READ: Micah 5.2-5a and Luke 1.39-55
I want to begin today by reading a few paragraphs from a book by Mary Ellen Ashcroft, which was given to me recently.
In this book, she’s writing about an old photograph that haunts her.
Here’s what she writes:
“A black and white photo captures the …hunger, freezes it for all time in a mother’s eyes.
Taken at the end of World War II, the picture shows a woman, standing on a European train platform, searching the faces of soldiers finally home.
Her face takes my breath away.
He is no longer a child, she reminds herself, touching her pocket, where she keeps his photograph.
War. Perhaps he’s been horribly disfigured.
For a moment, all she remembers of him is the feeling of moving his little hand through the sleeve of a red baby sweater.
“Maybe his mind is gone and he won’t know me … Maybe he’s already gone past me. I will have to search for him … Will I know him? …
The last soldier steps off the train, and she tugs on the guard’s arm.
“Where are the others? My son should be here…” Her voice shakes with the delirium, the nausea of waiting forever. “
It’s a photograph that the author is talking about.
And we don’t know the outcome; it was simply a snapshot of a moment in time.
Anticipating, yet not knowing what to anticipate.
Mary, did you know?
What did Mary know, exactly?
We know that the angel Gabriel visited her and told her of the events to come.
If we were to skip back to the last chapter in Luke, we read:
“The angel told her,
‘Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God.
You will become pregnant, give birth to a son, and name him Jesus.
He will be a great man and will be called the Son of the Most High.
The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.
Your son will be king of Jacob’s people forever, and his kingdom will never end.’
Mary asked the angel, ‘How can this be? I’m a virgin.’
The angel answered her,
‘The Holy Spirit will come to you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy child developing inside you will be called the Son of God.’”
Through this poor, young and unmarried girl, the world would welcome its Savior.
Mary had a lot to think about
And a lot to prepare for.
Micah & Luke
Did Mary know the words of the prophets?
Did she know what Isaiah, Malachi, Jeremiah, Zephaniah and Micah had spoken?
Did she hear the words of the psalmists?
What did it all mean?
In these four weeks of Advent and in our sermon series called “Prepare,” we’ve thus far heard each Sunday a different prophet speak of the coming Messiah.
We’ve paired them with the Gospel readings, so we could hear the prophecy and join it to the Nativity story as it unfolds.
So in our reading in Micah this morning, we again see this great anticipation and expectation.
Micah, the Old Testament prophet from around the 8th Century BCE who had witnessed the division of Israel and the eroding of the Promised Land to hostile countries surrounding it.
His prophesy is simply this: A new king is coming to save us.
The shepherd who will be the one of peace. (verse 5).
This is a foreshadowing of the Nativity story in which we welcome the Christ child into the world.
And in Luke’s Gospel, we see Mary’s cousin Elizabeth — who is miraculously pregnant with John the Baptist — and is overjoyed for what is to come.
Not just her baby — as if that weren’t enough — but Mary’s.
Beginning in Verse 42, she tells Mary:
“God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry.
Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
“The mother of my Lord.” Elizabeth knows, and is excited for who is to come!
And then Mary launches into some of the most beautiful poetry in all of the Bible, what we call The Magnificat!
“…Holy is his name.
He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.” ( Verses 49-50)
Do you hear the excitement in both Elizabeth’s and Mary’s voices?
For those of us who have had babies of have anticipated a baby’s birth in our families, just think of all the preparations that have to be made:
Getting a nursery ready, figuring out a work schedule and routine, starting a college fund … and maybe selling that old hot-rod to buy an SUV…
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg…
Getting ready to welcome a child into the world is no simple task.
But welcoming the son of God into the world?
Let’s just stop and think about that…
It’s impossible to imagine.
When a child comes into the world, who knows what that child will grow up to do?
Yet we celebrate the birth of a child because we celebrate the hope that a child represents.
We raise the child to believe she can do anything she wants to.
He can become anything he can dream of.
And through their beliefs and dreams, they can change the world.
What will that look like?
We don’t know.
The angel comes to Mary and tells her “the holy child developing inside you will be called the Son of God.”
How many days, quiet moments, long nights did Mary stay awake wondering what child is this?
What child is this who will not just change the world, but save the world.
Will he be loved and accepted … or hated and condemned?
What chances would he have growing up in abhorrent poverty in a hostile country at war?
How can she protect this unborn child when as soon as the world finds out she’s pregnant and unmarried?
That’s a sin often punishable by shunning or death.
What about her fiancee, Joseph?
Surely he’s not going to stick around after she tells him she’s pregnant. He’s never going to believe her story.
What is she expecting?
She’s just a young girl, a nobody from a poor family.
Those might not be the words Mary would be feeling 24/7.
Still, Luke tells us she answers the angel, saying, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let everything you’ve said happen to me.”
Not knowing what to expect, and not knowing how to feel about it all, can leave a person anxious.
We see the brave side of this young woman.
But she can’t do it alone.
She travels to see her cousin Elizabeth, who wasn’t able to conceive a child, and yet, miraculously, God works gives her John, who would be John the Baptist, — just a few months ahead of Mary’s due date.
It’s Elizabeth who knows and believes and gives Mary not just hope, but courage, support, strength and excitement of who is to come.
This is what we do for one another as God’s children in the world.
But night after night, Mary still has to wrestle with the realities.
What would this child look like?
Will I recognize him as my son?
Will he recognize me as his mother?
The image of the woman on the platform waiting for her son to come home proves a strong metaphor for the child Mary is to welcome.
The events her son has endured in war certainly will have changed him.
And after all, we send mere boys off to war.
They come back men…
…if they come back.
They are changed.
Mary wasn’t expecting to be carrying a child.
But she knows what that looks like.
An infant daughter or a son are brought into the world through the mother every day.
They are welcomed into the arms of those surrounding her or him.
But the infant son of God, whom she’s told will be named Jesus?
What will that look like?
How will that happen?
What does the future hold?
Like the woman waiting for her son on the platform in the photograph, Mary’s expression — her countenance — may be exactly the same.
“What is happening?”
Paul tells us “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11.1)
But faith is also being able to anticipate what God is giving us in joy.
And it’s also welcoming what God has given, is giving, and will give us.
Mary shows us, as does Elizabeth — and Joseph will too — how to welcome what God has given.
Now, maybe we say, “Well, Mary didn’t really have a choice.”
or “Well, Joseph didn’t have a choice.”
God can certainly do anything that God wills — there’s no doubt about that —
but people do all sorts of things with the gifts God has given, and we do have a certain amount of agency—
that is, free will.
The woman on the platform in the photograph has this agency as well.
At the exact moment the photo was taken, her fears, imagination, anticipation and excitement most likely were all swirling around in her mind.
But she was committed to loving him, and welcoming him, no matter what he looked like when he returned —
A man, no longer a boy.
What it means to welcome what God has given is seen so clearly in the images we’ve just seen.
* In a place of darkness, we welcome in hope.
* Surrounded by a hostile people, we welcome in love.
* In a world of turmoil, we welcome in peace.
In the least expected, we welcome in joy.
We welcome one another because God has given us each other.
But, as Advent shows us time and time again, we have to be ready.
If the woman on the train platform isn’t ready to recognize her son, he will pass her by.
If Mary isn’t ready, and if Elizabeth doesn’t help her prepare, what would happen?
Likewise, if we’re not ready to receive Christ — if we’re not prepared to welcome Christ — we will be just like the woman on the platform asking the guard, “Where is my son? He’s supposed to be here.”
Christmas comes and Christmas goes each year, my friends.
And we’re too often left unchanged because we’re not prepared and thus cannot welcome Christ because we don’t recognize him.
We’re just left there on the platforms, searching the faces as he passes by.
Immanuel literally means God with us.
God dwelling within each of us, through Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
What does that look like?
What does Christ look like in our world today?
We may think we’re prepared, and even excited about this arrival — ready to welcome…
We have ideas of what this son will look like.
The white Englishman with the close-cropped beard, high forehead and strong cheekbones and chin…
Like in all the Hollywood movies and those portraits hanging in this and every church in the Western World.
The flowing and clean white and blue robes.
The welcoming hands ready to receive.
When in reality, he came as a child of Middle Eastern descent;
Filthy rags wrapped around him lying in a feeding troth in a stable;
The hands reaching to receive.
What are we really preparing for?
What is the image of Christ?
If we’re all made in God’s image and God dwells in each and every one of us,
And if Christ came as a lowly infant to a single mom one night in a stable in a town known for its poverty…
How do we welcome that without romanticizing it to the point where it becomes unrealistic —
like the original reality that through the years was turned into a legend through our constant editing and polishing to fit our needs,
our self-indulging expectations…
Well, we know the end of the story.
At least to where the story is today.
I like to think that the woman on the train platform in the photograph finally sees her son step off the train.
I like to think of her with tears of joy and a proud smile that only a mother can give,
and I like to think of how she recognized his hand coming down the gangway rail before she even saw his face.
And now she’s sitting in a corner of the large room that she’s prepared for his homecoming—
His favorite foods all prepared on the table,
family and friends celebrating him with great joy,
music and singing and dancing,
all under a huge handmade “Welcome Home” banner.
All the stress and anxiety gone.
The world finally made right again.
A peace she hasn’t known in years.
Likewise, I like to think of Mary in this same light as well.
He is perfect.
He holds her and she him, and they are equally comforted and at peace.
The world is finally made right again.
A peace that hasn’t been known in years.
All because of the preparations.
The understanding and love and faith that helps us welcome our Savior into our world here at Christmastime, and every day of our lives,
with every face we see,
every hand that reaches to us,
and every hand we reach to.
A peace not known in years is right here.