Mary’s Christmas to All
A sermon based on Luke 1:26-56 (using the Inclusive Bible Translation)
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 4, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I love Mary in the Bible; the one who is Jesus’ mother. The classic Mary we see in pictures nicely dressed in white usually with a blue head scarf on is fine. But the Mary, Mother of Jesus, that I like best is the one I experience when I hear Luke’s Nativity story.
Based on that story and archeology in my mind’s eye she’s a peasant teenage girl dressed in homespun cloth. Mary’s head is covered with the same sort of humble material and it is not blue but earth tones, since blue came from a costly dye reserved for the wealthy, which Mary was not – at least not in the earthly sense of things. Mary’s hair covered beneath the scarf is dark and her complexion is that of a First Century Palestinian Jew: brown skin and dark eyes. She is in her early teens and may or may not have had a say in her betrothal to her husband-to-be Joseph, but regardless she is faithful to him. Betrothal, a solemn and binding promise was kept by Mary.
Mary is this nobody girl in the story that the angel Gabriel was sent by God to visit in Nazareth a small hamlet. Picture a middle-school aged girl in a small rural village being chosen by God for a visit by an angel. As a young woman, a peasant Jewish girl just coming of age, in Nowheresville, Mary was not at the pinnacle of society to say the least. She was virtually the very opposite. She would have been marginalized by Rome as a Jew and culturally as a female peasant teen from nowhere. So we can fairly understand that Mary is a nobody to the world at large in a nowhere to the world place, yet God is there with her and she is whom God favors. I love that! There’s so much hope in that.
It is before this very humble girl in a very humble place that an angel just shows up out of the blue saying “Rejoice, highly favored one! God is with you. Blessed are you among women!”
And we are told in the reading today that Mary is deeply troubled and wonders “what the angel’s greeting meant. ” Actually the Greek has it that she is greatly agitated or greatly trouble. 1 Who wouldn’t be? I would have been more than a little shaken! And although our reading has Gabriel saying “Don’t be afraid” the Greek word phrase is “phobeo me.” 2 “Phobeo” means “to put to flight by terrifying” and “me” means not. So Gabriel might better be heard to say “Don’t run away in terror, ” or “fear not.”
See ages of retelling and hearing the story and our modern translations and our gentle Nativity portrayals take away the edge of the scene. This is not a quieting Annunciation. It is quite startling. Gabriel’s appearance has young Mary so agitated and fearful Gabriel has to ask her to not to bolt. But to her credit, Mary bravely stays.
An angel’s sudden presence and utterance would be startling enough, but the news he gives after saying “ Don’t run away in terror!” would NOT have sounded like the good news we now know it is. Gabriel’s telling this marginalized girl Mary she will be pregnant in a time and place where pregnancy caused by anyone but a husband meant terrible humiliating things. Society’s response to out of wedlock pregnancy was cruel. Beyond just losing a betrothed, it meant lifelong shame and ridicule, it meant being ostracized by family and friends and it could even mean being stoned to death.
“How can this be, since I have never been with a man?” is Mary’s question, but it is also her defense in the face of the terror of unfaithfulness and pregnancy and the ensuing penalties that she would be exposed to. Literally for Mary conceiving Christ carries with it huge risks.
This can be heard as a parable for all Christians at the time Luke told this story, Mary’s risks are symbolic of all who (air quotes) “conceived” Jesus as “Christ.” Those who did, took risk, great risk of cruel responses by the culture of that time.
Even today “conceiving” Christ and actually carrying and bringing Christ into the world has great risk. The love-everyone Way of Jesus in the Bible has never been a popular one. Really loving neighbors and enemies; really tending to the poor; the sick, the stranger; and the imprisoned did not go over well back in First Century Palestine . . . it does not always go over so well today. Those who push too far the reality of what it means to do to others what we want to done to ourselves get in trouble. There is ridicule, shame, ostracizing, threats. It is not easy to carry Christ into the world, not for us, and certainly not for Mary.
And we can hear how Mary– the lowest of the low to the culture Mary– is nonetheless found to be of great worth to God who not only honors her by sending Gabriel out for a supernatural visit, but has her called “favored one” and chooses her to help deliver Jesus – Christ– to a very needy, messed-up, world.
I get choked up when I let it soak in that Mary who is already pretty much as low as low can be as a teenage, female, Jewish person of color says “Yes” that she is willing to – for God, for Christ, for us, for the world– have the cultural lowness of unwed pregnancy heaped upon her in a culture that would be cruel to her just for that. And it is not just a quiet little “Yes,” Mary claims it out right, out loud and proud. Her response to Gabriel’s relaying of the message from God is “I am the servant of God. Let it be done to me as you say. In other words,. “Bring it on, I WILL work for God!”
That’s what Mary, almost a child, says to what would be to any adult a most difficult task. All of what I have said so far about Mary is enough for me to love Mary as she is portrayed in the Bible. She accepts the challenge to alone, with God, conceive Jesus and bring him into the world.
But the story gets even better. This courageous young woman we are told goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country. When her cousin sings her praises Mary’s response is not pride or “Aw sucks.” What she doe is amp up the courage! Christ inside her has not just made Mary braver, it’s made her aware, very aware of what God is, and what God does for her and for the world.
All of this awareness comes out in a powerful revolutionary song, that she belts out. It’s a song so revolutionary in content that it has been banned by dictators. It’s a song so powerful it has been sung and sung and sung. We may not know it from modern day pop charts, but for two thousand years it’s been a hit song resonating throughout millennia. It resonates because it is the song that all who conceive and have Christ within sense that our souls can and ought to magnify the Lord. We want to be like Mary bringing Christ into the world. And like Mary in her song we understand that God saves us from our lesser selves, and has done so many great things and will do so many more. That’s the hope of Advent, of Christ coming on Christmas Day.
And it’s not the things the secular culture aspires to, it’s not the things the popular prosperity gospel preachers pitch. It is not about political power or material riches or personal prosperity. It’s about being the hope that the peace of God we talked about last week will come about. It’s about the hope that the words that are lit up on the top of our church bell tower can come true “peace on earth. ” A peace where each human has personal and societal well being. A peace that includes good will to all.
Mary’s song is called “The Magnificat.” She sings:
“My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior. For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant, and from this day forward all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me, and holy is your Name. Your mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear you.
You have shown strength with your arm; you have scattered the proud in their conceit; you have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty. You have come to the aid of Israel your servant, mindful of your mercy―the promise you made to our ancestors―to Sarah and Abraham and their decendants forever.” ” (Luke 1:46-55 The Inclusive Bible)
I love that song, and even more I love the one who sings it, Mary the Mother of Jesus because she is the first to heroically agree to nurture and birth Christ into the world. In the Nativity story she does that literally – and at great risk– and she does it to magnify God’s presence not just in her life and not just because it is good for her soul, but she does it for all the world and she does it for a God whom she experiences as helping humanity. It’s a song all Christians should make their heartbeat song. It’s a song all Christians should sing.
The Magnificat is a very important part of the Advent story, the Christian story and so I am going to ask us sing a modern version called Magnify the Lord. It’s in your bulletin. If you are able please stand and let’s sing it!
Mary we want to be like you, having Christ with-in. To magnify the Lord too– bringing Christ to Christmas again. We rejoice, rejoice in God who saves us all. We rejoice, rejoice in the Christmas call.
Mighty God’s done great things for us; Holy is our God’s name. In God’s love we always can trust for in God’s eyes we all are the same. We rejoice, rejoice, in God who saves all, We rejoice, rejoice in the Christmas call.
God’s strength has scattered the abroad, God’s brought down power to fear. Those too proud to see the down-trod, don’t feel the love of God near. We rejoice, rejoice in God who saves all, We rejoice, rejoice in the Christmas call.
For God looks upon even me lowly to others, as blessed. Let me God’s servant help relieve creation which is distressed.
God lifts up the lowly and down, fills the hungry with good things. More holy are the poor and sick than the uncaring rich and the kings. We rejoice, rejoice in God who saves all. We rejoice, rejoice in the Christmas call.
Mary we want to be like you, having Christ growing within. To magnify the Lord too, bringing Christ to Christmas again, bringing Christ to Christmas again.” 3
1. BibleWorks9, KJV with Strongs number 1298 “diatarasso.”
2. Ibid., at 5399 and 3361
3. Written by Scott Elliott and Rick Rakauskas, and based on the New Revised Standard Version of Luke.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2016 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED