Isaiah 7:10-17, Luke 1:26-38
December 6, 2009
Tony Campolo wrote a book called “Let Me Tell You a Story/” It was actually a book which simply allowed him to gather together some of his most memorable stories. And they are great stories! But what intrigued me about that book was the subtitle. It was this. “Life lessons from unexpected places and unlikely people.”
That’s the inspiration for my title today. “Unlikely people.” The Christmas story is full of them! It has always been one of the great mysteries of the faith, that God uses the most unlikely people to achieve his purposes. And here we have some of the most unlikely people right at the beginning of the story of Jesus coming to this earth. And that trend would only continue! That’s where I want us to focus our attention today.
Isaiah prophesied that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” Scholars are quick to point out that the word translated “virgin” can also be translated “young woman,” which makes sense, if you think about it. But of course I don’t have to tell you that the whole idea of the “virgin birth” of Jesus has been a controversy ever since. It’s even come out in some of the versions of the Bible. Some of them do say “A young woman shall conceive.” (Perhaps the whole thing is just too amazing – even to Isaiah!)
Well, don’t worry! I certainly believe in the “virgin birth.” But virgin or not, the “young woman” part of that statement only adds to the miraculous nature of this! Because Mary was most certainly “young.” Some scholars put her in her mid to even early teens. And that was not all that unusual in those days. Life expectancies were not all that long, and people married at much earlier ages than we do. But even so, I still believe this young woman is one of the most unlikely people in this whole drama!
Sometimes I think that we protestants don’t talk all that much about Mary. Maybe it has something to do with the way our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have tended to venerate her, and even pray to her. And because those things are a little difficult for us to deal with, we tend to “set her story aside.”
Well, I don’t want to get into a dispute about church doctrine today. But I would like us to consider how amazing a place in history Mary held! And it’s all the more amazing when we think that she was a young woman – probably a peasant woman, as she has often been described. And she lived in an patriarchal society where no women of any age had any social status! But even less so with Mary.
Think about what she says to the angel at the end of this whole encounter. “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord…” And I’ve always wondered about that. Was she declaring herself to be God’s handmaiden? Or was it that she was already a handmaiden! She was already one of lowly status, and now she was calling herself God’s handmaiden! I’m sure there was a lot of that in what she said!
I want us to think today about this young woman of “lowly estate.” I’m sure there is no other person in all of history who was more amazed by this whole thing than her. “How can this be.?” she asked the angel. (Which is kind of amazing, considering how we might wonder how it “came to be” that she was even talking with an angel in the first place!) We can only wonder what was going through her mind in all of this. Fear? Amazement? Incredulity? (I like that word!) And I have to wonder, would it have totally blown her mind to know that prayers would be composed about her, (and to her) and that the words “Ave Maria” would be uttered by countless millions of believers, millions of times – and sung by budding voice students all over the world, for centuries? I think so!
The reason I say all of this today is to emphasize Mary’s “unlikeliness.” Because of her story, no one in any church can ever say they are insignificant! None of us can say that! Well, actually we can say it. And we can feel it. But the story of Mary and all the other “Marys” in the Bible tell us that it’s not true! There is no one who is insignificant in God’s kingdom, including us – no matter how unlikely we may think we are!
Let me remind you today that every one of you is a saint! I say that for two reasons. One, because you are saints. That was the name given to the believers. I’m not sure at what point that title got assigned to those who have passed on, or to those who had positions of significance in Church history. But originally it meant “the believers.” Paul’s letters were addressed to “saints” in the various churches. But I also say it because it is a word that conveys a sense of significance. And each of us has that title of significance, no matter how unlikely that may seem!
Mary’s story tells us that. And her story is the same as the other unlikely people in the story of Jesus. Hers is also the story of Peter the fisherman. It’s the story of his brother Andrew, and all the other Apostles of the Church. And it’s our story, too – whether we realize it or not. The greatest things have been done in the kingdom of God by the most unlikely of people.
Now, maybe you’re heard that kind of thing before. I know I have. But, if you’re like me, you need to be reminded of it. I need that often! I need to hear again and again that God uses unlikely people in his kingdom. If we look at the examples of that in the Bible, we would find that the litany of names is long and distinguished. There’s Moses, the fugitive with a speech impediment; There’s Samuel, the small servant boy in the Temple; and David, the youngest of the family who would be king. There’s Joshua, and Esther, and Micah. And now there’s Joseph and Mary. All of them are unlikely people.
Then, if you think of the unlikely people in history of the Church, that list would be endless. But I think the real power of the church for the last two millennia is in the millions and millions of unnamed unlikely people. Most of us are like them. You may not ever get a church named after you. Then again some of you might. But regardless, the history of the faith is God working through people just like you! And the story of Mary tells us that.
That our Savior himself would arise from the poorest class of society at the time is no accident. It’s part of that same story! Later in his ministry, when two of his disciples asked if they could have positions of power and importance, that same Jesus would say, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones hold power over them. It will not be so among you. Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
The world doesn’t understand that. The world understands the “lording it over” part. It doesn’t understand the “servant” part. It tells us constantly about the great people, the people of significance. It doesn’t say all that much about the unlikely people. Yet those are the people who are the greatest in the kingdom of God.
I guess that’s why we need to be reminded of this so much. Maybe that’s the reason this story of the newborn king is so amazing to us – and so appealing. There, in that scene we all have in our minds, is this baby – the weakest, most innocent, most needy state of humanity. There in that stable, however we picture it, was God himself. He came in the form of the most unlikely person we would ever expect to change the course of history like he did.
So we celebrate this story every year. So we are reminded every year that, unlikely as it might seem, God needs us, too! God counts on us! As one preacher put it recently, “We often talk about how we believe in God. But did we ever stop to think that God believes in us?” That seems unlikely, doesn’t it. But don’t forget, this story is all about unexpected stories and unlikely people! Mary had no idea the impact this was all going to have on her life. She told the angel her objections and her fears. But in the end, she said, “Let it be as you have said.”
May this Christmas be, for all of you, a blessed time. May it be a time that you are moved again – or for the first time – by the wonder of God’s love. But when you pass that manger scene in your house or where ever you see it, take an extra look at Mary. Think of her story. Think of how unlikely a person she was. And know that you are one of those unlikely people too!
Eternal God, your love for us is amazing. We cannot comprehend it. We cannot explain it. We know you call us, but too often we fail to hear. Too often we expect that your call is meant for other people, but not us. Help us to know that we are important in your kingdom, though that seems unlikely. Help us to have the courage to stand up and say “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” Fill us with the joy and wonder of this season, that our love for you might grow each day. For we pray in the name of our Savior, as we live our lives in his kingdom, Amen.