A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on December 26, 2010.
Lord, as you used an unlikely young woman to fulfill your purpose in the birth of Christ, we pray that you would also use us. As you dispelled the fears of that young maiden mother, dispel our fears and grant us confidence of your presence in our lives. We pray that you would banish from our hearts the excuses of our unworthiness and lead us to some greater and nobler service. Help us to see that we are all sinners and that all your servants are unworthy. O Father, if you did not use the weak, if you did not use the young, if you did not use the aged, if you did not use the infirmed, if you did not use the unlikely or the unworthy, who could serve? Use us as instruments in your work in the year ahead. May the birth of Christ in the announcement of his love and the possibility of forgiveness be extended to all and do it through us. Roll back the clouds of doubt in this day. Direct the nations to humble awareness of your presence in the world and your reign over all of creation. Remind each of us that you, indeed, are God, that you are rich in mercy, strong in righteousness, ready to receive our repentance and ready to make your home with us, both this day and forever. Through Christ we pray. Amen.
During my years of ministry, one of the great preachers of America has been Dr. John Killinger. Among pastors of my generation, Dr. Killinger’s ministry has been important and his sermons have been inspiring to us when we read them in print or hear tapes of what he has done.
I remember a story Dr. Killinger once told about his father. His father owned a business and one day he went into the business and a male employee was standing there doing nothing, looking off into space.
When Dr. Killinger’s father came in, the employee said, “Oh, I didn’t see you come in.”
His dad said, “What are you doing?”
The employee said, “I was just pondering a minute.”
His dad said, “Well, then ponder this: You’re fired.”
We don’t have much time for people who seem to be gazing off into space. There is not a lot of time given in this world where we can think freely. There are not a lot of days where our time is not filled up and we are not distracted. There is not much where we are allowed to just ponder.
The New International Version of the Bible says that “Mary considered all these things in her heart.” I think all of us are familiar with more traditional translations that talk about that at the end of the shepherds’ visit to the stall where Jesus has been born, Luke says that “Mary pondered these things in her heart.”
There are some students of the Bible that think perhaps Luke actually knew Mary. The passage from Luke 2:13-20 is why we often think that. There seemed to be some details that had a personal touch that Luke would not have known unless Mary had told him. It is easy to image that after all the events that have led up to the birth of Christ how this young girl would have needed some time to ponder, to stop and think about everything that has transpired. Think about what the nine months just passed in her life would have meant.
It was a pre-scientific age but not a pre-biology age. Everybody understood the math. They all understood the nine months and they understood that Mary was not married. Perhaps she tried to hide herself for a number of months, but sooner or later, it would have been pretty plain what her circumstances were. Certainly, the town wags and gossips would have been talking, and there would have been shame as she walked around town.
We can imagine how she must have anticipated that first conversation with Joseph, wondering how she is going to explain the way she is and what happened, and then the absolute wonder of having that conversation and finding out that he understands. Joseph, too, has had a message from an angel and he understands.
Then what follows must have been some relief and some fear. Some relief to leave Nazareth and go someplace where maybe people don’t know, but also fear because she is a young girl and, certainly, leaving trusted women who would be important for the time of birth to go with a young man who, chances are, has never delivered a child before.
As they get to Bethlehem, we are reminded there is no room in the inn. We sing the hymn, “Silent Night,” but chances are Bethlehem was a pretty wild place. Everyone who is from the lineage of David has come from all over Judea and that part of the world to return to the hometown to be a part of the census. Chances are there were other people who were in the stable that night as well.
Joseph makes the best of a bad night, makes the best of a stall and hay, and delivers his first child. Maybe the real Christmas miracle that night was that Jesus survived all of that.
Then come the shepherds. They have not seen “an angel.” They have seen a multitude of angels. Perhaps for the first time in nine months, someone comes to them with a good word. Someone comes to them with a positive reaction. Instead of criticism for what has transpired and what certainly must be wrong morally in their lives, they have a word and a confirmation that the angels have told the shepherds that this is the savior of the world.
Can you imagine that over the nine months, this is the first time that Mary and Joseph have felt welcome, the first time they have actually felt safe and loved. The shepherds have come to kneel down, to worship, and adore him. It would seem to me that it would be a lot to ponder.
The word that we use for ponder is the root that we get the word symbol from. It means to take in the meaning, to understand what we see here and to understand what it really means. It means to remember and it means to think what now?
There is not much room to ponder in this world, is there? There is not much room that people allow us to stop and think. Not much room for silence. Even when there is some, we are not too sure we want it. We all long for a day when we could have nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing expected of us and we could just sit down and think. Then comes yesterday. It is Christmas. It snows, but yet we get cabin fever. We have to figure out what we can do, where we can go, who we might call, and what we might do to distract ourselves. It might be a little intimidating to be left alone with our thoughts.
I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I imagine that on Christmas Day, many of us found ourselves thinking, I’ve got to do something. Here is the time to think it through but we don’t even take it for ourselves.
Maybe today is a good time for us to ponder Christmas. Christmas comes at the end of the year, and next week, we begin to talk about what things might be like in our lives, to think about what the possibilities might be. We are between the celebration of the coming of Christ into the world and the coming of Christ into our lives and the sense that something new might be beginning.
We think about what has been and what is possible. I think Mary is our model. When we ponder Christmas, we stop to think for a minute about what has God done. She is thinking about what God has done in her life through the birth of this baby, and we think about what God has done for us recently. How has God answered prayer? How has God seen us through moments that seemed incredibly difficult, yet we found the strength we did not know we had. How has God sustained us? How has God gotten our attention? God uses all kinds of experiences in our lives to get our attention and we might even ask how God has worked in our lives and what is it that God wants to say.
As we ponder Christmas and think about Mary, certainly as the child is born, the census is taken, it is time to go back and resume the journey. It is time to get on with raising this child whose birth was attended by shepherds and angels and to think, What’s next?
For us, we tell our friends how God has answered prayer. Now what? If God answers prayers in our lives, what comes next? If God has gotten our attention through many of the things that happen in life, such as job loss, a bad diagnosis, or a part of our private lives that has become public, do we ask ourselves, What next? What is it that God wants to do in us and through us next and to think about what is required? If God is really at work in my life, what will be required because of what God has done?
If the word we translate as ponder means to put everything together, then maybe we need to think about how all these things work together in our lives. What are the connections? How have the bad decisions we have made led to the place where we are? How has Christ becoming second, third, fourth or last in our lives led to these bad decisions? How has the lack of prayer and the lack of attention to our relationship with God led to damaged relationships or the place where we are now that we don’t want to be? Maybe we need to ponder how the things we have done contributed to the things we don’t like.
But the Gospel is not about possibility. The Gospel is about future and change. If we find ourselves recognizing that we don’t like all the connections, then what about the future? What about the possibility? If Jesus Christ is the savior of the world, if Jesus did come to save us from our sins, if he did come to deliver us from evil and from ourselves, to restore that which is broken and to heal that which is hurt, and to bring peace with God, what is not possible next?
The message of Christmas is really too wonderful to be reserved simply for a season, a week, a weekend, or a day. The message of Christmas is that Christ has come to the world and Christ would come to each one of us. Do we ever genuinely ponder what that means? Jesus is available. Jesus is here. Jesus would live in you. Jesus would use you.
There are all manner of things that God wants to do in this coming year. Perhaps all it would require is for us to think it through, to ponder, to recognize, and then to respond and to be a part of God’s work through Christ in the world. May it be so for each of us.