This summer, as you know, I went to Italy to celebrate my daughter and son-in-law’s marriage. Sitting at dinner one evening, with a large, festive, Italian/American crowd, a woman came up behind me. She was one of the partiers. She tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around. She had her English-speaking son in tow. His name is Marco, which I relay here, only because it adds Italian flavor to the story. Anyway, through Marco she relayed to me, “I used to attend mass twice a week, but I don’t anymore. I have stopped going to church, because I don’t believe in the virgin birth.” OK? Really, out of nowhere. How odd.
I didn’t put two and two together until I got back to the States. I now think she actually shared this with me, because she knew:
1) I am a pastor, and
2) I am a woman pastor. She hoped that maybe unlike her priest, I would understand her dilemma. And I do. I am telling you, the same thing I tried to relay through a very patient Marco-- If you don’t believe the world was created in seven days, if you have trouble believing the tower of Babel was a real brick and mortar turret, if you aren’t sure whether angels really exist (but let’s hope they do!), and if you’re withholding judgment whether the virgin birth happened exactly the way the Bible says it happened, that doesn’t make you an apostate, a heretic, or a really bad person. We who don’t hold to the inerrancy of scripture, believe the Bible stories point us to a greater truth than the stories themselves.
So, for example, the world may not have been created in seven days. The take away is: God created the world and all that is.
The take away from the story of the Tower of Babel is: when we humans get too big for their britches, God steps in and sets us straight.
Likewise, the take away from the virgin birth, as I tried to explain to that poor woman by way of Marco: God entered the world through Jesus, whom we call Lord. God chose a poor peasant woman, whom the Bible names Mary, to be Jesus’ mother—that is, not a queen not a princess. That tells us that God lifts up the lowly.
So I’ve already given away two punch-lines from this Sunday’s sermon. If you get nothing else out of what I say today, at least know this—1) God entered the world, through Jesus, and 2) God lifts up the lowly—that is the hurting, the suffering, the down-and-outers in this world.
Now onto Luke. In the back story for today’s passage, we learn from Luke that Mary is engaged to a man named Joseph. The angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be will be holy, he will be called Son of God.” Mary’s response is, “Let it be with me, according to your word.”
Now, here’s what we know about Jewish culture in the first century. Women just did not get pregnant without first being married. Mary knew, unwed pregnancies are scandalous, probably especially scandalous in small-town Nazareth. As an unwed mother, Mary very likely would have been ostracized by the community. In fact, she might have suffered much more than cold stares and turned heads. It is doubtful how often this was actually carried out, but the prescribed punishment for “loose women” even if they were “with child,” was death-by-stoning. Even if Mary and her unborn child were not stoned to death, though, her child would have been labeled “bastard,” to use the real meaning of the term.
Can you imagine? Jesus would have been referred to around Nazareth
as “ You know, that boy, the bastard son of that loose woman, what’s her name? Mary?” Mary’s fiancé Joseph could step in and save the situation, but he knew that he could not possibly be the father of the child. He had every right to call off the wedding. It would have been high drama, then, in little, out-of-the way, Nazareth.
At this point in our story as it unfolds in Luke, we don’t know the state of Mary’s heart, though. We only know that she has heard the news relayed by Gabriel, and she has accepted it. We can assume, though, that she is more than a little curious, or here I will offer “concerned” or even “fearful” of what is to come.
And then, as we know, a pregnant, and curious, concerned, maybe fearful Mary, visits her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth is also pregnant. Elizabeth is actually happy for Mary. Such good news! They are both going to become mothers! And Elizabeth predicts that like her own unborn child, Mary’s child is going to be special, too—indeed, the Messiah. Elizabeth says, “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord has come to me?” Elizabeth’s own enthusiasm is contagious. Mary is now convinced that whatever happens it WILL BE good news for her not to mention the whole world. Mary rejoices that God’s promise to his people is about to be fulfilled. She says, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
That’s it, right? It’s a mystery of the human heart, that concern and even fear can turn on a dime—What we regard as a difficult problem, what we most dread, we come to see as God’s blessing in our lives—something to celebrate. Then we too say as Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
So, this story, then, is not only about
1) God entering the world through Jesus by way of Mary 2) not only about God lifting up the lowly, but 3) about God’s turning of the human heart.
I have thought a lot about that, this week, how God turns the human heart. It is so with all of us who are believers, isn’t it? We can testify as the Psalmist testifies in Psalm 30: “You [God] have turned my mourning into dancing; You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
That my soul may sing praise to You and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever.”
That is what Mary experiences when she says, or maybe sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
One for instance: A dear friend of mine. She flunked out of nursing school. Wanted to give up. She moved back home and lived with her parents, consumed by her sense of failure, of despair even, and not knowing what to do next. If there had been sackcloth lying around, that’s what she would have been wearing.
But, even in that dark time, she still felt called to nursing—as in, called by God to be a nurse. She decided what her problem was. It took her longer than some folks to learn things. So, she got a job. She went to school part time. She eventually graduated and become a nurse. She went on to get even more training. Now she actually teaches doctors! God has turned her mourning into dancing.
Or, say you have a drinking problem. You deny and deny. Your life is going nowhere. You are fearful of your future. But then, your heart turns. Knowing that God or some higher power is with you, you step across the threshold of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. You face a crowd of strangers all holding paper coffee cups, and you announce, I am an alcoholic.” When you sober up for good, you can rejoice, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
Finally, say you are pregnant, like Mary, but like Mary’s, yours, too, is an inconvenient pregnancy. God steps in and all at once you recognize just how blessed you are!
So, I have done the necessary set up. I want to relay to you now this true story. It goes way, way back. I’ve been saving it for you just for today. Consider this my Christmas present.
I say way, way back, I’m not kidding. We’re talking 34 years way back—which makes me very old, indeed, I know.
I was pregnant with my youngest child Paige. I had two other children, by then, a four-year-old and a toddler. The toddler, Joy, and my youngest, daughter, Paige, are only 18 months apart. You can share your condolences with me after the service.
As you know if you, too, have ever been pregnant, in the last few weeks before delivery you are making a lot of prenatal visits. That’s what I was up to back then. The visits were short, so I usually brought toddler Joy with me. At 17, 18 months, Joy was a talker. A friend said to me once, “She’s cute, but does she ever shut up?” He meant that kindly, but no, she never DID shut up while she was awake. Thank God for nap time!
It was cold outside the day we visited the doctor’s office. It was December or January. I know that, because Paige was born February 2nd.
Joy and I enter the doctor’s waiting room. It is filled with women, all waiting to see Dr. Briguglio. He has been called away on an emergency. Joy and I join the group of patients. There is a toy chest in the corner of the room. I have come prepared with picture books, too. Joy is not interested in those though. Oh no. Joy is a talker, she has an audience and those women aren’t going anywhere soon.
I try to pull her on to my lap once, twice, many times. Here I will just say, as you already know if you have ever been the parent or grandparent of a toddler. You can’t reason with them. They may be verbal, but they are not yet rational. You can’t bribe them either—as in “if you are good now, you’ll get a cookie when we get home.” They don’t think in future tenses. Your only weapon against willfulness, is distraction—if that doesn’t work, God help you. A willful child, as Joy was, will squirm and cry and scream and kick, until you, the parent, are a withering nub, or you take her out of the situation—which I couldn’t. Remember it was cold outside.
So, Joy moved from woman to woman in that waiting room—chattering, jabbering and babbling about every little thing in her young life. I would pull her back and onto my lap. She’d wiggle off, and find another victim.
After an embarrassingly and frustratingly LONG wait for me, the doctor, returned. God is so good! When it was my turn, I handed off Joy to the receptionist, who actually loved Joy—Wonder of wonders! I had my exam. I retrieved Joy. Over by the coat rack, Joy and I made ready to leave. I stooped down to put on Joy’s little coat, her hat, her mittens—and then, I could feel this presence hovering over us. Standing up, I faced an older woman. She had been sitting in that waiting room. And like the others, she had had an ear-full from Joy. I steeled myself for harsh words. Instead, she said, “I want to thank you and your daughter. I am over 40 years old. I have a son in college and another about to graduate. I found out just this week that I am pregnant. This is not what my husband and I had in mind. I have been so sad and angry. Your daughter has changed everything for me. I am now looking forward to this pregnancy.”
And with that she was out the door.
A miracle of the heart. God at work in a woman’s life. A turning from sadness into joy. Like Mary, she too could rightly say, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
And so can we. Amen