas’ heart went out to. That family had three daughters. Sadly, their father was so poor that he couldn’t afford their weddings.
When the eldest daughter approached the time of marriage, Nicholas secretly left a bag of gold on the family’s doorstep.
When it came time for the middle daughter to be married, Nicholas threw another bag of gold down the family’s chimney.
When the youngest daughter was to be married, Nicholas threw one last bag of gold through an open window, where curiously, it landed in a stocking hung by the fireplace to dry.
Compassionate Nicolas was not seeking to build a legend around himself. He was simply putting into practice what his Savior taught in Matthew 6…
“3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4 ESV).
In Saint Nicholas we find a lesson in Christian giving.
In today’s sermon reading we learn how God gives, and we see the proper way to receive the gift of God’s mercy.
Luke 1:26-38 (ESV)
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Six months before the angel Gabriel had been sent to deliver a message to a certain priest named Zacharias. When Gabriel appeared to him, he was in the city of God, Jerusalem. Furthermore, Zacharias was at the Lord’s Temple. Better still, this priest was actually standing in the first room of the sanctuary burning incense to the LORD.
It was gracious of the Lord to send an angel messenger to speak with Zacharias. But it probably wasn’t too shocking to Gabriel to go to God’s Temple and speak with one of God’s faithful priests. Gabriel’s next assignment, however, might have ruffled his feathers a bit.
You can almost imagine Gabriel looking quizzically down at his mission papers. Nazareth? Seriously? Nazareth?
Nazareth had the distinct honor of being mentioned in the Old Testament a grand total of ZERO times. Nothing great, or even notable, had ever happened there. When the apostle Philip later told his friend Nathanael that they had discovered who the Christ was, and that he was from Nazareth, Nathanael sarcastically replied,
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46 NASB).
And yet, Gabriel’s assignment was no mistake. He was to go to a poor young girl and tell her that she was to be the mother of the Savior of the world.
The destination of Nazareth, and the person of poor, young Mary should be enough to erase any doubts we have about God being kind and merciful. In these humble details we see that the Son of God was coming to save each and every soul. From the highest, to the humblest—God’s gift of forgiveness in Christ is intended for every sinner.
In verse 27 Luke takes care to record that Mary was a virgin, and that she was betrothed to a man named Joseph who was a descendant of David. Incidentally, Mary could also trace her lineage back to King David. But that mighty house was now a rotting stump compared to what it had been.
It had been almost a thousand years since David had ruled in Jerusalem, and since then the mighty cedar of his family had been cut down. Mary and Joseph were descendants of David, to be sure, but that didn’t mean all that much anymore. They were just another poor couple scraping out a living in backwater Nazareth.
That’s what that prophecy in Isaiah 11 was all about.
“11 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:1-3 NIV).
Just when it seemed like God’s promise to grant one of David’s descendants an eternal throne was going to go unfulfilled, Gabriel showed up at Mary’s door with a most remarkable gift. It was to be her Son. From the stump of David’s family a glorious shoot was soon to grow forth. The Messiah himself was coming.
I want to take just a moment to clear up a little phrase here. In verse 30, Gabriel tells Mary not to be afraid, because she has “found favor with God.” Now, in the English this sounds like Mary had done something to get God’s attention. Something that warranted a blessing from the Lord. But this is only how the English phrase sounds. The Greek phrase actually means something more like, “you have been given a gift from God.”
This gift was the Child that Mary would bear. A Child whose name was to be “Jesus.” Now, this name is notable for two reasons. First of all, it meant, “Yahweh Saves.” A fitting name for the Savior of sinners. But the second reason this name is notable is that it was a common name in Jewish circles. Many other boys had been given this name. God’s selection of this name serves as one more expression of God’s desire to save ALL people.
Gifts, gifts, and more gifts. That’s what Gabriel was sent to announce to Mary. It’s no surprise that gift giving has become such an important part of celebrating our Savior’s birth. But what is the right way to receive a gift of this magnitude?
When a person unexpectedly receives a valuable gift, their response is often to try and give the gift back, or to refuse it on the grounds that it is “too much.”
Mary teaches us a different way. Though just a young girl, Mary was a faithful follower of the Lord. And yet when Gabriel greets her, she doesn’t know how to react. Luke says that she was “greatly troubled” and tried to figure out what Gabriel’s greeting could mean. SHE was to be given a gift? HER? The LORD was with HER? This is how the heart of a believer responds to the Lord’s gift of mercy. We wonder why the almighty God wants anything to do with us.
Mary teaches us how to receive God’s gift of mercy, when she helps us remember our lowly position. We are all sinners who don’t deserve even the littlest of God’s blessings. We are certainly unworthy to receive full and free forgiveness. It was crazy that an angel of God would visit Mary in Nazareth. It’s equally crazy that God would reach out to each one of us with the gift of forgiveness. We must remember this, and never take this gift for granted.
Even though Mary knows she isn’t worthy of the honor God was giving her, she doesn’t try to give that gift back. She accepts it and wants to know more. In verse 34 Mary asks Gabriel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin.” With these words Mary isn’t questioning the validity of Gabriel’s claim. Instead, she’s showing her faith in what he said. She wants to know just how this is going to come about. She wants to know the details.
In this also, Mary teaches us how to receive God’s gift of mercy. Not with doubt, but with excitement and an eagerness to learn just how this all works. You’ve erased the record of my sin, Lord? Wow. Just how did you make that happen? Tell me more.
Because Mary’s question wasn’t a question of doubt, but a question of eagerness to learn, Gabriel explained to Mary how she would become pregnant while still a virgin. The same Holy Spirit who brooded over the waters in the very beginning would overshadow her. The same Holy Spirit who breathes life into all creatures on earth, would cause life to spark into being in Mary’s womb. And the holy, human, Son of God would begin growing in her belly.
This was quite a lot for Mary to take in, and Gabriel knew it. So he gave Mary’s faith a little boost. He told her a little secret. There was another miracle from God that had already taken place. And Mary could go see it. Elizabeth, Mary’s relative, who was supposed to be barren, and who was well beyond child bearing age, was right now six months pregnant. As Gabriel said, “nothing will be impossible with God.”
And what a special verse that is to hold onto. For our own salvation is impossible apart from God. You and I cannot do a single thing to erase the long and sordid record of our sins against each other, and against God. But God can, and he did. He sent his one-and-only Son into the human race to be the sacrifice which obliterates the record of our sins, and pronounces us holy before the eternal God.
One last time, Mary teaches us how to receive this gift of mercy. Mary’s final words to Gabriel were…
“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38 ESV).
This might have shocked Gabriel a little bit, if angels are capable of being shocked. “Behold” is a strong word! “Look here” it means, “Note this carefully.” And this was coming from a tender young virgin from Nazareth to a mighty angel of God! Behold! I am the servant of the Lord, and to what you say, I respond—AMEN!
This was the response of simple faith. And this is how Mary would counsel us to respond to the gift of God’s mercy that is found in Jesus Christ. You say I’m forgiven because of your Son God? Mark it well, I believe you! Let it be so, according to your promise.
Think of that old legend about Saint Nicholas again for a moment. Wouldn’t it have been a sad, sad ending if the pride of that family of girls had made them return Nicholas’ gift? That would have been sad indeed. For the proper response to a great gift is to simply receive it with joy and thanksgiving.
And that’s the right response to God’s gift of mercy too. When we hear God’s gift of full forgiveness speak out to us in the Christmas story, and in countless other passages in the Bible, how sad it would be if we tried to return that gift. Wait God, wait. Let me clean a few things up in my life first. Then I can accept your gift and be worthy of it. Oh, how foolish our hearts can be. Better to follow Mary’s example, and simply receive God’s mercy with a heart of awe, with a mind which eagerly wants to know more, and with a mouth which gladly says, “Amen Lord! Let it be to me, according to your word.”
May the Holy Spirit bless us this Christmas, so that we receive the Christ Child, and all the blessings that come with him, with a simple faith and a thankful heart.