December 24, 2006
Fourth Sunday of Advent
"The Character Of Christmas"
Mary: Faith Filled"
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
An eight-year-old girl was showing her preschool sister a picture of Mary and the baby Jesus. The younger girl examined the picture closely and then she asked, "Where's Joseph?" The older sister thought for a moment and then replied, "He's taking the picture." (1)
This is sort of the season for questions isn't it? Especially questions about the Christmas Story. There are so many elements that are just barely touched on. We get the smallest glimpse of what they really were. Yet we read them with the familiarity of our favorite children's bedtime story. We know every detail of the story. We know everyone of the characters. And we don't dare leave one out.
I understand Leslie gave you a great picture of Joseph last week and what we can learn from him. So, while there are other minor characters of Christmas we could talk about, it's time to look at anoher one of the major characters of Christmas, Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Probably the best known passage involving Mary is known as the Magnificat. Mary's song of rejoicing in the knowledge that she wasn't alone in this venture. Let me read it in the context in which in comes in our story of Salvation Wrapped in Swaddling Clothes. Luke 1:38-45 (NRSV)
 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,
 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit
 and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.
 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,
 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, may have been thinking of Mary when he wrote the three words that begin his book. "Life is difficult." The reason I say that is because the first thing Mary teaches us is that Life IS Hard. Just look at Mary's life.
Mary was about 15 or 16, probably not much older, though she could have been as young as 13 when the Angel of the Lord, Gabriel, came visiting and told her of God's plan for her and the whole world. Imagine that. Fifteen or sixteen is awful young to have so much responsibility thrust on you. Not only was she young, but shortly after, she was "with child."
And the tale she had to tell. If it weren't for the faith we have in God and the outcome of the story, we wouldn't believe her story any more than our parents believed the stories we concocted to explain away the spilled milk, the broken window or the dent in the front fender of Dad's new car. To say that her family and neighbors were skeptical is probably putting it mildly. Life WAS Hard. All those stares and the whispers behind her back and the inability to tell or to talk to anyone about it. No wonder she rejoiced when Elizabeth spoke up about what God had revealed to her.
Another area where we see that Life Is Hard is the journey to Bethlehem. The typical Christmas story has Mary riding on a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. That's all well and good and sweet, but it probably wasn't like that. At that particular time, if anyone was going to ride it would have been Joseph the head of the house. I know Joseph was a special man but there is such a thing as tradition.
But even more important is they probably didn't have a donkey because carpenters weren't wealthy. There wasn't much, if any, of a middle class, so they were poor. Poor man's transportation hasn't changed since creation. You hoof it, one foot in front of the other.
A donkey was like having a Cadillac when everyone else is driving Fords. We know they were poor because Scripture says when they went to the Temple to make a thank offering for the safe birth of Jesus, they sacrificed two doves or pigeons.
In Leviticus it states that the offering should be a young lamb. But the poor could substitute two pigeons or doves. Mary and Joseph were poor. They lived on the Biblical equivalent of Macaroni and Cheese and struggled to survive just like their neighbors.
And that trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem which they made on foot was about 80 miles as the crow flies. But it wasn't the interstate with rest areas every few miles. We're talking rugged, lonely, dangerous country. It was kind of like driving 917 with all it's twists and curves, there was no straight way to get from here to there. Their trek took them across desert wilderness and rocky, craggy ground.
Life was Hard then. Mary and Joseph understood that. And Mary reminds us that Life is Hard NOW. We may not be experiencing hardship right at this moment but at some point in our lives we will or we have. It's a given. We don't know when it will effect us but we know it will. Illness, loss of a loved one. Loss of a job. An accident that takes an innocent like Officer Freeto. A young man or woman taken from their family and sent to Iraq or someplace else in harm's way. Mary, in the midst of the beauty of this story, puts that beauty in the context of everyday reality. Life Is Hard.
But the Good News is that not only did Mary understand that but so did God. And that's the other thing Mary teaches us. Life IS Hard but God IS Good. Mary truly was blessed and we hold her in high esteem because she gave herself to be used by God and never looked back. She was held up to ridicule and had to run for her and the baby's life before the child was even two. She became a refugee in a foreign land and yet still her faith sustained her. The vision of what was to be and what would happen drove both her and Joseph and gave them Hope.
And like Mary, in the midst of the hardships of life, we discover that God IS Good. We discover it the same way Mary did, through the birth of Jesus. For in the miracle of that birth, in the miracle of that moment when Salvation Was Wrapped In Swaddling Clothes, the very power of Heaven and the very Presence of Heaven itself walked among us and experienced firsthand, the hardships you and I face every single day.
Jesus understood, that's one of the reasons His words and message resonated so well with the crowds. This baby whose birth brings Hope grew to become a man whose very life was Hope in the flesh. And through Jesus we discover that God understands. And because God understands we have Hope. And through that hope our faith deepens, which gives more power to our Hope. Life IS Hard but God Is Good.
And Jesus was a realist. He knew full well that there is no such thing as a Gospel of prosperity. He warned us that life wouldn't get any easier just because we give ourselves to Him. If anything it gets harder. But Jesus tried to prepare us for how hard life truly is and can be when we belong to Him. He said, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." John 16:33
Mary, the mother of Jesus, without ever saying a word, preaches an eloquent sermon of a Faith Filled Hope and a Hope Filled Faith. Life IS Hard but God Is Good.
Bruce Larson tells a beautiful and true Christmas story that appeared sometime back in the DENVER POST. It seems, a week or so before Christmas, a pastor told his congregation about a needy family facing a bleak Christmas. One young father decided to do something about it. He and his son set out in the family pickup to cut down a fresh evergreen and deliver it to this needy family.
They ran into a rock slide and a boulder hit the truck. It was totally wrecked. The windshield was smashed and while the father wasn't hurt, the young boy was cut by the glass and bleeding severely.
They tried to wave down a passing motorist to help, but to no avail. Finally, after over two hundred cars had whizzed by, one stopped. The couple in the car took care of the injured boy, returned the two to their home, and then went on. The father and son never got the names of their two ministering angels.
I'm sure it was a little bit of Christmas miracle, because in a week's time the truck was repaired and the boy's injury healed. On Christmas Eve, the pastor asked this same man if he'd deliver a basket of food and toys to the needy family he'd set out to bring the tree to earlier. He loaded up his truck and drove to the address he was given and rang the doorbell. Who should answer the door but the couple who'd stopped to help him on the highway just weeks before? (2)
Life does not always work out quite that neatly. But the story does point to what Mary teaches us. Life IS Hard but in the midst of all the hardship the world can throw our way, God Is Good.
As you look under the tree surrounded by family and friends, tonight or in the morning, look for the manger. Let the light of Mary's Faith inspire you and bring you Hope.
God loves you unconditionally. God understands your life. God knows what you're going through. Through Salvation Wrapped in Swaddling Clothes, held in the arms of Mary, discover the greatest gift of all, the gift that will sustain you through any hardship that comes your way.
Hold onto Him. Life IS Hard but God Is Good.
1. Taken from CPC Life Line, edited by Edith Nedrud
2. Bruce Larson. I'm not sure of the source of this one.
Barclay, William: Daily Study Bible of the New Testament (WordSearch Bible Software Version)
Homiletics, (Communications Resources, Inc., Canton, OH)
Lectionary Homiletics, (Lectionary Homiletics, Inc. Midlothian, VA)
Dynamic Preaching, (Seven Worlds Publishing, Knoxville, TN)
The Clergy Journal, (Logos Productions, Inc., Inver Grove Heights, MN)
Preaching Magazine (Preaching Resources, Jackson, TN)
Circuit Rider, (The United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville, TN)
The Interpreter's Bible, (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1953)
The New Interpreter's Bible, (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1995)
Lights, Camera...Faith by Peter Malone with Rose Pacatte (Daughters of St. Paul, 2002)
Praying the Movies by Edward McNulty, (Geneva Press, Lousville, KY, 2001)
Movie Clips for Kids (Group Publishing, Inc., Loveland, CO, 2002)
Bore No More, Vols 1 & 2 (Group Publishing, Inc., Loveland, CO, 1995 & 1999)
Group's Blockbuster Movie Illustrations, Vols 1 & 2 (Group Publishing, Inc., Loveland, CO, 2001 & 2003)
Movie Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, by Craig Brain Larson and Andrew Zahn(Zondervan Publishing, Inc., Grand Rapids, MI, 2003)
Videos That Teach: Vols 1-3 by Doug Fields & Eddie James (Zondervan Publishing, Inc., Grand Rapids, MI, 1999, 2002, 2004)
SermonWriter by Dick Donovan (Copyright, Richard Niell Donovan, 2000
The Sermon Mall
Deacon Sil's Homiletic Resources
Richard Fairchild Lectionary Resources
Ministry and Media
Internet Movie Database
Preaching.com's Movie Ministry
The Text This Week Movie Theme Index
The Source For Youth Ministry Movie Clips