I firmly believe that Christmas is the best time of the year for movies and TV specials. Everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to A Charlie Brown Christmas to Elf to the Grinch to A Christmas Story and beyond. Most of the year I won’t watch a whole lot of TV and movies, but each December there’s a list of shows I need to see to feel like it’s really Christmas.
But while they are all great stories, they are not the story. Because in the midst of all of the more modern Christmas stories, we have the original stories, the ones that in a real way gave birth to all the others.
And on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we have the story of a key player in the birth of Jesus, someone who had to be on board with everything that was about to happen, and someone whose love would change everything: Mary.
Every year at this time we read the Magnificat. It’s a passage of Scripture that tells us how Mary responded to the unexpected and confusing news that she was pregnant. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she says, “and my spirit rejoices in God.”
Magnify is an odd term in this context, but I always think of it like this: to magnify God is to live your life in a way that makes God’s love for the world even bigger and even more obvious to the people who surround us.
And, in a real way, to choose to magnify God, especially in times when we are asked to respond to a new challenge or a new reality in our lives, has a lot to do with how we love. And if anyone could understand what it means to respond to God in the midst of the unexpected, it was Mary. She is faced with the end of life as she knew it, and she responds by saying she is going to rejoice, and make God’s love known to the world.
Mary’s situation was a little more dire than most of ours, and she was the first person who was asked to respond to the Christmas story, but she wasn’t the last. Because though we are called to participate in the Christmas story in a very different way than Mary was, we are invited into this story none-the-less.
That’s because at Christmas time, if we we are going to be a part of this Christmas story, we are called to make the hard choice to love. I don’t use that phrase “hard choice” lightly. I use it because loving this world, and loving one another, requires something from us. It requires us to invest in others. It requires us to give of ourselves. And, most of all, love requires us to be willing to be changed.
Let’s go back to those Christmas movies again. I recently re-watched “A Christmas Carol”. (The Muppet’s version.) And once again I heard the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how he was transformed from a grumpy, hardhearted miser to a generous and loving man.
And as I was watching, I started to think about a lot of those other Christmas shows I like. The main character often goes through some sort of transformation. George Bailey finds hope again. The Grinch’s heart grows three sizes. Charlie Brown learns what Christmas is all about. The list goes on…
And, when you think about it, as much as these are Christmas stories, they could also be Advent stories. Because Advent is all about getting ready. Advent is all about our own transformation. It’s about preparing our heart for someone who is coming, and about opening it up to new ways of being.
Christians are supposed to transform the world for good. But that’s a tall order. It’s hard to change the world. We can do our best, we can work for good, we can pray for peace, but in the end, we find out an important truth: you can’t create love in the world, until you find love in yourself. And love changes us.
Even Christmas movies know this.
Scrooge realizes the error of his ways, and his heart is transformed, and only then does he give generously. Charlie Brown finds meaning with his sad little Christmas tree despite the fact the whole world has gone commercial, and no one understands what Christmas is really about anymore. And if you’ve ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, in the end we find Clark Griswold, who just wanted a perfect Christmas, finds the love of his family despite the fact that just about everything has gone wrong.
If we’re really serious about Advent, if we’re really serious about preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ, if we are truly using this season to focus on what is coming, there is no way that we won’t be changed by it. Maybe we won’t have a big, miraculous, carol-filled Christmas morning, but inside our heart, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the change happening and the love filling us.
And as powerful as that love is inside of us, it’s even more powerful when we share it. What if in the face of all that we find troubling with the world, we showed the world what God’s love really means? What if we showed how powerful it could be.
You’ve all probably read or watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. It starts out, “Every who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch who lived just north of Who-ville did not.” The Grinch hates the celebrations, hates the singing, hates the presents, and hates the whole thing. So he devises a plan to slip down into the town in the night, bag up all the trappings of Christmas, take all the presents, and ruin Christmas.
And he does. And the next morning he stands on his mountain waiting for the people to wake up, and be devastated.
But instead, he hears singing. The Whos wake up and it doesn’t matter to them that they didn’t have trees or presents or decorations. And it turns out that no matter what he tried to take away from them, Christmas came anyway. And it stuns him. And he says to himself, “Maybe Christmas, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
The story tells us that the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day. And he returns all the things he took, and is welcomed to the feast and, yes, even carves the roast beast.
When he saw the love that the Whos had, when he realized that this love was inside of them and couldn’t be taken away, that’s when he realized what it was all about, and that’s when he was changed too.
You are I, we are not Whos from Whoville. But we are Christians. And we are the people who spend this time of year preparing our hearts for the one who is yet to come, and being transformed in the process. And we have something we can share with the world.
This time of year, no matter what is happening around us, we are called to prepare our hearts to love anyway. We’re asked to open them up and to get ready to welcome Christ into the world. But more than that, we are called to love that world.
I was thinking about that last Sunday when I spent the afternoon with our confirmands. As you know, they had a bake sale during the open house earlier this month. That night they sold things they had made, and they made several hundred dollars. But the best part of the story is this: they didn’t keep a dime for themselves. Instead, last Sunday we went to the store to buy toys and other gifts for young people who otherwise wouldn’t have them this Christmas.
That’s the Confirmation class’s Christmas story. They are choosing to magnify God’s love for the world through their actions. And their story is one that can inspire all of us.
That’s because Christ still comes into this world. Christmas still happens. It didn’t just happen once, it happens all the time. Because Christmas may be about the story that we read. It may be about Mary and Joseph, and the baby and the manger, and no room at the inn. But that’s not the end of the story. The great Christmas story continues to play out, and the truly incredible thing is that you and I are invited onto the stage, and we even get to choose our own lines.
And so, as we prepare for Christmas Eve just a few days from now, here’s the big question: What is your script going to say?
The confirmands, they wrote a pretty good Christmas story this year. One that will change them, and one that will change the world. It’s an example for all of us.
And my hope is that your script too is going to be full of the words and actions of one who wants to magnify God, and to live out Christmas. My hope is that it will be one of a person who has been transformed by the love of God, and who now wants to love the world because of God.
The Grinch, Scrooge, Charlie Brown, George Bailey, and all the rest…those are great stories. But so is yours. And this Christmas, if you really open your hearts to the love of Christ this year, then your story is about to get really good. I can’t wait to hear it. And neither can a world that could use some good stories right about now. Amen?