Christmas Eve December 24, 2012
THE SIXTH LESSON: St. Luke tells of the birth of Jesus. Luke 2:1-7
THE SEVENTH LESSON: The shepherds go to the manger. Luke 2:8-16
THE CHRISTMAS MESSAGE
This year during Advent we have considered the “characters of Christmas,” starting with Mary, then Joseph, and then Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. Yesterday we took a new look at Bethlehem where the baby Jesus was born. Tonight we consider another non-human character of Christmas – the manger.
Many people have some sort of manger scene or nativity set as part of their Christmas decorations. In one home on Christmas Day a small manger scene sat on a table just inside the doorway of a neatly kept home. People hurried past it all day, barely noticing the tiny figures gathered around the infant tucked into golden straw. In the morning children raced by it on their way to the Christmas tree. At noon, arriving guests pushed past it, one accidentally knocking over a shepherd as he took off his winter coat.
Later in the afternoon a well-fed assembly of adults and children moved somewhat slowly by the manger again as they drifted from the dining area back into the living room. Almost none of them stopped to look at the manger. In fact, none of them even noticed it, except two. An old woman, walking with a cane, paused in front of the scene. Gently she put the shepherd back in an upright position. Then she looked at the child in the middle of the figures. After a few minutes, she became aware of a small grandson by her side. As voices drifted in from the living room, the two continued to look deeply on the scene. Eventually a smile spread across the women's face. The child took her hand. In the midst of a day filled with a lot of busyness, the two of them quietly received
God came to a humble maiden in an obscure village called Nazareth. An angel told her that she would bear a child. That child would be the hope of the world. And that child would spend its first night sleeping in a manger.
Any of you here tonight French scholars? “Manger” doesn’t mean the barn or stable. “Manger” comes from the middle French word maingeure, a derivative of mangier ‘to eat’ a relative of the Latin mandūcāre to chew, eat.
The baby Jesus was wrapped in cloths and spent his first night on earth sleeping in a feed trough for cattle. For many of us, knowing these circumstances of his birth clue us in to his humility. He who was with God from the beginning of the universe, who left heaven, not considering equality with God something to be grasped, let go of his rights to glory and became a human being.
But there is something even more significant in the baby Jesus spending his first hours in a manger. He could have been just as humble and placed in some other kind of box or drawer. But a manger – this is where God’s creatures come to eat. The Gospel of John records several “I am,” statements of Jesus, not the least of which is “I am the Bread of Life.”
Adam Hamilton writes, “He who called himself the bread of life, who alone can satisfy the deepest longings of our souls, was born in the town of Bethlehem – the “House of Bread” – and was laid to sleep on that first night in a trough where God’s creatures ate.
“What we really hunger for will not be found under the tree on Christmas morning. We hunger for meaning, for joy, for hope in the face of despair. We hunger to know that we can be forgiven and start anew after things we regret. We hunger for a love that will not let us go and for life and triumph in the face of death. These come through a baby born in a stable, laid to sleep in a feeding trough, visited by night-shift shepherds. He is for us the bread of life.”
Christmas is the perfect time for us to come to the manger, to eat of the Bread of Life, in other words to choose to become Christ’s followers and to put our trust in him.
Thanks be to God for his incredible gift – the Babe in the manger.
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON: Micah 5:2-5a
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 2:1-7
SERMON: “Characters of Christmas - Bethlehem”
Once upon a time, (don’t all good stories begin that way?) a church school class was presenting a nativity play and four children were designated to hold letters to a song about the Star of Bethlehem. Unfortunately, the first child, carrying the letter "S," went stage left instead of right, and the others of course followed. The children sang beautifully, as the parents roared with laughter as the children's letters spelled: R-A-T-S.
I remember when my children were little, going up for children’s messages in worship, never quite knowing what they might say. Those of you with children and grandchildren that age . .. . I feel your pain. I do. But the rest of us just love the things that come out of children’s mouths. Trust me, no one can fracture a Christmas carol better than a kid.
Here are some of my favorites:
Deck the Halls with Buddy Holly
On the first day of Christmas my tulip gave to me
Later on we'll perspire, as we dream by the fire.
He's makin’ a list, chicken and rice.
Rudolph: Olive, the other reindeer. . . . . You'll go down in Listerine!
Frosty the Snowman is a ferret elf, I say . .
In the meadow we can build a snowman, Then pretend that he is sparse and brown.
Oh, what fun it is to ride with one horse, soap and hay . .
We three kings of porridge and tar
O come, froggy faithful.
Noel. Noel, Barney's the king of Israel.
With the jelly toast proclaim . . .
Sleep in heavenly peas . . .
While shepherds washed their socks by night . . .
“O Little Town of Bethlehem is absolutely one of my favorite carols. And Bethlehem is a major piece of the Christmas story. Remember Mary lived in Nazareth; Joseph was from Bethlehem. It is likely that Mary’s pregnancy sped up the wedding plans, and probable that the wedding itself took place in her home town of Nazareth. But while they are there the Romans issue a call for everyone to be registered – in order for the Romans to collect taxes from everyone, and not miss anyone.
I don’t know why they couldn’t just count people where they were, but the Romans required everyone to register in their home town, which meant that Mary, now just a few days away from her due date had to travel with Joseph back to his home town of Bethlehem.
Can you just imagine what must have been going through Mary’s mind? What her prayers to God might have sounded like? “God, you know I have always tried to do what you want from me. I said I am your servant and I meant it. I agreed to bear the child you gave me and the shame and humiliation that went right along with it. Now, when this baby is due any day, you want me to make a ten-day journey to Bethlehem, leaving my mother and my mid-wife here and bearing this child on a trip in a strange place, with people I don’t know? Why God? Why would you make me do that? What have I done to deserve this? What have I done to displease you?”
Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever felt that you have tried your best to do what God requires of you and still he makes you take your own trip to Bethlehem? In the midst of Mary and Joseph’s hardship, God was working to redeem the world. God didn’t require the Roman census, but God used it to put everything in place for the birth of the Messiah, God’s own Son, the Hope of the world. Whatever trip to Bethlehem you are facing, whatever hardship you are dealing with, whatever disappointment, grief or trouble – God did not cause your difficulties. But if you, like Mary and Joseph, trust him, God will use your circumstances for something better than you ever imagined.
I am embarrassed on behalf of all pastors when one minister says something like what one said in reference to the tragedy in Connecticut that we should not be surprised that schools would become a place of carnage because we have systematically removed God from our schools. God did not cause that murderous shooting spree as retaliation. God did not choose 20 young children and six adults to die as some sacrifice. The places for Christian faith to be taught are in Christian churches and homes. And if you think prayer never happens in schools, you haven’t seen a class of teenagers about to begin an algebra test. God did not cause this tragedy, but God can use it to work more good than we ever thought of. . .if we, like Mary, are willing to walk the road God calls us to travel.
And which road did the couple travel to Bethlehem. According to scholars there are two most likely routes they could have taken. The first would be to travel east from Nazareth, cross the Jordan and south along the Jordan River, crossing back towards Jericho and on to Bethlehem. The disadvantage to that route is that it would take about two extra days. Still, many travelers would choose that route, because the river valley would be mostly flat terrain, and more importantly because that route would avoid travel through Samaria.
Traveling the route through Samaria would have been rougher terrain, but a two critical days shorter trip. Traveling the route through Samaria would retrace sixteen hundred years of history from the time of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha in preparation for an entirely new chapter in human history.
Keep in mind that the Jewish people considered Samaritans unclean, if not outright heretics. So choosing the longer route along the Jordan valley was common. But is that the way Jesus was raised to feel about the Samaritans? Remember Jesus offering “living water” to the Samaritan woman he met at the well? a woman who had been divorced five times and was now living with yet another man. Remember Jesus’ scandalous (to the scholars and lawyers of his time) story about the “Good Samaritan?” Jesus used that story to teach us how to love our neighbor as ourselves. I like to think that Jesus’ parents raised him to be accepting of the Samaritan people and all people.
Who are your Samaritans? Who are the people you would cross a river to avoid? In other words, whom do you have an aversion towards? Rich people or poor people? Atheists or devoutly religious people? Young or old people? People whose skin is a different color or whose heritage is from another country – or continent? Someone you feel has wronged you, or hurt you? As you travel towards Christmas, it’s worth pondering whether God would have you open your heart and seek reconciliation with your Samaritans.
Part of the nativity story every year includes a somewhat critical view of a rather insensitive inn keeper who can’t or won’t find room for a mother-to-be, just about ready to give birth. If you were here two weeks ago, you may remember I spoke about Joseph’s family home being in Bethlehem. If that was the case, then why couldn’t they just stay with his parents.
This is where a little Greek translation scholarship helps. The word generally translated in Luke as “inn” is kataluma. Adam Hamilton points out that the only other use of this word in the Gospels “comes when Jesus sends his disciples ahead to find a room they can use for their Last Supper together. That room, as you’ll recall, was not a room in an inn, but a guest room in a house. This is the more accurate translation of kataluma -- it is a guest room.”1
We who are accustomed to homes with two, three, four, or more bedrooms, perhaps a family room with a hide-a-bed and a living room besides, need to shift thinking a minute to the layout of a typical home in Joseph and Mary’s time. There would be a kitchen/dining/common area, a sleeping area, and an “upper room” that could be used for guests. That’s the kataluma. And behind the house there would be a barn or stable – think of it as a detached garage. With a whole lot of family arriving at Joseph’s family’s home, a number of people would have been occupying the upper room. The garage would likely have been the only place affording Mary any privacy.
It most certainly was not a silent night. I doubt all was calm and bright. In reality it was a messy, noisy, smelly place, certainly not what Mary would have planned. But we will never let go of the inn keeper who failed to find room, nor of lovely, reassuring carols like Silent Night and Away in a Manger, and we don’t need to . . . because the beauty of the nativity story is that God comes to us in the midst of our messy, noisy, smelly lives, ready to bring more good than we ever hoped for.
Natalie Cole had a big hit with a Christmas song called "My Grown-up Christmas List." Have you heard this? In the song, Natalie Cole reminisces about how when she was young, she sat on Santa's knee and told him about her childhood fantasies. And then she sings about how she's all grown up now, but she still has dreams... things she would like for Christmas, not just for herself but for our needy world. Then she sings her "Grown-up Christmas List." Here are the things she wants for Christmas now:
No more lives torn apart
And wars will never start,
And time will heal all hearts.
Everyone will have a friend
And right will always win,
And love will never end.
This is my lifelong dream,
My Grown-up Christmas List."
Do you know what Natalie Cole is longing for in that song? She is longing for the peace of Christmas... and the place to find that is in the miracle of Bethlehem. When we go back to Bethlehem, may we discover that real peace means being set right in all our relationships. It means being... right with God, right with ourselves, and right with other people. Amen.
1Hamilton, Adam The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, Abingdon Press, 2011, pp 96-99.
FIRST LESSON: Luke 1:5-25
SECOND LESSON Luke 1:39-45
SERMON: “Characters of Christmas - Elizabeth”
I want to make a public service announcement to the men in this congregation. Gentlemen –, it’s time to do your Christmas shopping. I hope our men have this task already out of the way. But just in case, please heed my announcement.
Now I heard that a certain couple in this church], who shall re
main nameless slipped off Frankenmuth to do their Christmas shopping and somehow they got separated for several hours. Fortunately they had their cell phones with them.
“Honey, where are you!?” the woman asked.
“Sweetheart,” he said, “do you remember when we were first married the jewelry shop where you saw that diamond necklace you loved? But we didn’t have enough money at the time, so I said, ‘Someday I’ll come back to this shop and buy that necklace for you.’ Do you remember?”
“Yes!” she shouts, excitedly.
“Well,” he said, “I’m in the Home Depot next door to that jewelry shop getting some supplies.”
The big day is only nine days away. We are a little over half way through another exhausting Advent season. So many things required our attention. – At least the cookie walk is done!
Today’s scripture readings from Luke tell us how Mary, shortly after learning that she was pregnant, went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, who was now in her sixth month. It was a journey of about 100 miles – on foot, quite an undertaking for a young woman in her first trimester. And yet likely Mary just wanted to get away, clear her head, think about how to handle her situation. She probably needed someone to talk to --- anyone but her mother, a trusted female relative – Elizabeth fit the bill.
In the few, short verses from Luke that give us Elizabeth’s response as she greets Mary upon her arrival, three times Elizabeth uses the word “blessed.”
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! . . . . Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
We have a tendency to think that when a person is blessed it means they have good things in life: Money – at least enough to pay their bills, if they are very blessed they can afford some of the “finer things” in life. Good health, meaningful work we enjoy, happy relationships, loving family. These are all blessings. We often think of blessedness in terms of comfort and ease.
Mary blessed? She faced the wagging tongues of family and neighbors as she bore a child before her marriage to Joseph. Not long after the child was born she and Joseph and the baby had to flee to Egypt and live as refugees to escape Herod’s attempts to kill the child. Could she escape feelings of guilt knowing how many mothers lost their infants to Herod’s cruelty? Blessed? To hear people speak of her son as insane when he began his preaching ministry? Blessed? To know the Temple priests and lawyers were out to get him. Blessed? To weep at the foot of a Roman cross as her son was put to death in the most excruciating way ever devised by humankind?
When Elizabeth said that Mary was blessed, there was nothing about material goods, money, health, family or job. Elizabeth understood that Mary was blessed because she was a trusting participant in God’s plan. Think for a moment about the people Jesus called “blessed.”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.(B)
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.(C)
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
. . .
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
When we pray asking God to bless us, we should be careful. Being blessed by God doesn’t necessarily mean a life of comfort. It does mean being a trusting participant in God’s plan.
Mary was fortunate to have Elizabeth as a mentor in her life – an older cousin to whom she could go for advice and comfort. Who is your Elizabeth? Who helps you see things from a clear perspective?
I am fortunate to have several Elizabeths in my life. My sisters are Elizabeth to me. My friend Pat, and Pastor Dan in Spring Lake are Elizabeth to me. Sometimes some of you in this congregation are Elizabeth to me. But the first person who jumped into my mind when I pondered the question of who is Elizabeth to me is my friend Ruth. Ruth and I became friends back in the early 80’s when I was living in Hesperia. She was a member of the Presbyterian Church there. We started out riding bicycles together in the mornings for exercise. Then her knees got too bad, so we switched to walking. You can’t walk with someone for half an hour to forty-five minutes five days a week and not get to know each other. After we walked we often stood on the street corner and continued our conversations for another fifteen minutes. Like Elizabeth was Mary’s older cousin, Ruth is a bit older than I – 20 years older actually. One day when she realized that she exclaimed, “I’m old enough to be your mother!” From that day on I called her “ma” and she called me “kid.”
It was to Ruth I went when my life seemed to be coming apart at the seams. As I got ready to go to Chicago to start seminary, I remember Ruth saying to me in doubting moments, “You will make it, my dear.” For the next three and a half years, when we got a chance to talk on the phone, every conversation included her saying to me, “You will make it, my dear.”
Being blessed doesn't necessarily mean that life will be comfortable or easy. It does mean living and being a part of God’s plan. Doing that and staying mentally and emotionally healthy requires having an Elizabeth in your life. Who is Elizabeth to you? And to whom are you Elizabeth? Who is there who needs your encouragement? Your advice? The benefit of your experience? The gift of your prayers? I can never do for Ruth what she has done for me. But God gives us opportunities to ‘pay it forward.’ So there are people for whom I get to be Elizabeth. For whom are you Elizabeth?
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON: Jeremiah 33:14-16
GOSPEL LESSON Matthew 1:18-25
SERMON: “Characters of Christmas - Joseph”
My friend Pat, whom many of you have met, and who currently serves the Presbyterian Church in Buchanan, is a collector of nativity sets. I have one – a “Precious Moments” nativity – well actually I have two of them, one large and one small because about fifteen years ago both of my children heard me say that was something I would like, and they each got the pieces for me for Christmas. One is the large set and one is the smaller piece set, and I honestly don’t recall which child got which set for me. But my friend Pat has more nativity sets than I can count.
Pat is amazing at decorating her home for the various seasons. I usually spend part of the Christmas holiday with her, and so I get to see her nativities. She has a Fontanini collectors set, which is good for me when I go Christmas shopping for her because there seems to be no end to the Fontanini figurines. Three or four sets are displayed in her living room, one or two in the first floor bedroom, two or three downstairs in her family room and – yes – at least two in her guest bathroom. And yet she is still looking for a particular nativity. If one of you should find it I authorize you to purchase it on the spot. I will pay for it and it will be my gift to her. What is she looking for? She is looking for a nativity set in which Joseph is holding the baby.
Poor Joseph. He seems to get short shrift. Mark hardly mentions him at all. John refers to him only in terms of Jesus, the son of Joseph, and Luke gives but a mention of Joseph as the man to whom Mary was engaged to be married, and then mentions that at the time of the birth they traveled to Bethlehem for the required census. So we turn to Matthew to learn a bit about Joseph. Mary, we know, lived in Nazareth, a tiny town, almost unknown. Joseph’s family likely lived in Bethlehem, and his engagement to Mary was probably a long-distance one, arranged by their parents. Bethlehem, about six miles from Jerusalem, was a considerably larger town than Nazareth, population somewhere between 500 and 1,000. In Hebrew “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” and there were likely bakers there who sold their bread in Jerusalem.
(You may be asking if Joseph and his family lived in Bethlehem, why they needed a room in an Inn, and end up having their baby in a stable. You’ll have to come back for the fourth Sunday in Advent to learn why that was true.)
So, what do we learn from Matthew’s narrative concerning Joseph. First of all, we learn that he was both faithful to the law and unwilling to submit Mary to public disgrace. The Law commanded that a woman found to be guilty of adultery be put to death. Joseph must have been devastated when he learned that his betrothed was already pregnant. He certainly knew that he was not the father. If you were in his sandals, how likely do you think you would be to believe her story that she was with child by the Holy Spirit? I mean, really, how often does that happen? We know that Joseph was someone raised to be obedient to the Law, and yet we see that he is also a compassionate person. Somewhere on his walk back to Bethlehem from Nazareth, allowing his emotions to settle down, he resolves to “divorce” her quietly. Joseph – a man who lives by the Law is moved by compassion to save a life. There’s a little mini-gospel here.
Proceeding with his marriage to Mary was an act of compassion. Family and friends would tend to assume that Joseph was the baby’s father. It was not uncommon for couples who were betrothed to consummate the marriage prior to the wedding ceremony. An engagement was a legally binding contract and considered by most to be as good as a done deal.
And who would be a better earthly father for Jesus than a man who knew and lived by the law and yet was also loving and compassionate? Joseph would be a great adoptive father for this baby. Considering the fact that about 1% of the U.S. population is adoptees, we have in this congregation a very high number of adoptive families and children, including my own. Some of you have heard me say that as my children became adults, and particularly as my son Paul reconnected with his birth family I have gained new respect for the “nature” part in the “nature vs. nurture” debate. There are several ways in which Paul is so much like his bio-family. But I also learned in conversations last spring with Carrie as we planned their wedding how much influence I have had on my son. “Oh,” she said to me one afternoon, “you have no idea! All the time, it’s ‘my mom says this’ and ‘my mom taught me that.’” Truly we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and shares God’s nature, but most certainly Joseph said to Jesus ‘this’ and taught Jesus ‘that.’
Now and then we get some theological questions asking why the Bible talks to us about Jesus, the Son of God, and also as Joseph’s son. Let me tell you about that from the perspective of an adoptive parent. When Paul came into our lives, there were people who actually asked me if I wouldn’t miss having a child of my own. I don’t think they meant to be unkind, just curious. At the time I tended to answer, rather flippantly, “No. I watched my cat have kittens. I don’t need to have that particular experience.” But as Paul and then Kathryn grew up, I realized that they are my own children. Not because of the circumstances of their birth, but because I fed and clothed the, changed their diapers, wiped up their messes, played with them, read to them, prayed with them and tucked them into bed at night. They are my children because I walked them to school, went to their parent-teacher conferences, T-ball games and graduations. Joseph was Jesus’ father because he helped Mary take care of him, took him to the Temple and taught him how to do the work of a carpenter.
Walking that long walk home from Nazareth to Bethlehem, having heard the news that his betrothed was already with child, knowing he was not the father, Joseph must have been devastated. His hopes and dreams for the future with her and the family he hoped for were dashed. How many of you have had moments like that in your life? Times when you made plans for your life and some tragedy of gigantic proportions totally demolished your plans. The death of a loved one or the death of a relationship can do that to you. You get turned down for a promotion, or for a job, or your job is terminated. You or your loved one gets a scary diagnosis, or an apparently insurmountable legal problem appears. If you were a character on a soap opera, the writers would have written your line. . . “My life is over!”
But in the middle of Joseph’s worst nightmare, an angel comes to him; a messenger from God appears. In the midst of this disaster, God is working. Adam Hamilton writes, “At that very moment when Joseph felt at his lowest, God was at work in Mary’s womb, doing the greatest thing God had done since the creation of the human race. God was orchestrating the birth of the Savior. God was also inviting Joseph to play a critical part in this plan. Something amazing was about to happen, but Joseph could not see this yet.” Doesn’t that happen to us when we are in our own dark moments. God is at work, doing something amazing. We just don’t always see it, at least not at first.
I have lost count of the number of ways God has taken dark, difficult moments in my life and in the lives of others and done something amazing. All you cancer survivors in the room know what I’m talking about. There is an instant connect between survivors. As soon as we learn that another person is a survivor we are part of something larger than we are, and our stories help others to survive with hope. Our treatments help doctors and researchers develop better treatments. Every time I look back at a difficult time, I discover that God was working in the circumstances. Every time I look back at a difficult time, I am reminded that the Apostle Paul – who endured more than his share of hardship – Paul wrote “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28). Whenever you face trouble, keep Joseph in mind. At the lowest moment of his life God was working to bring about the greatest good, not only for Joseph, but for all humankind.
That messenger that came to Joseph in his dream gave him an instruction that the baby was to be named, “Immanuel,” which means God is with us. This is what we celebrate at Christmas – that God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, lived with us, loved with us, laughed with us, cried with us. As the world around us seems to get farther and farther away from faith, as more and more people are not only “unchurched” but “unfaithed,” you and I are called to be “Immanuel” to our families, friends and neighbors. I don’t know who said it first, but it is true that “you are the only Bible some people will ever read.”
When we go out from worship and return to our Monday morning through Saturday night lives, what will the people with whom we interact know about the Lord because of our actions? Our words? Again, it is the Apostle Paul who guides us as we live out our lives in Christ: 19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20)
Immanuel: God with us. Revealed in us. How can we ever thank God for what God has done for us? By choosing words and deeds that reveal Christ living in us.
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Psalm 25:1-10
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 1:26-38
SERMON: “Characters of Christmas – Mary”
There was a story years ago in the Canadian version of the Reader’s Digest of about a large moose that wandered into a residential area in Calgary, Canada. The moose ended up on the lawn of a lady named Lorna Cade. A Fish and Wildlife officer was dispatched to try to coax the magnificent animal back into the wild. After two hours of absolutely no progress, the officer finally shot the moose with a tranquilizer dart. The moose bolted down the street and eventually collapsed on another nearby lawn.
The reporters who had been following this event interviewed the lady at the house where the moose collapsed. They asked her what she thought about the moose which had passed out on her lawn. “I’m surprised,” she answered, “but not as surprised as my husband will be. He’s out moose hunting.”
Her husband had gone out looking for moose and a large moose had come to him.
That is the message of Christmas. While humanity spends its time seeking after God, God comes to us in the babe of Bethlehem. Christmas is a God-thing. The angel Gabriel was sent 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 said to Mary, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
This year as we take a new look at the characters of Christmas, we start with Mary of Nazareth. In Mary’s day, unlike our time, Nazareth was not at all well-known. The population of the town at that time is estimated to be somewhere between 100 and 400 people. I’ve lived a lot of my adult life in small towns. The greater White Pigeon metropolitan area has a population of about 1,200. I tell people that if you travel south on US 131 and get the green light where it intersects with US 12, you can go right through White Pigeon and never know you’ve been there. Nazareth was somewhere between a tenth and a quarter the size of present-day White Pigeon.
It was likely settled as a tiny town because of a spring located there where people like Mary could fetch water. The water there is cool and clean and forms a fountain, commonly called by the people a “fountain of living water.” Homes in Nazareth were frequently caves hollowed out of the soft limestone. Mary, like most of the residents of Nazareth was mostly poor, uneducated people who led simple lives and “walked humbly with their God.
At the time of her engagement to Joseph, Mary was probably just about 13 years old, which seems very young to us to be having a child, but most women of that time were betrothed by the time they were physically able to conceive and bear children. Life expectancy at the time was just about 35 years.
Imagine Mary’s surprise at the appearance of the angel Gabriel – or perhaps more surprised at his message than his appearance. We tend to picture angels as white-robed figures with great wings. The word “angel” in Greek simply means “messenger.” The text does not tell us if Gabriel was some winged, heavenly being or perhaps simply a messenger, a man who looked like any other man, but who was chosen by God to clue Mary in to all that was about to happen.
If his appearance didn’t startle Mary, his message surely confused and terrified her. The messenger Gabriel said to her “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Luke tells us, “ 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 conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him 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 Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
We who know the rest of the story find it easy to gloss over how strange a message that was. Mary has found favor with God? Our New International Version says, “Greetings, you who are highly favored,” but the Revised Standard Catholic Version says, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” The words used there are a translation of a single Greek word: kecharitomene. The root here is chari from which we get charisma and charismatic and means ‘grace.’
And ‘grace’ of course is a word we church folk tend to toss around a lot. But what does ‘grace’ really mean? If I asked you to take a pencil and write on your bulletin a short definition of ‘grace’ what would you write? Grace speaks to us of God’s kindness, God’s love, God’s care for us and work on our behalf. Grace speaks to us of blessings, gifts, goodness, and salvation. But it is more than that, because as Adam Hamilton writes, “Grace is goodness we don’t deserve, kindness, salvation, forgiveness, blessings – all these things when they are a pure gift.”
We tend to make an assumption that Mary was an especially good young woman and that is why God chose her to be Jesus’ mother. The text doesn’t actually tell us that. It tells us that she found favor with God – God filled her with grace. And grace is as amazing as we sing it is. As Hamilton says, “Grace, has power. When you show kindness, compassion, goodness or love to someone who does not deserve it, the act of grace has the power to change lives, heal broken relationships, and to reconcile people, and even nations. Grace changes the person who receives it, but it also changes the one who gives it.1
“What do you believe about the ‘Virgin Birth?’” That was a question thrown out on the floor of Southeastern Illinois Presbytery during the examination of a Candidate for Ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. There was a hush in the room and it seemed for a long moment that everything stood still. I can imagine the wheels turning in the Candidate’s head, how do I answer that? After what seemed like a long time, but was probably only about 10 or 15 seconds, the presbyter withdrew his question, with the comment, “I just wanted you all to know what these examinations used to be like.” Indeed there have been times in our history when what a person believed about the “Virgin Birth” was considered a litmus test as to whether or not they were a true Christian.
If you want me to tell you what you ought to believe about it . . . sorry. Not going to happen. But I will give you some things to ponder.
Growing up in Chicago I was part of a mid-sized church, and
each year, the children and youth re-enacted the Christmas story on Christmas Eve. Everyone had a part – some were shepherds, some were angels; some were wise men. All the girls wanted to be Mary. It seemed quite the honor to be chosen to play the part of Mary.
Today I wonder if Mary wanted to be Mary. After all, God was asking her to be pregnant outside of marriage – at least a disgrace, at worst punishable by stoning to death. Could she possibly want to be the mother of God’s child? Could she imagine what that would mean? We admire her response, “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled,” but would we want to be her.
One of the consistently chosen favorite hymns in the congregation is “Here I Am, Lord.” “I will go, Lord, if You lead me.” What if God asks us to be with people we don’t want to be with? What if God asks us to do tasks we don’t want to do? Often as not, serving where God calls us, saying ‘yes’ to God, means not so much a life of blessing, but one of risk. I’m not at all convinced that Mary wanted to be Mary, but we know she trusted God enough to say ‘yes’ anyway.
As we begin our journey to Bethlehem this year, I challenge you to shift focus from Christmas being about how much you buy, what you eat or with whom you visit. Consider making this Advent season about saying with Mary, “Here I Am Lord. I am the Lord’s servant.”
1 Hamilton, Adam, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, 24.