Too Much Noise
Luke 1, selected verses
As most of you know, we have horses, four of them, on our small farm out in Williamsburg. So I spend a lot of time mucking stalls, about an hour every day. Which means I spend a lot of time pushing a wheelbarrow back and forth between the barn and the manure pile. But I try to limit the number of trips I have to make, and there’s nothing worse than re-shoveling a load you accidentally tipped over because it wasn’t stable. So I bought the biggest, most stable wheelbarrow I could find and I can usually fit everything in one huge load. My wheelbarrow has two wheels on the front and two more on the back so you can wheel it like a wheelbarrow but it also doesn’t tip when you’re shoveling heavy stuff into it.
But every once in a while I notice something while I’m trudging down to the pile and then back up to the barn: sometimes the wheelbarrow gets hard to push. The reason is always the same: the front tires are getting low on air. Not crazy low, but low enough to know that my efforts in pushing were not producing maximum return. Each rotation was just a little bit harder than it would be had the tires been filled properly.
It got me thinking. Life is like a tire. We don’t intentionally take air out. It just leaves. And just as it’s harder to push a loaded wheelbarrow with flat tires, it’s not as fun to live when the air has leaked out of our lives. We don’t know where it goes or how. Life just has a way of deflating us. Difficult conversations – hisssssss. Tough day at work … hisssssss. Overwhelmed by circumstance … hisssssss. It happens to all of us. And when that happens, when our tires get low, life gets overwhelming, doesn’t it? And for many of us, this time of the year, from the days leading up to Thanksgiving through New Years are the most overwhelming days of the year.
It’s a wonderful time of year celebrating the coming of Christ, the eternal Word who became flesh and lived among us (Jn. 1:1). We do lots of wonderful things this time of the year. But those wonderful things come with a lot of planning and preparation, don’t they? I mean it’s enough to have three major holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years – in such close proximity. Add to that making travel plans, massive meals, putting up and then taking down decorations, buying gifts, attending the parties others put on. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by it all. And when we get overwhelmed, we become a little grinch-like, don’t we? You know the green character from the Dr. Seuss book who can’t stand Christmas and so he tries to stop it. Most of us know if from the Christmas special – the cartoon with Boris Karloff or the Jim Carey movie.
It’s easy to get a little “grinchy” this time of year, isn’t it? We have so much going on. So how do we keep the Grinch out of Christmas? That’s the question we’re going to be asking during our Advent sermon series over the next three weeks. How do we keep the grinch out of Christmas? How do we keep the grinch from stealing our peace, and our love, and our joy during the Christmas season?
Turn with me to Luke 1. We’re going to be looking at several verses in this very long first chapter of Luke’s gospel. You see, the story of Jesus’ birth actually begins with some very overwhelmed people, potentially grinchy people. Look at Vv. 5-13. So let’s look at exactly what’s going on here.
Luke’s gospel begins not with Mary and Joseph, but with a man named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. Zechariah was a priest, a direct descendent of Aaron, Israel’s first High Priest. Elizabeth was also a direct descendent of Aaron. The line of priests always traced back to Aaron. You couldn’t be a priest unless you were a direct descendent of him. But priests didn’t have to marry from within that line too. They could marry a woman from any tribe of Israel and their children would still be directly descended from Aaron through their father, and thus also eligible for service as priests. But Aaron HAD married another direct descendent of Aaron. Now, we’re talking thousands of years, so they could both be descended from Aaron and not be closely related. It isn’t like Zechariah went out and married his first cousin or anything. But they were both of the priestly line. Now look at V. 6. Luke tells us that they both lived by the law of God blamelessly. He isn’t saying they weren’t in some way sinful. Just that they had a very real faith and trust in God and it showed in their lives. They were very good, obedient Jews.
Sadly, Elizabeth was barren. She hadn’t been able to get pregnant. Zechariah and Elizabeth had no one to care for them in their old age, and no one to carry on the family legacy of faithful service to God. Unfortunately, people in the ancient world viewed an inability to have children as judgment from God for some great evil they had done. It was viewed as a punishment from God. Children are over and over again in Scripture, especially in Proverbs, called a blessing from God, and they are. So to not be able to have kids must be a curse from God, right? Well, that isn’t true, and Luke makes that really clear by emphasizing not only their ancestry and heritage but also their faithfulness in keeping the law of God. But that was the narrative they were living in. You are cursed by God, shamed, because you can’t have kids.
But they’re still going about their business. Zechariah still goes to Jerusalem to serve as a priest in the temple whenever his order is up for a week-long shift. So off he goes, and he’s there, doing his work, when an angel appears in front of him. The angel’s name is Gabriel, and he tells Zechariah that when he rejoins his wife at home, she’ll conceive and have a son, and they are to name him John. Now, life was already confusing, overwhelming, for Zechariah and Elizabeth. They were living as faithful servants of God, and yet no matter how hard they prayed, they weren’t able to have children. It just didn’t add up – their devout lives and their unfortunate circumstance. The problem is, not only is Elizabeth barren, she’s also now fairly old. She shouldn’t be able to conceive at her old age, even if she had at one point been fertile.
But conceive she does, when Zechariah gets home. Which only adds to the confusion. Look down at V. 24. First of all, she says that she has been reproached among her people. They really were judging her for never being able to have children, in spite of the fact that their lives really were above reproach. There wasn’t some skeleton in the closet, some great sin or failure, that they were keeping hidden. And yet, when she does conceive, she doesn’t immediately go out and start parading around. She keeps herself hidden for 5 months.
According to the narrative of the day, if she and Zechariah really were such good people, they should be able to have children, but they couldn’t. And now that she was well past the age of bearing children, she was having a child. A child who would be named John, not a family name. Absolutely none of this made sense. It was all so confusing. All so overwhelming.
Now, look at Vv. 26-38. The lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth aren’t the only places where weird, confusing things are happening. Gabriel shows up again. Clearly, if you aren’t ready for children, he isn’t the angel you want showing up. Now, Mary is a virgin. She hasn’t tried to have children yet, but other than that we know absolutely nothing about here. Unlike Elizabeth, who we are clearly told is a direct descendent of Aaron, from a priestly family, we have absolutely no indication of where Mary came from, of who her parents were, other than Elizabeth is a relative of some kind. So its possible that Mary came from the same line but the Bible doesn’t say. It says absolutely nothing about her heritage. The biblical narrative almost treats her like an orphan.
But she’s betrothed to a man named Joseph, who is a direct descendent of the ancient King David. So we’re still talking good blood lines here, but Joseph is a carpenter, a builder, not a king. He works with his hands every day. He’s a peasant. Mary is too.
And the news Mary gets is weirder than the news Zechariah got. She hasn’t been trying to get pregnant. She’s been planning a wedding. Kids in the future? Sure. Right away? Maybe. But now? Unheard of. Immoral. She wasn’t thinking about that. But she’s going to have a baby. And her response to Gabriel is, “Really? How? I’ve never been with a man. I’m not going to be with a man until I’m married. How is this baby going to happen?”
You see, they might not have had the level of scientific knowledge we have today about where babies come from, but they knew how to make them, they knew what to do, and Mary made it clear that she wasn’t going to do that until she was married. Elizabeth’s pregnancy was plenty out of the ordinary, but it still happened naturally insofar as it involved Elizabeth’s egg and Zechariah’s sperm. It was just an egg that wasn’t supposed to be there anymore. But Mary’s pregnancy was waaaaaay out of the ordinary. No man needed. God was going to put the baby inside her himself. Elizabeth’s baby was going to be special. Mary’s was going to be supernatural, fully God and fully human, the messiah himself.
And how were people going to respond. Even back then, people knew what had happened when a woman’s belly started to grow. Are people really going to believe that she has still never been with a man? Joseph knows I haven’t been with him, but what’s he going to think? The Gospel of St. Matthew tells us exactly what he thought. Flip over to Matthew 1:18. So, Mary doesn’t say anything to Joseph about her little visit from Gabriel, and a few months later she’s starting to show.
Now, the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly what Joseph said, thought, and felt, but it does tell us something. Look at V. 19. So he was a just man and didn’t want Mary shamed. It doesn’t say that he didn’t get angry, or wasn’t hurt. It simply says that whatever else he was, he was just. Beyond just, actually, because he protected her. He at least respected her even though she had betrayed his love and, in his mind, slept with another man, and out of wedlock at that. She was no better than a prostitute, so he would divorce her. He responds exactly as we would expect someone to respond under these circumstance. “Nope. I’m out.” So God again intervenes. Look at Vv. 20-21. It takes a third angelic visit to keep Mary and Joseph together.
So we have Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph all facing weird circumstances, circumstances that aren’t all that different than those faced by Abraham and Sarah, who miraculously had Isaac in their old age. Just as God had miraculously birthed the people of Israel through Abraham and Sarah, so he was now miraculously birthing not just their savior but the savior of all people everywhere. But we clearly have some very overwhelmed people here. Nothing is adding up.
So how do we face life when nothing adds up, when our circumstances overwhelm us, when life seems out of control and sweeping us along with it? How do we keep the grinch out of Christmas, and out of our lives throughout the rest of the year too? How do we keep the grinch from stealing our peace? Let’s follow Mary through the rest of this story. Flip back over to Luke 1 and look down at Luke 1: 29. Mary is “greatly troubled.” She’s trying to figure things out, and can’t. In other words, she’s overwhelmed. And the angel tells her exactly what is going to happen, she is going to have a baby. And she asks the million dollar question – “Really? How?” So the angel explains the whole process to her. And look at her response! It’s kind of amazing! Look at V. 38. Her response was, “Okay.” She let go of the impulse to control things.
That’s usually our first response when we get overwhelmed, isn’t it? It’s to try to take over, take control. Unfortunately, there is much in life that we cannot control. Often, the only thing we have any control over at all is our response. And Mary’s response was, “I am God’s servant. If this is what he asks of me, so be it. Even if no one else understands.” And lets be honest, Mary didn’t really understand either. But she gave up her desire to control and fought the impulse to control. I mean, generally speaking, where babies are concerned we do have some control, don’t we? They may not have had all the methods of birth control back then that we have available to us today as both men and women, but they still knew … no sex = no baby. Abstinence was, is, and will always be the only foolproof method of birth control. Even with the best forms of birth control, accidents and anomalies happen. But people don’t have babies if they abstain from sex. Period. Unless you’re name is Mary and you’re betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph and you lived about 2,000 years ago and an angel named Gabriel shows up.
But here’s the amazing thing. Mary consented. She was all in. “If this is your plan God, if this is what you want to do, so be it. I’m in.” Far from being dragged into the will of God kicking and screaming, she was a willing participant. “All that I am is yours God, up to and including my womb.”
But that isn’t the only thing Mary did. Look down at Vv. 39-40. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and Zechariah. If ANYONE can relate to her circumstance, it’s them. They’ve got a weird pregnancy going themselves. Mary didn’t carry this burden alone. She sought out companionship and comfort and support. She had a story to tell. According to that pesky angel Gabriel, so did Elizabeth. She needed to share her story with someone who would at least partially understand. Maybe Elizabeth did too.
When we’re overwhelmed, our tendency is first to try to take control, although often any control we have is imaginary. And second, it’s to circle the wagons and try to take care of business ourselves. But that isn’t what Mary did. She reached out for someone who would understand. Mary was overwhelmed. So after giving up on her instinct to try to control things, she reached out for help. She let Elizabeth help her. And she knew Elizabeth needed some help too, and so she stayed to help her too. In fact, Mary stayed with Elizabeth, and out of sight of the people in her own town, helping and being helped, for three months.
Mary let go of her impulse to take control, and she allowed others to help her, to walk with her through her overwhelming circumstance. But she did one more thing too. She allowed the power of God to flow through her. Look down at V. 45. Elizabeth speaks this blessing over Mary, saying that Mary is a person who trusts God to keep his word, even when that word is confusing. John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who we later know as John the Baptist, isn’t someone Zechariah and Elizabeth can bring about on their own. They’d tried until they no longer could with no success.
And Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, wasn’t someone they could bring about on their own either. In fact, they weren’t trying and weren’t planning to, not anytime soon anyway. But here is Elizabeth, old enough that pregnancy isn’t possible and childbirth could be dangerous, and here is Mary, pregnant out of wedlock knowing that the “God put this baby in me. I’m still a virgin” story isn’t going to convince anyone but Joseph (and that took an angelic visit in a dream). But they let God’s power flow and trust that God will do what God has said God will do.
We all get a little overwhelmed this time of year, don’t we. Isn’t it interesting that there is so little peace in the celebration of the coming of the Prince of Peace? And the overwhelming nature of this season can bring out the grinch in all of us. But the truth is, it isn’t just this busy season. The grinch in each of us can rear his head throughout the year because of the overwhelming nature of life itself.
In his book Hope Is Contagious, Ken Hutcherson shares a moment from his personal life that illustrates well the ability to foster joy in the midst of trying circumstances, even as he was battling cancer: You can face anything in life – anything – and have that same inner peace and joy. And when you do, it’s contagious. It lifts up everyone else around you. Isn’t that the type of person you want to be? Instead of joining over and over again in the whining about how bad things are, just your presence shows others that, hey, life is still a wonderful gift we should all be enjoying.
[One day] I was relaxing in my recliner after having spent five hours in the emergency room the night before. I’ll admit I was exhausted, and the pain medication wasn’t working as well as I would have liked. I looked around and saw my family going about their lives as usual. Video games. Chores. Music. Laughter. My wife, Pat, was fixing breakfast. Even our new little puppy was settling into a comfortable routine and enjoying everyone’s efforts to spoil him. A visitor stopped by to chat. Some friends from church surprised me with a birthday cake—I had almost forgotten it was my birthday. So there I sat, surrounded by so much goodness even as I’m feeling lousy. My favorite cake is staring at me, but I have no appetite. My eleven-year-old runs past me, and I don’t have enough energy to grab him and wrestle him to the ground like I used to. I’m trying to have a conversation with my guests, but between the short night and the powerful pain pills, I can barely stay alert. And you know what I’m thinking? Can you imagine how close I am to being overwhelmed with what is happening to me?
The words practically shouted from inside of me: “Isn’t God great? What a privilege to be his child!”
You know, we don’t always use the word “overwhelmed” in a negative sense. Just as we can be overwhelmed by noise and events and busyness and life, we can be overwhelmed by gratitude and love and goodness. Are we being overwhelmed by our celebration of Christmas, or by events in our lives, or are we overwhelmed by the goodness and the grace and the peace of Christ? May we be overwhelmed by the peace of God, and when life does overwhelm us, may we give up our impulse to control things we can’t control, may we help others and look to receive help from others, and may we let God’s faithful power flow through us. Let us pray.