I wonder how she felt when she of all people was chosen to be the first to receive the “good news of great joy.”
Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber gives us some insight: “We have no idea what Mary was like before the angel visited her, but here’s what I’m thinking: I seriously doubt that she made herself into a girl whom God could favor because she took the advice of her youth rabbi and lived the way she should… Nowhere does it say that the angel Gabriel just waited and waited until he found a girl who had diligently worked on her virtues hard enough that she had made herself worthy to be the Godbearer.”
I can’t imagine being in Mary’s place in that moment when the angel came to her. I certainly would’ve thought God had the wrong person. Me? No, no, no… You must be looking for… literally anyone else. How could I be “worthy” enough for this assignment?
In that moment, and in the many moments left to herself after the angel went away, did Mary – a poor, unmarried teenage girl from Nazareth, now pregnant outside of marriage, a “crime” worthy of death in her society – feel her worth? Ashamed, embarrassed, scared, anxious… certainly. But worthy?
What about during the 90-mile journey on foot to Bethlehem required of this young couple by the imperial census, themselves already in a vulnerable place by the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy? Even in Joseph’s hometown, where presumably they might have distant relatives, the holy family finds themselves homeless, without a place to stay, not even in the inn. With no place to rest from their long and perilous journey, they find themselves in the place where the animals were housed and fed … isolated from every other person in town. Did Joseph and Mary feel their worth then?
Then we have the shepherds – perhaps the 1st century equivalent of “essential workers,” those who risk their lives and their own well-being to keep their community going, only to be at the very bottom of the social ladder, making barely enough to survive. They, too, would have been isolated from their community that night. On the outskirts of town, with only their animals and each other for company (not unlike the young family in the stable they would soon meet), did they feel their worth?
They hardly could’ve imagined what came next. Angels, the glory of the Lord, and “good news of great joy” … the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord … the long-awaited anointed one who would redeem Israel has been born! And shared first with them of all people.
To those who have no worth … to an unwed, pregnant teenage mother, to her faithful partner who risked his own life and social standing to defend and accompany her, to a ragtag band of essential workers on the fringes of Bethlehem … it is to them and for them that this “good news of great joy” first comes.
Over these last few weeks, many of you may have noticed our giant outdoor Advent calendar. At eight feet long, on top of a hill, and lit up with a flood light, you can hardly miss it.
What most of you may not know, however, is the intensive time and labor that went into that project. From choosing a suitable image for the banner that was also high-resolution enough to be printed so large … to securing all the supplies and carefully plotting out where each number would go to reveal a different and interesting part of the image each day … not to mention the T.L.C. needed to keep the sign intact under heavy winds, chasing down missing numbers from as far away as the overpass on Lake Avenue, and patching it back together again.
After the most recent time it was repaired, Todd texted me a picture of the banner, standing as resilient as ever, to which I replied: “There’s a Christmas Eve sermon illustration in this somewhere!”
For me, the fact that the sign still stands today – a bit worse for wear, sure, but standing nonetheless – bears witness to a resilient Christmas.
Tonight, we gather tentatively and cautiously, amid increasing COVID cases, for our first in-person Christmas since 2019. We gather as a resilient people who have been through a lot over the last two years. It’s been hard. We know that. We feel that. Deeply. So much has disrupted and changed our lives. Truthfully, we might not feel like celebrating much of anything this year in the midst of so much loss and grief and pain. In this season, do we feel our worth?
But here’s the remarkable thing: This “good news of great joy” we hear (again) this night doesn’t depend on us. It doesn’t rely on how we’re feeling or what we’re going through.
How does the prayer go? “Hail Mary, full of virtue”? As though somehow she had “earned” her favor with God to be the Godbearer? As though God’s salvation was dependent on anything more than Mary’s simple consent to what God was doing through her.
“Hail Mary, full of grace.”
As Pastor Nadia reminds us: “Grace. The one thing [we] simply cannot earn. I think that this is exactly what Mary understood: That what qualifies us for God’s grace isn’t our goodness – what qualifies us for God’s grace is nothing more than our need for God’s grace.”
Grace – the power of God to redeem what has been broken, to ascribe worth to those who feel worthless, to make meaning not in spite of but because of the brokenness.
Grace is what came to the vulnerable Mary the day the angel told her she would be the Godbearer. Grace is what accompanied the homeless, holy family on their long and perilous journey to Bethlehem and kept watch with them through the night. Grace is what appeared to the shepherds at the fringes of the little town of Bethlehem to tell them about the birth of the Messiah.
One of our most beloved Christmas Eve traditions at St. Philip is hearing Kjel sing “O Holy Night.” There’s one line that always strikes me in that particular carol: “Till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” I’m not sure I really understood what that meant before, but in December 2021, it hits different.
When he appeared, the soul felt its worth.
I want to be clear: The soul had worth all along. But the grace of the Word-Made-Flesh that comes to us this night restores and reminds us of our worth.
The “good news of great joy” comes to us who don’t feel much worth on our own … who, like an Advent banner on a hill ripped off its frame by a gust of wind, need to be picked up, dusted off, and patched up, time and time again.
The “good news of great joy” is for us who feel like celebrating and for us who don’t. It is for us who are grieving, lonely, or afraid. It is for us who don’t feel like we have anything to give because we can barely muster enough for ourselves.
The “good news of great joy” is for Mary, who sings(!) despite great fear and uncertainty. It is for Joseph, who faithfully accompanies his partner, even though he’s just as scared. It is for the shepherds, who are literally and figuratively on the very margins of society and still find cause to glorify and praise God for all they had heard and seen.
This good news is for us, whoever we are, whatever we are going through, however we have come into this sacred space tonight.
This good news is grace.
It is God’s YES to you and for you.
With the shepherds, it is our song to sing and our news to share … until every soul feels its worth.