Mary’s Prayer by Rev. L. John Gable
December 24, 2017
As familiar as we are with this story it would be relatively easy for us to forget that Mary and Joseph were real people. In our hearing and telling and retelling of this story we could easily start to think of them as being as plastic as the figurines in the Nativity set on the mantel in the living room, or as make believe as any other action figure. No, Mary and Joseph were real people, as real as you and I, as real as the shepherds and the sheep, as real as the city of Nazareth and the little town of Bethlehem. We must never forget that while this story is ultimately about the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation in the birth of the promised Messiah, it is also very much the story of the birth of a little boy, to a real mom and dad, in a real place, at a real time in history. Whatever else those newly minted, first time, parents may have known or we think they may have known, whatever else they may have been told about who He was and what He had come to do, we can be certain only of this: in that moment, on that day, in that place, they were new parents holding their newborn son; nothing more and nothing less.
I mention this because if we fabricate too much of the story around Jesus’ birth we can forget the very real struggles which faced His parents and the world into which He was born. We can tend to forget that Mary was unwed when the angel announced her pregnancy and that Joseph, being the righteous man that he was, struggled with what he was going to do with that news, being convinced that he should go ahead with the marriage only after he too was visited by an angel. We tend to forget that Nazareth was just a small town and that rumors likely spread quickly there and then about them and later their child, just as they do here and now.
If we idealize this birth too greatly we will tend to forget that Mary and Joseph had to make the arduous 100 mile journey from their home town of Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home since he was from the house and lineage of David, presumably because the Emperor Augustus needed additional tax money and young men to serve in the military so called for a census to be taken. There are several routes they could have taken but either way it was an 8-10 day journey, the shorter route is mountainous and rocky, the others are more even but longer; needless to say, any way they went it was difficult, perhaps even dangerous under the best of circumstances, much less when one is nine months pregnant.
When the time comes for her child to be born every mother wants for a quiet, clean, familiar place to make her delivery, and Mary would have been no different; yet here she finds herself far from home, not even in a room but in a cow shed or a cave, surrounded by strangers and animals. And rather than being able to rest and enjoy the birth of their newborn son they are visited by a gaggle of shepherds who are over the top excited by all that they had seen and heard about the birth of the Promised Messiah. As exciting as all of it was, and I’m sure it was, it would benefit us greatly to remember that Mary and Joseph were real people, not the plastic figurines we have made them out to be.
The Gospel writer Luke reminds us of this in a very subtle way as he tells the story of Jesus’ birth. Even as he describes the scene and the setting, the angel announcement and chorus, the visit of the shepherds and the amazement of all the people, he very subtly slips in this phrase, “But Mary…But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” In the midst of all of the excitement and all that they were being told, it is very likely that Mary was thinking about other things and no doubt wondering what all of this meant.
Every mother, every parent, wonders at the newborn child lying fast asleep in their arms. Who are you, little one? What will you grow to be? What does life hold in store for you? What joys and sorrows? While that is every parent’s question it is perhaps Mary’s in particular as she “treasures” what she is being told about her son and then “ponders” these things in her heart. No doubt she also remembers what the angel told her when he called her the “favored one” saying “the child you carry will be called great…the Son of the Most High…heir of the throne of David…ruler of a Kingdom without end.” Who are you, little one, who the angel said would be “called holy and the Son of God?”
Surely she also remembered the prayer she sang when she was greeted by her cousin Elizabeth, herself pregnant through miraculous means. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary had much, not only to “treasure” but also to “ponder” as she looked at the little one resting comfortably in her arms, despite all the commotion going on around Him.
Author and pastor Max Lucado captures the essence of that moment beautifully in a piece he’s written titled “Mary’s Prayer” from his book, God Came Near.
God, O infant-God. Heaven’s fairest child. Conceived by the union of divine grace with our disgrace. Sleep well.
Sleep well. Bask in the coolness of this night bright with diamonds. Sleep well, for the heat of anger simmers nearby. Enjoy the silence of the crib, for the noise of confusion rumbles in your future. Savor the sweet safety of my arms, for a day is soon coming when I cannot protect you.
Rest well, tiny hands. For though you belong to a king, you will touch no satin, own no gold. You will grasp no pen, guide no brush. No, your tiny hands are reserved for works more precious:
To touch a leper’s open wound,
To wipe a widow’s weary tear,
To claw the ground of Gethsemane.
Your hands, so tiny, so tender, so white – clutched tonight in an infant’s fist. They aren’t destined to hold a scepter nor wave from a palace balcony. They are reserved instead for a Roman spike that will staple them to a Roman cross.
Sleep deeply, tiny eyes. Sleep while you can. For soon the blurriness will clear and you will see the mess we have made of your world.
You will see our nakedness, for we cannot hide.
You will see our selfishness, for we cannot give.
You will see our pain, for we cannot heal.
O eyes that will see hell’s darkest pit and witness her ugly prince…sleep, please sleep; sleep while you can.
Lay still, tiny mouth. Lay still mouth from which eternity will speak.
Tiny tongue that will soon summon the dead,
That will define grace,
That will silence our foolishness.
Rosebud lips – upon which ride a starborn kiss of forgiveness to those who believe you, and of death to those who deny you – lay still.
And tiny feet cupped in the palm of my hand, rest. For many difficult steps lie ahead for you.
Do you taste the dust of the trails you will travel?
Do you feel the cold sea water upon which you will walk?
Do you wrench at the invasion of the nail you will bear?
Do you fear the steep descent down the spiral staircase in to Satan’s domain?
Rest, tiny feet. Rest today so that tomorrow you might walk with power. Rest.
For millions will follow in your steps.
And little heart…holy…pumping the blood of life through the universe: How many times will we break you?
You’ll be torn by the thorns of our accusations.
You’ll be ravaged by the cancer of our sin.
You’ll be crushed under the weight of our own sorrow.
And you’ll be pierced by the spear of our rejection.
Yet in that piercing, in that ultimate ripping of muscle and membrane, in that final rush of blood and water, you will find rest. Your hands will be freed, your eyes will see justice, your lips will smile and your feet will carry you home.
And there you will rest again- this time in the embrace of your Father.
During this season of Advent, which has prepared and led us to the celebration of this holy day and this holy birth, we have been reflecting on a quote by theologian Helmut Thielicke, “The crib and the cross are made from the same wood.” I think Lucado’s poem captures the import of that beautifully. Perhaps our tying of His birth and His death and resurrection is why I inadvertently ended the benediction last week by wishing everyone a “Happy Easter!” I think I got more comments about that than any sermon I’ve ever preached! But it makes sense, doesn’t it? The little child lying fast asleep in a rough cut manger which has been repurposed to be a crib is the same one we will call Savior and Lord as He hangs on a Roman cross on Calvary and as He rises from the grave on the Easter morning. So, let us never forget, or better, let us always remember that just as Mary and Joseph are real people so this child named Jesus is real as well, as real, perhaps even more real, than anyone who has ever walked the face of the earth.
“Who are you, little one?” is the question His mother pondered as she treasured the words spoken to her by angels and shepherds.
“Who are you?” is the question many ask still.
He is Jesus. The child of Bethlehem who grew to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
He is Jesus. Emmanuel. God with us.
He is Jesus, the One we call Savior and Lord.
This is the Good News of the Christmas day which we, like Mary, have been given both to “treasure” and to “ponder”. Amen.