The Gifts Given Before the First Christmas

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Advent 4
December 19, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Two remarkable women, each carrying a miraculous child, meet. That meeting leads to prophecy and joy and blessings. God's word and blessings come to us in many ways, and when we are faithful and obedient, God uses us to bring his message to a world desperate for hope and peace.

It's a tradition in some households. Quietly and unobserved, members of the house go looking to find where the Christmas gifts have been hidden. When (not if) they find the stash of presents, they go to great lengths to figure out what's what and which presents are for which people. One man recounted a Christmas years ago when he and his brother, both musicians in the high school band, exchanged gifts. One brother said before opening, "Oh, this must be a new mute for my trumpet." It was. The other brother said, also before opening, "Oh, this must be the new music stand I need." It was. Another year, they each gave the other the same Beatles Abbey Road LP, which they both knew about ahead of time.

Gift giving is an honored Christmas tradition. Today I want us to look at some very important gifts given before the first Christmas.

Luke's list of gifts

Matthew and Luke both include accounts of Jesus' birth. Matthew's account in the first two chapters gives us Jesus' genealogy, it tells of the birth, the visit of the Magi, the family's flight to Egypt and their return to Nazareth. Matthew shows, at various places, how these things fulfilled prophecies given by Jeremiah and others.

Luke has more details and provides more of "the rest of the story" leading up to the first Christmas than Matthew. One way to look at Luke's account is to see the "gifts" given and received leading up to Jesus' birth.

God's gift to Zechariah and Elizabeth

The first gift Luke tells us about seems, at first look, unrelated to Jesus. But, as we shall see, it is indeed part of Jesus' story well beyond the first Christmas. After his introduction, Luke tells about a priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth. Luke's description of them says, "Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years."1

The gift to Zechariah and Elizabeth was, of course, their son, John, who, when grown, became known as John the Baptist. While Zechariah was serving as priest, he was approached by the angel Gabriel who brought him news that Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son to be named John. The angel told him, "You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord."2

Zechariah questioned God and was struck dumb until his son was born. But Elizabeth recognized the wonderful gift God gave to her and Zechariah. She said, "This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people."3

Joseph's gift to Mary

Matthew tells us that Joseph gave a gift to Mary by staying with her and believing her. Scripture includes few details about Joseph, but there are some important things to know about him. From Matthew's genealogy4 we learn that Joseph was a direct descendant of David.

He was a compassionate man. Again, in Matthew we read that when Joseph learned of Mary's pregnancy, he, "being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly."5 But an angel of the Lord spoke to him in a dream and told him all that was to take place. When he awoke, he did as the angel told him and took Mary as his wife.

God's gift to Mary and the world

"Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus."6 The angel, Gabriel, continues on to tell Mary what will be and answer her questions. "The Holy Spirit will come upon you ...; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God."7 He then told her the good news of Elizabeth who, "in her old age has also conceived a son; ... For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it with to me according to your word."8

It's too limiting to say this is God's gift only to Mary. It is, of course, God's gift to humankind, God's gift to the world. Jesus is the gift that changed everything and showed God's amazing love for the whole world.

Elizabeth's gift to Mary

Soon after the angel spoke to Mary, she went to visit her relative, Elizabeth. It's interesting to note that it is only women who have speaking roles in this narrative. As soon as Mary greets Elizabeth, there is a silent response from Elizabeth's unborn son.

John leapt in the womb, acknowledging both Mary's presence and the significance of the child in her womb. This reaction by the unborn child in Elizabeth's womb fulfills the prophecy spoken to Elizabeth by the angel, "even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit."9 John is already starting to fulfil his work in life of pointing people to the one who is to come.

Elizabeth gives voice to what her child has pointed to. Though Mary is not showing her pregnancy yet, and though Mary has not told Elizabeth yet, Elizabeth cannot keep silent. "And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?'"

Elizabeth continues to bless Mary for her faith and belief that there would be a "fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." Mary is blessed for her status as the mother of the Lord, and she is blessed for her trust in God's promises to her.

Further, Elizabeth blesses Mary by going against the social norms of the day which would have excluded a young, unmarried mother-to-be. Instead, Elizabeth welcomes her into her home. No doubt, Elizabeth, who had endured shame throughout her life as one who could not bear children and now was expecting a miraculous baby, knew the power of God to change lives and bring blessing. So, when she extended blessing and honor to Mary, she surely knew she was doing God's work.

Giving God's gifts today

In this season of giving, we have some important things to learn from these many gifts that were given prior to the first Christmas. All the gifts we looked at today fit together and are familiar parts of biblical narrative leading up to Jesus' birth. But beyond that, each one has meaning and significance up to and including the days in which we live.

Zechariah and Elizabeth

God's gift to Zechariah and Elizabeth reminds us that nothing is impossible with God! Past the age of childbearing and yet, their son John was conceived and born.

Mary heard the angel say, "For nothing will be impossible with God."10 Later Jesus said, "What is impossible for mortals is possible for God."11 Another time Jesus said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we will tell a mountain, "Move from here to there," and it will move. "Nothing will be impossible for you."12

Zechariah and Elizabeth give us the gift of faith.


Joseph's gift to Mary was faith and kindness and love and steadfastness. Believing the message from the angel, Joseph stepped up and, against reason and probably against the advice of others, he took the role of husband to Mary and father to the Son of God. We would do well to follow the example of Joseph in all the gifts he exhibited. Faith, kindness, love and steadfastness. All these are needed in abundance today!


From the announcement to Mary by the angel, to seeing her son on the cross, Mary devoted her life to Jesus. With unwavering love and faith, she guided him and protected him and supported him and his ministry and mission in life. Jesus still asks for love and faith from his followers today. It's not always easy to follow Jesus; Mary would encourage us to follow anyway.


Before her son, John the Baptist, prepared the way and pointed people to Jesus, Elizabeth did the same thing. When Mary arrived at her home, Elizabeth blessed Mary, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Our short passage today included other blessings and encouragement by Elizabeth to Mary.

The people who cross our paths every day are often starving for encouragement and blessing. Elizabeth shared those things with Mary with much grace.

As we celebrate Christmas in just a few days, as we gather with family or friends, let's look for ways to share the gifts that are not bought in stores or ordered online. Let's give the gifts that come from our hearts, hearts that are warmed by Jesus, the greatest gift ever given.