By Pastor Vince Gerhardy
The music of Christmas is everywhere. In fact, we have heard for weeks already choirs singing the familiar Christmas tunes at carols by candlelight evenings and on television. In the supermarket, people load up their shopping trolleys as they listen to Christmas carols on the loud speakers. Christmas parties at schools, offices, and homes have resounded to the sound of Christmas music and shouts of Merry Christmas. It seems that even if people don’t believe in Jesus as the Saviour, or if they don’t even believe that there is a God, they are still happy to sing –
“O holy child of Bethlehem,
descend to us we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in:
Be born in us today” (1)
“Dear Christ child our hearts we now offer to you
we give you our hearts; keep them loving and true” (2).
It seems these songs about a baby born in a stable bring a certain joy and peace to people’s troubled hearts in these weeks leading up to Christmas.
Nowhere is there more singing than in Luke’s Gospel. Luke tells of the birth of Jesus with song and poetry. Zechariah becomes a father in his old age– he sings. Mary hears that she is going to be a mother – she sings. When the angels announce the birth of Jesus – they sing. When the shepherds saw the child in the manger – they sing. Old Simeon sings as he held the Christ-child in his arms.
Everyone is singing. Even Mary is singing.
Why do I say that? Well, put yourself in Mary’s shoes. Would you sing if you were Mary? After all, Mary’s pregnancy is not something she could explain or understand, not something Mary had chosen or planned. It put her in a bad way with her fiancé. It put her in a bad way with the community in which she lived becoming pregnant outside of marriage. The angel told Mary to “fear not,” but old Simeon told Mary the truth of what it meant for her to be “blessed are you among women” (1:28) when he predicted that this child will bring her a great deal of pain and grief and “a sword will also pierce your side.” (2:35). Motherhood would not be easy for Mary. Yet, Mary sang: “My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” (1:46-47)
We can be encouraged by the knowledge that the good news of the very first Christmas was received with apprehension. When Mary heard Gabriel say to her: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb, and give birth to a son, and will call his name ‘Jesus'” (1:31), her immediate response was to ask, “How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?” (1:34)
Mary had every reason to question why God should choose her, just an ordinary girl, from an out of the way place, with no special qualifications. Shouldn’t a woman who is older, wiser, nobler, high ranking in the church, well to do, perhaps from a royal family be chosen to the mother of the Son of the Most High God? Shouldn’t someone who is respected and honoured by everyone in the community be appointed to bear the Christchild?
Mary was so poor. She could offer only 2 doves for her postnatal purification rite after the birth of Jesus – that was the minimum offering that the poor gave. What kind of a home could a poor young girl give to someone so important?
And Mary was unmarried and so we presume that she was very young. It was true she was engaged to Joseph, but she was not yet married to him. How could she become pregnant? That is impossible without sexual intercourse. How could such a young girl have enough experience in life to mother through his childhood, his teenage years and prepare him for his task as Son of the Most High God?
And anyway what if she did become pregnant, by some miracle; this would only bring hardship on Mary. Can you imagine Mary trying to explain her pregnancy with a story about a virgin birth, something about the Holy Spirit, a visit from an angel who told her that the baby is the Son of the Most High.
This idea of choosing an unmarried girl makes this whole announcement of the angel seem incredible. Surely this whole idea would have been more acceptable if the Son of the Most High was conceived in the normal way. Even Joseph, who loves her, finds it hard to understand.
And so you see, the reality of the angel’s message that day was anything but easy for Mary. It’s no wonder that Mary momentarily is troubled by what the angel is saying and asks: “How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?”
In an amazing act of sheer faith, Mary committed her life to the promises of God. In fact, you might say this is one of the miracles of Christmas – that Mary should have such a faith to believe what the angel said would really happen to her. As strange as Gabriel’s message was, and as unrealistic as that message was, Mary could still say: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it to me according to your word.” What faith!
Mary was the first to hear the announcement that God is with us and the very first to believe. As Martin Luther once said in a Christmas sermon, three miracles occurred at Christ’s nativity:
God became human,
a virgin conceived,
For Luther, the greatest miracle that first Christmas was the last of these. Mary believed and she sang.
And everything happened just as she had been told. Mary did become the mother of the Son of the Most High, she placed him in a manger in Bethlehem, and called him “Jesus“, even though she was just a young, poor, unmarried, ordinary girl. In fact, these unbelievable events in Mary’s life bring her sheer delight. She rejoiced knowing that in some way God’s will was being carried out through her. Mary breaks out in song:
“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.
For he who is mighty has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.” (1:46-49)
In the midst of all the difficulties and seeming impossibilities there is a faith that carries Mary through. She believes that through her, God’s will be accomplished. That’s why Mary can be joy-filled.
A five-hour bus ride along muddy jungle roads from Colombia in South America there is a small congregation with about 20 believers. The pastor of this congregation was a young man who travelled there on weekends. A visitor to this congregation made this report:
“The home of a village woman, Dona Maria, served as their meeting place. The worship services left much to be desired. The singing was abysmal. The pastor was just learning to preach. It poured rain the whole time and the roof leaked terribly. The people were covered in mud from slogging through the dirt roads to go to church. But the prayer time was inspiring, especially the prayer of Dona Maria. This woman had been a widow for twenty years, and her six children had all died in early childhood. She supported herself by doing laundry and sewing. She had given the two front rooms of her home over to the congregation for their services and had herself moved into the two remaining rooms.
As she prayed, great tears streaming down her face, her words spoke gratitude for the richness of her life. She thanked God for the people gathered, and it was clear she was intimately involved in what God was doing among them. She thanked him for the privilege of having them in her home and the richness of the time they were enjoying together.”
Dona Maria had plenty to be upset about. She had more than enough grief and heartache in her life and yet she could still find it in heart to praise God. You both this woman in South America and the Mary of the Scriptures knew that true joy doesn’t come from outside it comes from knowing the God who does not abandon his children and will always be there to give help and strength. Mary says, “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 (Luke 1:47,48).
It is easy focus our attention on what is not right in our lives and on the problems of our world. We can do so to such an extent that the Christmas message of “Joy to the world, the Lord has come” can be lost in the gloom and doom of our lives. We can easily be so caught up in our own world’s of pain, or conflict, job-hunting, house-hunting, family strife, bad conscience or whatever, that the good tidings of great joy don’t seem real and we ask with Mary: “How can this be?”
There is joy, there is hope, there is celebration in the air in spite of all our cares and woes. God has sent us His Son, born in Bethlehem. He came to show us the way of salvation. He came for the specific purpose of saving us from our sin, and giving us life in place of the punishment of death that we deserve for our disobedience. There is celebration in the air, because this Saviour, first announced to the shepherds in the fields minding their sheep, is our Saviour.
He is our Saviour. He has come to help, strengthen and comfort us at every turn of our lives. He is Immanuel, which means God is with us. And even though things might look mighty hopeless in our lives at times, as they must have to Mary, we are reminded today of Mary’s amazing act of sheer faith. “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it to me according to your word.” (1:38).
We, too, are challenged to trust like Mary. God will help us to see our way through the most difficult times. Look what faith in a gracious and loving God did in Mary’s life! Mary took up the challenge to do God’s will in spite of the difficulties and her many unanswered questions. She trusted God and was able to say in the face of all her difficulties, “Be it to me according to your word.” I wonder what would happen if we would say those same words in the face of our difficulties.
Sure, there will be dark days ahead for Mary. Her joy as a mother will be mixed with much pain, as it is for any mother. And your life too, is not all Christmas carols and joy. But for now, our faith enables us to sing. We sing because we believe; we believe as we sing.
“My soul magnifies the Lord.
My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” (1:46-47)
(1) From O little town of Bethlehem, Phillips Brooks (1835-1893).
(2) From O come, little children, come here, one and all, Christoph von Schmidt (1768-1854).
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2001 Vince Gerhardy. Used by permission.