Word of the Week

jesus-birthLuke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve 2012

Silent night, holy, night, all is come, all is bright. Round yon virgin Mother and Child . . .

I get chills every time I sing this song, especially on this night. I don’t know about you, but it seems to be the one carol of all Christmas carols that seems to pull at the strings of all of our hearts—a song that reminds us to slow down be still and consider what the birth of this child of a babe called Jesus is all about. It’s a song sung a few hours ago in the Holy City to commemorate what happened in this very special locale. Some say it wouldn’t be Christmas in Bethlehem without it.

In fact, I dare say, many of you would just not think it is really Christmas until you sing Silent Night by candlelight in community with others—just as we are going to do a in few moments. Maybe it is just tradition. Or maybe it is softness of this lullaby that evokes memories of when we were children. But, regardless as to why, Silent Night seems to be the carol for many of us that symbolizes the fact that on this night, it was not an ordinary night—it was eternally special.

It’s beautiful isn’t it the way we think of the Christmas story every year? Just like this song, we think of Christmas as peaceful, quiet, and so holy that we almost have to whisper so to honor the words . . . . Mary sleeping, all covered up in a long flowing robe with her hair perfectly combed to the side. The baby cooing, drifting off to sleep too while Joseph stands there, staff in hand, perched over the manger, with superhuman new dad strength to stay awake. The barn animals bowing at the newborn while the shepherds stand around in amazement of “the good news of great joy for all people . . . a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” It’s almost as if all the characters are glowing as we think of them, iconic in our minds just as we’ve seen them portrayed in stain glass windows cathedrals or in portraits.

We like Christmas this way. We like knowing that a hush fell over the crowd. We like proclaiming that “all is calm, all is bright.” We like pretty people doing beautiful things like giving birth. We like singing joyful songs about “good tidings to all people” believing we’re doing just as the angels did long ago.

It’s almost as if Christmas is the one time of year when we get to take a time out from all that is wrong in our world and believe again that peace on earth is actually real or at least has hope of coming to us at a time in the near future. Christmas provides so many of us the beauty that we crave in our oh, so messy world. Maybe that is why you came to church tonight—to find something anything that is better than what you were dealing with before you walked in these doors a few moments ago.

I hate to burst your bubble tonight and question some of this sentimentality of this moment. But, I think it would only be fair to the passage before us tonight we examined it more closely.

Though yes, Mary may or may not have been fully covered in long flowing robes, fit for the mother of the Son of God and her hair may or may not have been perfectly combed (probably not), remember this is a story about giving birth.

Giving birth, as many of you have experienced it is indeed labor. It’s full of sweat, tears, anguish, screams of “Get this baby out of me now!” It’s a messy enterprise, especially when you are going at it alone with no one to help you know what to do. (For Luke does not tell us that a midwife assisted with the birth). The main event of this night was about a long period of physical pain, agony, and maybe even some four letter words (or at least thought of them) coming to the forefront of Mary’s mind— what was God really thinking sending her far from home to have a baby in a stable? All was not silent, all was not bright.

And while yes, Joseph, may or may not have been staying awake, doing his good manly diligence of making sure his wife and newborn baby were indeed ok at all times, remember this is a story about an adoptive father.

Accepting a child as a man who you know is not your own can be more difficult than it might seem on paper. In this babe as Joseph stared into the manger, he did not see his eye color in the babe. He did not see his same thin lips or curly brown hair. Even more so, feelings of insecurity ran through Joseph’s bones as they would anyone forced from the resources of home now with a new baby in tow, a baby he was going to need to learn to love and care for as his own. I can imagine thousand thoughts of “what if?” ran through his head, even as relief settled into him that the baby was born and Mary seemed to be doing alright. What was God really thinking putting him up close and personal of this crazy plan? All was not silent, all was not bright.

And while yes, the barn animals and the shepherds may or may not have been looking lovingly into Jesus’ eyes well-mannered and glowing with excitement of finding the one “wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger,” remember this is a story about characters who aren’t used to getting much attention.

They’re field animals and workers who aren’t known for their being in close quarters with others. They don’t know where to sit. They don’t know what to say. When Joseph’s nose starts leaning over toward them the begin to realize they smell and aren’t really fit to be good company. Soon their social anxiety seems to want to get the best of them. They wonder why they came in the first place. Sure, those angels sang and it was quite a sight, but after awhile they could easily begin to second guess all of this in the first place. What was God really thinking dragging them to out to see this? In their troubled minds, all was not silent, all was not bright.

I almost feel sacrilegious in saying anything against the beauty or the time-stopping wonder of that first Christmas Eve. But, I really think as wonderful and as life changing and as powerful that wondrous night of the birth of Christ was—or Emmanuel, God with us came to earth—all was not silent, all was night bright.

Remember this was a human story—filled with human things we know a lot about.

Changing patterns in the night sky

Tyrant governors who declare we must pay more taxes and cause even expectant mothers and fathers to make out of the way trips

Women who give birth without medical professionals to help

First time parents wondering what in the world they’ve gotten themselves into

The awkward dance of human relationships

Strangers showing up at our door who we don’t expect

And because this was a human story, as much as Christ came it didn’t make everything 100% right way. The shepherds didn’t suddenly get the respect they deserved and a fair labor. Mary didn’t suddenly have any more discomfort from birthing a baby. Joseph didn’t suddenly have all the courage he needed to keep doing the right thing as he’d done so far. No, all was not calm, all was not bright.

But, what did Jesus do—what was the point? What are we celebrating tonight then if all was not calm, all was not bright?

Well, despite the circumstances or the flavor added in by the human characters, this remains this same: on this night, we celebrate Jesus, the one who was called Savior, Christ the Lord. We are celebrating the coming of the one to earth who would give all of us an opportunity to know what God is like in the flesh. We are celebrating the One who would later show us on a cross and on an Easter morning what God ultimately wants to give us—new life. We are celebrating the coming of light—light that would begin to shine and ultimately as this Jesus grew up, show us more of God’s love. Over time, as the story unfolds, more and more of his hope would be given to all of us.

Jesus comes as the light, the light that shone in our dark, dark world. A world where all was not silent, all was not bright.

What good news this is to our weary worn eyes tonight! What good news this is for us faithful churchgoers who have heard the Christmas story over and over again and wish our lives would change and so many remains the same year after year! What good news this is for those of us who want to follow Jesus but find our own depression, anxiety, fear or hurting hearts holding us back! What good news this is for our conflict filled families who will bicker around the Christmas table tomorrow! What good news this is for a world where little girls and boys and devoted teachers get shot on Friday mornings the week before Christmas!

No matter what may be, Jesus is the light!

And, though it is true and the light has come, we, like the first participants in the Christmas story, are residents of this world. We also must face the doubts of “Why me, God?” We also must face the loneliness of being close to the light and sometimes finding few are with us there. We must also face the anger of why bad things happen to so many seemingly good people.

But this does not change the light! We, my friends cannot change the light. No matter how we whim, or moan or mess up or what folks with guns or bombs may do, we cannot change the light. The light has come!

Jesus, this babe would later grow up to say, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, for I have overcome the world!”

And to you this night I say, take heart. Even on Christmas, you still live in a world of trouble. But the light has come and the darkness, no matter what, could not overcome it.


Luke 1:26-38 (Common English Bible)

26When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!”29She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.31Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.32He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.33He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

34Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

35The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.36Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant.37Nothing is impossible for God.”

38Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

I don't know about you, but I am already feeling the stress of Christmas. It may be "the most wonderful time of the year" but only if wonderful means the "busiest time of the year."

For each of us our stress comes in different ways. Sometimes it is from special holiday events to attend that all seem to fall on the same day (i.e. we have to figure out how to be in five places at once). Sometimes it is the stress of the requirement to see family, when we've just spent a holiday with them only weeks ago. Sometimes it is the stress of figuring out how it is that there will be Christmas gifts under our tree this year-- jobs have been lost and the budget for Christmas shopping is just not looking that good.  Though we hear carolers sing songs about there being "peace on earth" and "silent nights," peace can be the furthest virtue in our lives every December.

Yet, more than from stress our lack of peace often comes in estranged relationships.

Recently while attending at family gathering, I heard the story from one of my uncles about a fight he was currently having with his mother-in-law (unrelated to me). As the story went on and on and I heard every detail of the tale-- who said what, who did what, and of course everything that was wrong about the other person, I truly felt like I became a character in the disagreement from how vivid storyteller was in the details.

When I asked my uncle about when the fight took place, my jaw nearly dropped when I heard it was 3 years ago. "What?" I asked. "And you haven't reconciled yet?" "Nope," he said. Because of the tension this unresolved fight continued to birth, plans for the upcoming Christmas family dinner were anything but peaceful. Because the two couldn't stand to be in the same room together, everyone was seeking to go out of their way to ensure the contact between my uncle and his mother-in-law  was limited.  Even though weeks away, I could only imagine how un-peaceful my uncle's Christmas dinner table would be. And I gave him my sympathies.

And upon later reflection of this situation, I was reminded once again how much energy we must expand as we hold on to what has gone wrong in the past.  We literally exhaust ourselves by holding on to anger as bitterness swells in our hearts. And, in turn, keep ourselves from the new life and joy and love that could be ours for the taking if reconciliation occurred.

But, what about God? Have any of you been mad at God lately? Has anyone found themselves at a spiritual crossroads when you've felt like God has asked you to do something that you didn't actually want to do?

Well, if there ever was a good reason for someone to be in a position of anger with God, it would be the main character in our gospel passage for this morning. Though we normally think of Mary as the favored one, angelic like mother of our Lord, when the angel Gabriel came and gave her the news of her Holy Spirit conceived son -- she too found herself in a state without peace and possibly even anger toward God.

Luke 1:26-38 is among the scriptures that we read almost every year during this season and probably most of the sermons you've heard on this text and probably even most of the sermons I've preached on this text have focused our attention on verse 37 when angel relays to Mary, "For nothing will be impossible with God."  The announcement that teenage Mary will soon be pregnant just like her elder cousin, Elizabeth serves as a miracle story of God. Reminding us that the God we serve uses the lowly to bring hope for the nations through Christ who was born. And when you and I hear such a story, it is usually our first instinct to consider how amazing it is that Mary was chosen, that she said yes to the coming of this child within her, and that with the friendship of Elizabeth who would soon serve as her mentor, all would be well.

But, I believe the gem of this story is missed if we move too quickly from verse 29.

"Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be." (NIV)

And this is what we need to know: Mary found herself in a situation that she did not want and that she could not change.

Mary didn't want Joseph to die. If we pick up the book of Tobit-- a book not found in our Protestant scriptures but within the apocrypha held as sacred by our Catholic brothers and sisters-- we read of a popular folk tale that Mary surely would have known. It's the story of a jealous angel who appeared on a bride's wedding night each time she married and killed her bridegroom.  One scholar writes, "Against the background of this popular story, the fear of a betrothed girl (Mary) at the appearance of an angel is all the more understandable. Could it be that she thought an evil spirit was threatening her marriage?"[i] Certainly the appearance of an angel before her was nothing that she had ever heard of being a good thing. She hoped that her planned marriage would go to Joseph as had hoped it would.

Then, when Mary was told she would soon be with child, she didn't want to be punished. Being a pregnant before the betrothal period was over was more than a cultural taboo, it was a religious no-no. During the betrothal time, which Mary found herself in with Joseph, she was still living under her father's roof.  And, it would be until a year after the betrothal began that she would go to live at Joseph's house and thus have marital relations with him. Thus, for Mary to begin showing her pregnancy from the "overshadowing of the Holy Spirit" would be considered strange, inconceivable and ultimately could cost Mary her life if Joseph didn't claim the baby as his own. The sin of adultery could be placed over her life, unfairly of course.

And, furthermore, Mary probably did not want to be pregnant yet. Though girls married and had children as young as 13 or 14 in this era of time and having children was part of her responsibility to fulfill the laws of the Torah, I can imagine that it wasn't the leap into adulthood that girls like Mary dreamed for themselves. To soon face the potentially life-threatening complications of child-birth when she had not even had time to life much of her own life must have been overwhelming and unfavorable to say the least.

For all of these reasons and probably many more that Mary didn't even have time to think of in this very moment, she found herself in a situation that she didn't want and she couldn't change.

But, what was she to do? Especially as she was learning that this "thing" about to happen to her was from the hands of "the Lord." No longer could she go back to her girly innocence of thinking about goings on in her town. No longer could she be normal just like everyone else. No longer could she silently pray in temple without having to put feet to the words of prayer she had been saying all her life.  God was about to change her life. And there were choices in front of her:

1. She didn't have to believe it. She could have said as we heard Zechariah say last week, "How can I be sure of this?" asking for a sign or proof of her pregnancy before she accepted it.

2. She could have balked at this word from the angel. Responding with something like, "No way. You're going to have to find yourself another girl, Gabriel. There ain't no way I am going to carry the 'son of God' in me. That's ridiculous."

And in each of these scenarios, Mary could have found her soul much like the state of my uncle who is dreading the forced gathering with his mother-in-law this Christmas. Bitterness could have crept in. Hatred could have begun to corrode her sweet heart. Having peace, well, Mary would have to kiss that goodbye as she hung on to dreams for her life that would just no longer work for her.

But, then there was another choice and that was to make peace with God. To accept that in our discipleship journey, we might have to endure transitions that are harder than we could have ever imagined. To accept that in this sinful world, often times there are good and even bad things that happen to us that we can't control or make better, as hard as we try. To accept that having this one named Jesus, who would save her people from their sins was the next step for her life.

If we keep reading the text, we know that the final choice-- making peace with God-- was ultimately Mary's chosen path.  In verse 38, Mary responds to the angel saying, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with him according to your word."

Yet, as quick as the transition is in our text from verse 29 to the acceptance of verse 38, I'd like to think that the transition of this "making peace with God"  took longer than it did for Kirby to read this passage for us this morning.

I like to think of Mary as one who joined the great line of saints who were known to wrestle with God when faced with a difficult challenge: Abraham, who didn't want Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed completely, Jacob was willing to fight it out with God until his hip was thrown out of whack, and Hannah who prayed and cried and pleaded until the Lord gave her Samuel, the great prophet of Israel.

That when Mary said, "Here am I... let it be, according to the Lord's word" Mary allowed some things to die. Not in the physical sense of course, but emotionally and spiritually. Letting go of what her expectations and her plans were for her life. Letting go of constantly performing to others' expectations of her. Letting go of hiding innocently in the crowd, believing she was a nobody. Instead, letting peace reign in her being so that her life would exclaim about the Lord, "Let it be." Whatever, you want to come, God, let it be.

Sue Monk Kidd, popular author of the book Secret Life of Bees, writes in her earlier memoir, When the Heart Waits, of her struggle to "let it be."  At this juncture in her life she details in the book, perched at middle age with children growing into adolescence and her role as mother and wife changing-- Sue finds herself on a spiritual search to figure out why she was so unhappy. And though it doesn't seem to have a name or a direct cause, Sue begins intentionally stopping more often and seeking to figure out what exactly was going wrong.

And in this process, one afternoon around this time of the year, right before Christmas, Sue went into her attic to get out some Christmas decorations, and found a stack of old Christmas cards in the process. Though she chastises herself upon finding the pile saying, "Why do I insist on being a hoarder of such cards, from as a far back as 15 years ago?" she  found herself stopping to re-read some.

As she picked of one of these old cards with a picture of Mary on the front which read on the inside simply, "Let it be," Sue stops and recognizes this moment just for her. Maybe the experience of Mary wasn't as far from her life as she thought.  Writing later on: "I sensed that the words were about to take up residence and sing their little aria of letting go."

Sue goes on to make sense of this experience by calling on the wisdom of St. Teresa of Avila. Sue remembers that St. Teresa once compared the soul to a silkworm: "It is necessary for the silkworm to die . . . as it does completing what it was created to do . . . A little butterfly comes forth. Oh, greatness of God! "

And, Sue realized  then that God's call for her life was like that of Mary: to let die in her what was of the past, what would not be in the future, so that God could enable new life to spring up in and all around her.

Today, as we sit, also on a journey of waiting, also on a journey of soul-searching called Advent, we too are asked to make peace with God.

I hear people asking me all the time how it is that they can find peace, how it is they can move past the hurt of loss, and how it is that they find God's new plans for them after life-devastating pain.  And, to this, I invite us to consider Mary, her witness of making peace with God by letting die in her what could no longer be.  Mary ushering in peace, by saying to God, "let it be according to your word."

I can imagine that some if not all of us gathered here today have areas in our life in which we too are in need of peace. And to all of us I say, we too have a choice like Mary did.

So, I ask you what needs to die in you? What do you need to let go? Who do you need to forgive so that as we approach the table this morning, we have the chance to make peace with God?

I hate it that what I must preach this morning is about death to dreams, death to wishes, death to ideas we held dear about our lives-- for death is one of my least favorite things to talk about or to practice myself.  But, even with this true, I must tell you today that THIS is the ONLY way to peace. For after all we follow a Christ who died so that we might have life. And, it is our call to way in this way.

Won't you join me at this table this morning. Let us make peace with God before we approach this table as we pray . . .


[i] New Interpreters Bible: Luke and John. "Luke 1:26-38 Commentary" 51.