July 23, 2000

"Joy on Lay Away" - Christmas in July
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
6th Sunday after Pentecost

Please note: Because I do not use notes when I preach, the text in the written sermon may vary slightly from the spoken sermon. My prayer is that in both my writing and my speaking the Holy Spirit works to make this message worthy of God's purpose.

Scripture: Luke 1:39-55

Mary, a young woman living in the town of Nazareth was visited by the angel Gabriel. She was told that she had found favor with God and that she would conceive and bear a son. She would call him Jesus and he would be holy. He would be great, the Son of the Most High. He would inherit the throne of his ancestor David.

Gabriel told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, a woman whom people believed was past her child-bearing years, was going to have a child and declared, "Nothing is impossible with God." Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Read Luke 1:39-55

When Elizabeth saw her young cousin, Mary. the child in her womb leapt with joy. Elizabeth could not help but call out a joyful blessing on Mary, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." And as these two women so intimately involved in the work of God met, Mary sang. She sang of her joy for the son she would bear. She gave glory and honor to God.

This summer morning, as the July sun shines on summer blooms and ripening fields, when we are more interested in softball and steaks on the grill than in strings of lights and roast turkey in the oven, my hope is that we can appreciate the timing of Mary and Elizabeth's joy. We usually do not hear this scripture passage, Elizabeth's blessing and Mary's song, until the cold month of December. There it makes sense to us. December is the month of Christmas, preparation and celebration, the season of giving and love, the time we remember our Savior's birth. And, yet, when we reason it out, we know that these mothers-to-be were joyful months before the arrival of Jesus in Bethlehem's stall.

When Mary understood that she was pregnant, Luke tells us that she set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country. Gabriel had told her that Elizabeth was miraculously with child. She went to check it out.

Their joy at seeing one another was much more than a simple family reunion. Their joy came from knowing that God was at work in their lives and tremendous events were developing. Elizabeth asked, "How is that the mother of the Lord comes to me?" Mary sang, "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior."

This is a joy that surpasses all the burdens of the world. Elizabeth's husband Zechariah had been unable to speak for the last three months (read all of Luke 1 to find out why!). Since his work was as a priest to the people, this must have been causing stress in their lives, just when they should have been the happiest. And Mary. . . she hadn't yet told Joseph, the one to whom she was engaged, about this new development. It would make more sense if these women had met and fallen into each other's arms weeping.

But we know that there is a joy that surrounds anticipated birth, long before the event. When parents announce the coming birth of a child there are flurries of congratulations, questions, and if its the first one, gift giving. And the when the child arrives, the joyful celebration does not begin, but continues. Barb Longenbarger has been awaiting, with her family, the arrival of triplets to a niece and her husband. There was joy at the announcement and joy for good health during a careful and guarded pregnancy and joy at birth. And I know that Barb just traveled all the way to Georgia with family to hold those babies herself. A friend of mine called last week to decline an invitation to dinner. We had been joyful that she and her husband were near the top of the list to receive a child through an adoption agency. My friend told me they were suddenly very busy preparing. The agency had called. Their daughter was born. They will meet her and bring her home next week. There is joy in the preparation and the arrival. And we have journeyed these last months with Jill and Jim in anticipation of a little brother or sister for Jordan. There was joy in the wait. And last week, when we met Jenna Rose, I could tell by the line up to hold her the great joy of this church family.

Why then, if this happiness surrounds the anticipation of new life and its beginning, and was evident in Elizabeth and Mary months before Jesus' birth, do we hold our joy for the reality of a Savior in our midst? Why do we keep it with the Christmas decorations? Why do we put it on lay away?

Remember layaway? It was here before credit cards. Some stores still offer the option of holding the item, so that the purchaser can make regular payments on it until Christmas. You can pick out the gift, but you'll only get it when you can afford it or when its time. And I think we're tempted to do that with the joyful news of Jesus.

Jesus is born!. . . But let's wait and celebrate at the right time. Jesus has come!. . . But we'll greet him when we can pay full attention. Jesus lives!. . . But the joy of the news is only for Christmas, Easter, Sunday morning. Let's save our joy for a King who saves, who shows mercy, lifting the lowly, healing the broken, filling hungry souls. . . that joy. . We put that joy on layaway.

Wasn't the baby Jesus doll we talked about during the Children's Sermon wonderful? Donna Adams tells me that her children and grandchildren have had great joy playing with it over many Christmases. I'm so glad that Donna loaned the doll to us, and I have to share what happened this week. I came home Wednesday afternoon and listened to the messages on the answering machine. The first had a frustrated tone, "Hi, this is Donna Adams. I can't find baby Jesus. I think maybe one of my granddaughters took him home. He might be with their Christmas stuff." The second message was much brighter, almost joyful, "This is Donna, again. Scratch my first message. I found baby Jesus. I'll bring him over."

Have you put Jesus, the King of Kings, up with the Christmas stuff? Have you packed him away with the palm fronds and the Easter decorations? Is your joy for the Savior on lay away? Elizabeth and Mary could not hold their joy in. Mary's pregnancy, her child, brought the One who would shake and shape the world, the One who would confront and deliver, the very presence of God.

It's time to find him again, to find the joy. And the most wonderful news is. . . he's been looking for you. Put down the burdens and problems you've been trying to solve on your own, the things that take the joy from life. Put them at the foot of the cross, a place as humble as a manger bed, turn to forgiveness and grace, turn to Jesus. Christmas joy is not a single day or month. It is for the faithful, a way of life.