December 18, 2005

Fourth Sunday of Advent

"The Gift of Purpose"

(Luke 1:26-38)

Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn


As a little girl climbed up into Santa's lap, Santa asked the usual, "And what would you like for Christmas?" The little girl just stared at Santa with her mouth open and horrified look on her face for a minute, and then she gasped: "Didn't you get my E-mail?"

That had to have been the same sort of horrified look that Mary must have had on her face when the Angel of the Lord appeared to her and spoke to her about God's purpose for her life. You know the story it's in Luke 1:26-38 (NRSV).

[26] In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,

[27] to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.

[28] And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."

[29] But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

[30] The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

[31] And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

[32] He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.

[33] He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

[34] Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"

[35] The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

[36] And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.

[37] For nothing will be impossible with God."

[38] Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

No wonder the Angels always begin their greeting to us with the words, "Do not be afraid." I don't think the Angel was so much calming Mary's fears over the Angel's appearance, but rather it was calming her down because the message the Angel was bringing.

I've always wondered how Mary truly reacted. If she was anything like me and most of the other preachers I know, it wasn't an instant decision. When God called me to preach, my first reaction was, "You've got to be kidding, right?" And when God said, "No, I'm serious." I pulled a Jonah and ran the other direction. The last thing I wanted to do, at that time, was be a preacher. I fought God for nearly six months before finally saying, "Yes!" And even that "Yes!" was given somewhat reluctantly.

I've admired Mary and her response for a long time. She doesn't appear to have argued like I did. The only question she asked was, "How." "How can this be?" Maybe Mary had a deeper sense of purpose in her life at the time of her calling than I did.

Maybe Mary realized immediately that the gift of God and the Angel was really The Gift of Purpose.


A. Maybe Mary understood something most of us miss, that the purpose of life is always bigger than our experience of life. The purpose of life is to matter, to count, to stand for something, and to make a difference in this world we live in, even if it's only in the life of one other person.

The question for a lot of people has to do with the meaning of life. And the purpose of life.

Beethoven once played his latest sonata for a group of his friends. The music filled the room. As the last note lingered, the friends asked Beethoven, "What does it mean?" Beethoven's only answer was to return to the piano and play the entire sonata again. When he finished, he said to his friend. "That is what it means."

Someone saw this sign on a subway wall: "Life is one contradiction after another." Underneath someone else had written: "No it's not."

On a bulletin board someone found this cryptic message: "This life is a test. It is only a test. Had it been an actual life You would have received Further instructions on Where to go and what to do!"

B. For some people, life has no meaning and purpose. Watch this video and you'll see what I mean.

My contention and the contention of the Angel, the Gospels, the Church and even Mary is that we have been given those further instructions. We've been told where to go and what to do. We have a purpose. And that purpose came as this Gift of the Message and the Messenger wrapped in Swaddling Cloths and laid in a manger.

Is there a purpose for your life? Absolutely, listen to what God says through Jeremiah 29:11. "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope."


A. I think that Mary might have understood something that took me a long time to understand. Something that a lot of people still miss. If there is no point to life, if there is no meaning or purpose to life, then there is no power for life.

And the sad truth is that we can't live without purpose and meaning. How many people do you know, especially the elderly, who reach a certain age and then just give up? They're no longer working, they're no longer active and involved because they feel they've just gotten too old to do anything. Nobody cares, that can't do the things they used to be able to do. They've lost their purpose.

Proverbs says it best, "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

B. George Mason's life centered on his business. He lived alone, and on this particular Christmas refused all invitations. On Christmas Eve, after his employees left, he went into the office vault to get a little extra cash. Soundlessly, on the newly oiled hinges, the great door swung shut behind him.

Sudden darkness and the final click of the automatic lock startled him into panic. Desperately he pounded on the door. Then he realized no one would hear him. Everyone was gone, even the cleaning crew. Surely he could make it overnight, he consoled himself.

Then he remembered that the next day was not a working day, it was Christmas! His heart pounding with fear, he wondered if he would have enough air. It was a new vault. Hadn't he heard something about a "safety hole"? Feeling around in the darkness he finally located it at the top of the back wall - too small for burglars but enough for air.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day passed. He was alone, as he had planned. But he was uncomfortable, hungry and thirsty in darkness so dense he could almost feel it brushing his face. The day after Christmas the chief cashier arrived and unlocked the vault, but did not open the door.

Without anyone seeing him, George Mason staggered out and tottered to the water cooler. Then he took a taxi to his solitary apartment and freshened up. Back at the office, nobody had missed him. Nobody even asked him how he had spent Christmas. He had missed Christmas because nobody at all missed him.

After that experience, he placed a card high on the wall of the vault to remind him. It read, "To love people, to be indispensable somewhere, that is the purpose of life. That is the secret of happiness." (1)

Up until that moment, George Mason was living without purpose and therefore his life had no power. But once he found his purpose, his life was empowered beyond measure.


A. Mary inspires us to move beyond simply acknowledging our Purpose and having our lives Empowered. She challenges us to tap into the Power of our Purpose and put our Purpose into Practice.

Thomas S. Haggai tells about an old man who, year after year, had a line of customers waiting for him to shine their shoes at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. You know, the famous hotel with the ducks who come down in the elevator at 11:00 am to be escorted to the fountain and then go back up to their quarters at 5:00 pm. Well, when asked how he could shine shoe after shoe with such vigor and determination, he smiled with a warm, wide grin and said simply, "I'm not just shining your shoes, I'm working to make you proud of how you look."

That's a man with a mission. A man who is Practicing his Purpose in a Powerful way. No wonder people are lined up at his stand. (2)

B. Did you know that it's against the law in Dallas not to have a purpose? I don't know if it still is or not but at one time, according to Presumed Ignorant by Leland H. Gregory III, there was an ordinance in Dallas that forbids "walking about aimlessly, with no apparent purpose, lingering, hanging around, lagging behind, idly spending time, delaying, sauntering and moving slowly about." (3) So, you see, it was against the law not to have a purpose in Dallas.

Like Mary, you and I have been given a great gift in this Gift of Purpose, but it won't do us any good unless we unwrap it and put it into Practice in a Powerful way.


Gary Parker recalls the time when he and his college roommate, Mike, went to Whitewater Falls, South Carolina to see the beautiful waterfalls there. It was a favorite spot for Gary and others to gather on Saturday afternoons to watch the waterfall cascade downward. But that day Gary and Mike decided that they wanted to get a little closer than they had before.

They hiked through the woods and stepped gingerly across the glassy rocks to a lookout point very near the falls from which they could see the water drop off. The footing was slippery, and the spray was cold, but they were closer to the waterfall than either of them had ever been before, and the view was fantastic. Mike wanted to go just one step farther onto a rock that was just a few feet nearer the rapids. But as he eased himself onto the wet rock, worn smooth from years of running water, his feet slipped and he tumbled into the foaming river.

Fortunately he managed to grab a rock spur and save himself for the moment, but his grasp was weak, and he wouldn't be able to keep himself from being swept over the falls by the raging stream for very long. Seeing his friend's plight Gary immediately grabbed hold of a sapling and stretched out over the water as far as he could in a desperate effort to reach his friend. It was a struggle between life and death as they tried to reach each other while clinging to their own anchor.

And then, suddenly, Gary had Mike's arm and pulled him onto the safety of the rocks. Mike was wet, shivering, and frightened, but safe. Of his heroism Gary simply says, "All I did was lend a hand to a friend; I acted as a source of help when someone I cared about called for it." (2)

What a graphic picture of our relationship with Christ and what Christ did for us. We were about to go under, and God not only reached out to us, God became flesh and blood and reached out to us. And in the reaching out, in that grasping of our hand, God in Christ rescued us from the chasm of sin.

But not only that, but the minute we reached out and grabbed Christ's outstretched hand, we were given a gift like no other. Once we connected with Him we were given the Gift of Purpose and the Power to Practice it. can face any and all obstacles.

Discover Your Purpose this Christmas; and if you already know your Purpose then renew your Purpose by giving thanks. Open that gift under the tree. Tap into the Power to Practice that Gift of Purpose, for it truly is a gift from God. And then, as you Practice your Purpose, take time to help someone else discover their purpose.

This is the Word of the Lord for this day.



1. The Pastor's Story File (Saratoga Press, P.O. Box 8, Platteville, CO, 80651; 970-785-2990), December 1991

2. Today, (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 1989).

3. Presumed Ignorant by Leland H. Gregory III, New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1998, p. 22.

4. Gary E. Parker. THE GIFT OF DOUBT. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1990), pp. 103-104.

Other References Consulted (Copyright, Richard Niell Donovan, 2000) (Richard Fairchild Lectionary Resources)

Homiletics, (Communications Resources, Inc., Canton, OH)

Lectionary Homiletics, (Lectionary Homiletics, Inc. Midlothian, VA)

Dynamic Preaching, (Seven Worlds Publishing, Knoxville, TN)

The Clergy Journal, (Logos Productions, Inc., Inver Grove Heights, MN)

Preaching Magazine (Preaching Resources, Jackson, TN)

Circuit Rider, (The United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville, TN)

The Interpreter's Bible, (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1953)

The New Interpreter's Bible, (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1995)

Lectionary Preaching Workbook, Cycle A, (CSS Publishing, Lima, OH, 2002) SermonPrep Version.

Preaching the Miracles, (CSS Publishing, Lima, OH, 1998) SermonPrep Version.

Preaching the Parables, Cycle A, (CSS Publishing, Lima, OH, 1997) SermonPrep Version.