This sermon is part of the sermon series "Songs for the Not-So-Holly-Jolly". See series.
A lot of people travel at Christmas. During this time of the year, many of us would like to be with family to celebrate, so we load up the car with kids, dogs, and presents, and make the journey to wherever it is we call home.
Part of the Christmas story we love so well is about a journey. Joseph and Mary had to travel from their home in Nazareth to their ancestral home in Bethlehem to register for a Roman census. That's what brought them to the little town where the Scriptures had prophesied the Messiah would be born.
You know that story—how young, teenage Mary was "great with child," and Joseph and Mary got to Bethlehem where there was no room at the inn, so they slept in a stable, and it was there that the baby was born.
You may not know that the mother of Jesus made other journeys before that first Christmas. After creating a scandal in her hometown for becoming pregnant outside of her marriage to Joseph, Mary went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who lived in a village in the hill country outside Jerusalem. There she found out that Elizabeth, who had lived her entire life without being able to have a baby, was also pregnant.
But today I want to focus on another journey that Mary made, an internal journey that involved significant change of heart for this teenage girl who was about to give birth to the Chosen One. It's a journey of trust. It's about the emotional distance she traveled after finding out that her life's plan was about to be forever changed.
Her journey is also our journey, because many of us have found out that the life we had planned to live is not the life we are living.
There are three phrases I want to focus on this morning before we look at Mary's song, also referred to as The Magnificat.
The Anxiety of the unknown
When Mary first encountered the angel, the Scripture says, "She was greatly troubled." Let's call the starting place in her journey Anxiety. You understand why don't you? We often lose sight of the reality behind this story. In that culture, a woman who found herself pregnant and unmarried ran the risk of death by stoning from her father and the other men in the village.
All she wanted was a nice, normal life. She was already engaged, or betrothed. This news was going to deeply hurt the people she loved the most. Her fiancé would have no reason to believe her story. Her parents would be emotionally crushed and scandalized.
Most people are afraid of the unknown. Those things we have never seen or experienced can seem overwhelming.
On old maps, back before the world was understood in modern terms, cartographers would put down what they knew, but at the edges of the map, beyond which they had no knowledge or understanding, they would often write, "beyond here, there be dragons."
Mary was in dragon territory. There was nothing about the angel's news that fit into her hopes and dreams for life. So her first reaction was understandable: "She was greatly troubled."
Some of us here today know what its like to be "greatly troubled." Your story may not involve an angel or an unplanned pregnancy, but you've experienced something you did not expect, want, or plan for, and your first reactions included shock, anger, fear, and a sense of loss.
In fact, there are very few people who experience a life that even slightly resembles the plans they made when they were young. I look around this room, and I know many of your stories. I'm willing to bet that your plans for life did not include financial hardship; kids with special needs; grief and loss; divorce; moving away from your family and friends—the list goes on forever.
I had no idea I would end up as a pastor. It was the last thing I ever could have imagined, especially given the legalistic, dysfunctional churches of my childhood. When I first began to sense God's call for my life, I was afraid. I was greatly troubled. I was angry. I was hurt that God would ask me to do something I desperately did not want to do. I knew what would come with that decision. Pastors don't typically make a lot of money, which was something I had hopes of doing. I'd seen the way pastors are criticized, and I hate criticism. I'd seen firsthand the unreasonable expectations people had for pastors, and I knew before I started that I could never live up to those expectations. I was greatly troubled, and it was months before I could think of it without getting sick to my stomach.
Accepting the call
Let's look again to Mary and her journey. Although she started the journey at a place called Anxiety, she didn't stay there. By the time we get to verse 38, after more dialogue with the angel, she says, "May it be to me as you have said." Let's call that next destination in her journey Acceptance.
Acceptance is not joyous. It is not accompanied by wild enthusiasm. It is simply saying, Okay, God. Have it your way. I don't know about you, but if I were the one receiving that sort of tepid response from someone, it isn't exactly what I'd be hoping for.
If we're in a staff meeting, and I believe God is leading our church to do something, and I share that with the other pastors and elders, and the response is simply, "Okay. Have it your way," that's not what I want to hear.
If it's Friday night, and I'm really set on seeing a particular movie, but my wife isn't thrilled about it, I can keep after her until she finally says, "Okay fine. Have it your way." All of a sudden, I'm not that interested in seeing the movie either.
Before I even considered ministry as a vocation, Susan and I had a desire to honor God with our lives, no matter what. We knew that our lives were his to do with as he pleased, so at our wedding, we committed our marriage and our lives to him and told God that whenever we heard him ask us to do something, the answer would always be "Yes." After a while, we took the journey from Anxiety to Acceptance ourselves. I quit my job and began seminary. My boss thought I was crazy. Our family wasn't particularly supportive. Our friends thought we were turning into religious fanatics. There was very little affirmation from anyone about our decision.
It was a step in the right direction. God desires our obedience. He is honored when we acknowledge his right to direct our lives. Still, acceptance is not all God hopes for from his children. We were reluctant followers. I've always related to the prophet Jonah, who eventually went to Nineveh as God asked him to, but his heart wasn't in it.
For Mary, the angel showed her that her willingness to carry a baby that was not conceived with her husband Joseph was part of God's greatest plan ever. She would give birth to the Savior of the World. Mary was willing to go along with God's plan, but I don't sense from her response that her heart was really in it, do you?
Scripture does not record the conversations that followed her decision—conversations with her fiancé and with her parents. I think we can all sort of figure out how those conversations probably went over. You know the kinds of names people call girls who get pregnant out of marriage. I think we'd all have the same general reaction to a young pregnant girl who told stories about an angelic visitation. So I don't think that initially, Mary had much reason to move beyond Acceptance of God's plan. In fact, I imagine that more than once, she moved back to Anxiety.
Adoring the Lord
So Mary went to visit Elizabeth, and there was a supernatural connection between the two women, both of who are miraculously pregnant. And somewhere after acceptance, after a number of painful discussions with people she loved who didn't understand, somewhere after months of wondering if she was out of her mind, this visit with Elizabeth somehow put everything into focus for her.
Instead of condemnation, instead of name-calling, instead of heaping more shame and guilt on Mary's head, Elizabeth said, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!"
All of a sudden, Mary got it. She began to sing:
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers (Luke 1:46-56).
All of a sudden, she had new perspective—a new understanding. This long journey that began at a place called Anxiety, then moved to a place called Acceptance, was on the move once again! Mary was at a place called Adoration, singing praises to God for this thing that had once seemed an unbearable burden. What had once been an unthinkable tragedy eventually became a burden she was willing to bear. But now, finally, this thing God had called her to do had become a reason for joy and thanksgiving!
From Anxiety to Acceptance
Does this journey sound familiar to you at all? Your dreams died. God brought a new reality into your life—one which you neither anticipated nor were prepared for. For you as well as for Mary, the journey began at Anxiety.
But is this where you want to stay? I doubt it. It may be worth asking how Mary progressed from Anxiety to Acceptance. If we examine her words it comes down to one thing—trust. Mary was willing to take the step she was called to take. You might not be.
Trust is a huge step to take, especially if you've never trusted God before. You have to struggle emotionally, dealing with the feeling that God has taken from you, not given you something valuable. You have to struggle intellectually, coming to believe a circumstance that everyone in his or her right mind calls a curse is really, in some way, a blessing. And above all it requires a spiritual struggle. We all desperately want control of our lives and have a difficult time saying to God "May it be to me as you have said." But if you will take whatever tiny amount of trust you can find and give God a chance, you will have taken a big step toward what he has in store for you. Isaiah 28:16 says, "So this is what the Sovereign LORD says: 'See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed.'" And Jesus says in John 14:1: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me."
From Acceptance to Adoration
Let's assume that at some point you gave your life to Christ. Because you do want to please God, you managed to journey as far as acceptance, but that was as far into the journey as you got or hoped for.
Are you willing to travel further? Are you willing to take yet another step of faith, believing that this thing that you have accepted but never embraced might actually be a key part of God's bigger plan?
While working as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune, Lee Strobel was assigned to report on the struggles of an impoverished, inner-city family during the weeks leading up to Christmas. A confirmed atheist at the time, Strobel was mildly surprised by the family's attitude in spite of their circumstances:
The Delgados—60-year-old Perfecta and her granddaughters, Lydia and Jenny—had been burned out of their roach-infested tenement and were now living in a tiny, two-room apartment on the West Side. As I walked in, I couldn't believe how empty it was. There was no furniture, no rugs, nothing on the walls—only a small kitchen table and one handful of rice. That's it. They were virtually devoid of possessions.
In fact, 11-year-old Lydia and 13-year-old Jenny owned only one short-sleeved dress each, plus one thin, gray sweater between them. When they walked the half-mile to school through the biting cold, Lydia would wear the sweater for part of the distance and then hand it to her shivering sister, who would wear it the rest of the way.
But despite their poverty and the painful arthritis that kept Perfecta from working, she still talked confidently about her faith in Jesus. She was convinced he had not abandoned them. I never sensed despair or self-pity in her home; instead, there was a gentle feeling of hope and peace.
Strobel completed his article, then moved on to more high-profile assignments. But when Christmas Eve arrived, he found his thoughts drifting back to the Delgados and their unflinching belief in God's providence. In his words: "I continued to wrestle with the irony of the situation. Here was a family that had nothing but faith, and yet seemed happy, while I had everything I needed materially, but lacked faith—and inside I felt as empty and barren as their apartment."
In the middle of a slow news day, Strobel decided to pay a visit to the Delgados. When he arrived, he was amazed at what he saw. Readers of his article had responded to the family's need in overwhelming fashion, filling the small apartment with donations. Once inside, Strobel encountered new furniture, appliances, and rugs; a large Christmas tree and stacks of wrapped presents; bags of food; and a large selection of warm winter clothing. Readers had even donated a generous amount of cash.
But it wasn't the gifts that shocked Lee Strobel, an atheist in the middle of Christmas generosity. It was the family's response to those gifts. In his words:
As surprised as I was by this outpouring, I was even more astonished by what my visit was interrupting: Perfecta and her granddaughters were getting ready to give away much of their newfound wealth. When I asked Perfecta why, she replied in halting English: "Our neighbors are still in need. We cannot have plenty while they have nothing. This is what Jesus would want us to do."
That blew me away! If I had been in their position at that time in my life, I would have been hoarding everything. I asked Perfecta what she thought about the generosity of the people who had sent all of these goodies, and again her response amazed me. "This is wonderful; this is very good," she said, gesturing toward the largess. "We did nothing to deserve this—it's a gift from God. But," she added, "It is not his greatest gift. No, we celebrate that tomorrow. That is Jesus."
To her, this child in the manger was the undeserved gift that meant everything—more than material possessions, more than comfort, more than security. And at that moment, something inside of me wanted desperately to know this Jesus—because, in a sense, I saw him in Perfecta and her granddaughters.
They had peace despite poverty, while I had anxiety despite plenty; they knew the joy of generosity, while I only knew the loneliness of ambition; they looked heavenward for hope, while I only looked out for myself; they experienced the wonder of the spiritual, while I was shackled to the shallowness of the material—and something made me long for what they had.
Or, more accurately, for the One they knew.
—Lee Strobel, The Case for Christmas (Zondervan, 2005)
Perfecta knew the words of God declared in Jeremiah 29:11: "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
Mary was filled with wonder that God would use her—poor, young, and female— for an eternal purpose. If I could, I would give each one of you the gift of trust, believing that God's intent is not to harm you, but to bless you.
I told you earlier that I struggled to move beyond acceptance in my call as a pastor. For me it wasn't a once-and-for-all journey that took me to Adoration. It has been more like a journey up and down the same old road.
Everything I feared about being a pastor has come true. But what I didn't understand at the time was what incredible joy and satisfaction would come on the journey. I had no idea how fulfilling it would be to see people's lives changed forever on a regular basis. I've had a front row seat watching God perform miracles. I've seen angry, bitter people discover the healing power of forgiveness; I've seen hopeless marriages restored; I've seen the wealthy young rulers of this day discover more joy from giving away their money than they had in making it; I've seen people healed of diseases; and I've seen people with the same diseases discover the joy of the Lord in the midst of dying. As a fellow traveler, I want to tell you that the next leg of the journey is better than the last. Someday you can be singing the same song of wonder that Mary sang.
When God interrupts our lives, it's more important to watch for what he is doing through us than what God is doing to us.
Ed Rowell is pastor of Tri-Lakes Chapel in Monument, Colorado, and author of Preaching with Spiritual Passion (Baker).