The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Chuck and I started watching our collection of Christmas movies this weekend. We started with the classic Christmas in Connecticut with Barbara Stanwick. Coming up over the next few weeks we have the more modern The Nativity Story, released in 2006. Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, which you can’t just watch — you must sing along! Loretta Young and Cary Grant in The Bishop’s Wife. The more obscure The Man Who Came to Dinner with Monty Wooley, and Donovan’s Reef with John Wayne. My all-time favorite It’s a Wonderful Life. And, of course, no Christmas would be complete without Charles Schultz’s A Charlie Brown Christmas.
I can’t remember a year when I didn’t watch poor Charlie Brown, so put upon and abused, as he longs for meaning in Christmas, thwarted on every side. Even his baby sister has been sucked into the commercialism of the season. She asks Charlie to write a note for her, as she dictates.
“Dear Santa Claus, How have you been? Did you have a nice summer? How is your wife? I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want. Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?”
As Charlie walks away, disgusted, Sally laments, “All I want is what I… I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”
I think we all have a bit of Sally Brown in us. Most of us have things we wish we would find under the Christmas tree. And, like with Sally, there is a part of us that believes that we deserve to find those things under the tree come Christmas morning.
But as we grow older,
so many of the things we long for the most
can’t be wrapped up in pretty paper
with a tag signed “From Santa.”
If I was to ask you today what kind of things would make you feel loved, feel secure, feel cherished and safe, you might say something like these statements. I pray that my family’s relationship would be healed. I pray that my kids would be healthy. I pray that the different factions in our world and country would be able to hear each other and find a way to work together. I pray that no one would be without a place to sleep this Christmas. I pray that the violence in our world would stop, and that all people would be able to live in peace.
This is the second Sunday of Advent. Last week we lit the first candle on our Advent wreath representing hope. This week, we lit the candle of peace.
We long for it.
We crave peace in our world,
in our country, in our communities,
in our spirits.
Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is make tea. For over a decade now, I’ve been using this cup for that first sweet infusion of caffeine. It reads:
it does not mean to be in a place
where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work.
it means to be in the midst of those things
and still be calm in your heart.
I love that. And yet, truth is, peace is about so much more than just being calm in our hearts. The biblical Greek word in the New Testament for peace is eiréné. It comes from the verb eirō, which means “to join, to tie together into a whole.” Peace — true, lasting, real peace — is about more than just an absence of war or conflict. Peace is completeness. It is about all the parts being joined together in a way that all have value. It is about being the same inside and out. It is about being whole.
Peace is what makes it possible for us face with confidence and hope whatever the world throws at us.
Peace — eiréné — is what makes Mary’s story possible.
Last week we looked at the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, an aging couple who had longed for years for a child of their own. In the culture of their time, being childless was seen as a punishment from God. They prayed that their shame would be lifted, but no longer really believed it was possible. So, when Elizabeth becomes pregnant with their son John, they rejoiced, and everyone around them did, as well.
Contrast Elizabeth’s story with Mary’s. There are lots of similarities: an unexpected visit from an angel, who gives astounding news of a miraculous birth. There’s a question about how this could be possible, followed by a sign being given to the questioner. And, then, the fulfillment of the promise.
But there is where the similarities end. Elizabeth is a long-married woman who had prayed for a child. Mary is a young teenager, engaged, but not yet married. Her father would have arranged the marriage to Joseph. For a year following the engagement, Mary would continue to live with her parents, and after a year, Joseph would take her home with him, and the wedding would be celebrated.
Mary knew that she would soon be married. She may have prayed for the children she would eventually have, but she certainly wasn’t praying for a child right now.
All those around Elizabeth would have celebrated this amazing, surprise gift of a child to her and Zechariah. The people around Mary would have clucked their tongues in judgment of this unwed mom-to-be. In her culture, an unmarried pregnant woman could not just be shunned by her family and ostracized by her community, she could be stoned to death for the pregnancy.
It’s also interesting to see the differences in Mary’s and Zechariah’s reactions to the angel’s astonishing promise of a child. Zechariah immediately voiced doubt (and then had his voice taken away). Mary’s reaction is fascinating! All she says is: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” The tense of the verb she uses is future indicative, which looks forward to an act that is sure to be completed in the future. It assumes that although it hasn’t happened yet, it definitely will happen. Mary’s question “how will this be?” isn’t one of doubt — she fully believes the angel’s words. Her question is simply one of wonder and curiosity.
“How will this be?”
The angel answers: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. For the word of God will never fail.”
Can you imagine the thoughts running through Mary’s head in this incredible moment?
She must have wondered what her family would say. Would they believe her when she told them that her child was divinely conceived?
What would Joseph do? Would he throw her aside? He certainly had that right! What would her life be like when the angel’s promise came true?
She must have wondered why she had been chosen, out of all the women in Israel. Mary is poor, unmarried, from an obscure village and a common lineage. Why not choose someone married? Why not someone among the religious leaders of the time? Why not someone more powerful, more wealthy, more connected? Why her?
She must have experienced some pangs of anxiety about the pregnancy itself. She was so young. Growing up in a small village, she would have seen what pregnancy does to a woman. She would have been there beside family and friends who were pregnant. This wasn’t something she expected to have to deal with at this point in her life.
And note that the angel gives Mary no assurance
that these obstacles would be swept away from her path.
But as all of these thoughts — and surely many more — race through her head, Mary responds with the most amazing, simple statement: “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”
Her acceptance of the angel’s promise was not a small act of faith. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God,” the angel had said.
You have found favor with God. And yet Mary knows that this favor will likely result in serious difficulties in her near and distant future.
But she trusts her God. She knows that God has been faithful in the past, and will be faithful to her, as well. She knows what an honor it is to bear the child who will grow to save the world, to hold in her womb the long-awaited Messiah.
Near the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas, poor Charlie Brown has reached the end of his rope. In despair, he cries out, “Isn’t there anyone, who knows what Christmas is all about?”
And little voice answers: “Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”
Charlie’s friend Linus steps up to tell the story.
“And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.’ … That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Isaiah 9, verse 6: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
It is God’s peace — eiréné — that makes the birth of Jesus possible.
It is God’s peace — eiréné — that makes it possible for Mary to say yes to the angel and to God’s promise. She knows at her core who she is. And she knows who her God is: a God of love and grace, a God of power and possibility, a God of endless creativity and compassion. And so she says yes.
It is God’s peace — eiréné — that comes into the world on that first Christmas morning, bringing the hope of redemption and healing.
It is God’s peace — eiréné — that makes it possible, just three decades later, for Jesus, at the end of his life, to sit with his friends around a borrowed room and to share a meal that would be a gift to them for all time. It is only because Jesus was whole, complete, divine and human joined together with perfect love — it is only because of this peace that Jesus could offer himself so fully. Like his mother Mary years before, he could face what he knew was coming and give himself over to his Father God’s will. As he prepared to give himself up for his followers, he gave them an amazing promise:
“I am leaving you with a gift — peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. Remember what I told you: I am going away, but I will come back to you again. If you really loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, who is greater than I am. I have told you these things before they happen so that when they do happen, you will believe.”
May we all this Advent season, like Mary, say with God’s peace in our hearts, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said… come true.”
For information about Christmas at Plantation United Methodist Church, visit http://www.christmasinplantation.org!