The Rev. Paul J Cain
St. Luke 1: 39-56
Count Your Blessings (Including a Sheep)
Fourth Sunday in Advent, 20 December 2009
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the popular Holiday movie White Christmas, Bing Crosby plays a song & dance man who puts on a show in a Vermont ski lodge run by his WW2 army general. In one scene, Bing serenades his future wife who is having trouble with worry preventing sleep. “When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep and I fall asleep counting my blessings.”
In the Gospel lesson appointed for this morning, Mary the Mother of our Lord sings a psalm to God thanking Him for her blessings. As we await Christmas this week, we have many things for which we are thankful.
As soon as Thanksgiving comes and goes, Christmas movies and specials begin showing up on TV. Determined shoppers converge on malls, department stores, and computers with an internet connection. The sound of Jingle Bells and other holiday music fill the air and people make plans to spend Christmas and New Year’s with family and friends.
We are blessed to live in a country where many of us have time off to celebrate Christmas, some money to spend to purchase gifts for loved ones, and also blessed to have televisions to watch all those Christmas shows and New Year’s football games.
Time with family, feelings of goodwill, giving and getting gifts are all the world knows of Christmas. These things are all wonderful blessings, but sooner or later we must go back home—back to work or school. Feelings of goodwill fade (especially if our team loses the bowl game) and the pre-Christmas lines at checkout counters become longer lines at return counters.
I’m a big fan of classic movies like Holiday Inn, A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life, but they, like the world’s version of Christmas make no mention of Christ or His birth, or if they do mention something connected to God or Christianity, they get important details wrong. Christ is what makes our joy as Christians unique.
Our preparation for Christmas is heavily influenced by the commercial and secular Christmas rather than the one the Bible tells us about. We take for granted time off, a holiday bonus, time with family, money for presents, and our team in a bowl game. We are often frustrated by Christmas shopping—searching for that perfect gift. We are sometimes more concerned about what that person will think rather than just giving out of love. And when it comes to Christmas cards we sometimes wait to see who sends us cards before we send them one. We forget the reason we send cards in the first place! Our preparation is full of stress.
In the Gospel lesson for this Fourth Sunday in Advent, Mary prepares for the birth of Jesus by visiting her relative Elizabeth. An angel announced God’s plan to Mary about the child she would bear, and she responded in faith. God also gave her a sign to verify that His Word was true. He foretold the birth of a son by Elizabeth—John the Baptist. This was truly a miracle, for Elizabeth was barren.
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42and she ex claimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord."
As they greet one another, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy. The unborn John had faith!
Mary offers a song to God in praise and thanksgiving for all of His mighty deeds. Her song is much like the Psalms, the hymnal of the Old Testament. Her song is one of four songs by angels and New Testament people that are preserved for us in the beginning of Luke. This one is also part of our Lutheran liturgy in our services of Vespers and Evening Prayer. We call her song the Magnificat—after its first word in Latin.
46And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
Mary focuses on God and the salvation He is bringing about. She rejoices in God her savior, and clearly confesses her need for a Savior. She shares the Gospel. Her son, Jesus, comes into the world to be her savior and our savior. As the epistle from Hebrews teaches us, Christ came into the world to become the sacrifice that makes us holy. We are made holy because this sacrifice forgives us for our sins.
We are even forgiven for forgetting Christ at Christmas. One would think this should be a hard thing to do since His title is the first part of the name of the holiday. God forgives you. God forgives us for taking for granted His many blessings.
God forgives us for being too concerned about what others think. That we’ll never know for sure. We do know what God thinks of us. Because of the Savior, God sees us as His forgiven children. God even forgives us for giving gifts or sending cards for the wrong motive—obligation—rather than being generous out of joy for God’s greatest gift, Jesus. As a joyful response to the gift of Christ we thank Him for the true Christmas message. Christ has come. You are forgiven! That is why our souls rejoice in the Lord.
As a response to the gift of forgiveness, we praise and thank God, as we are doing today in the Divine Service. Like Bing, we count our blessings. In Mary’s song, she counts hers.
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior 48for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
Why does Mary rejoice? She rejoices in the coming salvation and because God looked with tender care upon the humble state of his servant, Mary.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; Why? We know it isn’t because of anything in her—anything she is responsible for.
48for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. Mary will be blessed because of what God has done to and through and for her. The focus—Mary’s focus—is on God’s work.
Mary sees her life as continuation of God’s merciful action since the beginning of the world. God created all and it was good. When Adam and Eve sinned, God acted in a promise of mercy. He promised a Savior, One who would crush Satan. The pattern throughout the Old Testament is one of God acting first.
Mary takes the focus off herself and puts it on God and God made flesh, her son, Jesus. She is unique in that she sees God’s promise of redemption at hand, nearby, in her womb. But you don’t have to be the mother of the Savior in order to be a Christian. You don’t have to do great and amazing things in order to be saved—that’s not how God saves.
Our text teaches us that God saves by His action, stretching out His arm in mercy.
50And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
It is all about God doing, God acting, God saving, God giving. It is all Gift, like the Gift of His Son. Our God is one of promise and fulfillment.
54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever." 56And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.
Mary links the hope of the messiah with the promise God gives to Abraham in Genesis 22:17-18 (ESV). I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice." In faith, Abraham obeyed.
God’s chosen people were blessed for one simple reason, so that they would be a blessing. Time after time they fell away, and went after idols, but they could not thwart the Lord’s plan. God brought them back to Himself. God used the Israelites to bless the whole world, for Jesus the Messiah came from the line of King David. Christ came to bless all of the peoples of the world, the Jews and the non-Jews.
In the Magnificat, Mary counted her many blessings. We too humbly count the many blessings God has given. In Bing Crosby’s song he urges us, “If you’re worried and you can’t sleep, just count your blessings instead of sheep and you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings.” Our friend Bing is close, but as Christians we can count our blessings including a sheep, Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, Mary’s Savior and ours. In Advent we celebrate the coming of Christ to take away our sins, yours, mine, and those of the whole world. And as we count our blessings we await the second coming, second advent, of Jesus. Come Lord Jesus. Amen.
The peace of God which [sur]passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Listen to Bing himself here: