This Magnificent Mess
By Dr. Mickey Anders
In 1964, Marshal McLuhan published his monumental work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Because of the influence of this book and his ideas, McLuhan is often considered to be the first father and leading prophet of the electronic age. He worked his entire life to try to understand the effects of technology as it related to popular culture. Many people study his many works because he was a very serious scholar. But he will forever be remembered primarily as the person who coined two enduring phrases. The first was “global village.” And the second was, “The medium is the message.” (1)
Today I want to take off on his phrase, “The medium is the message” and suggest to you that at Christmas “the mess is the message.” Perhaps some of you have pot holders or plaques to hang on the wall that say, “God bless this mess.” I think our text for today tells us that God does bless us amid the mess of life. God blessed Mary in a messy time of her life, and yet she might well have called it “this magnificent mess.”
We can all identify with the idea of the mess, can’t we? And Christmas is in many ways the messiest time of the year. Sarah worked hard for a week to get our home ready for the open house at the pastor’s home last night. There was a mess to clean up. And it was a mess getting everything ready. And everybody’s conflicting schedules created a mess of activities.
Christmas is just naturally the most hectic, harried, and haphazard time of the year. Sometimes we find it hard to believe that God can bless this chaotic and congested time. But it was in just such a time as this that Jesus came in the first place. And we can learn from Mary how to make the mess magnificent.
Elizabeth was the first one in our text to redeem the mess. Here she had wanted a child all her life, but felt left out and lonely because God had not blessed her with children. But now in her old age she has become pregnant. And just as she has this life-changing experience, her husband has become suddenly deaf. What a mess! Apparently, she was a bit embarrassed by a pregnancy at her age because the Bible indicates that she had been in seclusion for five months when Mary arrived (Luke 1:24).
We can only imagine the thoughts of Elizabeth. We can hardly imagine her feelings of both joy and anxiety. At last she would have a child to care for. But how could she adequately care for this child in her old age? What would happen to this child if something happened to her? Motherhood is an exhausting, never-ending task. Young women struggle to keep up with the demands of parenting. Could she do it at her age? How would she manage? Was she up to it? Her anxiety must have been running high with the mess she was in.
If Elizabeth was in a mess, imagine the mess that Mary was in. Her mental state must have been even more jumbled. She, too, was unexpectantly pregnant. Joseph was understandably confused, conflicted and upset with Mary. None of this had gone according to plan or even according to reasonable expectations. Mary had been looking forward to marriage and the chance to set up a household with Joseph, and then maybe look forward to a baby. But now, everything was happening at once.
Mary also had to cope with those strange visits from angels, and the stunning news about the identity of this baby. It was an outrageous time in her life. Events and emotions were swirling around her in a cloud of confusion. It was a mess!
Yet in the midst of the mess of life for both women, they each responded with incredible faith. They opened themselves to the unexpected divine presence in the middle of all the mess. The result is a poetic outpouring of praise to God. Mary’s song of praise has become one of the most enduring and endearing poems of all time.
Our text picks up the story where Mary has set out on a journey to visit Elizabeth in the hill country. Everything about this meeting is unusual. It was unusual for such a young woman to make an un-chaperoned visit to her kin Elizabeth. The Bible indicates that they were kin, but it does not state the exact degree of that relationship.
Mary speaks to Elizabeth first, but the Bible does not record what her greeting was. Elizabeth is immediately filled with the Holy Spirit and the child within her leaped.
The first words from Elizabeth’s mouth are these:
“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.”
In a culture where women seldom played public roles, it is unusual that we find such heavy theological statements coming from a women. And follows right in her footsteps with a profoundly theological song that has come to be known as “The Magnificat,” from the first word in the Latin version of the song.
Mary’s song begins this way:
“My soul magnifies the Lord.
My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,for he has looked at the humble state of his handmaid.For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed.”
God takes a simple, humble, young woman and looks with favor on her, transforming and exalting her.
These women had found magnificent faith in the midst of the mess of life. How did they do it? What can we find as their secret to make the mess become magnificent?
Perhaps one of the secrets of the faithful lives of both these women is that amid the mess of life, they looked to God. They asked, “What is God saying to me in this mess?” And so should we.
Elizabeth heard God telling her that the Mary was to be the mother of the Lord. She knew this was no ordinary visit from a relative. This was the in-breaking of the long-expected kingdom of God.
And Mary sensed the profound impact of this pregnancy of hers. She knew that God had looked with favor on her. And she knew that this child would mean that God would bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly. And she knew that all of this was “as (God) spoke to (her) fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever.”
God spoke to these women in the middle of the mess. I suspect that God is speaking to us as well, but we are not listening.
In the last ten years, I have heard more and more Protestant friends speaking of something called “spiritual direction.” I think it originated in the Catholic Church, but today people of all denominations are getting into it. Ministers find someone specially trained in the field and spend time regularly with their spiritual director, who serves as a kind of mentor for their spiritual lives.
One of my friends says that his spiritual director seems to continually ask the question, “What is God saying to you in this?” Whatever he brings to the spiritual director, he seems to always get the same question directed at him.
Most of the time, we complain about the mess we are in, we strategize about how to get out of the mess, or we at least try to find techniques to cope with the mess. But the spiritual director focuses again and again on that profound question, “What is God saying to us in this mess?”
Perhaps we can ask ourselves that question just now regarding the particular mess in our life. What is God saying to me in this mess?
Both Elizabeth and Mary heard loud and clear the voice of God in their messy lives. We can too if we only listen.
The next thing Mary did was to dedicate her life to God. The verse before our text for today reads this way. Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it to me according to your word.” She dedicated her life to God, and so should we.
In his book Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey tells about a surgeon friend of his who performs delicate surgery to rebuild the human hand after a severe injury. Whenever he gets a call that there has been an accident, the doctor knows that he will be staring into a microscope and doing delicate surgery for six hours. And this can happen at all hours of the day or night.
On one occasion, he was called at 3 o’clock in the morning. He was worried about being able to concentrate enough during the surgery so he hit upon a novel approach that helped him. He called his father even though he was waking him up at 3 a.m., and told his dad that he was going to dedicate this surgery to him.
Then during the six hours of surgery, he imagined that his dad was there with him encouraging him and even putting his hand on the doctor’s shoulder during the surgery. The doctor reported that this technique was so successful that he decided to dedicate all his surgeries to someone. So for a while, he would call a friend or a relative and tell them that he was about to enter surgery and that this coming surgery was dedicated to them.
But finally, he hit upon the idea of dedicating the surgery to God. And he reported that it was amazing the power of such dedication. He could sense that God was with him. For this doctor, it was a specific way of living for God.
We should do the same thing. We should live our lives with the sense that we are dedicating every moment to God. Then we should sense God’s presence with us and even God’s hand on our shoulder.
One of the best ways to do that is to practice the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. These basic principles are not rocket science. Anyone can do them. It simply means such things as reading the Bible, praying, and attending church.
Perhaps most of us have made some commitment to attending church, but today, I want to ask you if you have made a commitment to reading the Bible and praying. As we approach the New Year, I am challenging every member of this church to a new level of spiritual discipline. This discipline involves a daily quiet time. A quiet time is a short period of time for Bible reading and prayer.
I want to challenge every member to have a quiet time and read three or four chapters in the Bible every day. That sounds simple enough, but do you know what you will accomplish if you read just 4 chapters a day? You will read the Bible through in a year. And that is my real challenge. I am challenging every member to read the Bible through in 2004!
Experts say if you really want to make yourself do something, tell someone else your plans. Make it a New Year’s Resolution. Make it a promise to God. Make it a commitment to your fellow church members. Whatever it takes to give you the gumption to read the Bible through, do it!
During our end-of-the-year worship services, I will be asking folks to make a public commitment to read the Bible next year. This public commitment is simply a matter of making ourselves accountable to one another. It is certainly not intended as a guilt trip for those who fail. It is a way of encouraging one another to stick with the task at hand.
And we will provide helpful resources. I have ordered 100 copies of a monthly Daily Walk devotional guide from Walk Thru the Bible Ministries. These booklets will be made available each month and will steer us through the Bible while offering five daily devotions and one weekend devotion each week. The Daily Walk will tell us what chapters to read each day and will provide book introductions, charts that outline the book and chapter themes, and background information on that day’s reading.
The sermons each Sunday will be based on a portion of that week’s Scripture reading. This will be another way of reinforcing the themes in the sections of the Bible we are reading, and another way of encouraging each other to stick with the plan.
This is going to be a great year of spiritual growth. As the New Year approaches, why not consider making a resolution to improve your spiritual health. You won’t regret it! Amid all the mess of life, we can hear a word from God if we are reading his Word and praying every day.
Remember that Jesus was born in a stable. And a stable is a really messy place. This new baby was out of place amid the straw, the spilled grain, and all the smells and sounds of the stable. But the mess is the message of Christmas. There is no stable, no place in our world that is too remote, too messy that God cannot be found there, but only if we are looking for him.
1) Todd Kappelman
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2003, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.