Monday, December 2, 2013

Mary - A Christmas Faith

Preached on December 1, 2013
Scripture readings” Deuteronomy 22:23-24; Luke 1:26-38
My old friend and mentor Dick Cochran has always been highly competitive, and he has this story that he has often told against himself, on the affect his competitive nature had on his kids. Once, Dick was playing tennis with one of his teenage sons. The son hit the ball into Dick’s court. Dick didn’t hit the ball, and he called the ball out. Wherever it hit, it was very close. The boy challenged his dad and said, “No, it was in!” “It was out!” “It was in!” Dick said, “And I say it was out. I’m your father. and I’m a minister of the gospel. If you can’t trust me, then who can you trust?” And the boy said, “Yeah I know, and that’s what worries me!”
Near the Palouse River: September 2013
Trust and faith: the gospel is about this. The Christmas story is about this. There would be no Christmas story without trust and faith.
We hear it in Mary’s words to the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38) It was as if Mary said, “May the Lord do with me whatever he wants. I trust the Lord.”
Nowadays the word “whatever” means indifference. It means that you don’t care. For Mary, it meant caring absolutely. It meant absolute faith in the faithfulness (the trustworthiness, the reliability) of God.
For us, for Christians, the word “whatever” (when we say it to God) should also be that kind of absolute caring and surrender to the desires of God. We can learn about this caring and surrender (this trust and faith) as we look at Mary saying yes to God.
But first I would simply like us to see the first great mystery here. Here is something that Mary said “yes” to. Could she have said “no” instead?
The angel says that “nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) It was God’s will for Mary to be the mother of the eternal Son of God, who has neither beginning nor ending. It was God’s will.
But Mary was afraid of the message. Mary had questions. And then Mary settled her fears and questions, for the time being, and she said “yes”. If you are given something that you can fear, and resist, and question, and then make a decision about, then we are not talking only about the will of God. We are talking about a calling: an invitation, a decision: a choice.
Mary’s decision, her choice, hinged on whether she had the faith and trust to say, “I am the Lord’s servant.” I will trust him.
We have decisions to make every day. We have choices every time a new situation comes up. We are asked to do something. We are forced to deal with things that challenge us. We have our priorities tested. We have our morals and ethics tested. Meeting life as a real follower of Jesus hinges on whether we have enough faith and trust in the faithfulness of God to say, “I am the Lord’s servant.”
Is this your calling, or is it not? Are you here for some other purpose than this?
Now, if Mary was the Lord’s servant, her calling led to something else. This calling would make her the mother of the Lord Jesus; the mother of the Messiah; the mother of the king of the everlasting kingdom of God.
All of this is implied in the words of the angel Gabriel: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:3-33)
Mary was being given the greatest calling in the world. At the same time, she was being given the most dangerous calling in the world.
Every Jewish girl dreamed of growing up to be the mother of the Messiah. It was a calling to the highest level of fulfillment a woman could have. It was a calling to the highest level of what we would call success that a woman was considered capable of.
But this calling was obviously going to be deadly dangerous, or at least full of conflict, misunderstanding, and humiliation. The boundaries of parenthood and marriage were so holy that the Old Testament law made them an issue of life and death.
Mary was betrothed to Joseph. The marriage had not yet taken place, but they were pledged in marriage and, if Joseph happened to die before the time of their engagement was completed, Mary would be considered Joseph’s widow.
The Old Testament (as we read in Deuteronomy 22:23-24) made this promise so holy that her life would be in danger if it seemed that she had had a sexual relationship outside of marriage. The child would be the proof of her sin; a sin that could be punished by death.
Our reading in Deuteronomy orders the community to take such people out to the edge of the village and stone them to death. If this wasn’t done, there was the danger that a member of Joseph’s or Mary’s own family would kill her, to preserve the honor of their family.
The angel said the child would come by a miracle of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph would have nothing to do with the producing of this child. If he were to accept this child, he would have to trust Mary. He would need to have absolute faith in her.
But, even in ancient times, everyone knew where babies came from. There are no virgin births in the Jewish scriptures (except for one single prophecy), and there is only one virgin birth in the whole Bible.
Even if Mary were not killed, she would be shamed for life. No one would believe her. If Joseph showed the weakness of believing her, and marrying her, he would also be shamed for life.
The child would grow up being called ugly names behind his back and to his face. Joseph’s business would suffer. The whole family would be the target of nasty laughter. God’s calling to Mary would certainly lead her on this path.
If you are a servant of the Lord, and if you choose to live a way of life based on faith, and if you choose to explain yourself in terms of your faith and your love for the Lord, then you will sooner or later be laughed at. You will be passed over. You will be unfavorably evaluated, or misunderstood and looked down on, and made fun of, because of it.
There will probably be some people who call themselves Christians who will treat you just the same. And that will hurt most of all.
Mary’s son was the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, the king of the kingdom of God. Mary was a kingdom person. She could be counted on to meet life on the terms of the kingdom of God. She could be counted on to make choices and decisions that other people would never dream of making. The fact that other people would not understand, and would not change their ways to suit her, did not deter her from living the kingdom of God way.
Faith and trust mean not being deterred from thinking, and talking, and living, and reacting a different way. The love and grace of God will make you into a nonconformist if you are faithful: if you mean it when you say, “I am the servant of the Lord.”
Now I want to warn you against a false notion of what it means to be a nonconformist. Some nonconformists are strange, eccentric, awkward, and weird.
Some Christians are this way, God love them all. They don’t have to be this way. Sometimes it just happens.
The reason they don’t have to be is found in a fuller understanding of the word grace. Grace is the unconditional gift of God’s love; but grace also means beauty.
The angel told Mary, “You are highly favored” and “you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1:28 & 30) This word for favor translates the same Greek word as does grace (“charis”).
Even in English, the word “gracious” means at least two things. Graciousness can mean generosity, as in the grace of God, or human courtesy. And grace can also mean a kind of beauty of movement: a fluid coordination. A gracious life can be a beautiful life, or a handsome life. It is a life that shows a pattern of ability and coordination that comes from the grace of God.
A bit later in the gospel of Luke, Luke tells us that Jesus, as a boy, grew… in favor with God and men.” (Luke 2:52) As Jesus grew up and made enemies, what those enemies hated the most was the fact that most people really liked Jesus, even though he was so different. Our lives can be different in a beautiful way (a handsome way) coordinated by the grace of God.
Christians sometimes try very hard to not be weird by conforming to everyone else. But such Christians know very little about the grace and power of God, because they are dominated by their fear of what other people are thinking.
Think bout it! Surely you are thankful for knowing some people in this world who are not just like everyone else. The difference makes them nonconformists who are not weird.
God’s grace means that you are greatly loved. His friendship for you is infinitely deep. Being deeply befriended and greatly loved can make you absolutely a different person without being weird: crazy yes; but weird, no.
Great love is what you find in Jesus. And you can hear the words that were spoken to Mary spoken to you, “Do not be afraid, you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1:30)
One of the amazing things about Mary’s calling is that (although it required everything that was in her) it didn’t demand anything that would be unnatural for her. She was just a very young woman, like any other young woman living in her time and place, who was called to be a mother.
Her mission was to be a person through whom God came into the world in a unique way, but God would do this simply by Mary being herself. She was willing to simply be there trusting that God would work through her.
In a sense, our mission is the same. What ever choices God gives us are ways though which he wants to come into the world through us. He will take care of his own arrival.
All we are asked to do is to “be there”, and to be ourselves, and to carry out the tasks that life gives us, as well as we know how. God’s calling is simply for us to be our grace-given selves.
The woman who said, “Let it be to me as you have said” had a son who said to his father, the night before he was crucified, “Not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) It really is the same response, both mother and son, after all.
Mary was saying a hard thing to say. It was a hard thing to be brave and trusting enough to say. Without knowing about the cross, she said “yes” to the God of the cross, and the resurrection.
The God of the cross and the God of the resurrection came into her womb, in Jesus, in order to say the words, “Not my will, but yours be done” and to give himself up for the life of the world. Mary said “yes” to a Savior God, whose love and friendship would set her free.
Mary said yes to a calling that was far from easy. The life to which God called her demanded that she give her all. She could not have had the energy and focus to live that life, if she didn’t choose to trust and have faith in the faithfulness of God.
As Christmas comes near we can think of a God who wants to be near. This God came near, and took our life into his own life. He became a baby who would grow up to love us to the depth of laying down his life for us. He died so that he could take away from us the power of sin and death and say to you, “You have found favor with me.”
To be his servant is not easy, but it is a life of love and friendship. You love, and are loved by, a faithful, savior God. You serve him with the same love that led him to give his life for the world.
When you celebrate Christmas this year think about the faith that made the Christmas story possible. Think how the Christmas story teaches you to live. Think about the faithful God who calls you, in that miraculous birth, to make yourself available to him through faith.

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