IHS – 12.20.2020
[Luke 1:26-38 and 46-56]
F.B. Meyer once wrote, “I used to think that God’s gifts were on shelves one above the other; and that the taller we grew in Christian character the easier we could reach them. I now find that God’s gifts are on shelves one beneath the other, and that it is not a question of growing taller but of stooping lower, and that we have to go down, always down, to get His best gifts.” It’s a study in humility that we discover God’s gifts – not among the lofty or high society, not in the palaces of the world, but rather in a simple manger.
Today is the final sermon in our sermon series – The Living Chrismon. For the last four weeks we have been exploring the stories we find in the symbols all around us, and using them to bring the Christmas story to life. We have seen that Jesus is King, that Jesus is for everyone, and we have found that those truths hold even in the darkest valley. Today we going to dive into this symbol here – which I don’t have a better name for, so I just call it the IHS. Now, personally I think this is a symbol that people see all the time – but almost nobody knows what it is. This is a symbol that has a very humble, and simple origin – but over the years people forgot what it meant, so they started making up possible answers. My first church was in a little town up in the UP, a town called Ishpeming. And they had this gorgeous altar that was made out of rock that was particular to that region. And on the altar was a cross with the letters IHS. And in confirmation I used to do an activity – I used to take the kids into the sanctuary and point out all the symbols and we would spend the whole lesson telling the stories of the symbols around them. And I pointed to the IHS, in that little church in Ishpeming, Michigan, and I asked the kids – what do you think IHS stands for? And one of the kids said, “I always assumed it was because the cross was donated by the High School.” Ishpeming High School. (laugh) It’s clever right? But they are not the only ones.
The actual symbol dates back to the Greek New Testament, way back, but in the middle ages – they did everything in latin and so they forgot the original meaning. They knew that IHS was important, but they didn’t know why – so they started making up explanations. Some folks thought that IHS stood for “I have suffered” to reference Jesus’ death on the cross. And what he gave up for humanity. Other people thought it was a latin acronym “in hoc signo vinces” which means “in this sign, you shall conquer” – which you might remember comes from emperor Constantine. People would take the letters and try to force it to be fancy or clever. Maybe it’s like the Christian wheel or the Ichthus fish – maybe it’s a secret code. But there’s no secret. It’s not fancy at all. IHS in Greek is just the first three letters of Jesus name. J-E-S. In the Greek language, to shorten names by contraction was really common. You might remember the Chi-Rho is the same way. First two letters of the word Christ. The IHS? It’s just Jesus.
We have seen that Jesus is King, we have seen that Jesus transcends cultures and is worth giving up everything for. But the final piece of the Christmas story we need to remember is that Jesus was human. Born in a humble state, in a lowly place.
The scripture lesson for today comes from Luke 1, and today is all about Mary and her response to the baby that is coming. It opens up, [read v.26-29]. An angel shows up and tells Mary, “God is with you, you are highly favored” and Mary apparently thinks that is troubling. It’s kind of like when my four year old comes in and randomly just professes his love for me. Do you know what I’m talking about? That suspicious Child love. I just love you so, so much. (What did you break and where is it hidden?) Greetings highly favored one! (What do you want?) Verse 30, the angel reassures her – no, seriously, I’ve got good news. And then he tells her about the baby. After she gets the good news, her mind turns to logistics – “how?” And the angel responds, [read v.35]. The Holy Spirit will come upon you. A lot of the mystery of God is accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit – both in the virgin birth, and also in our lives today. When we don’t understand how something works, how someone could turn their life around, or give away their money, or love their enemy – the mysteries we find in Christianity are almost always intimately connected to the work of the Holy Spirit in each of us. Praise God for that.
And I have to touch on verse 37 before we move on. It says, [read v.36-37]. Here that one more time. For no word from God will ever fail. When the angel tells Mary she’s going to have a miraculous virgin birth, he points to the fact that Elizabeth is pregnant, even in her old age, even though she has been barren her whole life. God can do this for you, and then he points to Elizabeth as proof. Now I want to take a second and do the same thing for your life. God can do incredible things in your life, look what he did for Mary. He caused a virgin to become pregnant, through the power of the Holy Spirit. And if he can do THAT, he can handle whatever is going on in your life. The power of the Holy Spirit can work miracles in your life. For no word from God will ever fail.
Whew, and it’s such great news that Mary starts to praise God, ten verses later. The passage is called the Magnificat, also know as Mary’s song – which is kind of weird because she’s not actually singing. But her words are so beautiful, it’s almost like poetry, like a song her heart cannot keep to itself. Verse 46, [read 46-47]. It’s a very poetic line, my soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices, but to be honest I have no idea what it means. I mean, what does that even look like? My soul glorifies and my spirit rejoices. In 2020, maybe it’s been a while, but have you ever had had that feeling where joy completely overwhelms your body. You see it in a mother’s face when she holds her child after labor. You see it in a grooms face when he catches his first look at his bride on the wedding day. I think the best example of joy overwhelming the body is found in children. When they are amped up about something – it’s like their entire body vibrates with enthusiasm. My soul glorifies and my spirit rejoices.
And why is she so excited? [read v.48a]. He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. The servant is Mary, and God has been mindful of her humble state. God is aware of her situation. And the same thing is true for you this morning. God is aware of your humble state. God is mindful of you. God thinks about you. He knows what’s going on in your life. He knows where your troubles are, what sins plague your life, what brings you joy. God was mindful of Mary, and he is mindful of you too. We can be filled with an overwhelming joy, because there is a God who understands our humble state. God knows what you go through.
And then Mary launches into a beautiful list of all the good things that God does. She says, [read v.51-53]. And you’ll notice there is a slant in the behavior of God. For the proud and the wealthy God bring them down, but he lifts the humble up. This is good news for us in 2020. I think, because of the global nature of this pandemic we are going through – nobody has escaped completely without some form of suffering. We have all struggled in some way in 2020, we have been humbled. It’s like I said at the beginning of the sermon – we don’t up for God’s great gifts, but rather it is a study in humility to reach the greatest of God’s gifts.
The good news for us this morning is that God lifts the humble. But what I want you to notice this morning is HOW God does that. Jesus lifts the humble, by humbling himself. Jesus doesn’t just reach down from his lofty perch in heaven to pick us up. Jesus came down to us, and then reached across. It sort of has three steps right – he was mindful of Mary in her lowly state, he came down to her, and then lifted her up. And God can do the same thing in your life. God is mindful of your lowly state – he knows where your at, he knows all about what you’re struggling with, God thinks about you and the things you’re going through. He comes down to us at Christmas, the savior in the manger. God comes to us in our weakness. It is an unshakable sign of the love of God that he comes to us in our lowly state – he doesn’t come to us only after we’ve fixed up our lives. He comes to us in our lowly state, as we are, and then he lifts us up.
Honestly, sometimes I feel like I just have the same message over and over – a very simple response to what we find in the text. Look at what God does for us – and then go do that for other people. When we see that God comes to us, while we were sinners, before we fix up our life. God is mindful of us, comes down to us and then lift us up. So we should do the same thing for our neighbors. Be mindful of the people around you. What are they struggling with? Be mindful of your neighbor. Go to them, where they are at – whatever they are struggling with, walk beside them. Be mindful of them, go to them, and lift them up. We see what God has done and then we do the same to the people God has put in our life.
So I have two challenges for you to take with you this week. First, Sing a song to God with your life. Take a second and praise God for what he has done in your life. Praise God that he has driven sin out of your life, that he has given you hope for a better tomorrow. Praise God that he never gives up on you and that he includes you in his incredible world changing work. Praise God that he is mindful of you, comes down to you, and lifts you up. Let your response look like Mary’s – a thanksgiving that overwhelms. Let your soul glorify and your spirit rejoice. See, if we forget what God has done for us, then we forget to be grateful, and if we forget to be grateful then we forget to act, to respond in gratitude. I know for a lot of people this year has been rough. We’re not worshipping in the same way we want to. Family gatherings are missing people, job has been eliminated or reduced. I mean, you can’t even buy groceries the same way we used to. There’s a lot of distractions and struggles. Maybe I can explain it like this. When pain enters our world – our world shrinks. When you stub your toe or get a cut on your finger, it hurts and that’s all you can think about. You’re not thinking about family that is far away, or your job or anything – for a few moments it’s just that throbbing pain. If it hurts bad enough, you have to close your eyes – you can’t even handle the room your standing in, it’s just you and the pain. And I’m using silly examples, but I know that there are more serious things going on in your life. Pain shrinks our circle. That is why it is so important to sing a song to God with your life. Remind yourself that God is mindful of your lowly state and then reclaim your hope, reclaim your joy. Let your soul glorify and your spirit rejoice, not because your super thrilled with the way things are right now, but because of the promise that’s coming on Thursday. Sing a song to God with your life.
The second challenge I have for you today is to partner with people. Jesus didn’t reach down, while staying safe up in heaven. Jesus came down to earth. Humbled himself, and then reached across to love his neighbor. Jesus came down to our level, if you will, led a perfect, sin-free life. He showed us the way, he lifted the humble, and we can do the same. God is mindful of you, so be mindful of the people around you. Let them know what Jesus did for you, and what he could do in their life too. Partner with people – reach across, not down.
The IHS symbol is actually very simple – it’s just Jesus. And yet, that’s all we need to reclaim our song. To let our soul glorify and our spirit’s rejoice. WE have seen in this series that Jesus is King. That Jesus is for everyone. Jesus is with us in the valley. And finally that Jesus lifts the humble, by becoming one of them. And so I’ll leave you with this – May you remember that God is mindful of you in your lowly state. May you praise God that he comes down to us at Christmas, to lift us up. And may you do the same for the community around you. Amen