HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
November 27, 2016
First Sunday of Advent
Luke 1: 26-38 (CEB)
When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”
34Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”
35The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37Nothing is impossible for God.”
38Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
I imagine that as the Thanksgiving festivities wound down this week, several of us took the extra time and opportunity to begin decorating for Christmas, as many folks did right here yesterday! We pull the boxes of decorations from their storage places, we unpack the Christmas tree and assemble it again, paying careful attention to make sure all the branches are well-placed. Or maybe we pile the family into the car, with saw and rope handy, and head out to the Christmas tree farm in search of the perfect Christmas tree to adorn our home. And that’s part of the joy of decorating for Christmas isn’t it, finding the perfect Christmas tree; well-proportioned, symmetrical, with full branches, and that wonderful pine scent. Yes, when it comes to finding a Christmas tree, we typically walk past the short ones, or the thin ones, or the ones with lots of needles lying at their base, without even a sideways glance.
But perhaps some of you remember Charlie Brown’s quest for a Christmas tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Chuck and Linus have been charged by Lucy to find the perfect Christmas tree for the children’s Christmas pageant, a tree which reflects the “modern Christmas spirit.” As the two boys enter the Christmas tree lot, we see an array of Christmas trees in every color; pink, purple, orange. Linus knocks on one of the trees and we hear the rattle of hollow metal. But then the boys spy the tree they want; a short, spindly pine, with barely a handful of needles. Linus comments, “I didn’t know they still made wooden Christmas trees.” It isn’t much, but it is the “perfect” tree to Charlie Brown and Linus, and so they carry it back to the school where their friends are rehearsing for the pageant. Only, the Peanuts gang isn’t so enthusiastic, and they are quick to make fun of the pathetic-looking tree, and Charlie Brown’s poor choice. So, shoulders sagging and feet dragging, Charlie Brown takes the tree and heads home.
I suppose we shouldn’t be terribly surprised by the reaction of Charlie Brown’s friends, I mean, it really was a pretty pathetic Christmas tree, but Charlie Brown’s choice of a Christmas tree is a good reminder of God’s choice of an earthly mother to bear the Messiah. And that woman, Mary, is going to be the focus of our attention today as we begin our look at the nativity. We decorate our homes and churches with nativities each year at Christmas-time, but we don’t often think about the significance of those who were present at the time of Christ’s birth. So over the next several weeks, we are going to take a closer look at Mary, Joseph, the animals, shepherds, angels, wise men, and even Jesus, to learn more about what God is doing in sending his Son into our midst.
So, it doesn’t take much to realize that Mary was a lot like that little Christmas tree Charlie Brown picked out for the Christmas pageant. There was nothing special about her. She was not rich, she did not have a prestigious social standing. She probably lived in a very modest home, a cave, most likely. And she actually would have still been living in her parents’ home at the time when the angel visited her. There would have been nothing to make her stand out from the hundreds of other women of her day, who went about regular chores of fetching water, cooking, cleaning, and otherwise looking after the well-being of their family. And, she was from Nazareth. At the time of Jesus’ birth, Nazareth was nothing more than a tiny, insignificant village. It would be what we might call “Podunk” today. There was a reason that when Philip shared with his friend Nathaniel that he had found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Nathaniel’s response went something like this, “Are you kidding me? Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” But something good did come from there, didn’t it?
Of all the places God could have gone, of all the women God could have chosen to bear the Messiah, God sent the angel Gabriel to this tiny village to knock on the door of a normal, humble, young woman, Mary. What does it mean that God went to Nazareth instead of one of the big cities of the day where there would be refined and cultured women? Even before Jesus is born, God is teaching us anew, reminding us of his long-established values. God favors the meek, the humble, those who “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God,” who love others as they love themselves, and who “take up [their] cross daily” to follow him. God saw in Mary the kind of humble servant that he desires all people to be, and despite all the challenges, Mary did not disappoint.
Could you imagine being in Mary’s shoes? Ken and I were sort of light-heartedly joking last week about what it would be like to be visited by an angel, a messenger from God, and told that you were going to become pregnant, not in the usual way, but because God has chosen you, and “the power of the Most High will overshadow you” until you conceive and bear none other than the very Messiah! This is nothing short of crazy! If we were to take such news out into the world today, people would call us crazy; we would be admitted into the local mental institution.
But here’s the thing, the scenario really wasn’t all that different for Mary. In her day, the penalty for pregnancy out of wedlock was death. At best, under normal circumstances, Mary would have been abandoned by Joseph because of her “infidelity;” and, assuming she made it through the dangerous ordeal of childbirth, she would have been ostracized by her family and left to raise her child as a single mother. She would have been mocked and ridiculed and become an outcaste. But that didn’t stop Mary; all those challenges didn’t keep Mary from doing what she knew in her heart was the right thing to do, and opening herself for the work of God that was to happen through her. As a humble servant, Mary “took up her cross” and followed this most unlikely path described by Gabriel, and in this early part of the gospel, Mary is the star of the show.
There is a pastor who tells of the annual children’s Christmas pageant at his church. Each year, as Advent approaches, the children are gathered, and the parts of the Christmas pageant are assigned. The children play all the parts; wise men, shepherds, stable animals, but none is more popular among the girls than the part of Mary. Only when the question, “Who wants to be Mary?” is asked, do all the little hands in the room fly up in eager anticipation. And yet, this pastor reflects, “I wonder if Mary wanted to be Mary?”
As a young woman, probably no more than 13 or 14, she compromised her entire future. She surrendered her body and carried within her the Christ-child for 9 months. Do you think Mary wanted to be Mary? She became Theotokos, the “God-bearer,” and she went through the dangerous ordeal of childbirth. Then she nurtured the child; she fed him, clothed him; she raised him, taught him scriptures, and modeled the faith. And 33 years later, after he had taught the world about the unfathomable love of God, she watched him die on a cross, in accordance with God’s will. The will of God which, she knew, requires so much of all of God’s servants. Do you think Mary wanted to be Mary?
Sometimes, oftentimes, when God calls us, what God calls us to is hard, not easy. It’s not what we want or what we dream about; it could be risky and dangerous, it could separate us from everything we know and love. And that is where we have so much to learn from Mary today. We cannot downplay Mary’s significance in history. No other person, besides Jesus himself, plays a greater role in the salvation of the human race than Mary. And it was all because of her faith in the God who called her, and her willingness to serve him.
So what is it we need to take from this lesson this morning? That God favors the humble and lowly, and that we need to make sure our hearts and minds are always in the right place to respond to God’s call? Absolutely. Perhaps the thing to remember is that nothing is impossible with God. That’s important too. Does this story remind us that God is the giver of new life? It certainly does! But the most important part of this story is that when Mary was asked to do something hard, when Mary was asked to surrender everything and serve God, her answer was “Yes!”
Are we so very willing? This Advent season, as we prepare once again for a Christmas celebration not only remembering Christ’s birth, but anticipating that day when he will come again, we need to take time to search our own hearts and minds. We need to ask the tough questions of ourselves and examine our values. In the midst of the chaos of Christmas shopping, musical programs, and holiday parties, we need to pause, and humble ourselves before God in prayer, crying out, “I am the Lord’s servant. God, I am your servant.” And then as we listen for that often unexpected call of God, we all need to explore our own willingness to say like Mary, “May it be with me according to your will.”
“Here I am, Lord, use me.”