Overshadowed by Christmas – 1st Advent – Nov. 29, 2020

When I watch the news, I often flip from one channel to the next, read the paper or surf the internet. The reason for that is, depending on the news network, they often get stuck on one major story, at the expense of other ongoing news events. The result is our understanding of what is going on in the world is eclipsed or limited.

For instance, On the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the famous Christian Writer CS Lewis died, but most people never heard about it. CS Lewis is best known, by most people, as the writer of The Chronicles of Narnia. (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) Any other day, Lewis’s death would have been front-page news.

Likewise, Harriet Quimby was the first American woman to become a licensed pilot. All eyes were on her. On April 16, 1912, she became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. But most people have never heard of her – because one day earlier, the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Stories like this are not uncommon. They happen to all of us, from time to time. My Mom was born on December 7, 1941; Pearl Harbor Day. A friend of a friend of mine explained his birthday was never the same after the terrorist attacks on the twin towers. He was born on September 11th.

I get it, as a child, I had the same dilemma; or so it seemed. I was born on December 30th, 5 days after Christmas and on the Eve of New Year’s Eve. I always felt like my birthday was overshadowed by both holidays. Other kids would ask me if I had a birthday party. Are you kidding? No one wants to celebrate a birthday between Christmas and New Year’s Day!

This year has been a very hard year for many Americans and people overseas. Many of our celebrations and seasonal joy have been overshadowed by the Corona Virus, at least it feels that way. I have heard people say, “The holidays this year are just not the same.” Because there are no crowded malls or frantic shopping. Folks miss the rush! Others of us, not so much!

But this season is also hard for those who have lost a loved one or have had significant health crisis’s this past year. Life events can certainly overshadow our feelings of happiness and peace. None of us like’s it when we feel helpless or overwhelmed.

I have to wonder if this is how Mary felt when she was approached by the angel Gabriel.

You might remember, Mary was born and raised in Nazareth. She was born into an average family; not well-off but most certainly not poor. The Bible never mentions her family, but some outside sources say her father was likely Joachim and her mother was Anna.

Different versions of scripture call her a virgin, but she would have been called a young maiden in waiting. In their time, girls were generally married off as soon as they could have children. They were often betrothed or engaged at the age of 13, but they were unable to get married for at least 1 year. Some early Jewish documents say Mary could have been anywhere from 12-16 years old.

In their day, their parents arranged the marriages. It is highly likely that Mary and Joseph’s families knew each other very well. This marriage would be good for both families.

Joseph was a carpenter by trade and would be able to care for his new family. And so, I imagine Mary felt pretty good about her situation. Then, in the 6th month, probably in March according to their Lunar calendar, Mary was approached by the angel Gabriel. He said, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you!”

Now, scripture does not say Mary was greatly troubled by the sight of an angel, but by his words. Did she know this was an angel? Or was her concern more about a stranger talking to her. She seems to be suspicious of his greeting. Then Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.”

Was this man a prophet? What he said made perfect sense, she would soon marry Joseph and God-willing, they would have children. If what he said was true, having a son first was great news but usually the father named his son. Why Jesus?

Gabriel continued, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most-High. The Lord God will give him ‘the throne of his ancestor King David’, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end.”

I imagine, at this point, Mary is a little confused. This man doesn’t seem to be talking about Joseph. Maybe she is beginning to link the birth with the coming of the Messiah. If not Joseph, when who would be the father?

Mary asks, “How can this be, since I am an unmarried maiden?” Everyone knows how this normally works, and it would take a miracle from God for such a thing to happen any other way. The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most-High will overshadow you. So, the child born to you will be called Holy, he will be the Son of God.”

Now, let’s stop here and really think about what Gabriel is proposing. Certainly, Mary understood the underlying implications.

First, the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most-High will overshadow you. In the Old Testament, when the presence of God was near, there were clouds, light, and fire present that represented the Glory of the Lord. Remember the pillar in Genesis that led the Israelites? It created a cloud by day and light by night. Or how God appeared in the burning but not consumed bush before Moses.

Or finally, how about the cloud and lightening that descended over the tent of meeting? It must ‘have been scary’ for Mary to think about God’s Shekinah, his power & glory, coming down upon her.

Yet, the overshadowing of the Lord’s Glory also had another interpretation. Psalm 91:1-4 reads, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most-High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.

“Surely He will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”

The idea that God will take a person under His wing, like an eagle or a hen is found all throughout scripture. We find it in Ruth 2:12; Isaiah 34:15; in Psalm 36 and 57, later in Matthew 23 and Luke 13:34. To be overshadowed means to be protected and watched over.

Second, Gabriel did not say the Holy Spirit ‘may come over her’, but that he WILL. He Will overshadow you. The Child born to you WILL be called Holy and He WILL be the Son of God. There’s not a lot of wiggle room there!

Remember when God called Moses? Moses had multiple excuses why he was the wrong guy for the job, but God had already made up his mind. In the end, Moses did God’s will. Or how about Jonah? When Jonah was called by God, he jumped on a ship headed in the opposite direction. Again, God helped him change his mind, by way of a belly of a fish.

Mary might have just been used to being told what to do, then again, maybe she understood it was foolish to argue with God. Or maybe she understood what an honor it was to be chosen by God. She was called by Gabriel to be the Theotokes or God-Bearer.

Can you imagine? Mary from Nazareth. There was an old saying in their time, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46) Yet God chose Mary, an ordinary girl, to carry the Messiah.

But Gabriel had more to share with her. He said, “Even Elizabeth, your relative, is going to have a child in her old age, and she, who was said to be barren, is in her 6th month. For nothing is impossible with God.” This was wonderful news for many reasons.

First because Elizabeth and Zechariah had been hoping for a baby for years and had surely given up. What a joy to be blessed by God.

Second, Mary had someone, who could understand what she was going through, someone she could share her Good News with. She would have support from a woman who understood about miracles. And someone who would believe her.

What she didn’t know then, was that God would also change Joseph’s heart and mind, so he would remain with her. Yet even without that important information, she put total trust in God. She said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Mary must have felt like she was in over-her-head, and yet she understood and believed that God could do anything. He was turning her life upside down, inside out, and yet Gabriel’s words must have been repeating in her mind, “Do not be afraid Mary.”

I think about Gabriel’s words to Mary a lot, this time of year. That is because the birth of Jesus seems like an afterthought to so many. But maybe things will be different this year. Just maybe, with Covid 19 still in full force, maybe Christmas won’t seem so rushed, so forced. So commercial.

For years, I have felt like the birth of Jesus was being overshadowed by a secular Christmas. I know it is good for jobs and the economy to buy gifts and go out to eat, but it seemed to me, like it was also less holy, less set-apart. It made me think, like the Grinch said, “What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas… perhaps … means a little bit more!” Maybe people will be reminded of that this year.

Well, you and I know, it means a whole lot more. The birth of Jesus was God incarnate or God in flesh. The Savior of the world came to live with us, teach us, and show us what real love and real sacrifice looks like.

Maybe this is why Mary said yes so quickly and easily. Perhaps she knew the words of Isaiah 7:14, “The Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means God with us).”

The name Jesus is translated, “The Lord Saves”. Did Mary understand all of this? Probably not, because later it says, when Mary thought back on all these things, she treasured them up and pondered then in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

In this life, there will be things that come along that overwhelm, eclipse us, and overshadow us. Yet knowing beyond all that, that we are covered by the Lord’s ultimate protection, like an eagle watching over us, and knowing that he never leaves or forsakes us, then maybe we can always have the hope and peace we need to make it through.

This year, when we are overwhelmed with snow, traveling less, having small gatherings and having fewer around the table; maybe this year we should ‘treasure up in our hearts’ and ponder what is most important about Christmas.

Isaiah 40: 28-31 reads, “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint.”

Our God can do the impossible! And he keeps his promises. That is who Mary trusted in. Who do you rely on when things get tough? Where does your help come from?

Your assignment is…to order online and read a devotional for the Advent season. If you already have one, that is fine. But each day, prepare your heart for ‘The Heart of Christmas’. Jesus has changed the world, and because if it, we can live in hope, joy, peace, and love.

That is what we need this season to cover us, when things get overwhelming. May it be so. 

“And all God’s people said, Amen”