Mary treasured all these words
Sermon preached at Enmore, Christmas Day 2016
Reading: Luke 2.1 ‑20
“But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” When my mother died a few years ago, my brother and sister and I had the task of going through her belongings and deciding what to do with her things. One of the items we found was a scrap book that Mum had kept all through the years in which she kept photos, certificates and other mementoes of the three us and our milestones in life. Mothers are good at remembering their children’s achievements, beginning with their birth. A birth is an unforgettable event. I remember as a child when the family traveled to Katoomba for holidays we would drive past the Blue Mountains District Hospital and my mother would point out the room where I was born and tell me again the time of day and circumstances of my birth. I have been guilty of doing similar things for my own children- for Rosemary and I the birth of all of our children is imprinted on our memories and I’m sure it is the same for all parents here today. We remember the event and the circumstances surrounding it.
Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is brief but beautifully written- it has the power to hold our attention no matter how many times we have heard it before. Unlike Matthew’s birth narrative which tells the story from Joseph’s perspective Luke has Mary, the mother of Jesus clearly in the centre. Luke also intertwines the story of the birth of Jesus with the account of John the Baptist’s birth. This enables him to compare and contrast the two mothers, Elizabeth the wife of Zechariah the priest, who has status and position and Mary who comes from a more humble background. Doubtless among the things that Mary pondered after giving birth to Jesus were the words spoken to her by the angel who had visited her months before in Nazareth and told her that she had found favour with God. No reason is given for this choice- Mary is a young woman, probably a teenager living in the small, unimportant town of Nazareth and engaged to Joseph, a carpenter, descended from the house of David. But Joseph is to play only a peripheral role in this birth.
The message delivered to Mary is that she will conceive and bear a son and she is to name him Jesus. That in itself was unusual for naming in that culture was the prerogative of the father. When Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth gives birth to a son and says that his name is to be John, there is some consternation because this is not a family name and the father Zechariah has to be consulted to confirm this choice. Luke makes it clear that Mary will be the one who names her child. The messenger declared that Mary’s child would be great and would be called the Son of the Most High and the Lord God would give to him the throne of his ancestor David and his reign would be without end. Mary’s initial response is to ask the question, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” The angel’s reply is the enigmatic, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Given the extraordinary nature of this message it is all the more remarkable that Mary does not shrink from the daunting task being asked of her but courageously consents with the words, “Let it be with me according to your word.” The popular carol has ‘Mary meekly bowing her head’ as she delivers these words but this is not how Luke tells it. Mary’s response is that of an intelligent young woman who realizes that from this day on life for her will be very different.
Sitting with her newborn baby at her breast, Mary may well have pondered on the events between the annunciation and the birth. Her fiancée’s shock and consternation when she told him she was pregnant, the ostracism from many in her village who believed she had been unfaithful, the months of seclusion as she awaited the birth and then the shock news that with only a few weeks to go, she and her betrothed had to make the 130 kilometre journey to Bethlehem at the whim of the Emperor far away in Rome. Having experienced rejection in her home town they experienced it again when they arrived in Bethlehem. The whiff of scandal had gone before them and there were no friendly relatives willing to receive them and offer the normal hospitality. Instead they found shelter in a room where animals were usually kept and Jesus was born and put to bed in a manger- the most famous animal food box in history. As John puts it in his famous prologue, “He came to his own home and his own people did not accept him.” Mary asks and we ask what kind of King is this and what is the nature of his Kingdom. Some thirty three years later Jesus will stand before a petty tyrant named Pilate and be asked the question, “Are you the King of the Jews.” The answer he will give is “my kingdom is not from this world.”
The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were hardly ideal. Like all births, Mary’s delivery of Jesus was painful, messy and rather frightening. Mary was a long way from home and in a strange unfamiliar place. But then came the unexpected visitors- Bedouin shepherds, nomads who lived out in the open with their sheep. They came with the astonishing story that they had seen an angel who had announced the birth of Jesus, and declared that he was no less than the Saviour, the Lord’s promised Messiah. His birth was to bring ‘good news of great joy to all the people.’ The shepherds were given a sign, namely that they would find the baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. The child born to be King came among us in great humility as a sign that his kingdom was to include all people, rich and poor, young and old, Jew and Gentile. What did Mary make of these strange visitors? Clearly she welcomed them and listened eagerly to the news they brought of the heavenly hosts singing her son’s praises. It is likely that as a child Jesus often heard his mother tell the story of the shepherd’s visit so it is not surprising that many of the parables Jesus was to tell in his adult ministry involved shepherds and sheep. He told the story about the shepherd who leaves his ninety nine sheep safely in the fold and goes off looking for the lost one. He also described himself as the good shepherd who cares for his sheep.
Mary had many memories to treasure and much to ponder. In the two thousand years that have elapsed between that first Christmas and today, the meaning of those events that Mary pondered has been debated, discussed and examined by countless theologians and scholars; it has inspired composers, poets, artists and writers and it has touched the lives of millions of men and women on every continent on earth. The man who was cradled in a manger, grew up in relative obscurity, conducted a ministry of healing and teaching for a mere three years before being crucified for sedition on a Roman cross will today be worshipped by millions. How do you account for that?
Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus makes it clear that this child was like no other. Mary’s child was none other than the Saviour, Christ the Lord. In this child we encounter the divine. He is ‘the Word made flesh’ as John describes him. A modern writer puts it like this: ‘the incarnation speaks of a God who is entangled with our world, who immerses himself in our tragic history, who embraces our humanity with all its vulnerability, pain and confusion, including our evil and our death’. But Mary’s son was not just a sympathetic fellow traveler but as Luke’s story unfolds we will see that he is the one who overcomes death and takes away the sin of the world. The great 4th century theologian Athanasius said that so many are the Saviour’s achievements that flow from his coming into the world that to number them is like trying to count the waves of the sea. So on this Christmas morning, ‘come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.’