Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sermon - The Night Visitors

I hope you are not quite ready to put Christmas away. After all, it is only the 30th, the sixth day of Christmas. Perhaps by this sixth day, Mary and Joseph have found room in the inn. In only two more days, they will present Him for circumcision in the temple in Jerusalem, a distance of six miles, so perhaps they are already on their way there.
Our Christmas traditions extend beyond the night of the birth, for our nativity scenes generally include the three wise men, who undoubtedly showed up much later, when Jesus was living in a house as a child. We know that Herod’s horrific slaughter of the innocents included all male children two years old and under in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi that the star appeared [Matthew 2:16], so it is not unlikely that the Magi visited as much as two years after the angels sang.
We are only five days later. Don’t be in a hurry to put Christmas away.

We have heard about the “three wise men” all our lives. Nothing in scripture says that there were three. Your version may call them “wise men” as a translation of the word Magi, but nothing in the original Greek says that they were “wise” or, for that matter, that they were “men.”  The Carthaginian writer Tertullian, called the “father of Western theology” by some, was the first to postulate, sometime early in the third century, that they were kings, but of course the Bible does not call them kings.  By the sixth century, the extrabiblical text known as the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy had named them Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar, but of course those names also do not appear in holy writ.
We do know that they were from the east, that they were called the Magi and thus were astrologers or magicians or sorcerers or some other students of the extraordinary, that they saw a star, and that they brought gifts.  And because we know our scripture, we know too that they received a gift, for no worshiper of Jesus leaves empty.
The great American short story writer O. Henry published “The Gift of the Magi” in 1905. In this story, a poor couple each desperately tries to decide how to give the other a secret Christmas present that neither can afford. Having little of value, the husband Jim pawns his watch to buy an assortment of ornamental combs for his wife, whose beautiful head of hair he has admired since they first met. His wife, Della, has cut and sold her hair to buy him a platinum fob chain for his watch. Now, neither can use the gifts, but the irony of the story is how their sacrificial giving demonstrates how priceless love really is.
Today, we hear this strange story of Eastern visitors.
Glorify the Lord with me.  Let us exalt His name forever.
[You may listen the audio of the sermon from this point forward here.] 

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the Magi secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.”After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. - Matthew 2:1-12

In 1951, NBC debuted a new program, the Hallmark Hall of Fame, with the first opera ever written for television. It was Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Telling the story of the travels of the Magi before they arrived at the manger, the opera is set in the home of a crippled boy named Amahl and his mother who live on the road to Bethlehem. Amahl has been a shepherd but is likely heading to a life reduced to begging because of his disability. He has a reputation, much like the boy who cries “wolf,” of telling exaggerated, cock-and-bull fish stories, so when he reports to his mother a miraculous star and later the arrival of three splendidly dressed kings, even his mother is slow to believe him until she meets them herself. Telling the kings how his mother has had to sell their sheep, Amahl is given some candy by King Gaspar. In the night, his mother attempts to steal some of the gold they have brought for the newborn king of the Jews, but the page, the kings’ servant, catches her red-handed. When Amahl defends his mother, King Melchior says that she may keep the gold, as she needs it more than the Christ child, who will have no requirement for earthly wealth. With sudden understanding of who has come into her world melting the lines of regret on her face, the mother gives the gold back, asking the kings please to give it to the baby who is what she has awaited her whole life. Amahl, wishing to add to the gifts of the Magi, gives the only thing he has, his crutch. When he gives it to the kings, he is miraculously healed, and he leaves with them to give the baby his crutch himself.
The Gift of the Magi indeed.
You have heard sermons before about the word “Magi” and what it implies. They were astrologers, philosophers, scholars, magicians. The word has negative connotations in some uses, neutral or positive in others. Whatever their occupation, education, or hobbies, Matthew makes several things clear. Remember, Matthew is writing his gospel to a Jewish audience, and he introduces the visit of these strangers to challenge some basic, long-held Jewish ideas. The Magi were foreigners, from the land of Jethro and Job. They were outcasts; neither Gentiles nor astrologers were on the approved list, and for them to be a part of the Messiah’s story is rather shocking. Their gifts indicate that they are wealthy, although perhaps “sacrificial” is a better term. Their long trip indicates that they are determined, although “inspired” may be the better term. They come with only two purposes – to worship and to give. From them, we learn a lot.
Paul tells us that the cross brings us near to God:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ…. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens but fellow citizens with God’s people…. [Ephesians 2:13,19]

Do not miss Matthew’s message here – Jesus’s birth starts this process that culminates at the cross – the visit of the Magi begins the course of bringing those who were far away near to Christ.
I want to offer three simple points to you as we look at this story. 1. Look for the signs. 2. Worship the Christ who has entered your world. 3. Bring Him your gifts.

First, Look for the signs.
This star … Who knows what it is.  A comet? A supernova? The confluence of Saturn and Jupiter? A supernatural entry into the cosmos as a message from God that is as unique as the handwriting on the wall before Daniel and King Belshazzar? Does it really matter? The Magi see this star and come to Jerusalem, and then it appears to them a second time to lead them to where Jesus is. They have enough sense to follow it.
It is important that they ask only where the king has been born, not if the king has been born. They are already aware. They know how to read the signs.
It should not be missed that God sends a star to astrologers. They are, after all, stargazers. You may not get a star. Your sign may come in a book or in a song or in a flower. Your sign may come through meditation or prayer or conversation or sermon. The recognition of the Messiah comes to Nathanael, who thinks Nazarenes have nothing to offer, when Jesus tells him he had seen under a fig tree [John 1:48-49] and to the oft-married woman at the well when Jesus recites her marital history [John 4:19, 29]. To the fisherman Peter, the recognition of the deity of Christ is revealed through a miraculous catch of fish. [Luke 1:5-9] It is not original with me to tell you that God speaks to you in a language you can understand, meeting you where you are. I love movies, and if you have read my blog, you know that I see the gospel in movie scripts where most people do not. I doubt seriously that George Nolfi intended what I get out of the movie “The Adjustment Bureau,” and Christopher Nolan almost certainly did not write “Interstellar” as the three-act passion play that I see it to be. God speaks to me through movies, in a way He may not speak to you. Stargazers get stars.

French poet Charles Beaudelaire wrote:
The whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform. [“Salon of 1859,” sect. 3, in Curiosités Esthétiques (1868; reproduced in The Mirror of Art, ed. by Jonathan Mayne, 1955]

God speaks to astrologers through a star. That is not surprising. God has told us in the Psalms: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you.” [Psalm 32:8]
What is surprising is the completeness of their reaction. Leaving home, traveling to a hostile king, finding strangers because a star tells them to. At the end of the day, discovering that God is speaking is not the hard part. What you do about it is where the rubber meets the road.
If the Magi are really wise men, they would be tempted to rely on their wisdom. Whether they are wise or not, they are subject to the same inclinations we all have – to rest on what makes sense, what we can measure, what we can see. For them, perhaps their comfort zone is philosophy or magic tricks to which only they know the secrets. Whatever, they have the maturity and the depth to recognize the holy entry into their world, not to rely on what they can comprehend on their own, and to follow the star.
Paul tells us that the good news is “not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” [1 Corinthians 2:4-5] This kind of following requires humility, for as long as we are on the throne of our own lives, we will never accept the idea that there are things we do not know or cannot understand. The ability to act on incomplete knowledge is just another synonym for faith. Do not mistake this faith for idiocy, for believing, as Mark Twain said, in “what you know ain’t so.” Accepting what you know is wrong is not faith; that is just stupid. Faith is accepting what you do not know fully based on the word of one you do know. Faith is following that one you do know. It is not faith to tell everyone you are reading your Bible, praying daily, and watching for signs when you never do anything to demonstrate what God has told you. The one who claims to watch the sky demonstrates faith when she reacts when God puts something into the sky. Faith follows the star.
One other note – their faith is not finished once they see Jesus. God does not abandon them. Once again, they get an unusual message, this time in a dream. Once again, they believe the word of God, and they return home by a different route. Faith obeys even when the way is different, untested, difficult.

#2. Worship. Respond to the presence of the holy.
Following the star is not enough if you don’t know what to do when you get to where the star is leading you. Lots of people are good at the buildup. Youth camp and revival services and the emotion of the discovery that God is in the world and active in your life move many, many people. Then the youth camp is over, and you come back home. Peter never wants to leave the mount of transfiguration because he wants to revel in the miraculous moment. But he has to come back down the mountain.
Advent is a month of services of anticipation. We sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and anticipate how God’s entry into the world changes everything. But now what? Now, the newborn babe is in front of us, growing up too fast, and sooner rather than later, He is going to be talking about taking up crosses.
The Magi are not so starstruck that they miss the even more important part. They worship. They turn their attention away from the star to the baby to which the star has been pointing.
Professor Marvin Tate defines worship as the “human response to the perceived presence of the divine, a presence which transcends normal human activity and is holy.” [Holman Bible Dictionary, 1991]
Do you remember your young children playing more with the wrapping paper and the empty boxes than with the present that came inside? Mistaking the sign for the substance is epidemic. We like to talk about the trappings instead of the subject, the descant instead of the melody, the wonder of the star instead of where the star’s beams are shining.
The Magi, Matthew says, see the child and bow down and worship Him.
The gospels tell this story over and over again. When Jesus empowers Peter to walk on water with Him and then calms the storm, the disciples’ reaction is to worship Him, saying “Truly you are the Son of God.” [Matthew 14:32-33] When I say that we get distracted by the descant, I mean that too many of us would focus on Peter’s walk on the lake or the disappearing lightning rather than the one who performed the miracles; we would miss the chance to worship in our fanfare over the secondary. Studying the miracles is important, but when it interferes with worshiping the one who performs the miracles, we are missing the point.
In the story in Luke to which I have already alluded, when Peter pulls in the miraculous haul of fish, he hits his knees. It is Nathanael and the woman at the well. It is Thomas in the upper room, kneeling and proclaiming, “My Lord and my God.” [John 20:25-28] It goes beyond the gospels. It is Job sensing a supernatural display that he cannot understand, refusing to curse God but instead saying, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” [Job 1:21] It is the prophet’s proclamation:
Rejoice greatly, o Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!  See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation… He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea. [Zechariah 9:9-10]

            It is worth noting that we have no evidence that these Magi have been trained in worship, that they have any catechism or ritual or liturgical guide, that they have ever seen a bulletin or order of service. They simply encounter the Son of God and react, and their reaction is worship. They are no longer focused on the star. They worship Jesus where they find Him, when they find Him. It is the Psalmist who declares: “Let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.” [Psalm 105:3] Worship comes naturally when we have already been seeking God.
            It is also worth noting that they see the child and His mother, but they worship the child. They worship only Him. Surely this was an overwhelming moment. The virgin birth. The star. Surely there was motivation to marvel at it all – the creation, the moment, the miraculous event. But the Magi’s worship is focused. They worship Jesus.
            If you study worship very long, you can get into an in-depth discussion. Seminary professors will talk to you about the tabernacle and the establishment of worship practices among the people of Israel. Important writers discuss the complex and multifaceted nature of worship in the Bible. You can spend hours perfecting worship in order to honor God in spirit and truth, to worship as the Psalmist says in the beauty of holiness. Here at Trinity River, even if we know that only a few will gather, we strive to make worship beautiful, orderly, appropriate.
            All of that is good. All of that has its place. But all of that is subordinate. Worship is first and foremost a pretty simple idea – our reaction to and recognition of the presence of the divine. “Truly you are the Son of God.” We bow and kneel as a matter of submission to the creator, the father, the giver of all things. The Magi model all of this – multifaceted or not. Worship God. Worship Jesus. Acknowledge who He is. Let everything else take a back seat to Him.

#3. They bring gifts. Matthew uses the story of the gifts of the Magi to foreshadow Jesus’s threefold role as our king, our Lord, and Savior. Gold was a gift for royalty, frankincense a gift for deity, and myrrh a burial preparation. We should not miss the obvious here – these gifts are valuable, rare, and extravagant.
Don’t worry, this sermon is not turning into a year-end budgetary push. You will make your own resolutions about how you support Trinity River Church and the work of God with your money.
No, this sermon is staying with the Magi. They seek, and they find, and they worship, and the give. As Melchior tells Amahl’s mother, the Christ child has no real use for gold. These gifts are far less about how Jesus can use them and far more about what they cost the giver. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The only gift is a portion of thyself.” [“Gifts” (First Series, 1841)] The Magi give what they have to give.
Those seminary professors will tell you that extravagant giving has been a part of the worship of God since ancient times:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices – gum, resin, onycha and galbanum – and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer … and place it in front of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting. … Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord.” [Exodus 30:34-37]

In Deuteronomy, the command is given: “No man should appear before the Lord empty-handed. Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you.” [Deuteronomy 16:16-17]

Gold for a king. Frankincense for a deity. Myrrh for death.
Selling your hair to buy a watch chain for one who sold his watch to buy you combs.
Gold from the beggar and the crutch from the cripple.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would give Him a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
But what can I give Him? Give my heart.
[Christina Rosetti, 1872]

The opera about Amahl was written in order to be shared on network television in the United States, and it was shown again and again. For sixteen years, it was broadcast every year on Christmas Eve on NBC. It has been remade many times on both network and cable television. How long ago that seems now. It would be unthinkable that network executives would preempt football or “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Temptation Island” or “CSI” for such a thing. How quaint. Singing kings and dancing shepherds and a story about giving the only thing you can to the Christ child. Maybe you can find it on one of those offbeat, low-budget religious channels.
I hope it is not quaint to you. I hope that the story is alive and pulsing through you.
Amahl tells the night visitors that he wants to join their journey, wants to worship this child, wants to make a gift of the only thing that he has. How quaint.
I hope that is not quaint to you either. I hope that the idea of seeking Christ or searching the skies – or the garden or the movie or the fishing hole or the novel or the history book or the arena or wherever you have expertise and interest – for the handiwork of God so that you can see the signs is a daily occurrence for you. And when you see the signs – when you see the star in the east – I hope that you respond with immediacy and purpose and determination. I hope that you load up the camels and come running.
I hope that worship has not become quaint, routine, nothing more than a security blanket for you. These strange foreigners enter the house of the savior, and having seen Him, they hit their knees. There is much here for us to emulate.
And I hope that gifts are not quaint to you. I am sure you did what we did this week – give and receive. I did not need that new speaker or another John Grisham novel, but they were given to me because I am loved. Someone had to make a sacrifice – of time and money and effort and thought – to give me those gifts. Somebody had to wrap them up. You know that our tradition of giving presents at Christmas derives from the Magi. The gift of the Magi is a gift of love and sacrifice. It is the gift of self.
The popular press says things like this: “’Amahl and the Night Visitors’ has all the ingredients of a Christmas show – lyrical music, a winsome boy hero and a miracle at its heart.” [] But the popular press does not get it. The elements of Christmas are not lyrical music, a hero, and heart for a miracle. Those things help, but the essence of Christmas is that Jesus is here, and we seek Him and find Him and worship Him.
Have you ever seen the star that is shining from afar?
It’s the star of love that lights the pilgrim’s way.
You can see it if you will, for the star is shining still where the Lord of light is born to you this day.
Have you ever seen the star that is shining over Bethlehem?
Soon we’ll end the long quest.
We will find in God our rest.
If we follow it, we will never go astray.
Have you ever seen the star?
It’s the star of love that lights the pilgrim’s way.
[A.H. Acklen, “Have You Ever Seen the Star”]

We are beggars in this world. No matter the size of your purse or the number of zeroes in your bank account, you have no ability to save yourself. Your hole is too deep to climb out.
You are crippled. You cannot walk fast enough to get where you need to get.
You are a child with a penchant for tall tales and nothing of substance to give.
The night visitors happen by. Oh, you may not see kings coming on their way to Bethlehem, but Matthew has preserved their story for us. What you will see – not just at Christmas time but every day, if you look – are those who are heading to Jesus, following the signs laid out in their own backyard, signs they may not understand but that they recognize as the conception of God, signs that they are chasing with all the earnestness of Magi boldly knocking on Herod’s front door to ask directions.
Throw you crutch in their direction. Healing is waiting for you.
Follow the star. Worship the Christ. Bring your gold and frankincense and myrrh; bring all that you have and all that you are and lay it at His feet.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sermon - Christmas according to Mary (and Paul McCartney and Amy Grant)

We don’t know many details about Mary. From the words of Mary’s prayer, what we call the Magnificat, we can tell that she was clearly exceptional. After the Christmas story, we see Mary again only at the wedding of Cana (which is the last time we hear her speak), at the synagogue in Capernaum, at the foot of the cross, and in the upper room after the ascension.
If we go outside of the Bible’s text, of course, there are many traditions, doctrines, and ideas about Mary. She is even the subject of a long chapter of the Quran.
Because of the mystery and the stories that have grown up around her, it can be easy to make her a caricature instead of a character, a legend instead of a person, an untouchable instead of someone with whom we identify.
Mary’s lifetime demonstrates her to have been extraordinarily devoted to Jesus. But Mary brings more than a mother’s love, remarkable and wonderful though that may be. I have never been a mother, but I have a mother, and I am married to a mother, and I know lots of mothers. And 100% of them are unquestionably devoted to their children. That Mary loved her son and stood at the foot of the cross certainly demonstrates her to be extraordinary, but in the way that all the mothers I know are extraordinary. If that is all Mary represents, then I can admire her, but I cannot emulate her. 
But Mary brings more than a prominent role in the nativity narrative and more than a mother’s love. In truth, Mary offers something that we can all emulate, something from which we can all learn.
Mary embodies faith. Christmas according to Mary is the Christmas of faith. We spend today considering Christmas according to the one who says “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to your word.”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.  And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.  And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. - Luke 2:15-19

You can listen the audio of the sermon from this point forward here.

In the first chapter of Luke, the angel comes to Mary and starts with three things.
1.      You are favored.
2.      The Lord is with you.
3.      Blessed are you among women.
That is a sermon right there. God sends His messenger to each of us with the same three thoughts.
#1. You are favored. God loves you. God blesses you. You are the apple of His eye, and God holds you in the palm of His hand. It does not matter who you are, how old you are, whether you are from the big city or the backwaters of Galilee. You are a child of God.
It is not coincidental that news of the Nativity came first to shepherds, uneducated, needy outcasts who were ceremonially unclean; at the same time, it is not coincidental that the song came from angels and that His worship included the gifts of the wealthy Magi. Both extremes are part of the story. All are favored – rich and poor, local and foreign, male and female, old and young, knowing and ignorant, untrained and erudite, classy and calloused. Hail, o favored one.
#2. The Lord is with you. Emmanuel means God with us, and we are never alone. To be sure, this statement means that Mary is in for a challenge. Pastor Michael Ruffin says:

In Mary’s case, the angel’s statement “The Lord is with you” meant “The Lord has a really difficult task for you.” … The fact is that the Lord being with Mary was going to lead to some hard times that would begin with ugly talk about her untimely pregnancy and would end with her watching her son die on a cross….For the Lord to be with Mary meant that God would accompany, strengthen, and encourage her. That was good, because for the Lord to be with Mary also meant that she was going to live an incredibly challenging life. It may be the case that the time we most need the Lord to be with us is when the Lord is already with us. We need God’s help to get us through the difficult life God leads us into. [] 
God is not far off, not watching us – as the song says – from a distance. God is engaged in our daily lives, and Christmas means that He is with us, challenging us and calling us to do His work, and at the same time also equipping us and walking with us as we do His work. The comfort is that He never calls us to something for which He has not prepared us (whether we know it or not), and through it all, He walks with us. The message of Christmas is Emmanuel – God with us. God has put on flesh and has entered our world. The Lord is with you.
#3 is not there in all of your Bibles. It is added to verse 28 in some translations and not in others. But even if it is not in your version, it is consistent with what the angel has to say. #3 is Blessed are you among women. Now, I know, Mary is special. I know that she is called to something to which no one else in the world has ever been called and no one else will ever be called. She is unique. She is the mother of the Son of God.           
But guess what? Blessed are you, Amy, among women.  Blessed are you, Freddie, among men. Blessed are you and you and you.
Each one of you is called to something to which no one else has ever been called and no one else will ever be called. Debra, no one else has ever been called to your work of playing in the churches where you have played at the times you played there, simultaneously combined with your teaching and your conducting and your prison ministry. Kenneth and Jennifer, no one else will ever be called to parent Kenleigh and Jocelyn and Jillian.
These are tasks, yes, but these are blessings. They apply to us as individuals and to us as a church – we have a call, and God is with us. Blessed is Trinity River among churches.
But the angel is not finished. No, the sermon is just getting started. He makes the announcement of the coming birth of Jesus to Mary, whose ultimate response is her great statement of faith: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” [Luke 1:38]
That response - Mary’s statement - is a textbook for those of us looking for a how-to guide for faith. She has heard God’s unique plan for her, she has asked for detail, and she still does not understand, at least in a way that can be explained or proven or drawn up in a formula. None of us completely grasps virgin conception or incarnation or, to be honest, the grace of God. We know God, but we cannot comprehend what Paul calls God’s indescribable, inexpressible gift. [2 Corinthians 9:15]
No, Mary does not fully understand, but let me say it again: she provides a how-to guide for faith.
First, she says “I am the servant of the Lord.” Faith begins with belief; but more than with belief, faith begins with acceptance. God is God and we are not. We need God. We need to be saved. Like the world on the cusp of Jesus’s coming, we have made a mess, and we cannot fix it. We cannot do what God can do or know what God knows or see what God sees. We have to subject ourselves to God, even when we cannot understand or explain how it is going to work every step of the way (which, by the way, is all the time). Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths. [Proverbs 3:5-6] Faith is not simply following; faith is following on your knees. Faith recognizes that God is the Lord. Faith has a master. Behold, I am the servant of the Lord.
Then, Mary says “let it be.” In today’s me-too world, this is first and foremost a statement of consent. But it is of course more than consent; “let it be” is a surrender, a pronouncement that – no matter how absurd it sounds to anyone else and no matter what difficulties it may appear to bring to us – whatever God has in store is preferable to any alternative. God has a plan: let it be.
I know that it is not what Paul McCartney meant, but if God can work through a decree of Caesar Augustus, He can speak through the Beatles: “When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be.’” [John Lennon and Paul McCartney, "Let It Be," 1970] “Let it be” is Mary’s statement – and ours – that we freely bow to the will of God. The angel has spoken. She has heard the will of God. Jesus’s mother Mary bows her head and says these words of wisdom: “Let it be.”
There is a third part of what Mary says that rounds out how faith responds.  “According to your word.” Mary is not saying “let it be” to some whim or some popular idea or even what some priest or rabbi or best friend has told her. She says, “let it be according to your word.” Faith is not closing your eyes and crossing your fingers. Faith is not wistfully singing a hopeful Beatles song. Faith is hearing and responding to the word of God. That may come to us through scripture. It often does. It may come to us through the voice of an angel. And yes, it may come to us through a preacher or a best friend or a song or a book or a sunset … but it is coming through those people or things, not from them. It is from God. Faith responds to the word of the Lord.
Mary brings us the Christmas story because Christmas according to Mary is being noticed by God, being favored by God, being visited by God, being blessed by God, and being called by God. Christmas is not just a stable and an innkeeper. Christmas according to Mary is what drives us to our knees, the visit of Emmanuel that leaves us with no option but to say “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to your word.”

So now we come to our scripture for today in the second chapter of Luke. These famous verses have served as our text all month, albeit a little out of order.  Three weeks ago, we focused on verses 1-3 as Jim taught Christmas according to Caesar Augustus. Two weeks ago, as we talked about the angels, we concentrated on verses 8-14. Last week, Jim led us through verses 4 through 7 as we considered Christmas according to Joseph. And now, we jump over the angels’ song to verse 15: “When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’” [Luke 2:15] Now we find the eager shepherds teaching us their great lesson, for they have heard the gospel and respond by running to seek the savior. May we all respond that way. They find Mary and Joseph and the baby, and they do two critically important things. Verses 16 and 17 tell us: “And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.” They see Jesus, and they tell about Jesus.
But I digress. This is not Christmas according to the shepherds. This is Christmas according to Mary. And what is she doing?
Two things.
First, she is intentionally being with Jesus. She has no more lines in the story, no dialog, no reprise of the Magnificat. She says nothing at all. What we know is that she is with Jesus. She is a new mother, so of course she is with Jesus, but since we know she is with Him at Cana and with Him at the cross, we see inside her to know that being with Jesus is more than just being a doting mother.
Mary, the favored one, the blessed one, the woman of faith, chooses to stay close to Jesus. Whether it is the visit of the shepherds now or the visit of Magi some time later, Mary is still there. [Matthew 2:11] Matthew tells us the wise men find the child with His mother. Mary is with Jesus. The first thing Mary does is stay close to Jesus.
Second, what we know about Mary, from verse 19, is that she treasured and pondered. She treasured up all these things that happened, and she pondered them in her heart.
Faith truly does not always understand, but faith asks questions, and faith ponders. Faith remembers – in Mary’s word, faith “treasures” – all the things that God has done, and faith ponders them.
Mary treasures and ponders from her front row seat to the change of history. Mary is a human mother, so that first Christmas came to her with all the pains of childbirth and all the expectations and dreams of childbirth. But Mary is a human being who has been spoken to by an angel, who has been told that her child will be called the Son of the Most High. Christmas is not Rudolph and lights and presents and Santa Claus. It is not even Handel’s Messiah and church services. None of those things exists yet. Christmas is the coming of the One who will save His people, this one she is to call Jesus. And she, favored by God and blessed among women, has a job to do.
One of the things that Mary has treasured, and that she is pondering and will ponder, is what the angel said when she asked how all this was going to work: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” [Luke 1:35] Virgin conception is child’s play for the maker of the universe. When the Holy Spirit is involved, anything can happen, for nothing shall be impossible for God. [Luke 1:37]
Mary treasured all these things. Now, with shepherds visiting and angels singing, with the pregnancy over and the baby asleep in her arms, she can ponder what has happened.
It was not always so. After the wonder of the angel announcement and the euphoria that led to the Magnificat, and before the song of the angels to the shepherds, Mary went through months of pain and sickness and worry and concern and all the things that come with pregnancy. And she had to do that amidst the whispers of all those around who could count months and figure out that she did not do pregnancy and marriage in the expected order. And then she had to make a difficult journey to Bethlehem over the road while she was great with child. And she had to go through all of this wondering why God had picked her.
Even those of great faith question whether they are fit for what God has for us. Even those of great faith cannot work it out on their own. Nights get long, and the wind blows cold, and morning sickness and stretch marks and the inability to be comfortable no matter how many pillows are on the bed only add to the disquiet.
But Mary is never desperate. Mary is a woman of faith, and the Holy Spirit has come upon Mary.
The English word spirit come from the Latin spiritus, which means "breath." In the New Testament, the Greek word pneuma means "breath" or "wind," but when it has the word for "Holy" in front of it, it always refers to the Holy Spirit. So, when we speak of the Spirit, we are speaking about the breath of God, the Breath of Heaven.
In thinking about Mary, I am drawn to the lyrics of “Breath of Heaven,” words printed in our Order of Worship from the song written about Mary by Amy Grant. For those of you who are uninitiated, there has never been a bigger star on the contemporary Christian music front than Amy Grant. Not Sandi Patty or Michael W. Smith. Not George Beverly Shea. Not the Imperials. Not Chris Tomlin.
Many of you know that I am from Nashville. If you come close to guessing my age and then do the math, you know generally who was in my circle growing up. No, Amy Grant and I were not friends. She is a little older than I am. She went to my sister school, and while there is no reason she would remember me, we were on occasion in the same place at the same time. Look at this picture:

Yes, this is a picture, from my seventh-grade school yearbook, of a young, un-made-up Amy Grant, with hair parted down the middle, wearing clogs and leaning on a stool, strumming her guitar and singing in my school assembly program. I doubt she shows this picture to many of her fans these days. From looking at it, there is no real way to guess what Amy was to become. Oh, we all thought Amy was cool, but it is one thing to sing on a high school stage in front of friends; it is another to become who Amy Grant is today.
There is a lesson here in Amy's picture.
However old she was, Mary was a backwater Nazarene maiden. If we had a picture of Mary from her seventh-grade yearbook, there would be no real way to guess what Mary was to become. She was obviously remarkable. And yet, it is one thing to wax poetic with the Magnificat when the glow of the angel's appearance is still fresh on your face; it is another thing to be nine months pregnant, traveling in first century conditions, and unwelcome. It is not too much to describe her as frightened, wondering, alone, prayerful.
But Mary's prayer is not the prayer of the desperate. It is the prayer of the faithful. She may not know why she was chosen, but she knows that she was chosen. She may not know if a wiser one could have done the job, but she knows that she is doing the job. She may not know where her path will go, but she knows whom she wants on the path with her.
She wants the Holy Spirit. Not some indistinct, namby-pamby sense that the cosmos is somehow behind her. Not a passing interest from a far-off supreme being. No, she is walking with her God, who is present and real, the part of the trinity who is responsible for her pregnancy in the first place. Hail, o favored one, the Lord is with you. She asks for the one traveling with her to breathe on her with holiness and power, to be the constant reminder of the presence of God. She asks for the Breath of Heaven.         
Her prayer is our Christmas prayer. Lighten my darkness. Be with me now. Hold me together. Pour over me your holiness, for you are holy. [Amy Grant and Chris Eaton, "Breath of Heaven," 1992]
The prayer is all our prayer. It is not just at Christmas, but maybe it is especially at Christmas that we all feel pain, grief, abandonment, the seeming impossibility of what lies before us. We do not feel like the chosen of God. We feel no more special than a teenage girl in bad shoes and no makeup just doing our best to sing a song.
But still, we offer all we are. That is faith.
            Christmas according to Mary is about knowing that God notices you, favors you, and calls you.  Christmas according to Mary is the faith to say “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” Christmas according to Mary means staying close to Jesus. Christmas according to Mary is a treasure that you ponder in your heart.
            For nothing is impossible with God.
Breath of Heaven, hold me together. Be forever near me.
Breath of Heaven, help me be strong.
Help me be.
Help me.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Breath of Heaven.
            Emmanuel. God with us.
            Peace on earth and good will to men.
            Good tidings of great joy.
            For unto you is born a savior, which is Christ the Lord.
            You know the words. I hope you know, really know, the story. If you are ready to respond in faith for the first time, to announce that you have accepted His gift and said “let it be” to God’s plan for you, to surrender to His word, to tell us that you have seen the signs and have found the savior, I will be down front.
            If you are continuing your walk in faith, now is that moment to renew your surrender, to remember that behold, you are a servant of the Lord.
            O come, let us adore Him.


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