Taken without a whole lot of thought, or without any serious pondering, the story of Christmas can be kind of cute and even warmly romantic. It is a story about a pretty peasant girl, madly in love with a young tradesman, full of hopes and dreams of spending a long and fulfilling life together. It is also a story of spurned love and restored affections. And then, there’s the homey-ness of a stable, kept warm by the body heat of gentle beasts. And then there’s the child himself, all cuddled up in swaddling cloths, insulated from the cold and the harsh world into which he was born. Let us also not forget that the child is lovingly surrounded and protected by doting and adoring parents. And then let us bring in some visitors. We should have a band of kindly shepherds who appear out of the mists of the night, bearing an awesome tale of an angelic visitation. And, for the sake of extra cuteness, let’s place a chubby little winged cherub, looking to be about three years old, and half naked, up in the rafters of that stable, watching protectively over everything.
There. That should do it. Adorably cute, don’t you think? In fact, some people wouldn’t have it any other way. Cute is good. It is the way God would have done it: everything perfect, everything in its place, nothing startling, nothing dangerous, just picture perfect in every way. But perhaps there’s more to consider, that Mary herself might be able to help us with.
Luke tells us that Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Mary was a ponderer of many things, but this is most likely a reference to the tale that the shepherds told. And what a tale it was! After not fully recovering from the initial fright of encountering an angel, things continued to get more and more amazing for the shepherds after that. Meeting an angel is never a pleasant experience. They are not at all the serene-looking creatures that we stick atop our Christmas trees. Angels are very frightening beings. They strike terror in the hearts of all who encounter them. Whenever angels show up in the Bible, they have to command the good people to not be afraid. All of the bad people simply pass out on the ground, in a very uncontained state.
And so we have got shepherds who have nearly recovered, telling their story to Mary and Joseph. After the initial shock, their story was one of good news of a great joy, which was for everyone! A savior had been born, a messiah had entered the world. This messiah is the Lord, and he is the evidence that God is bestowing favor and giving peace to all of humankind.
Now I will be the first to admit that that is quite a mouthful. However, it is wonderfully good news, and there isn’t a thing about it that is cute. We have a God who has looked down out of the heavens and who has seen that we have mucked up our lives, and that we have done it most royally. God has seen the desperate ways in which we conduct our lives; God has seen our aimlessness and our confusion. And so our God, in loving compassion, and with majestic favor, has bestowed upon us a savior. That’s pretty much the shepherd’s tale, and it is plenty to ponder, and I am sure that Mary pondered it aplenty.
But I wonder, besides the amazing tale that the shepherds told, what other treasures was Mary pondering in her heart? The first one that comes to mind is Mary’s own encounter with the angel Gabriel. Mary was very likely quite young when Gabriel came visiting, perhaps only 13 or 14 years old; barely into child-bearing age. We can only guess what she might have been doing when Gabriel showed up, but this we do know: she was frightened. But here’s the thing: the message that Mary received from the angel was very similar to the message that the shepherds received. Mary learned from Gabriel that she had found favor with God. That is a recurring theme in the Christmas story, and it is worth pondering, because we could spend all morning musing over what awesome virtues that Mary must have possessed, that caused her to find favor with God. We could talk about her great faith, her godly heritage, her volunteer work in the local synagogue, her daily Bible reading, her commitment to helping the poor, her good grades in Hebrew School, but in the end, the only virtue that we could possibly suggest, with any degree of certainty, is that she was a virgin. Did she find favor with God because of her chastity? I don’t think so. And I don’t mean to demean her virginity, or to belittle it in any way. I’m convinced, though that Mary found favor with God primarily because she was a member of the human race. God loves the world, and all who dwell in it. That is indisputable. It may be that God is not particularly interested in our virtues, because apart from him, we have none. We are favored by God because we need a savior. Mary, like us, needed a savior. Mary became, eventually, a willing participant in God’s plan of salvation. That is why we favor her. Perhaps we should ponder for ourselves what it means to become a willing participant in God’s plan of salvation. Each of us has a uniqueness, like Mary, that we can bring to God’s work and to God’s plan.
Something else that Mary might have been pondering about her encounter with Gabriel was the name that she was to give her child. Gabriel indicated that the child was to be called Jesus. Jesus means, “God saves.” Gabriel also said that her child would be called the son of the Most High, and that he would reign over a kingdom that has no end. Luke tells us that Mary pondered these things so that we will take the hint, and ponder them ourselves. There is much about this that needs to enter our hearts, if we are to become participants in God’s plan of salvation.
Too often, in our tellings of the Christmas story, Joseph is portrayed as a lunk-head, or dare I say it, as a guy. But in my considered estimation, Joseph’s disbelief in Mary’s story is admirable, not damnable. And I say that because if we do not have a healthy disbelief from which to repent, it is unlikely that we will have a strong belief in which to live. Joseph’s initial disbelief is the catalyst from which he learned to become a ponderer. It was Joseph’s intent from the very beginning to find a different way to deal with his anger and disappointment in Mary. That’s why Joseph wasn’t just a guy. Guys are guys who are no nonsense, and practical. They like everything to be predictable. They know how the world works, and especially how it doesn’t. Guys know that virgins don’t have babies, and they also know that angels just don’t pop ‘round to tell them that they will. Guys have life figured out. They don’t ponder; they don’t need to. We might not have had a savior if Joseph had been a guy. There are at least three incidences in the Christmas narrative where Joseph saved Jesus’ life. Joseph understood that God could be at work in his life in ways that he never would have imagined.
As she sat there cradling her child that night, Mary must certainly have pondered how much Joseph had struggled to find that different way; a way of grace in his life and in hers. God had redeemed, what had been at first, a completely hopeless situation. This is what God does. God takes the impossible, and makes it possible. When all hope is gone, God begins to work. When there is nowhere to turn, God provides the direction, especially when he has people who are willing to set the practical and predictable aside, and become ponderers instead.
The final thing that I’d like for us to ponder this morning isn’t really something out of Mary’s treasure chest, but rather it is something that could go into our own. The Christmas story is pathetically messy. It is very nearly a complete and utter disaster. It is filled with horrors of every kind. Perhaps, that is why, over the centuries, that we have have felt compelled to gussy it up, to make it cute. But our worst sin has been to overlook the horrors and to pretend that they do not exist.
But when we do this, we neuter the story of Christmas so that it is powerless over the horrors with which we live. God did not choose an already married couple who would have gladly received the good news of a Holy Spirit generated child. Instead, he chose Mary and Joseph, who separated for a time, very nearly became divorced, and who lived for the rest of their married life under the suspicion of having an illegitimate child.
God could have brought Jesus into the world without the threat of a neurotic, despotic king hoovering over him. Jesus could have been welcomed into this world. God could have kept that despotic, raving king from killing every boy child within his reach. A horrible tragedy could have been averted.
But the truth is, even the good news is, that God brought Jesus into our world. Our world, as broken as it is, is the world that God loves and deeply cares for. A cute, lovely, messiah is no messiah at all. We have a messiah who is the son of the Most High. Only a messiah who is the son of the Most High, can redeem us from the messes which we have created and in which we live. And if we are surprised by that, let us remember that the world of the Scriptures is filled with dolts, dufuses, idiots, despots and downright cranks, just like our own world. But in the Scriptures, some of those dolts, dufuses, idiots, despots and downright cranks responded to God’s call, and began to accomplish God’s work in their world.
It is not perfection that God delights in, it is a willingness to be transformed; to ponder the possibilities that God holds out before us to redeem us and to recreate us into his servants. God invites us to grow an openness within us to discovering more truth than we now know. If we can do this, we will participate in godly mysteries that we cannot now fathom. This is one of the lessons of Christmas that is worthy of our pondering.