A sermon for Christmas Eve and the conclusion to the “Wonder Women of Advent” series.
Luke 1, 2
When I was in seminary I served as a youth pastor at a little church in Ohio that had a tradition of doing a live outdoor nativity scene during the Christmas season. The deal was that the kids would volunteer for half hour shifts sitting out in a makeshift barn we assembled out of old boards while people from the area drove up to witness the scene.
We had the whole crew—Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, and even live animals like sheep and donkeys. We had beautiful Christmas music playing over a loudspeaker with a narration of the story. People would simply drive up to the church to look at the scene for a while.
It was usually cold and, being Ohio in December, a misty and miserable rain. The youth piled on the layers under their costumes which meant that everyone in the scene looked like they could have walked a few more miles and shed a few pounds on their journey as they waddled up to the manger. And while everyone else was bundled up, baby Jesus (a doll) was only wrapped in a thin cloth—silent night, freezing night!
And then there was the time that one of our Mary’s came to me before her shift and said, “Um, Bob, what are we supposed to do out there…I mean, we’re just staring at the baby, which is cool and all, but…well, this might be sacrilegious or something but I have to say that it’s, like, kind of boring.” Fair enough, I said, but having not had children to this point I didn’t quite know what to tell her to do, so I encouraged her to go and ask her mom what it is that moms do when their baby is first born.
She came back a bit later with the answer: “Mom said I should hold the baby for awhile, take a handful of painkillers, and then take a nap while Joseph makes phone calls.” Thanks, mom!
It’s a great question, however—something I had never thought about. After all, every manger scene simply has Mary gazing lovingly at the baby, dressed in a Carolina blue robe, looking beautiful, soft, and lovely. She is usually frozen that way in wood or marble or plastic and, for many people at Christmas time, she remains that way—an accessory to the Christmas story but not much more.
The real Mary, however, is far more interesting and far more than a marble saint or a doting mother. In fact, she is the most relatable of all the people in the Christmas story—an ordinary young woman who is given an extraordinary vocation, who learned to follow Jesus through the ordinary struggles that humans face. Mary represents each of us in our call to follow Jesus. In many ways, her story is our story.
To understand what brings Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, we have to go all the way back to the Old Testament. Mary’s people, the people of Israel, had a long history of slavery, oppression, and exile by foreign powers. As the Gospels begin, Israel is ruled by two different kings—Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor, and Herod the Great, his local puppet ruler. Israel had long waited for God’s promise to bring them a real king—a king from the line of David—who would overthrow these oppressive powers and bring them peace and prosperity. They were looking for a Messiah who would save them once and for all.
It’s in this political environment that an angel appears to a young girl in the backwater town of Nazareth in northern Israel. Mary was maybe somewhere between 13 and 16, already betrothed to an older man named Joseph in an arranged marriage, as was the custom. She was a person of no status in the ancient world, so the angel’s greeting confused her: “Rejoice, favored one, the Lord is with you!” (1:28). But what the angel has come to announce is even more shocking—that it would be through this peasant girl from the middle of nowhere that God was finally going to bring his promised Messiah into the world. What God had promised through the prophet Isaiah was about to come true—God was going to “bear his holy arm” (roll up his sleeves) to finally bring salvation to his people through his chosen king.
Mary was being chosen to bring this Messiah into the world, but it’s interesting that her question back to the angel isn’t about why, however, but how—”How can this be since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the most High will overshadow you…”
I don’t think we often realize what the angel was asking. Mary would have known, however, what happened to women who’s children had questionable parentage. It was a ticket to being ostracized and outcast at best and, at worst, to be killed for committing adultery. Mary was engaged to Joseph, which was an unbreakable bond. He would know the child wasn’t his, as would everyone else since the wedding hadn’t taken place. The angel was asking Mary to risk her reputation, her future, and even her life. And in spite of all that, Mary says, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said” (1:38)
One of the things I’ve learned over my years in ministry is to always be skeptical when someone says that God told them to do something. Usually, the thing God is telling them to do is something that will benefit them. But that’s never the way it works in Scripture—God usually tells us to do the hard thing. Mary is being asked to begin bearing a cross even before Jesus is born—to risk everything—and yet, she says “Yes.” Why does she do so?
I think it’s because she knew God. She knew the history of other women whom God had taken care of despite the circumstances—women like those in the genealogy of Jesus who came before her—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. These are the “Wonder Women” we profiled during the season of Advent. Mary trusted God to come through on his promises no matter the difficulty. For her, the promise of bringing the Messiah into the world far outweighed the problems she might face.
In fact, what we learn here is that Mary isn’t just a shy teenager who is going to be a womb that God will rent to accomplish his purposes. She is actually a bold and gutsy young woman who is about to challenge the powers that be. In Luke 1:46-55, we read the Magnificat—Mary’s song in response to the angel’s news. She praises God for cracking open the heavens and coming to establish justice. Look at what she says: “He [God] has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.”
Notice that she says all of this in the past tense—as if it has already happened! In saying yes to God, Mary was taking on Augustus and Herod and all the powers of this world. She was dangerous to the powers that be because she predicted the powers that will be and was willing to give her very life to this cause.
This mission is what leads her to Bethlehem. Augustus ordered the travel, but he didn’t know that he was actually setting in motion the downfall of his empire, all because a girl said “yes” to God. Mary is no marble saint forever staring at the manger—she is Princess Leia and Wonder Woman rolled into one!
But Mary is also human, like us, and as humans we often let our expectations get in the way. Mary expected what her people expected of a Messiah–a king who would take the throne in Jerusalem, defeat the Romans with the sword, and establish the long awaited kingdom. Soon after the manger scene in Bethlehem, however, Mary begins to see that things are not going to go the way she thinks.
Eight days after his birth, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to be dedicated in the temple. An old man, Simeon, blesses the child as have angels and shepherds to this point, but his words are foreboding—”This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And sword will pierce your own soul, too” (2:34-35). A Messiah opposed by his own people? A sword to pierce the soul?
As we read through the Gospels, we can see her struggling to reconcile the promise of the angels with the reality of what Jesus is doing. When he is 12, she will lose him and frantically search for him for three days in the big city of Jerusalem, only to have him tell her, “Didn’t you know I was about my Father’s business?” He will preach in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, which should have been a proud moment for her but, instead, her neighbors want to throw her son off a cliff. She will think he has gone completely mad when he turns thirty and leaves home to start preaching and challenging powerful people—so much so that she will go to Capernaum to claim him and bring him home, only to have Jesus say that his real mother and brothers and sisters are those who do the will of God. He chooses the mission over his mom, which had to cut her to the heart.
One of the phrases often associated with Mary in the Gospel of Luke is that, in response to some of the events, she “pondered these things in her heart.” We tend to think of that as a kind of sentimental remembrance, as though she is planning what she’ll write in Jesus’ baby book—but it is far more than that. Mary was actively trying to figure out what God was doing in the world. As the story unfolds and as Mary watches her son, she begins to realize that her son isn’t doing what was expected.
Mary disappears from the text after that incident at Capernaum, and she doesn’t show up again until the crucifixion. While most of Jesus’ disciples fled, she is there with her son at the end. She will be there when the news comes that his tomb is empty. She will be there when the Holy Spirit falls on the all at Pentecost. She would be an anchor of the early church and the tradition says that she went with the apostle John to Ephesus and there was influential in the spread of the church.
What happened in between? I think what happened is that Mary began to understand that the revolution she and her people had so longed for had come but in a way no one had expected. The victory of this Messiah would come not through military triumph but through suffering. The real enemy hadn’t been Herod or Augustus, but the forces of sin and death that make rulers like that powerful. Like the other disciples, she came to realize that what looked like defeat had actually been a triumph—that he son had beaten death and sin along with it, setting all who follow him free to be the people God created them to be. She realized that the family she was longing for was the family of those who follow the risen Christ. Looking at the empty tomb, Mary realized that she hadn’t said yes to the angel for nothing—that the revolution had actually begun. That’s what his victory would achieve—a revolution that would truly bring peace to all whom God favors, just as the angel had promised.
The story invites us to consider our own response to the promise of God. The question that young Mary asked while shivering in a little nativity scene in Ohio years ago still prompts me: “What am I supposed to do out there?”
The answer, I think, is to be like the real Mary—to magnify the Lord and say yes to what he asks, knowing that it will cost us something.
Like many in Mary’s day, it’s easy for us to look at what’s going on and think that nothing will ever change. We see a world where sin and death seem to reign, where the powerful go unchecked, and injustice is everywhere. We hope that someone, somewhere, will change things.
Mary was the first to proclaim that the change had begun—that God was coming person to set his world right. God does so by setting his people right so that they can join him in the work—people who are willing to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord…” Don’t miss the fact that the first person to respond to this good news was a teenaged girl with no status and no power other than the favor God bestowed on her. She could have looked over her shoulder for someone else to do it, someone more qualified or with a better situation, but instead she would change the world because she said, “Yes.”
If we join her in saying yes, we’ll find ourselves changed. We’ll become people who have Christ at the very center of who we are, just as Mary received the life of Jesus into the deepest and most intimate part of herself. We’ll turn into people who can say along with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Every day presents opportunities to say yes to God and change the world.
- When you encounter a person in need—Here am I, the servant of the Lord…
- When you see someone being treated unfairly—Here am I, the servant of the Lord…
- When people at work are cutting corners and acting unethically—Here am I, the servant of the Lord
- When others at school are pressuring you to do the wrong thing—Here am I, the servant of the Lord
- When you are worried about the future and concerned about the news—Here am I, the servant of the Lord…
- When you’re wondering about your purpose in life—Here am I, the servant of the Lord
You can say it out of habit. You can say it for comfort. You can say it as a way to enter into a connection with God. You can say it as a prayer to help you do the things that you know God wants you to do. Any time can be a great time to say, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.
Jesus has come not to be gazed at and admired, but to turn the world upside down. May we not simply be marble saints who come out at Christmas, but follow the example of Mary the Magnificent and be followers of her Son!
McKnight, Scot. The Real Mary. Paraclete Press, 2006. Kindle.