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Mother’s Day and Pentecost

May 11, 2008

Luke 1:26-45

Today is a wonderful day of convergence, a day that rarely happens. The next time that Pentecost and Mother’s Day will fall on the same Sunday is about two hundred years from now. We need to make the most of this special opportunity because I do not expect to be preaching the next time these two occasions occur on the same day.

I have consulted area clergy and looked on the Internet to see how others plan to handle this combination of Mother’s Day and Pentecost. Several Spartanburg clergy in the liturgical tradition will concentrate on Pentecost. They say, “We might mention Mother’s Day in a prayer somewhere, but the center has to be Pentecost.” I found that in the Free-Church tradition, as Baptists are, most pastors are focusing on Mother’s Day. They are pretty much going to let the Holy Spirit foot for himself today. Baptists could never get away with completely eliminating Mother’s Day, and Morningside is an eclectic church.

How do we bring these two occasions together? First, we anticipate Mother’s Day, generally regarding it as a day of happiness and celebration. I am very aware that some here in the congregation today are experiencing Mother’s Day for the first time without their mother because of her death. Their mother has died during the past year. Also, some mothers here have lost children or a marriage partner during the past year. Many have mixed emotions about today. It may not necessarily be all sweetness and light. I am very aware that on a special occasion like this, we cannot pass it off as a day of celebration without at least acknowledging that many people come to church with a variety of feelings and experiences.

On the other hand, today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church. On this occasion, we remember the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit of God empowered a frightened band of disciples to become men who turned the world upside down forever. It is so important for those of us who are Christians to remember this outpouring of the Holy Spirit and to celebrate this birthday of the church. At the same time, we want to pay due respect and honor our mothers, thereby honoring the fifth commandment.

When I considered how to connect these two occasions, I was led right to the Gospel of Luke. The first chapter makes a connection between the Holy Spirit and motherhood. The angel Gabriel told Mary, a young girl in Nazareth, that she was to expect a child. That child came to her as a gift of the Holy Spirit. The church usually celebrates Annunciation Day, the day we mark this announcement to Mary, on March 25. That date is exactly nine months before December 25. Churches often use the Scripture of Luke 1 on the first Sunday of Advent as a way to begin the season of anticipation for the birth of Jesus. I suppose we could say this sermon is one for all seasons. I believe it to be a message for all people.

Nazareth was a town that had very little to commend it before the time of Jesus. It may very well be that Nazareth was not a town at all. We wonder why people would settle in this very nondescript, out-of-the-way place. No geographical feature seems prominent, and it was not located on a major trade route. A small spur of a trade route went by Nazareth but missed it by several miles. The Old Testament never mentions Nazareth. Were it not for Jesus, Nazareth would probably never have played a role in the Bible at all.

The famous American humorist Mark Twain traveled with a group of Episcopalians to the Holy Land. During his journey, he wrote and sent newspaper articles to the San Francisco Chronicle, which were later compiled into a book entitled Innocents Abroad. Twain made some very witty comments about sites there that we consider sacred. I must say that his witticism is less than reverent. At one point, he wrote, “After going to Nazareth, I have concluded that Mary must have been a very homely woman. I did not see one good-looking woman in the whole town.” Leave it to Mark Twain to make a comment like that. Nazareth is a place in the middle of nowhere; yet the very important event of Jesus’ birth happened there.

Why would God choose such a place as Nazareth for the birthplace of Jesus? Why would He choose such a person as Mary to be the mother of Jesus? It is God’s way of using the ordinary for an extraordinary purpose. The angel Gabriel came to Mary, a teenager, and delivered this announcement to her. Luke’s gospel is the only gospel written by a Gentile writer. Luke is the only Gentile writer in the New Testament. Everyone else was Jewish. He gave us a unique perspective, saying more about women and the Holy Spirit than other writers. Luke actually wrote two volumes of the New Testament: the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. In Acts, we soon see references to this event we know as Pentecost, a holiday celebrated throughout the long history of the Jewish people. The word Pentecost actually means “fifty.” Pentecost marked fifty days after Passover, the time that was believed to have passed when the people of Israel came to Mount Sinai for the giving of the law. There they received the Ten Commandments from God. The meaning changed completely within the life of the Christian church when God gave to His people a gift of a different kind – not the law, but the Spirit. He poured out His Spirit on those people, and the church increased by 3,000 people on that one day.

Let us go back to Luke 1. Early on, you see this outpouring of the Holy Spirit on an entire community, not just on one person. Mary has what we might consider a personal Pentecost. Receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit changed her life forever. I would suggest to you that not only do we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit as a community of faith, but that each of us can also celebrate the Holy Spirit individually, just as Mary did. The coming of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the Holy Spirit, to us as individuals is indeed a life-changing experience.

Some theologians, especially medieval mystic theologians, have seen in the Holy Spirit characteristics that they say are the feminine and tender side of God. The Holy Spirit is the Comforter, the Healer, the ever-present Nurturer, the gentle Redeemer. Are those really feminine traits? You have surely seen those same traits in men. It is true that feminine traits can include being outspoken, forthright, decisive, opinionated, and competent. Women do not have to be wilting magnolias; they can be steel magnolias.

Clearly, on the Day of Annunciation, the Holy Spirit had masculine traits. This child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. We see that the Holy Spirit was working in the life of Mary in an unusual way, in a one-of-a-kind event. Betrothed to Joseph, she became pregnant before marriage. Betrothal was a binding, year-long engagement. In order to break the period of betrothal, a divorce had to be executed. During that stage of betrothal, the man and woman could not consummate their relationship. Mary was pure. She was a virgin. This child was conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. She was not completely excited about this news when Gabriel first came to her. The Scripture says she was deeply troubled at the news (Luke 1:29). I am certain she was bewildered. Most women would have been. As Mary heard the plan and saw it unfold before her, she submitted, making the decision that she would be the willing servant of God (Luke 1:38).

It is so interesting that every major epoch in biblical history begins with the miraculous birth of a child: the period of the Patriarchs – the birth of Isaac, the period of the Exodus – the birth of Moses and then adoption at Pharaoh’s house, the period of the Judges – the birth of Samson, the period of the Prophets with the birth of Samuel, and now, New Testament – this twin miracle with the births of Jesus and John the Baptist.

Upon hearing of her pregnancy, Mary immediately traveled south to the hill country of Judea. There, she visited with her cousin Elizabeth, who had also become pregnant in a miraculous way as she was quite advanced in years. We are told again that the Holy Spirit was a part of Mary’s exchange with Elizabeth. These two pregnant women experience great joy, and Elizabeth spoke a word of blessing: “Blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:42). Many of us think of the expression “Hail Mary” as just a desperation forward pass in a football game. A “Hail Mary,” though, is a prayer, a Marian prayer, based on the words of Elizabeth. Her words became the crux of our thinking today. Receiving a blessing is an unusual experience. Here we see two blessings in Nazareth – one by the angel Gabriel and another through the words of a pregnant cousin. These blessings bring together the issues of motherhood and the Holy Spirit.

Today is Mother’s Day. I plan to cook dinner tonight for my wife and my in-town children. What a guy! We are not having just plain ole hot dogs. We are having hot dogs with all the trimmings. I plan to grill some big bratwursts, and we plan to eat outside, weather permitting. Clare does not care what we have to eat as long as someone else does the cooking.

We have been trying to spruce up the yard a little because our children are coming in for this special Mother’s Day supper. Clare came outside yesterday to inspect the yard and to put her Good Housekeeping stamp of approval on it all. She thought a flower pot needed to be moved, so she reached down and picked it up, only to discover that the pot was full of fire ants. Those ants crawled right up her left arm and stung her multiple times. The United States Army recommends using bleach for stings; but since Clare did not want her clothing bleached, we tried other first-aid procedures. We still managed to have a happy Mother’s Day with hot dogs on the grill and fire ant stings on the arm.

When Mary received her personal Pentecost, when she received the Holy Spirit, she learned that her life was going to be blessed. This blessing did not assure her of all sweetness and light, however. The Christmas story clearly states that Mary was confused: “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). A blessing is a double-edged sword. Consider the Sermon on the Mount. In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are they that mourn…Blessed are those who are persecuted…Blessed are those who are reviled…” (Matthew 5:3-11).

Mary’s concern, her focus, probably continued for a lifetime. Difficulty was ahead for her. Can you imagine how she felt that night in Bethlehem when she delivered her first child in a barn? She had no help from any female companion. Only Joseph tended to her, serving as a midwife. All kinds of strangers arrived to see her child. When it was time to take her baby to be dedicated in the temple, old Simeon held Jesus in his arms and declared to Mary, “A sword will pierce your heart” (Luke 2:35). His statement gave her a foretelling of events to come. Consider that long trip to Egypt as a refugee and then the journey back to Nazareth. Think of the time Mary and Joseph went to the Passover festival in Jerusalem and could not find Jesus. When Mary finally located him after three days, he was in the temple, talking to the elders. She questioned him, “Didn’t you know we would be worried?” and he rebuked her, “Didn’t you know I would be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49). The Scripture again simply says she did not understand. Mary must have taken great delight in watching her son grow. We know very little about the next eighteen years. Joseph probably died during that time, and Jesus would have cared for his mother.

We see additional times of anxiety in Mary when Simeon’s words, “A sword will pierce your heart,” rang true. “Knowing that others thought he was possessed by Beelzebub broke her heart. In Cana in Galilee, she saw Jesus perform his first miracle at her suggestion, but he again rebuked her at that time, asking, “Mother, what have you to do with me?” Do you remember that awful day at the place called The Skull when she saw her son die? Is this what it means to be “blessed,” “blessed among women”? Sadness, anxiety, and grief are part of motherhood, part of receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. Life does not always turn out to be wonderful.

Being blessed is a two-edged sword. One edge is certainly joy, but joy not based on external circumstances. My wife, Clare, taught me that after Erik died. She said that she could feel a sense of joy bubbling up inside from the same source of her grief. Joy came just as unbidden. The joy was there, but her son was still gone. The other edge of this sword is relinquishment, release. Sometimes I think of the deep sorrow in the words of Mary: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said…” (Luke 1:38). The most common prayer in the world is, “My will be done.” The most difficult prayer and the greatest prayer in the world is, “Not my will, but Thy will be done” (Luke 22:42), which we see Jesus pray in Gethsemane. He probably learned those words from his own mother, who had said, “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be to me as you have said.” Mary demonstrated relinquishment. This was not her son; this was the Son of God.

Paul Harvey says that he wants to tell the rest of the story. I want to tell you the rest of this story. Erik died eight years ago. One of the great perplexing aspects to me was that we had a twenty-three-year-old widowed daughter-in-law. June is like a daughter to us. We love her so much. She was our daughter-in-love, we called her. She and I worked together on the collection of Christmas stories in the book Comfort and Joy, which was dedicated to Erik. When June eventually moved back to Nashville to be close to her grandmother, mother, aunts, and uncles, Clare and I certainly agreed with her decision. We started praying after some time had passed that God would grant her a new husband.

Just before Valentine’s Day two years ago, Ian Kern called and asked me for June’s hand in marriage. How odd! I said, “Ian, how weird is this? You are calling your future wife’s father-in-law, the father of her deceased husband, to ask for her hand.” He said, “Pappa Kirk, I just could not imagine doing this without getting your blessing.” Of course, we gave him our blessing. Though we had never met him, June had told us of the love they shared for each other.

At Ian’s request, we went to Nashville, arriving there the day after he gave June an engagement ring. We celebrated that engagement with them and then returned home. A week later, Ian and June called and asked me to officiate at their wedding. I had stood in Nashville before, officiating at the wedding for June and Erik. One year ago, I stood in Nashville again, officiating at the second wedding for June. That occasion was a wonderful experience for Clare and me.

I have gotten permission from June to tell you that she is going to have a baby in October. It is an annunciation of sorts.

The Holy Spirit graces our lives. The Holy Spirit makes all things new. The wonder of it all! I suggest to you that the Holy Spirit will come to you, maybe on the Day of Pentecost or maybe on Mother’s Day. Maybe the Holy Spirit has already come to you. The Holy Spirit will be with you. The Holy Spirit will bless your life. That does not mean all of life is going to be easy, but all will be okay because God is a God of redemption who makes all things new.

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely

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