Here is Part 1 of our Advent sermon series, “Journey to Bethlehem.” Our adventure begins with a 13-year-old girl named Mary, who hails from a small town in Galilee called Nazareth. What God calls Mary to do is nothing less than astonishing, as discussed in this sermon.
But consider this: While God may never ask us to set aside all of our hopes and dreams, leave the comfort and security of home, or risk our lives for his sake, in many ways God is asking of us the same thing he asked of Mary: to offer ourselves completely to God, to go where he says to go, to do what he says to do.
Will we respond, along with Mary, “Here am I, servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word”?
Sermon Text: Luke 1:26-38
The following is my original manuscript.
While driving home from our Thanksgiving feast at my in-laws last Thursday night, we were listening to one of those radio stations that plays round-the-clock Christmas music. These songs are so familiar to us, and we’ve heard them so often for so long, that it becomes difficult sometimes to actually hear the words anymore. Do you know what I mean? So I give credit to any singer or artist who can perform one of these very familiar songs and make me pay attention to the words.
And on Thursday, I heard just such a performance. It was Jack Johnson’s version of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” At first it was nothing special: just an acoustic performance, in that very laid-back Jack Johnson style, of a song that all of us know. But then he adds an extra verse. After the reindeer praise Rudolph for leading Santa’s sleigh through the thick fog, telling him that he’ll go down in history, Johnson sings the following verse:
Well Rudolph he didn’t go for that
He said, “I see through your silly games
How could you look me in the face
When only yesterday you called me names?”
Well all of the other reindeers, man,
Well, they sure did feel ashamed,
“Rudolph, you know we’re sorry,
We’re truly gonna try to change”
I love that! Those other reindeer were mean to Rudolph. They needed to repent and apologize to Rudolph if there were going to be the kind of happy ending that the song celebrates. So Jack Johnson helped me to hear this very familiar story in a new way.
My prayer for each of us this Advent and Christmas season is that we will all be able to hear this very familiar story of Mary and Joseph and angels and shepherds and Wise Men in a new way—that the Holy Spirit will show us something new about these people’s lives and our lives. To that end, I read a wonderful new book on these very familiar Christmas texts called The Journey by United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton, which I recommend to each of you. One of the book’s great strengths is the way Hamilton fills in the picture painted by Luke and Matthew with details that the evangelists and their original audiences—living as they did in the Ancient Near East of the first century—might have taken for granted. We live in a very different time and place from them, so we have to work a little harder to understand what’s going on. The Journey does a nice job of that, and I’m going to use his book as a roadmap for our own Advent sermon series.
So we’re going to begin where Hamilton begins: with the story of a 13-year-old girl named Mary, who hails from a small town in Galilee called Nazareth. Back in the first century, Nazareth was a very small and insignificant town: About 200 or so poor or working-class people. Remember in John Chapter 1, a disciple named Philip went and told his friend Nathanael, “Come and see the Messiah. He’s from Nazareth.” And Nathanael said, “Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?” Nazareth was a place that people outside of Nazareth looked down upon. Fifty years ago, someone from Roswell would have said, “Alpharetta? Can anything good come out of Alpharetta?” It would be hard to believe. Nazareth is hardly an obvious place for the Son of God, Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Savior, to call his hometown.
But isn’t that just like God to choose this unlikely girl from this unlikely town to bring God’s Son into the world? Isn’t God always doing this sort of thing? When God first put his saving plan for the world into action, he made a covenant with the least likely person: A 75 year old man named Abraham. God chose this man to start a family that would become God’s covenant people, whose descendants would be as numerous as the stars. Never mind that Abraham and his wife were unable to have children. Never mind that they were way too old to be starting a family. Never mind that another 15 years pass before Abraham and Sarah have their promised son. As Gabriel told Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God.” Later, God chose Abraham’s descendants, who were slaves in Egypt, to be God’s people. “Nothing is impossible with God.” And he chose as their spokesman a man named Moses, who likely had a speech impediment or who stuttered, to confront the most powerful man in the world. “Nothing is impossible with God.” Still later, “God called the youngest of Jesse’s seven sheepherding sons, David, to become his greatest king.” “Nothing is impossible with God.”
As Paul told the believers at Corinth, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”
So of course God chose this very unlikely girl from a very unlikely place to do the unlikeliest thing of all: to bring Jesus Christ, God’s Son—God from God, light from light, true God from true God—into the world. Remember the “senior superlatives” in your class yearbook? “Most popular,” “Most congenial,” “Most likely to succeed”? If people were voting for the woman “most likely to be the mother of God’s Son,” it surely wouldn’t be Mary. Fortunately, God knows what he’s doing!
Isn’t there a lesson there for us? Maybe you were never voted “most likely,” “most popular,” “prettiest,” “best looking.” “funniest…” But look out! You may be just the person God is looking for! You are a unique and wondrous creation of God. No one in the world—no one in all of human history, no one who has ever lived—possesses your unique set of gifts, your unique talents, your unique personality. No one is as good at being you as you are. God made you for a purpose and has a plan for your life. Don’t think for a minute that you can’t be used by God. Or you’re not good enough to be used by God. Or that you have to get all the problems of your life sorted out before you can start living a life for God.
Living a Christian life—which means being a faithful follower of Jesus, which means answering God’s call in our life—is not for the few, the proud, the super-saints among us… It’s for the “normal,” the imperfect, the “least likely” people like you and me. It’s for you and me.
I said earlier that Mary was around 13 when she had Jesus. The custom was that a girl would get engaged when she started puberty—around the age of 12. Her family would have arranged her marriage with another family. She would marry one year later. I know by our standards 13 seems very young, but it was normal back then. Think about it: Average life expectancy was about 35, the infant mortality rate was high. If you were going to have a family, you’d want to start as soon as possible. Parents of teenagers out there, what if your teenage daughter was asked to do this? Can you imagine? Do you think that this 13 year old girl named Mary was especially well qualified to perform the most important work that any human being had ever been asked to perform: to bring God into the world? And then to be responsible for nurturing, teaching, and loving this child, who was the Son of God? No? But she did it… successfully!
How did she do it? The answer to that question can be found in the angel Gabriel’s words to Mary.
When I was in the Holy Land earlier this year, we went to Nazareth. There’s a spring there and a well. According to one ancient tradition, today’s scripture took place there. Mary had gone there to draw water—as she would have done every day, and it was here that the angel Gabriel met her and gave her the news. Here’s a picture of the well in Nazareth.
Notice that there’s no mention of Gabriel having angel’s wings or shining brightly or having a halo behind his head. Do you think that Mary would have been so calm if Gabriel appeared to her like that! No, according to the Bible, more often than not, angels come to us as normal looking people. Years ago, there was a popular TV show called Touched by an Angel. The show depicted angels in this normal kind of way. The angels looked just like us—at least until the end of the episode, when they revealed themselves as angels and a light would shine behind their heads. Some of us might have a hard time believing in angels, but for we know, we’ve met angels before without knowing it. Does that blow your mind, or do you think it’s possible? I believe in angels, and I think it’s possible.
So what does Gabriel tell Mary? “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you.” The Greek word for “favored one” literally means graced one, “one who is richly blessed,” “one who is filled with grace.” See, that’s how Mary can be successful in performing this awesome responsibility that God wanted her to perform: because God gave her everything that she needed to be successful.
So… If God gives us the grace we need to answer God’s call for our lives, does that mean that life will be easy?
On the contrary…
In fact, it’s safe to say that Mary was graced by God as much or more than anyone else who ever lived. But notice how profoundly difficult and costly this grace was: Among other things, it meant setting aside lifelong dreams and plans. It meant facing false rumors about conceiving a child out of wedlock. It meant risking execution for adultery—because adultery was a capital crime. It meant risking her own life simply giving birth—which in this age before modern medicine was dangerous. It meant leaving home and fleeing with her family to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous jealousy. It meant watching her own son suffer and die on a cross. Truer words were never spoken when the prophet Simeon tells Mary, shortly after Jesus’ birth, that “a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
Is this what it means to be “favored by God”? It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Good thing we’re not like Mary, huh? Not so fast!
God may never ask us to set aside all of our hopes and dreams and plans for his sake. God may never ask us to leave the comfort and security of home for his sake. God may never ask us to risk our lives for his sake. But in many ways, God is asking of us the same thing he asked of Mary: to offer ourselves completely to God, to go where he says to go, to do what he says to do—just as he asked Mary.
He’s asking us even this morning. May we respond, along with Mary, “Here am I, servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your Word.”