Happy Advent, everyone! The new church year has begun with another wonderful Advent season. In the spirit of new beginnings, I have started my ministry at Crestwood Christian Church in Lexington, KY. What an awesome congregation! I am blessed abundantly to be called to serve there. I pray this week – and this Advent – are full of wonderful presents of joy for you!
SCRIPTURE – Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “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. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 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 sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
“A Fresh Look at Christmas through the Eyes of Mary”
Nov. 29, 2009
Expectation. Anticipation. Waiting. Do you know what it’s like to wait? I have a feeling you do. We’ve all been in a state of expectation these last few months, haven’t we? One of the dictionary definitions of “expectation” is “realization in advance.” I love the paradox there. How can you realize something before it has happened? When we expect something, we live as if we know the blessings of what is to come, even though they aren’t here yet. Like the great Hebrews definition of faith as “being certain of what we cannot see.” Realization in advance.
Well, I’m glad to say that which we have expected has now been realized. Our ministry together has finally started, and now we can begin the work that God has called us to do. It’s no coincidence that my first Sunday in the pulpit is also the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Christmas year. Not only is this the perfect time for beginnings, but I also thought I’d start when things are quiet and there’s not a lot going on. December is a slow month at Crestwood, right?
I believe Christmas is the perfect time for new things because I believe it is the time of year when we’re most susceptible to falling into a rut and going through the motions. Sometimes Christmas can be so chaotic and nerve-wracking that we just want to put our heads down and lock-step our way forward, so that by the time Dec. 25 arrives the only joy you feel is that it’s finally over.
But the danger in putting our heads down is that we miss what is going on around us. As we move into another season of anticipation, we are confronted once again with the startling, amazing story of Jesus’ birth. I know it’s a story we’ve heard many, many times before. Can there be anything new here? But this year I’d like to encourage us to hear it as if for the first time, to experience all the waiting and worry and wonder as if we were there, right alongside Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the wisemen.
Today, we start with Mary. What would it be like to experience the Christmas story through her eyes? Before we can begin to answer that question, we have to acknowledge that the Mary we know in today’s world is a far cry from the Mary of scripture. We know her as The Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Catholic tradition and influence in our culture has helped solidify Mary’s place in our religious vernacular, a place so lofty that the Pope once warned his flock against elevating Mary to a status higher than her son.
And yet, Mary still has a central place in global Christianity. It is estimated that 2 billion Hail Marys are said every day. Here in the U.S., there is a hotline you can call to get updated information on Mary, Mary sightings and Mary’s messages. It’s 1-800-345-MARY. It’s true, I called it. I was put on hold, so while I waited I said a few Hail Mary’s. Mary’s popularity is like that of a rock star. She was Madonna before Madonna was Madonna.
So we can make too much of Mary, but we can also make too little of her. She is one of the central characters of the gospel story. She was there at Jesus’ birth and his death and his life in between. She no doubt played an incredibly influential role in his upbringing and education. But because of the Catholic focus or the controversy over the virgin birth, we sometimes shy away from Mary. So let’s no overemphasize or underemphasize her; let’s take her at face value, just as scripture presents her this morning.
It’s interesting to contrast Mary as a figure of power and authority with the Mary pictured in our text today. She hardly comes across as a person worthy of a statue: a poor, young, teenage girl engaged to a local carpenter, one of the nameless, faceless many. Growing up, she would have been taught a rigid code of standards and values. The model of womanhood held up by her society called for a woman to be the wife of a God-fearing Jewish man, the mother of his children, and the maker of a loving and law-abiding home for their family. That was dictated to her as her goal in life, and as far as she knew that’s what lay ahead for her.
Until the angel Gabriel appears and announces that God has other plans. We know something is up when Gabriel speaks to her directly; in Jewish tradition, women in general, and especially young unmarried girls, were never directly greeted. The angel tells Mary that she will give birth to a son, and she is to name him Jesus. And her son will become a king and his kingdom will never end.
Gabriel makes it sound so simple, but the implications of this announcement for Mary are staggering. First, she was young, poor, and female, all characteristics that people of her day would say made her utterly unusable by God. Second, her pregnancy would mean all kinds of trouble. She has to explain this to her fiancé, and what are the chances he’s going to believe her? “You’re what? An angel said what? The Holy Spirit did what?” She’ll have to face her community as unwed and pregnant, setting her up for merciless ridicule and ostracizing. And, because of this apparent and appalling transgression, she could, by law, be stoned to death. Mary’s whole future is drastically rearranged by this announcement.
“How can this be?” Mary asked, and that is all she asked, which is a miracle itself, because I would have had a lot of questions: What’s going to happen? Will Joseph stick around? Will my parents still love me? Will my friends stand by me or will I get dragged into town and stoned to death? Will the pregnancy go all right? Will the labor be hard? Will there be someone to help me when my time comes? Will I know what to do? Why me? Christmas for Mary meant anxious questions with few answers.
So Mary, the most unlikely of God-bearers, is chosen. God could have chosen a queen or a princess or an aristocratic heiress, but God doesn’t. God chooses a poor peasant girl who brings nothing to the situation but her availability and her willingness to serve. Mary is one of the lowest of the low, and yet she has found favor with God, and through God’s power and God’s choosing she will be exalted.
“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Mary’s answer to the angel represents a bold statement of faith with a level of commitment and obedience not matched anywhere else in the Bible. Her “yes” was the crucial turning point in God’s salvation plan. Her faith made possible God’s entry into history, the Word becoming flesh. She had every reason to say “no”: not the right time, not the right place, not the right partner, not the right family planning, not the right future direction. And yet, instead of weighing the pros and cons, instead of counting the costs, she simply says yes.
That doesn’t mean she wasn’t scared, that her voice didn’t tremble as she gave her answer. Who among us is not as fearful as Mary when God demands our attention in a way we cannot ignore? The missionary en route to a foreign country, the student stepping through the school doors for the first time, the congregation member leading their first meeting or holding the communion trays for the first time all know the fear that goes with saying “yes” to God’s call.
But like Mary, we can lay claim to the truth of this scripture: If you have been called by God, then you have been favored by God. Mary is, in every sense of the word, expecting. She is not only expecting biologically; she is expecting theologically. She is expecting in her womb and in her soul. Pastor David Shirey says she is “running her fingers through the prospect of promises fulfilled.” The prospect of promises fulfilled. She is realizing in advance what God is going to do.
To be expecting is one of the blessings of Advent. As we await Christ’s coming, we are all expecting, just like Mary. And our role in this narrative being told is in some ways just as important. Listen to these words from medieval mystic Meister Eckhart: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place each year but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me that Mary is full of grace if I am not full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and culture?”
So let us hail Mary this morning for what she has done. And then, let’s us take our place alongside her as God-bearers in this world, ones who have been called and favored by God. I know that can be scary. I know that can raise a lot of questions. You know, this Christian thing would be a lot easier if it came with step-by-step instruction. But it doesn’t. Instead it comes with a promise and a call. God has a plan to use each one of us to make God’s love known here on earth. He comes to each of us this Christmas and says, “Jesus Christ is inside you. Will you give birth to his love in your life? Will you share him with others? Will you share him with the world?”
“May it be to me as you have said” – if that could be our response to the coming of Christ this Christmas, then his birth would not merely be remembered but truly received. The birth of Christ this year means that God again has favored us and wants to use us to make the kingdom real here on earth. God wants to use us! That’s more than just a Christmas wish; it’s what we should be expecting.