Today we begin our Advent series, Mary's Christmas. It goes without saying that this time of year is special. This time of year contains so much magic and excitement, not only within the religious tradition, but overflowing into the secular as well. This year I want us to spend our time looking at this story from the point of view of Mary, this very young girl that was placed in a very strange situation. My hope is that as we do this we will add a layer of magic back to this time of year and develop new understandings as we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ child. Today, we are going to begin with Mary, by looking at who she was, the situation she faced, and the lessons of faith we can learn from this her.
Who Are You?
I want you each to take a moment and think back to your childhood home. Think back to the place where you were born. Are you there? Can you see it? I want you to capture as much of that place in your mind's eye as you can. I want you to remember rooms of your home, your favorite hang out, the familiar smells, and the feelings you had growing up there.
For some of you, this may be one place. For others of you, it may be several places. And yet for others, you may not want to remember your childhood home at all. You see the reasons we have these feelings, the reasons our feelings range the spectrum, is because we are shaped by those places, good and bad, dangerous and safe.
For me, my childhood home is a singular place. I have been told I am somewhat of an anomoly. You see, I was born in Florida and from what I am told there are not too many of us around any more. I was born in Tampa, raised in Tampa, and my family still lives there. When I was five my parents and I moved to a little town on the outskirts of Tampa, called Seffner and the home we moved into is still the home that my Mom and Dad live in today.
When we moved to Seffner, my younger brother was not around yet, ahh...the good 'ol days. The main intersection in town was a tiny two lane road with the four corners containing cow pasture, cow pasture, orange grove, and cow pasture. Fast forward to today those same four corners, sit on a four lane highway and it is 7-Eleven, Winn Dixie, Taco Bell, and McDonald's.
But back then I rode my bike everywhere, and Mom and Dad did not have to worry. Everyone knew each other, we looked out for each other, and we lived our lives together. It was not uncommon for neighbors to talk across fences, to catch up with friends as you drank a soda outside the hardware store, and the reality was that you hardly ever saw a strangers face. You cannot do those things in Seffner anymore.
We often acknowledge that we are shaped by the people we grow up around. But we also are shaped by the places in which we have lived and grown up. Even in the United States, different parts of our country have different practices and customs, different values and beliefs, even different words for the same items.
When my wife Debbie and l traveled overseas in 2009, I began to realize how much Jesus’ humanity was shaped by the places in which he lived; Bethlehem where Jesus was born, Egypt where he spent time as a child in exile, Nazareth where he grew to adulthood, Jerusalem where he made his temple pilgrimages as a faithful Jew and where he was later crucified. Being in those places helped me to see and understand Jesus in a whole new way. This year as we look to these events from one point of view, through Mary's eyes, I pray we all see Jesus in a new light, are transformed in a new way, and the hope, peace, joy, and love of this season is renewed within us all.
Who is Mary?
So let us begin our Advent journey by looking at Mary. In our Gospel lesson from Luke, the story begins as an angel visits this young woman named Mary in the town of Nazareth to give her an amazing message. She is told she will be with child and will give birth to a son she is to call Jesus. That child will be the long-awaited Savior and Messiah.
You have to know a little something about the geography of this area to understand why it is so surprising that God would choose Nazareth. Nazareth then was just a poor tiny village of a few hundred people, located a few miles southeast of a bustling city called Sepphoris. People had settled in Nazareth because of the water source, a fresh spring. Debbie and I visited that spring on our trip, although it looks quite different now with the Greek Orthodox Church of the Anunciation built over top of it. But the people of Nazareth most likely worked and shopped in Sepphoris. In fact, at this point in time, Sepphoris was thought to be a large wealthy city with strong Roman and Greek influences to its culture and that the people of Nazareth, these few hundred people, made up the servant class that served the people of Sepphoris. So is it any wonder that in John 1:46, Nathaniel makes the comment, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (NIV). After all the people of Nazareth were not thought of as important people, as world changers. They were looked down upon as slaves, as servants.
But it’s interesting to look at these two places today. Sepphoris is dead. What you see is the ruins of the town that have been excavated from the land. It is Nazareth that is the place bustling with activity, boasting a population of about 70,000 in the city limits and about 200,000 in the greater metropolitan area. Perhaps it has something to do with the name of the town and its connection with a prophecy about the Messiah. Nazareth comes from the Hebrew word “netzer” meaning “branch or shoot that would come forth from a tree that had been cut down.” And in Isaiah 11 the prophet foretells that “a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a branch will bear fruit.” Little did the people of Nazareth know then that one of their own would be the branch from which Jesus, who described himself also as our source of living water, would come. But from this second class town, from this line of servants, from this shoot from the tree of Jesse, we get Mary and through her acceptance and obedience she becomes part of the plan to bring forth the Messiah.
Not only does God choose a humble place, he chooses a humble person in Nazareth. There is nothing special about Mary on the surface that would set her apart from the other women of the town. She is a young woman betrothed to be married. But her actions indicate that she lived into the meaning of her name “one who trusts.” When the angel speaks of this incredible thing that is about to happen to her, Mary could have refused, she could have argued, or offered up excuses. But she instead she asks a single question about biology, and is told it will happen through the power of the Holy Spirit. She is also given a sign of proof; her older cousin Elizabeth, thought to be barren, is already six months pregnant, “for nothing is impossible with God.” Mary responds to all of this with great faith by saying, " I am a servant of the Lord, may it be with me as you have said.” And the angel departs.
With those words she has changed the whole course of her life. The law said that women who were engaged and found to be pregnant by someone else were to be stoned to death. She said “Yes” knowing that might be a result. She said “Yes” knowing that some women die in childbirth. She said “Yes” knowing that it might mean the end of her relationship with Joseph and all of her hopes and dreams for marriage and a future. Despite all of this, the fear, the trepidation, the uncertainty, she does not rebel, she does not beg out. She says yes.
This young girl, barely a teenager, is thrust into an incredible situation. But through her humility, through her faith, through her obedience, she becomes one of the greatest examples of faith the world has ever known.
In his book, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, Rev. Adam Hamilton tells a story about a Christmas pageant one year at a church. Dozens of children had come out for the chance to sing and dance and dress up. Little boys were fighting over the chance to be wise men, shepherds, even the animals. Little girls were anxious to have the prestigious role of Mary. There was even a little competition to be part of the angel chorus if you didn’t get any of the other roles. But as everyone was getting ready, the pastor got all of the children's attention and asked the all important question: “Do you think Mary wanted to be Mary?”
“Do you think Mary wanted to be Mary?” Probably not. I’m sure she had hopes and dreams for her own life. Answering God’s call meant setting aside her own plans. This morning I do not want you to struggle. I want you to be Mary. A great place to take that step, to live as Mary did, is right here at the rail. I want all of us to be able to look to God and say yes. Mary is a reminder for us that Christmas is not about what we buy or where we eat or whom you spend the day with. It’s about your willingness to say to God…..“Here I am Lord. Use me according to your will.”