And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
It was a dilemma none of us expected. Usually the competition over the coveted role of Mary in the Sunday School Christmas Pageant at St. Bartholomew’s Lutheran Church in Trenton was fierce. In the past tears were shed over it. The Sunday School teachers always took great care in picking just the right girl of the part. She needed to know how to sit still and project a peaceful image. She also had to be the kind of girl who would not lord it over the angels. So, the year when no one wanted to be Mary, we didn’t know what to do. The mother of one of the possibilities said, “I can make her do her homework, but I can’t force her to be the Madonna!” Right up to the day before the Pageant, we still didn’t have a definite commitment on just who would be the Virgin Mary. It was a Sunday School Superintendent’s worse nightmare. Pageant ready too go, but no one willing to be the Mother of the Lord.
Maybe the problem was how we translated the Nativity story that year. In order to impress upon the children and congregation how God comes to us anew in the Birth of Christ, we moved the Pageant into the 1990’s, setting the scene in the Mall. With “Rudolph the Red-nose Reindeer” being sung in the background, some of the romance of the story was lost. Mary and Joe were a poor, homeless couple, just looking for a quiet spot to have a baby amidst the extravagant, commercialized Christmas. None of the girls wanted to be poor. None of them wanted to wear ragged, worn out clothes. Such humility was too embarrassing – to say nothing of being pregnant.
Maybe that was it. The pregnancy. One potential Mary did back out when she was instructed to walk in that side by side gait of pregnant women in their ninth mouth, all while holding onto her back as if in pain. It was too real, especially when the use of a pillow was suggested to give her a little bulk. And she was to be helpless, hanging onto Joe for some support. The young women raised in the midst of self-sufficient, anything-but-helpless, liberated women roles models did not take kindly to the suggestion that they serve as an unwed mother about to deliver a baby in the back room of a Radio Shack.
I suspect it was the whole thing. Translated into their time and place, the children saw for the first time the reality of this incarnation – that God uses the lowly and humble to enter the world. That this birth was messy, uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing. Without the trappings of tradition, the whole event was more that even the bravest of them could handle.
To tell you the truth I’m not sure any of us would want to be Mary or Joseph, for that matter – to give ourselves over to God’s will is more than we can handle. And that’s precisely the problem. God comes to Mary, to Joseph, on God’s terms. This new child is not something for them to cope with, to balance along with their other responsibility, to fit into their lifestyle. The child comes on God’s terms, in God’s time, when God is ready, not when it is easy or convenient or manageable. For in this child, the whole world can turn from being self-centered to God- centered.
Oh, this is difficult. Because even though in the Church we have spent the entire season of Advent dealing with this turning from self to God the rest of the world is caught up in fulfilling their own desires. While we watch for signs in sun and moon and stars, the world looks for signs of sales and next day delivery. When we’re told to prepare the way of the Lord, while in the world the call is to buy, buy, buy. Yet this turning from self to God is precisely what Mary does. She opens herself to God’ work in her. She responds to God’s gracious acts in her life. She doesn’t argue – like Moses did when he engages in a debate with God at the burning bush, or like Joseph who needs extra convincing by the angel to take his part in the divine plan. She simply replies, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Most often, we want it the other way around – for the Lord to act according to our word. We want to be in control. We want God on our terms to do and what we say. And when we don’t get our way, well, we pick up our toys and go home. Oh, we’re usually not so forthright as to say that out-loud, but instead do so through indirect ways. At St. Bart’s there was a Council member who when things didn’t quite go the way he wanted would jest, “My car can just as easily head over to St. Mark’s next Sunday.” How many others give God a chance, but when the trials and tribulations of life do not disappear, desert the faith, often blaming it on this or that?
When Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word” she opens herself to God’s word and will in her life. She yields and let’s God be in charge. Of her, Luther writes, “O Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, you were nothing and all despised; yet God in His grace regarded you and worked such great things in you. You were worthy of none of them, but the rich and abundant grace of God was upon you, far above any merit of yours. Hail to you! Blessed are you, for thenceforth and forever, in finding such a God.” And by so regarding Mary, Luther said, “we will be moved to love and praise God for His grace.”
In the end we did get a Mary. It took the Pastor begging and her Mother promising a pizza, but the child did it, except for the pillow and walking like a pregnant lady. Jesus was born in the backroom of a Radio Shack with mall security, a couple of store clerks and three punk teenagers looking on. Afterwards one of the children asked, “Pastor, could it have happened that way?” I replied, “It did and still does happen that way.”
For God comes where we don’t expect the Holy One—in a barn at Bethlehem, in a tiny vulnerable babe. And God comes into the lives of those open to God’s will and ways. That’s what Mary sings about in her wonderful hymn of praise – Her God gives favor to the lowly and grands mercy to who fear, who respect Him. Her God brings down the powerful and lifts up the powerless. Her God fills the hungry with good things and send the rich who think they have it all, away empty. That’s how it happened and that’s how it still happens with her God.
What are we to do to receive Mary’s God? To have her God, be our God? Nothing more and nothing less than what Mary did – be open to God’s Word – and let that Word take root in our lives and grow. This word promises us a new birth — a birth, not based upon our own fears and desires, but upon God’s will for us.
With Mary may we humbly and bravely respond with “Here I am Lord, your servant, let it be with me, with us, according to your word.” Amen.
Sermon first preached, December 21, 1997 at St. John’s in Phoenixville