St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Christmas Day 2016

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.’

Philip Brad­ford