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The Music of Advent: Mary’s Song

December 2, 2007

Luke 1:46-55

All of the major epics in biblical history begin with the miraculous birth of a child. The time of the Patriarchs began with the birth of Isaac. Moses, who was rescued from the bulrushes, began the time of wandering, the Exodus. At the time of the Judges, the birth of Samson was miraculous. The birth of Samuel marked the beginning of the time of Prophets in the monarchy. Two miraculous births occur in the books of the New Testament: the birth of Jesus, of course, and the birth of John the Baptist. Advent begins with a divine/human encounter, but it is our time, as well. It is a time of preparation, making room for something that will happen – not just in world events – but also in our own lives.

A winged creature, the angel Gabrielle, comes to Mary, a teenaged girl not even in her twenties, and tells her not to be afraid. Gabrielle gives Mary what we call the Annunciation, telling her, “You have been favored.” This scene has been depicted in so many ways in the finest museums of the world. It has been carved in wood and in stone. It has been depicted in stained glass and in painting on canvas.

What does it mean to be “favored”? She finds out that the “favor” God has in mind for her is that she will become pregnant out of wedlock. Some favor! Gabrielle does not say, “Mary, will you consider this? Would you think about this idea and pray about it? See if this is something you would like to do.” Gabrielle does not say, “Mary, this is one option.” He says, “Mary, what is going to happen to you is that you will be pregnant.” She does not really have a choice. This is one of those great turns in life that really change everything. The only choice she has is how she will respond. Mary does not know much about angels. She does not know much about men, but she does know that she should not be pregnant. Surprised by this turn of events, she asks, “How can this be?”

When we read her story, we might think of other questions Mary could have asked: What are my parents going to say about this? What will they think? Will neighbors ridicule me? Can I show my face in the synagogue? Will the people of this town want to drag me somewhere and put me to death because they think I have been sleeping with men? What will Joseph think? How will the man I love react to this news?

Mary merely asks one question of Gabrielle: “How can this happen?” Without any of these other questions, she says in remarkable surrender, “Let it be to me according to your word.”

After her encounter with the angel, Mary leaves town, which is probably a good idea. She goes to the hill country of Judea, where she meets her relative Elizabeth. Gabrielle had told Mary that Elizabeth is also pregnant, about six months along. She stays with Elizabeth because this place will be discreet and because Elizabeth will understand Mary’s situation. Elizabeth will be a great source of help to Mary because they have much in common, much to discuss. They will spend three months together.

Have you ever been around two pregnant women having a conversation with each other? In my extended family, that experience has occurred a number of times. I have learned to keep quiet and stay out of their conversation. Let them talk.

The moment Mary enters the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Elizabeth feels her own child, who will become known as John the Baptist in later years, leap within her womb.

“Blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth tells Mary.

Is Mary to consider herself “favored” and “blessed”? Her life has changed so drastically overnight. Her life will not be easy.

Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s calling her “blessed” is to offer the beautiful song we call the Magnificat. She has no choice about these events in her life. At the heart of it all, the only choice she has is her attitude, which is one of surrender. From the moment Gabrielle tells her that she is pregnant, she gives a resounding “Yes,” accepting these events. She knows that God is capable of doing what seems impossible. She is pregnant with God’s Son. Her words in the Magnificat are, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.”

E. Stanley Jones, the great missionary to India, reflected on the Magnificat, saying that it is one of the most revolutionary documents in the New Testament. Luke 1:51-53 tells us that the crowd will be scattered. Those who are mighty will be cast down. The humble will be exalted. The hungry will be filled, and those who are rich will be sent away empty. In other words, the whole world is going to be turned upside down with the birth of God’s Son.

The Eastern Orthodox Church gives Mary the name Theotokos, which means “the one who bears God.” I love how Barbara Brown Taylor talks about this experience by saying that Mary has been “chosen to smuggle God into the world.” Mary, a young woman, a teenager, will feel the Son of God expanding in her belly. She will nurse the Child of God. She will teach him to walk. She will teach him to talk. A time will come when she and Joseph will find Jesus in the temple after he has been lost for three days. They will ask him, “What are you doing? Didn’t you know that we would be worried?” His response, “Didn’t you know I would be about my Father’s business?” will absolutely astound his mother. The Scripture says that she did not understand.

During her pregnancy, Mary will travel to Bethlehem where she and Joseph will be counted like so many cattle and be taxed. No place will be available for her child to be born except out back in a stable. She will travel to Egypt to protect her child and herself and then return to Nazareth for some quiet time there. When Jesus starts his ministry, many will claim he is possessed. They will persecute and execute him. Some blessing! Some way to be favored! Mary was selected to be the mother of the Son of God, but she will have to endure all of this.

Of course, when Mary hears of God’s plan from Gabrielle, she has no idea what the future will hold for her. She surrenders. Years later, her son in the Garden of Gethsemane will pray, “Not my will, but Thy will be done” (Luke 22:42). Where do you think he learned that notion? He learned it at his mother’s knee. He learned it from his mother, always with a pondering heart. He learned it from this awestruck young woman, whom God favored and blessed.

As any mother could tell you, being favored and blessed is not all glory and honor. Motherhood is hard for everybody, but especially hard for the mother of God’s Son. She will endure much pain, suffering, and uncertainty. She has only one guarantee, one thing she can count on to be absolutely true. She has the guarantee of Jesus, her son with the name Emmanuel, a word that means, “God is with us.” We, too, have the guarantee that God is with us.

You have probably seen some very comical advertisements for an insurance company on television now. The punch line for each ad is “Life comes at you fast.” Was that true for Mary! Life came at her fast with an unexpected turn of events, an unplanned pregnancy. Life often comes at us fast in other ways, too, perhaps through the sudden death of a spouse or parent, the death of a child, or some financial setback. So often when these events occur, we do not have a choice. It is not a matter of saying, “I will do that” or “I will not do that.” We are given these situations, and the only decision we have to make is about our response, our attitude. Mary’s response demonstrates her choice: “Have Thine own way, Lord, have Thine own way. Let it be to me according to Your Word because I am Your servant.”

Martin Luther writes about the Magnificat, saying, “I am the workshop of God. God has work to do in this world, and the place He does His work is within me.” Mary responded in the same way. God chose, as improbable as it seems, a teenage girl in the village of Nazareth and gave her the most demanding task in the entire world.

Timothy George says that Mary had to believe before she could conceive. In other words, her faith and this turn of events are all mingled together in her life. Life is so unexpected, so unplanned; but such circumstances always have enormous possibility with God. The reason is Emmanuel. God is with us.

Our lives are not always what we thought they would be. Our lives do not always turn out the way we plan. In Mary’s case, everything changed. There was no turning back, no way to undo it. The one assurance she had was that God was with her. Meister Eckhart, a Medieval German theologian and mystic, wrote about this experience: “We are all meant [men and women], to be mothers of God. What good is it to me… if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself?” God’s Son has to be begotten within me. Mary’s time is our time. Her waiting is our waiting. Her preparation is our preparation. We sing, “Let every heart prepare Him room.”

Last night, Clare and I were driving to another city for a speaking engagement I had there. On the way, she got out an index card and said, “Let’s write down the Christmas stories you have told but have never been written.” These are not all my stories, but they are stories you have heard. She suggested that I tell one in particular today because it fits this message so well.

Jimmy Carter, the governor of Georgia at the time, was running for president. At some point during his campaign, he had stated that he had been born again. He had received a lot of press and concern from others because of that statement.

At a Democratic fundraising event, he was seated beside Mrs. Rose Kennedy, the mother of President John F. Kennedy and others of the Kennedy family. During their time together, Mrs. Kennedy leaned over to him and commented, “Mr. Carter, I understand that you have been born again.”

“That’s right.”

She said, “So have I.”

President Carter, knowing that her background was Roman Catholic, asked her to tell him about her experience of being born again. She said,

The Christmas after my son Joseph died, I did not want Christmas to come. I was so sad and despondent. I did not want to celebrate Christmas. A woman working for me kept singing Christmas carols. The closer Christmas got, the more carols she sang.

Finally, I told her, “Please hush! I don’t want to hear any more carols. I do not want to know anything about Jesus and celebrate his birth this year.”

When the woman spoke back to me I fired her. As she was gathering her things to leave the home, she turned to me and said, “Mrs. Kennedy, you need a manger in your heart.”

That night, I got down on my knees beside my bed and prayed that God would put a manger in my heart. God did.

The next morning, I called the woman and asked her to come back to work for me. I told her she could sing all the Christmas carols she wanted to sing.

If we believe that we are in a time of preparation, a time of waiting to celebrate again the birth of Christ, then our prayer becomes “O holy Child of Bethlehem! Descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in, Be born in us today!”

Do you have a manger in your heart? Some of you are right in the midst of an experience over which you have no control. You are in a situation that has just happened, a situation that has turned your world topsy-turvy. You have a choice to make about how you react. Will you respond, “Not my will, but Your will be done”? You have the guarantee that God will be with you. That guarantee is the meaning of Emmanuel, the meaning of Advent, and the meaning of Christmas. God is with us.

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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