If we’re going to understand the real miracle of Christmas, we need to understand the people who were involved.
Last week we talked about John the Baptist, who lived a simple life, and told people to turn their lives around, because the kingdom of God was coming very close to them.
Today, I want us to talk about Mary, the mother of Jesus. There’s a lot of hoopla about Mary, stuff that’s been added to her story over the years.
We forget a lot of things about Mary. She was probably very young. Most girls were married in their teens back then, and there’s nothing to make us think that Mary was any exception.
She was probably about as young, and scared, and in need of help as most teenage mothers are today.
As far as we know, Mary wasn’t anybody famous or important. Her husband, Joseph, was descended from King David, but so were a lot of people. From all accounts, Mary wasn’t anybody special, and Joseph was a carpenter, who didn’t make too much money at his trade.
They just got by, like most of their neighbors. Mary and Joseph were good people, but there’s nothing to suggest that they were better than anybody else. And they were as surprised as everybody – maybe they were even more surprised! – to learn who their son was going to be.
I’m saying this, because Christmas is kind of a funny thing. On the one hand, we build it up, with more fanfare and folklore and foolishness than any other holiday.
On the other hand, we know so very little about the way things really were. What we do know is, they were probably just ordinary folks like us.
We talk about how humble the stable was. And we make it sound like it was gloriously humble somehow.
My guess is, Mary and Joseph would probably have traded all of that beautiful humility for a room at the Bethlehem Hilton, with beds and meals and a hot bath.
The humility of the stable was no fun at all, unless it was the kind of thing where you look back, ten years later, and say, “Gee, wasn’t it something when the car broke down and we were out there on the highway, and the contractions were coming just three minutes apart?”
It might have been something to remember, but in the moment, it wasn’t so great.
I think that if we were all to be transported into that humble stable scene, it probably wouldn’t have been all calm and peaceful and lovely.
It was probably really crowded. And the stable floor was probably covered with what stable floors are usually covered with. It was dark, and it was about the last place on earth that anyone would want to give birth to a baby in.
All this is an introduction to today’s Scripture reading, which isn’t about the manger scene at all. It’s about what happened nine months earlier, when Mary got her first hint that something unbelievable was going to happen.
I say unbelievable, because I don’t think that Mary really believed it herself. Not at first. The story is taken from the first chapter of the gospel of Luke.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a young woman who was promised to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The young woman’s name was Mary.
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at the angel’s words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him 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 Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.Luke 1:26-38
In this day and age it’s hard for people to believe a story like this. Let me just remind you that every baby is pretty much a miracle. So, maybe this story isn’t so far out as it might seem.
I want you to take a careful look, and see what is true in this story. What is God like? And what are people like?
“The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a young woman named Mary. . .” And the angel came tiptoeing up to her and said, “Hello, there!”
Actually, in your pew Bibles, the angel says, ““Greetings!” It makes it sound like a letter from the draft board, or someone from Mars. I mean, perfect strangers don’t usually just walk up to you and say, “Greetings!”
And when someone says, “Greetings! The Lord is with you, you lucky duck,” it would normally be the cue to run and hide.
It says that Mary was greatly troubled, which is probably a huge understatement. Mary was gobsmacked. She didn’t know what to do, or think.
I’m not even sure if it helped when the angel said, “Now, don’t be afraid. . .” People usually say that in the doctor’s office when something really awful is about to happen.
Then the angel went on to explain, in a very kind voice, that she, Mary, was going to have a very special son. And all that stuff back in their family tree, about how Joseph’s umpteenth great-great-grandfather used to be a king, was going to be really important again. This kid, who Mary didn’t even know she was going to have, was going to be something else.
When Mary caught her breath after hearing that little announcement, she pulled up her courage and asked, “Umm, you say this is going to happen right now. I don’t understand. I’m not even married yet. How am I going to have a son?”
Mary didn’t mean that she didn’t understand the facts of life and the birds and the bees. She probably knew them about as well as anyone else.
She was already engaged to be married, and in her day, an engagement was just as binding as the marriage ceremony itself.
But the angel said, “This happening right now.” And Mary was saying, “This is impossible!”
The angel said, “Look at your cousin Elizabeth. She’s been childless. She and Zechariah are senior citizens, but now they’ve signed up for Lamaze classes. Nothing is impossible for God!”
Now, you can believe that story, or not. I remember reading one time that the problem with this story isn’t gynecology, but theology. The real question isn’t, “Could God do anything like this?”, but “Would God do anything like this?”
Whether God can, I can’t answer, although the whole point of today’s story is, “With God, nothing is impossible!” If God created the whole world, maybe God could do this thing.
Whether God would is a whole different problem, and it opens up a whole bunch of different questions.
Would God come to be here among us ordinary people? Do God’s promises – like the promise of peace, the promise of freedom, the promise of heaven – do those promises really stand for something? Do they have anything to do with us?
The answer, today, is yes.
Christmas says that God has come, and God does care, and that God’s promises are worth believing in. But there’s even more to it all than that.
In the story, it doesn’t just stop with the angel saying, “Here’s the job, it’s all yours!”
There’s Mary’s reply as well. Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”
To me, the most amazing thing about the story isn’t the idea of the virgin birth. The amazing thing is that the angel waited to hear Mary’s answer. She said yes.
Do you realize what that means? It means that God Almighty needed her to agree. This whole great plan, this script for salvation that God worked up, depended on one scared young woman to say yes.
It’s no big surprise that Mary had her baby, nine months later, in the stable, complete with shepherds and wise men and everything. We know that part.
What’s incredible is that God needed her cooperation, her agreement, for it to happen. Mary wasn’t drafted. The angel, and God, and the whole world, for that matter, waited for her answer.
I don’t know if you get how important this is. God needs us to agree. God needs our help. God needs us to say yes sometimes.
God didn’t force this. God didn’t even force the greatest miracle of all, the miracle of the ages, to happen. Mary had to say yes.
The angel said, “This is the will of God. This is the prophecy. Here is how it’s all supposed to happen.”
But then, the angel waits. Maybe, in that moment, the angel and God were just as afraid as Mary. What would she say?
The reason Mary is so honored and remembered isn’t because of how special she was. It was because she said yes. Everything else flowed from that moment. The whole rest of the gospel, everything, the life we receive from Christ – it all hung on one scared young woman, maybe in her teens, who agreed to go along with God.
When the angel left her, Mary had a lot to think about. And she had to do a lot of stuff. I think that her labor was probably just as painful as labor often is. And Jesus was probably just as much of a challenge to raise as most kids are. When you stop to think about it, raising kids and taking care of them every day, and teaching them and watching them grow up and letting them go – that all requires a yes on our part.
All of living requires us to say yes. And you can understand people a whole lot better if you look at where people say yes, and where people say no.
When we try to live as Christians, we face all kinds of challenges. Big ones. Little ones. And part of what we have to do, every day, is say yes to God.
It isn’t always easy. Sometimes we’re afraid. Sometimes we make mistakes.
But Mary teaches us that once in a while, even when it’s completely unexpected, even when we totally don’t understand, even when we’re scared and without a clue how it’s all going to happen, we still need to say yes.