November 29, 2020
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. And maybe you’re like me on this one, where for most every year, I always find the arrival of Advent and the start of the Christmas season to be a little jarring and come a little too fast. Especially this first Sunday in Advent, where it so often falls on Thanksgiving weekend, with maybe Thanksgiving leftovers still in the fridge. And so it is that just about each and every year, I never feel ready for Advent, if that’s even a thing.
But yet, not this year. This year I feel ready. In fact, this year, I did something I’ve never done before. I started listening to Christmas music in mid-November. This year, it feels like ‘Christmas here we come’ like never before.
Is anyone else feeling what I’m feeling? Is anyone else having this same experience this year?
Maybe we’re feeling this way since in a year when so many of our everyday rhythms have been disrupted, we’re craving a sense of normalcy and tradition. Or maybe it’s simply that we want this season of ‘tidings of comfort and joy’ to last for as long as possible.
All that said, Advent is here, Christmas is right around the corner, and I hope you’re feeling ready for it too.
During this Advent season, we are going to look at the Christmas story in what will probably feel like slow motion, where we’re going to try and savor it in an unhurried way, as we look at some of the key passages from Matthew and Luke that tell the story of Jesus’s birth. These are the good old stories that you’ve likely heard throughout the years and hopefully we can look at them with fresh eyes and see how they are good news for us today.
And as we look at these passages over these next few weeks, each passage or story will function to some extent as a character study of sorts, as we look at some of the key characters, folks like Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, even the tyrant King Herod. And as we study these characters, these simple, everyday kinds of characters, hopefully we’ll be able to see ourselves within the Christmas story and get a better sense as to how we can participate in and respond to the Christmas story and Jesus’s coming as well. And as for this morning, we’ll look at, aside from Jesus, probably the most familiar character in the Christmas story, it’s the mother of Jesus, Mary herself.
And as we look at Mary this morning, we are going to see how Mary, through her reactions and responses to the angel Gabriel, gives us this wonderful picture of Christian discipleship and is a remarkable example of what it looks like to be a faithful and committed follower of Jesus, both through her faith and yet also through her obedience, both through her trust and also through her complete surrender to God’s will. Or to put it another way, Mary shows that when Jesus enters our life and calls us to the seemingly impossible, our job is to trust and follow his lead.
And with that all said, let’s jump into the story itself.
Here’s the first thing that Mary teaches us, and that is, how to wrestle with the tension between our faith and doubt.
We’re told that the angel Gabriel was sent by God to deliver Mary this divine, one of a kind message, where he says, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’
And in response, we’re told that Mary ‘was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.’ Here, other translations put it a little more strongly saying that she was troubled or disturbed greatly by the angel’s arrival.
Which is to say, Mary’s response wasn’t, ‘Oh wow, this is so great, an angel has visited me. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for!
No, not at all. Rather, she’s on her heels a bit, a bit taken aback, trying to make sense of the situation. In fact, her reaction is probably similar to what our reaction might be – where, if we were to be greeted by an angel, might think to ourselves, ‘Am I dreaming?Is this real life? What’s happening right now?’
You see, her response is not one of ignorance or blind acceptance. Nor is it one of disregard or total rejection. Within her initial response is both faith and curiosity, wonder and doubt.
Which is really refreshing because I think often times in Christian circles we end up pitting faith and doubt against each other, as if they were enemies or something. And so at times we end telling others or telling ourselves, ‘You shouldn’t doubt, you’ve just got to have faith!’ Which can be a bit misleading, as if we have to set aside our thinking minds and suspend all rational thoughts in order to be a Christian.
But yet, that’s simply not true. When it says that ‘Mary pondered what sort of greeting this might be’ that word pondered would be better understood as to reason with or consider. It’s a thinking, intellectual kind of word. That’s what Mary was doing.
The angel then proceeds to tell her that she has found favor with God, and that she will conceive in her womb, and bear a son, and she will name him Jesus.
And Mary’s response is simple, understandable and to the point. She says, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ Which yeah, that’s a fair question. After all, she’s probably 15 or so, is not yet married, and knowing full well how babies are made, knows that she hasn’t done what’s necessary in order to conceive one. She’s also probably trying to make sense of the fact that out of all the women in the world at that time, somehow she’s the one chosen to give birth the son of God, a poor, uneducated, teenage, ordinary girl from an uncelebrated, sleepy, off the beaten path town of Nazareth … which what could we compare it to … let’s go with Twin Bridges. She’s probably thinking, ‘Out of all the women out there, you’re choosing me? And of course, we’re not just talking about any baby here – we’re talking about Jesus himself!I mean, c’mon now, what rational person wouldn’t have their doubts?
Yet nevertheless, in Mary’s question here, we have this wonderful combination of faith and doubt.
Doubt, yes. She’s asking, ‘How could this possibly be?’ But faith too. Notice her main objection to her doubt - it’s that she’s a virgin. And here in this objection she’s not asking for the angel or God for a special sign or questioning God’s character or his ability to do what he says he can do. Rather she’s doubtful because she knows that she hasn’t done what she knows and believes is necessary and required for this promise to become true.
In many ways, her response echo’s a similar response from a man that Jesus later ministered to, when he cried out, ‘I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.’
On the spectrum of closed minded and open minded, authentic and inauthentic, here we have open minded doubt and authentic faith.
So friends, here’s my question to you, where are you wrestling with doubt and what might it look like or sound like to respond in faith?
Maybe you struggle with doubt when it comes to some of the core bible truths … Such as how can God be three in one? Or how can Jesus be both fully God and human? Or maybe right now, you’re wondering all over again if and how the virgin birth could actually be real thing.
Or maybe you’re facing doubt with more pressing questions that you come face to face with in your everyday life, such as, ‘How can a good and all powerful God allow suffering, or a year like 2020? Or does God hear and care about my prayers? Or maybe you’re working tirelessly in this season and wondering, God, are my efforts at work or at home even making a difference?
Whatever it is that you are doubting, may you hold your doubt with an open hand, honestly asking, ‘How can this be?’ and trusting that God will take that question, and though he may not answer it as neatly as we may hope, use your honest doubt and faith and wonder and curiosity to draw you closer to him.
My hope and prayer is that we as a church would be a safe place to share our doubts with one another. After all, remember what our teachers growing up would tell us if we were hesitant to as a question out loud – chances are, others probably are asking the same question too.
Alright, that’s the first way in which Mary gives us this wonderful picture of Christian discipleship, the tension of faith and doubt. Now, here’s the second way in which Mary before us is a remarkable example of what it looks like to be a faithful and committed follower of Jesus.
And that is through her ready obedience and willing surrender before God. Here’s what I mean –
After Mary asks, “How can this be?’The angel Gabriel tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon [her], and the power of the Most High will overshadow [her];
In this promise of the Holy Spirit, she can rest knowing that for this virgin birth to happen, God was going to have to and in fact will do something supernatural. And in addition, she’s also told that God will also do the seemingly impossible though her relative Elizabeth by giving birth to John the Baptist in her very old age.
And though this likely did not extinguish all of her doubts and fears, here’s what Mary says in reply, she says,
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Just beautiful, right? In Mary we see, a radical faith, total obedience, complete trust, absolute submission and willing surrender.
It’s as if she’s saying, ‘Okay, if that’s how the Lord wants to use me, even though I may not fully understand it all quite yet, if that’s what God wants me to do, then may it be so.’
Like before, it’s not unbridled enthusiasm, but neither is it bitter contempt. It’s neither ‘Gosh, I can’t wait’, nor ‘Fine, if I have to.’
“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
When I was in seminary, I took a class on the Gospel of Luke, where our passage today is from, and when our professor reflected on these words from Mary, he did something I had never seen before in an academic setting before, much less any kind of bible study setting either. That is, he cried. He openly wept. Mary’s words were that beautiful and moving to him.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that her words must bring you tears and that anything short of it would be an improper response.
Rather, I think the question is, ‘Can you see how it could? Can you see how it could move someone to tears?’
Here you have the person who plays what is probably the single most important role in the Christmas story, who plays one of the most critical parts in the entire story of scripture, and she says,
‘I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.’
And what makes her response all the more remarkable is that she likely knows that there’s a very good chance she will now live the rest of her life as a social outcast giving birth to an illegitimate child, born out of wedlock, her marriage now a public disgrace, having conceived this child before she was married. Not to mention pregnancy and child raising itself is no small sacrifice either.
Nevertheless, though she doesn’t and can’t see how it all work out in the future, she trusts God, saying, let it be with me according to your word.”
This is the heart and center of Christian discipleship and a life of following Jesus. A heart posture and readiness that says,
“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
May Mary’s words be our words too.
As for what this looks like for you and me, it’s hard to say. After all, Mary’s story is in so many ways a one time, non transferable event as we can confidently say there is and only will be one virgin birth and one and only one person called to give birth to the Son of God.
I’m also a little reluctant to suggest that God might be calling you to follow him in regard to some life changing kind of event – whether it be to quit or change your job, a cross country move, deciding whether or not to have another kid. Could he be calling you or nudging you in this way? Of course He could. We’ve got stories in this very room of God calling us in the past to do some of these very things. And he’ll almost certainly do it again. And discerning God’s voice on such things invites us to immerse ourselves in God’s word and prayer and through the wise and loving counsel of fellow Christians.
Yet, maybe in the short term, it’s obeying and surrendering to God in the not so smaller things.
Where maybe you feel compelled towards giving generously in some way, and no matter how many times you stare at and tinker with the budget, it just doesn’t seem to pencil. But yet you feel called give anyway, knowing that he very well may provide on the backend in some mysterious way, for as the angel Gabriel says, nothing is impossible with God.
Or maybe you feel the Holy Spirit nudging you to make amends with a family member that you’ve been feuding with for years now, and you’ve convinced yourself that reaching out is a lost cause, that there’s nothing you can do or say to make things right, but yet you reach out anyway, for nothing is impossible with God.
Or maybe you feel called to serve in a way that’s totally out of your comfort zone, or maybe you feel led as a retired person to use your time differently than you had expected, or maybe you’re feeling compelled to use your time, talents and treasure during this Covid season in a way that can bless those around you.
Lord only knows what it might be. Most importantly, whenever that call or nudge comes our way, may we say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
I’ll finish with this. As we make our way towards Christmas morning, it’s helpful to keep another holiday in view as well, and that is, Easter, yes Easter. After all, why do we have Christmas? Why did Jesus come and dwell among us? Well, Easter. He came to die and rise again.
As we sang during Come Thou Long expected Jesus, he was Born to set thy people free, from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.
And on the night before Jesus when to die, he said something very similar to what we heard Mary say so long ago. Jesus said, ‘Father, not my will, but yours be done.’
Just beautiful, right? In Jesus we see, a radical faith, total obedience, complete trust, absolute submission and willing surrender.
After all, as pastor John Ortberg, says, He is his mother’s son. I love that line. He is his mother’s son.