26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee,
27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God.
31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.
32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David,
33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month.
37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Back in the days when I got my first computer people used to talk about some computers being WYSIWYG - an acronym for what you see is what you get.
I’ve often thought that that term also explains why it is that for some people the story of Christmas is a thing of unutterable beauty that brings enormous comfort and meaning to life.
While for others it is a futile attempt to try to recreate the magic of childhood. It’s all to do with what you are looking for because, at Christmas, what you see is what you get.
At Christmas time two stories compete. The first is the story of the Incarnation. Almighty God came into our little world in the form of a helpless baby born to poor people in an oppressed nation.
And through this coming built a kingdom in the hearts of people of faith that is the very opposite of earthly kingdoms, and yet has outlived them all and will continue to.
The other story is called the consumer narrative. The Christian tradition of giving gifts at Christmas has been replaced by a new tradition of unbridled consumerism.
By the time we reach early adulthood we’ve learned that there’s little lasting joy in the consumer narrative. Yet it’s such a powerful story that it’s difficult not to be drawn into it.
Despite what life has taught us, we all find it hard to resist the idea that in things we will find the meaning of life.
How different it all is to the event that gave rise to Christmas. A baby, born in a cowshed to a peasant girl in a captive nation, and proclaimed to be King of Kings!
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem the World, by and large, went on its way and saw nothing. Those were the days when Rome ruled the World; and there was peace on Earth because of it.
They called it the Pax Romana – the Roman peace, because Rome and Roman law dominated the world. But it was the peace of slavery.
At the head of it all was Augustus Caesar, the Roman Emperor. They called him Augustusbecause they thought the title King wasn’t grand enough. Augustus had an implication of deity in it.
He ruled the world; when he spoke, the world obeyed. He wanted a census to discover how big his empire was, and it was done.
Everyone, including a lowly carpenter in far off Galilee and his pregnant wife, had to travel to the town of their birth to be registered.
But little did Caesar realize that he was merely a pawn in God’s hands. Centuries before, the prophet Micah had predicted that the birth of the Messiah would be in Bethlehem.
And Caesar merely set the scene for it. Caesar thought that history centred on him. Little did he know that it really centred on a teenage girl in the end stages of pregnancy.
Jesus was born about 15 kilometres from one of the wonders of the World. It was the great temple in Jerusalem, built by King Herod as a monument to his greatness.
It was made of enormous blocks of marble, much of it coated with gold that would reflect the sunlight, dazzling onlookers with its brilliance.
It was served by a huge number of priests, who performed ancient and sacred rituals that left people in awe.
But as so often happens with religious ritual, it had forgotten those things the Bible says are the true worship of God, ‘Doing justice and walking humbly before God.’
30 years later Jesus himself was to stride into this same Temple with a whip, blazing with anger at a religious system that ripped off poor pilgrims to enrich itself.
Those religious leaders believed that they, and their magnificent Temple with its services and rituals were the centre of God’s presence on Earth.
Little did they know that God had passed them by, and that the Saviour of the World was being born in a cowshed in a small town 15 kilometres away.
None of them saw it because they weren’t looking for it. All they could see was their own self-importance. And at Christmas, what you see is what you get.
But on a hillside just outside Bethlehem there was a group of shepherds tending their flock of sheep. Once, shepherds had been well thought of.
King David had been a shepherd boy in those same hills. But by this time their profession had fallen into disrepute. They were now thought of as dirty, uncouth and irreligious.
Their reputation was so bad that they weren’t admitted as witnesses in the courts of law. Yet God made them the first witnesses of the Gospel.
The priests at the Temple, for whom they provided lambs for sacrifice, didn’t welcome them into the Temple precincts.
But the Glory of the Lord – the Shekinah Glory – which had never shone in that magnificent Temple, shone round about them when the angel told them of Messiah’s birth.
Those priests used to say that good Israelites should always help their fellow countrymen in need – except if they were shepherds.
But God gave those despised shepherds the Saviour of the World before anyone else.
You see, God doesn’t do things the way we do them. The great and powerful of this world may think that history revolves around them, but it doesn’t. God is somewhere else.
In his birth, as in his earthly life, Jesus was the friend of humble people. And with their own eyes they saw the salvation of God; and what they saw was what they got.
Luis Palau, one of Billy Graham’s associate evangelists, tells the story of how, a few years ago, a wealthy European family decided to have their newborn baby baptised in their grand mansion.
As the guests arrived, they laid their expensive coats on the bed in the master bedroom before joining the family for pre-service drinks.
Then, when the priest arrived, they sent the nanny to bring the baby down, but, to her horror, she couldn’t find him. So, they went on a mad search, but the baby was nowhere to be found.
Finally, the mother remembered she’d had the baby with her in the bedroom when the first guests had arrived. So, they ran there and found the child buried under a pile of expensive coats.
The child that the whole event was all about had been forgotten, buried under all those symbols of affluence and excess.
What a picture that is of our modern Christmas celebrations. But then, it’s so easy to miss the point: Like when the Wright brothers finally managed to get their homemade airplane in the air.
They sent a telegram to their sister in Dayton that said: ‘First sustained flight today fifty-nine seconds. Hope to be home by Christmas.’
She was so excited that she rushed to the local newspaper and gave the telegram to the editor.
But the headline that appeared next morning simply said: ‘Popular local bicycle merchants to be home for holidays.’ The biggest story of the century was lost because an editor missed the point.
Missing the point seems almost to be part of the human condition, and never more so than at Christmas.
Which is why we need to remember what St Augustine said of Jesus: “He became what we are so that we might become what he is.”
And to remember the ancient message of the prophet, “Behold the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel –God with us.”
No matter what is happening in the world around, no matter what is happening within our families, and no matter what is happing within our own troubled lives,
God is with us; and even more than that, God is within us. The real message of Christmas is not just about happy holidays and happy families – wonderful though that may be.
The real wonder of Christmas is the story of the Incarnation – that God became what we are so that we might become what he is.
It would be easy to lose hope and give up on the human race. Jesus also was born into a cruel and violent world.
If that little group who first looked at the child in the stable had seen only the ugliness and injustice of the world they might well have despaired and said: “Look what the World has come to.”
Instead, they looked at that sleeping child and said, “Look what has come to the World.”
The Bible reminds us that “The weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” God doesn’t do things the way we do. When God would grow a tree, He plants a seed.
When God would build a universe, He begins with an atom. When He would start a revolution in people’s hearts, he comes among us as a refugee girl’s baby: Immanuel, God with us.
Deep within all our hearts is a desire to recapture the wonder of Christmas as we remember it from early childhood. But the consumer narrative no longer brings it.
But for those who meditate deeply on the story of the Incarnation – God with us – there is a beauty and a wonder that grows ever deeper and will continue to grow until the day we see him face to face.
What You See Is What You Get.