November 30, 2014 – Mary of Nazareth – Week One of “The Journey”

Luke 1:26-38

Today we begin the blessed season of Advent, where we patiently await the coming of the Christ child.  Oh, wait? Isn’t this shopping season?  We started with Black Friday knowing that the Christmas music and decorations began showing up long before Halloween!  We are hurried, and stressed, and overtaxed during what should be one of the most sacred times in the Christian calendar.  So we will sing Christmas carols throughout Advent thanks to our ‘greatest hits’ survey. We will begin to hear the familiar stories throughout this sermon series, but I encourage you to listen with a different perspective as we all strive to remember and embrace the importance of this season.

Our text for this series is called The Journey, by Adam Hamilton.  We will explore the many details we thought we knew and possibly experience some surprises along the way.  Maybe we will answer some of those nagging questions that never seemed to be addressed.  I invite you to journey with Mary and Joseph on the path that led from a humble couple planning their marriage, to the birth of the Christ child in a stable in Bethlehem.

Today we are looking at Mary’s story.  Mary and her family resided in Nazareth, which is a famous town today, but in Jesus’ time was extremely obscure.  Of the 63 villages mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, or the 45 mentioned by a well-known first century historian named Josephus, Nazareth was not even mentioned.  We think of Nazareth today because of the historical significance – the mother of Jesus called it her home town.  Nazareth is located an hour’s walk from a very large and prosperous city known as Sepphoris.  With its estimated 30,000 people, Sepphoris was likely where folks from Nazareth would come to sell their wares and find work.

Nazareth had a population estimated at around 100-400 people, mostly farmers, shepherds, and laborers who would find work in Sepphoris.  People who lived in Nazareth would be considered the salt-of-the-earth – humble laborers who lived in meager homes and survived off the land.  Nazareth did not have a reputation that would make anyone consider this the place for the son of God to reside.  It was a place of low stature – no one was very proud to claim Nazareth as his/her hometown.

In this region, often towns would develop near sources of water. There was a spring on the site that became Nazareth, and we can perhaps imagine one of Mary’s daily chores would be to fetch water from that spring each day for her family.  Is it possible that at the sight of this spring, the place of ‘living water,’ Mary may have received her astonishing visit from the angel Gabriel?  It is possible and the Orthodox Church holds to this view.  However, the Catholic Church recognizes Mary’s home as the place where Gabriel made the announcement to this humble maid.  Scripture is not clear on this detail but we do know the visit occurred in a little obscure town called Nazareth.

As we focus on the events that took place in Nazareth we automatically turn our attention to Mary, the young woman chosen to be the mother of Jesus.  When we look at customs of those living in the region at the time, young women would marry as soon as they were able to bare children and so it was likely that Mary was around the age of 13, yet a much more mature 13-year-old than we would consider today. Understand that people usually lived 30 or 40 years and so the expectation was to marry young and begin having children.  Mary was engaged to Joseph, which meant they were legally considered married while Joseph was away for a year preparing a home for his bride.

It is probably during the normal course of her daily chores that Mary received a visit from the angel Gabriel. She was not alarmed by his appearance and so chances are he did not appear as a glowing figure with wings but as a traveler – the word ‘angel’ literally means messenger. Gabriel addressed Mary as one ‘full of grace.’  What is grace? It’s one of those church words we throw around. We call our brief blessing before a mean as ‘grace,’ but what does it mean?  In a nutshell, grace is goodness, kindness, salvation, forgiveness, blessing – all these things that we do not deserve yet are given as a gift.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, was one to embody God’s grace extended to others. When we look at Jesus’ life and how he routinely extended kindness and love to those considered outsiders, we cannot help but wonder if Mary and Joseph, as Jesus’ parents, did not also extend kindness and love without condition.

The Annunciation itself is rather earth-shattering for Mary.  She would carry the son of God, yet she was engaged to Joseph who had not entered the picture yet.  Gabriel reassured her that the child she would carry would be of God – part human and part divine.  Mary could only provide ½ the required DNA; the rest would come from God.  This is a lot for a young girl to take in.  Her world as she knew it would be changed forever.  Her plans for a beautiful wedding could easily be shattered.  Her level of respect, her reputation could all be called into question.  Her very life could be in danger.

God doesn’t always call us to follow the easy path.  We may have our sights set on the next big promotion, or the next level of importance when God calls us to take the humble path.  Maybe we see the difficulties of starting a new ministry or becoming active in a mission that will change lives for Jesus Christ but not necessarily add another rung to our ladders.  Perhaps God’s calling leads us to set aside our hope and dreams. It may mean taking a risk which can be downright frightening. God was calling Mary to take the difficult path.

This begs the question: Did Mary want to be Mary? Did Mary really want to face the criticism of her neighbors, the possibility of a broken engagement with her fiancé Joseph, the scorn of being labeled an unwed mother, the possible excommunication from her family?  There was even the possibility of her life which Joseph literally held in his hands. Women who were found to be unfaithful were often put to death at the indication of their husbands.  Did she really want to risk everything to be the bearer of the Christ-child?

We can possibly picture Mary pondering all of this, with her head spinning because of this incredible news from a strange messenger.  But one thing we know about Mary is her faith in God. She trusted God to see her through as she made her profound statement, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).   In spite of the fact that any plans she had made for the perfect wedding were shattered, in spite of knowing many women died in childbirth, in spite of the fact that at the very least Joseph might call off their marriage and she would be an unwed mother with child, she said “Yes” to God.

During this Advent Season, we are called to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ-child.  We look forward to the blessed event when God in human form came to earth to dwell with us and offer unconditional grace.  I encourage each of us to take some time to study the story of Jesus’ birth in the gospels of Matthew and Luke in particular.  Our children are experiencing Jerusalem through the ‘Miracle of Jesus’ stations set up in Fellowship Hall.  Maybe during our fellowship time you can experience it a little for yourselves.

We are reminded each year that God did not chose the large, booming city of Sepphoris as Jesus’ home but instead chose a little obscure town called Nazareth.  We are reminded that God chose a humble young woman to become the bearer of Jesus, the son of God.  We are reminded to step away from the busyness of the season and experience the fears, joys, and ultimate peace that come from the story of a birth in Bethlehem so long ago.  May God bless you each week as we journey together toward the turning point in human history – the point of Emanuel, God with us. Amen.

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