Saturday, December 24, 2016

To A Maid Engaged To Joseph

Here is my sermon for Christmas Eve. The text was Luke 1:26-38:

If you’ve been alive long enough then you have regrets.  There are things you regret that you did and there are probably things you regret that you did not do. Robert Frost famously said “two roads diverged in the woods and I, I took the one less traveled and that has made all the difference.” Perhaps you regret not taking the less traveled path, or perhaps you didn’t even take either of those paths but instead turned around and went the other way. We regret the times we said yes instead of saying no, and we regret the times we said no when, in fact, we should have said yes, and perhaps we wonder what would have happened if we had made a different choice. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if people in scripture had done something different. What if Mary’s response to the angel about her bearing Jesus had been different? What if Mary had said no?

We really don’t know very much about Mary. Most of what people think they know about Mary are stories that develop much later in the history of the church. Luke, who we just heard from, mentions her the most.  She is named 12 times in Luke, but all of these are in his infancy narrative.  She appears in two other stories in Luke, but is not named in those.  In Matthew, she is named 5 times.  Four of those times are in his infancy narrative, and then she is talked about two other times, being named once, although it’s a reference to her, not something directly involving her.  In Mark, she is named only once, and like in Matthew it is simple a reference of a crowd saying that Mary is Jesus’ mother, and then there is one story in which she is not named.  In John she is not named at all, but there are two stories make reference to her.  And that is all that we have in the gospels.  Not really a lot to go on, but when we compare Mary against other characters in scripture, especially women, the fact that we know as much about her as we do, and that she is referenced in all four gospels, is quite extraordinary.

But here is something that we do know, and can say with certainty, and that is the that she is the mother of Jesus.  She was a young girl, probably no older than 13 or 14 when she became engaged to Joseph. Under Jewish law, girls as young as 12 could be married, it was much younger under Roman law, but usually they would only be engaged until they could have children, and normally their spouse would be a much older man. The fact that we don’t hear any more about Joseph when Jesus is an adult may indicate this is the case, but that is merely speculation. But what couldn’t happen was for the girl to become pregnant outside of marriage. The penalty for such a happening at the very least would be for Mary to have to try and raise a child on her own outside of marriage, which would have been extremely difficult, and she and the child would have to also live with the shame that came with the birth. The worst case scenario is that she could be stoned to death. We are told that when Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant that he planned to “dismiss her quietly,” that is break off the engagement without making a public scene and also without going to the Jewish authorities and publicly accusing Mary of adultery. Joseph, though, changes his mind after he is visited by an angel who tells him that he should take Mary as his wife, that the child is from the Holy Spirit and that the child is being born to save the people.

Now there are some striking things about Joseph’s interactions with the angel and the interaction Mary has with the angel Gabriel in the passage we just heard, which is known as the annunciation. There are angels appearing all over in the early verses of the New Testament telling people about the coming or the birth of Christ. And in all of those situations, we are told that those who witnessed the appearance were scared, except for two, Mary and Joseph. Although the angels still say to them “do not be afraid,” we are not told that they are afraid, like we are told of the others. I think this gives us some indication of their faith, and who they are, even before we learn anything else about them. Mary’s response in particular should be compared against the response of Zechariah right at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke who is visited by an angel to tell him that his wife, Elizabeth, will become pregnant and give birth to the person we know as John the Baptist. But, Zechariah does not believe the angel, and as a result he is stuck mute until the baby is born. But Mary has a totally opposite reaction.

For the season of Advent, which is the four Sundays preceding Christmas, we were looking at some of the most popular Advent and Christmas hymns and what they say to us about the season and about our faith. That is why we sang To a Maid Engaged to Joseph, which is technically an Advent song not a Christmas song, but I thought it appropriate to sing tonight as we hear again the story of that first Christmas and more importantly the role that Mary plays and what we can learn from her faith that applies to us even 2000 years later. And it begins with the annunciation, which starts with the angel Gabriel saying, in the translation we heard tonight, “Greetings favored one!” or in some translations as “Hail Mary,” the only piece of scripture that has a football play named after it. And then the angel says “You have found favor with God” and then Mary is told that she will give birth to a child. Now there are lots of people who are asked to do things in the Bible, and most of them have some hesitancy, or some reason why they can’t do what God has asked them or told them to do. Moses says he is a stutter, Jeremiah is too young, Isaiah’s lips are unclean lips, or Jonah who just flees. All of them are basically, “look God, I’m flattered that you choose me, I really am, but if you could find someone else, that would be great.” They don’t want to do it, but Mary’s response is different.

While perhaps we could see some hesitancy in her response to the angel, I think it’s more a question of logistics. “How is this possible since I am still a virgin,” or as some translations say “since I have never been with a man.” How is it that I am going to become pregnant? So, the angel Gabriel tells her, while indicating that she is not yet pregnant, which perhaps gives room for her to say “no thank you, try someone else.” But instead, her response is “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” The phrase, “Here am I” is found four times in scripture. Twice it is the prophet Isaiah saying it, in reference to a call from God, in Hebrews it is Jesus who says it, and then in Luke it is Mary. Referring to herself as a servant is also significant, because this too is often the word used to refer to prophets or others who are directly doing the work of God. That is to say, Mary has been told that God has a task for her to do, and not an insignificant task either, remembering that this role could potentially get her killed, and will bring her much heartache and sorrow in her life, but she doesn’t hesitate. She doesn’t come up with any excuses. She doesn’t ask God to find someone else. Instead she accepts it and says “here am I,” and then a few verses later, after meeting her cousin Elizabeth who is then six months pregnant with John the Baptist, Mary sings a song, known as the Magnificat, because her soul magnifies the Lord. This too connects her with other significant women in scripture such as Miriam, the sister of Moses, and Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who also sing songs of thanksgiving.  There are several different things that I think it is important for us to make note and remember about Mary and her faith and our faith.

The first is that Mary considers herself blessed. Normally when we think of being blessed it’s about receiving something good, something positive, but that is not the type of blessing that Mary is necessarily receiving here, nor is it the blessing that we often find in scripture.  She is scared teenager, pregnant outside of marriage, she gives birth to a child, probably without her family there, forced to react to powers outside of her control, and she is mother in fear for her child, fleeing persecution with her son, becoming an illegal immigrant, but fortunately Egypt was welcoming to her and the family.  That hardly seems like something we would consider a blessing, but maybe instead a curse. But what we see in scripture is that God’s blessing turn the worlds expectations upside down, as we hear in the Beatitudes, blessed are the poor, blessed are those who weep and mourn, blessed are those who hunger and thirst. That is not who we would consider to be blessed, but what Jesus tells us is that they are indeed blessed by God, they have received God’s blessings. And that includes those who are meek, which is a great encapsulation of who Mary is. When we think of the meek, we picture them as quiet, gentle or submissive, people who let others do whatever they want, including letting people walk all over them. And perhaps that might be how we might view Mary, but I think that would be a mistake and to underestimate Mary.

The entire New Testament was written originally in Greek, not in English, and the Greek word that is translated as meek does not have the meaning of submissive, but instead of the taming of something, of power under control. The word could be used to describe a wind blowing in a sail, a destructive force being used for a purpose, or a wild animal that has been tamed and domesticated.  Their power has been tamed and controlled.  In this sense, we can say Mary is meek because she has brought herself under the control of God. She has said that God is going to be in control, that she is going to subjugate her own desires and wished to God, regardless of what that means. She is going to allow God to tame her, to be transformed by the Spirit so that it is not her nature is no longer in control, and that’s the hardest thing to do, to say “not my will, but your will be done, that your kingdom will come, and that rather than me being in control, I’m going to let you be control.” Because the truth is most of us would like to serve God, but we’d like that role to be in an advisory capacity, not in a servant capacity.

And so, I believe, the most important thing to remember about Mary, especially at Christmas, is that when God called she said yes. We will never know what would have happened if she said no, because when the angel came to her, she said yes. Now perhaps you might say she didn’t even have the opportunity to say no, that God was going to make her carry the child no matter what, but that is not the way we see God working in scripture, and it’s not what we see the angel Gabriel’s announcement. God gives people a choice about what they are going to do.  We have a choice, and our response makes all the difference.  As I’ve said before, I cannot imagine that the shepherds in the fields that we hear about in Luke’s gospel were the only ones to whom angels appeared to that night. I think the angels were all over the place telling people to go to Bethlehem, but those shepherds were the only ones who showed up. Same with the Wiseman. Plenty of people saw a star and did nothing, but they responded and showed up. Plenty of people heard that a baby was born that night, but they didn’t go; they had more important things to do. There was the meal to prepare, some last-minute Christmas shopping to do, or that football game that they just couldn’t miss, after all it might have a hail Mary called, and so they stayed home. But Mary said yes. When God called she said yes. When the angel appeared she said “Here am I.”

Let me put it another way for Christmas. God is knocking on the door of our inn and we have to decide if there is room at the inn or whether we are going to turn God away. It may not seem that simple, but really it is that simple. The Christ child comes once again into our lives on this night and we have to decide what we are going to do. Are we going to welcome him in? Or, are we going to say we don’t need God? That we’re doing just fine by ourselves? That we don’t need any light in our darkness? That we don’t need forgiveness and reconciliation? That we don’t need to know that we are eternally loved? That we don’t need peace, hope, joy or love? All of us are innkeepers and we have to decide whether we will say yes or no.

Mary said yes, and we have to remember that she was not rich, she was not powerful, she didn’t even live in an important city, she was a poor peasant girl from a poor backwater village and because she said yes, the world was changed. Without Mary saying yes, the world does not know the Word made flesh. God doesn’t need power and prestige and important people to change the world, God just needs ordinary people, people like Joseph and Mary, people like the Shepherds and the Wiseman, people like you are like me, who are willing to say yes, to say yes, come into my life, yes, come into my heart. On this night, this most important of nights, let us remember that when the angel came Mary said yes, and so when the angels appear before us “Behold I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all the people, for tonight in the city of David has been born a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” what will we say? Don’t let this moment pass you by. Don’t let this be a moment that we may regret because we say there is no room at the inn. Instead, I hope that we will say “Here am I, make me your servant.”  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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