By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
I suppose you have had the chance to watch at least a little television during these busy days before Christmas. Have you noticed that the news programs are carrying more stories about unfortunate people these days…people who have lost their homes, people who are facing debilitating disease, people who seem to have had their whole world fall in on them? Have you noticed that? I understand why: somehow the plight of desperate folks seems all the MORE desperate in the midst of what should be a season of unbounded joy. And we would expect them to echo the lament of the Psalmist in our lesson: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.”
But I have noticed something else. Those desperate folks, for the most part, do not lament or complain very much. In spite of all they would have every reason to complain about, they don’t…at least not on camera…stiff upper lip and all that. And then we think about it and become a little embarrassed about all the complaining that WE do – how much money we have to spend, how little time we have to get things done, and so on. We have every right to be embarrassed.
I think back to another situation in which someone had all the reason in the world to complain…but did not. Take those television news cameras back two thousand years to the little town of Nazareth in Galilee. THERE is a truly heart rending story…someone with as much ground for complaint as anyone of us will ever see. You already know her name…MARY.
We do not know how old she was, but tradition has it that she was just a teenager, perhaps fifteen or sixteen. She had grown up in a religious home, and despite the fact that, as a female she was barred from the formal training of the synagogue, she had developed a special relationship with her God.
She was preparing to enter a new phase of life. It had been arranged for her to marry a local carpenter, a man named Joseph. That IS the way marriages are put together in the Middle East, back then and well as now – something as important as marriage should not be left to the whims of the heart. The engagement had been agreed to and the period of betrothal had begun.
Now…catastrophe. She was pregnant. An angel had appeared to her and said that she would bear a son. True, the angel had said wonderful things to her: this was happening because she had found favor with God; the child would be great and be called the Son of the Most High; he would grow up to become a king… wonderful things. She had questioned the situation because she knew well enough where babies come from. She had asked, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel told her not to worry: God would father the child in a supernatural way. And then the angel left.
Catastrophe…an unwed mother…and through no fault of her own. In our own day, becoming pregnant while unmarried carries a tremendous toll (grounds for complaint, to be sure), but two-thousand years ago, it could be even worse. Joseph could have gotten rid of Mary by announcing to the world her crime against him and having her killed! That was legal. Or, as he decided to do, Joseph could quietly call the whole thing off and avoid the public scandal. At any rate, Mary’s life was ruined.
She surely had grounds for complaint. Here was a young girl on the brink of an exciting new life, and now this. “Greetings, favored one.” Favored? What kind of favor is this? She had every right to complain, but her complaint was strange: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Some complaint!
Of course, as time went along, she had more grounds for complaint. Some months later, she and her intended husband (who, as we know from a thousand Sunday School lessons, decided NOT to terminate their relationship) had to travel the eighty miles from Nazareth down to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census. They were liable for the imperial tax, and had to register just as every other citizen under the Caesar’s control…each in the city of their ancestry. Since she and Joseph were both counted as descendants of King David, they had to travel to the ancestral home: Bethlehem.
Mary surely could have complained about that. Eighty miles of travel in days when the only transportation for a poor family was in donkey caravans would be difficult enough under any circumstances…but exceedingly pregnant as well? Grounds for complaint, no question. Here was this (quote) “favored” (unquote) young woman being forced to travel a difficult route under the most trying of circumstances. “Favored,” indeed! She could complain…but all we hear her saying is “…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Strange complaint!
Mary’s situation did not improve much when she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. This “favored” young woman who was about to give birth to the successor to David’s throne might have expected, if not palatial, at least DECENT accommodations for the event, and if this is the family town, some relatives would certainly have a place for them. A bit of privacy, perhaps? Of course. With the animals? Well, at least they were out from under the stars. Thank heaven for small favors. Small, indeed. Not exactly in the “favored one” category. Again, Mary had every cause to complain. But what does her complaint sound like? “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.” A strange complaint indeed!
Then, of course, there was the birth itself. I suppose any of us would like to know that we have been “favored” by God, and that we have been selected for some signal service. But there are some types of service, quite honestly, with which we would just as soon see someone ELSE “favored,” particularly service that involves a great deal of pain. I cannot speak from first-hand knowledge, but I hear there are NO pains to compare with those of childbirth. Now, here was a “favored” young woman; at least she might expect to be offered an opportunity for service that might not involve anguish. But no. She was granted the dubious blessing of undergoing surpassing agony as the mark of just how “favored” she really was. Mary’s complaint? “His mercy is for those who fear him.” A strange way to complain.
If you have been to a hospital maternity ward recently, you are aware that visitors are kept to a minimum. After all, childbirth is a rigorous ordeal; mother and child need the chance to get their strength before being expected to do a “show and tell.” A little peace and quiet, please. A young girl as “favored” as Mary might at least have been able to expect a degree of privacy after what she had gone through. After all, she had just given birth in a strange city, in abysmal surroundings, apparently without the help of a sympathetic mother or midwife, just the company of a husband who was probably more nervous than herself, and forced to use a feeding trough as a cradle for her new son. At least she might have counted on her “favored” status to guarantee her a bit of rest and privacy. But she got not even that.
Soon after the birth, some local shepherds came…to gawk. They came with a story about some angels appearing to them on the hillside outside of town telling of the birth of the one who would be the Messiah. Well, that certainly jibed with what Gabriel had announced to her nine months before. But would it not have been possible for the angels to spread the word in another day or two? After all, she WAS “favored,” wasn’t she? But it was not to be. Mary surely had grounds for complaint. She said, “[God] has shown strength with his arm…” Another strange way to complain.
Somehow, one might expect that, with all Mary had been expected to endure, there would come a time when SOMETHING might have been expected to go RIGHT for her. At least once the anguish of having to tell her husband-to-be that she was going to have a baby that was not his, the difficulty of a lengthy trip just before the due date, the problem of awful accommodations, the pains of the birth itself, and the lack of privacy after it was all over, Mary might have figured on the right to EXPECT that things would begin to start going her way. After all, how much “favored” status should one person be expected to endure?
But there was more to come. Word came to Mary and Joseph that King Herod had gotten wind of the fact that there was a pretender to his throne recently born in Bethlehem, and jealous of his own power as he was, Herod wanted to make certain that no one would be able to claim his place. Information had it that the king was sending troops to Bethlehem with orders to murder every baby boy under the age of two that they found. Time for another trip…this time even longer…to Egypt. They remained in Egypt as expatriates until Herod finally died. Mary SURELY could have complained. She had every right. But her words were, “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” A strange way to complain.
Finally, of course, Mary and Joseph and Jesus DID get to return to Israel. Apparently, they had planned to go back to Bethlehem, but the political situation was such that it might have been dangerous. So they went back up north to Galilee and settled down again in Nazareth. It had been a most difficult couple of years for Mary. There was not much about her life that she would have been able to celebrate. Actually, it had been one near-disaster after another. For one as “favored” as the angel had said she was, the “favor” was strange indeed. At least she might have been able to expect that she would now be able to settle down to a life of ease. After all, this son she had borne WAS to be the king, was he not? But no, Mary would find no particular ease. Hers would be a normal life with all the worries about raising children, keeping a home and putting food on the table that any wife might have. She could have complained, I suppose, but her words do not sound like a complaint: “[God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Some complaint!
Maybe Mary did not know how to complain…but I doubt it. She complained later on when Jesus began his ministry. She and her other children thought he had lost his mind, and they tried to get him to stop and come home. Of course, he did not…and the rest of the story we know. No, Mary knew how to complain. She was normal; she was a human being like anyone else with all the natural tendencies to gripe and moan like any of us.
But something kept her from it. She had heard from the angel that she was “favored,” and she believed it. She knew enough about what being CHOSEN meant simply by looking at her nation’s history. The Jews were God’s CHOSEN people…but chosen for what? A life of ease? A life without pain? A life with no problems? Hardly. This “chosen people” of hers had been chosen for service; it was to be a nation who would minister to the needs of a world lost in the darkness without the light of the God of heaven. She knew that to be chosen of God sometimes means both a crown of joy AND a cross of sorrow. She had heard that she was “favored,” and, in faith, she was willing to accept whatever that favor meant.
Interesting, is it not, how many others in history have been “favored” of God in being given some tremendous task to do. Paul was “favored,” favored with the task of sharing the Gospel with the Gentiles, and ended up being able to write that “I have learned to be content in whatever situation I find myself.” He wrote that from a prison cell. The martyrs to the faith thought of themselves as “favored.” One named Polycarp would say as he was about to be burned alive, “Father, I bless you for counting me worthy of this day and hour.” A list like that could go on and on…everyone with grounds for complaint but none willing to do so. “Favored.”
How many of us would count ourselves as “favored?” Not us. We are not in the class of a Mary or a Paul or a Polycarp. We do not think of ourselves as heroes of the faith. And it is just as well. We would rather someone ELSE have all that “favor” considering what it might entail. And way down deep, we would rather hang on to the right to complain. Too bad, because God does not seem to make that much use of complainers.
No, we do not have as much to complain about as Mary. We do not even have as much to complain about as those folks whose stories we see on the evening news…but we do it anyway. Shame on us.
If anyone had cause for complaint it was Mary. Listen and learn from her: “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.” Mary’s remarkable complaint.
Let us pray.
O God, we confess that we are far too quick to grumble about things that do not go exactly as we might wish. Forgive us for our self-centeredness, and then help us to share the good news that NO complaint is worth uttering in the light of the glory that awaits in eternity with you. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen!
Copyright 1997, David E. Leininger. Used by permission.