December 21, 2003

Jesus: A Song of Joy
Luke 1:46-55

Just last week at their party, various members of our youth group apparently decided that something was impossible. My son, Jordan, came barging into my bedroom after the party—around 10:30—and asked me if I would place a bust of Handel on the pulpit this morning during the sermon. None of his friends in the youth group, he said, believed he could get me to do it. I asked him if I could explain the circumstances surrounding his strange request to you, the congregation, and he readily said yes. Jordan clearly believed that I would display the figure, but his friends felt certain that it was impossible.

Mary, as this story in Luke 1 well illustrates, could relate to facing the impossible. She was, as you know, a rather typical citizen of the small northern village of Nazareth. Among the most exciting things that might have happened there on any given day were a wood carver snapping a blade or an olive picker dumping a jar of oil. Yet on the day in question, Mary experienced the unusual, to say the least.

As she was apparently following her daily routine, an angel suddenly approached her with a rather alarming address: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Mary, as you might expect, is perplexed. Such an encounter happens rarely, if ever, in a person’s life, let alone with a seemingly common woman in a seemingly common village. Mary hardly knew how to react, and she certainly remains in the dark as to the significance of the event.

Immediately, the heavenly visitor continues where he left off and informs the startled woman that she will soon give birth to a son. Not just any Tom, Dick or Harry, mind you. Her son will be the one long hoped for by Mary’s people, the Messiah, sent by God to reign on David’s throne. Quickly, her initial confusion gives way to total bewilderment. “How can this be?” Mary inquires, “for I am a virgin.” Even two thousand years ago, well before the noteworthy advances in modern medicine, people had some idea where babies came from. “It is impossible,” she understandably assumed.

Mary, as you can readily see, went from confusion to bewilderment. But bewilderment—an overwhelming sense of the impossible—is not where her journey ends. Carefully, Mary listens as the angel offers an explanation. “The Holy Spirit will cause this to happen, and by the way,” he concludes, “nothing will be impossible with God.” With this, Mary’s countenance changes and her entire perspective is altered. Something clicked. Rather than forcing the conversation and probing for additional details, as people so often do, Mary somehow musters a simple, “…let it be with me according to your word.”

And with that, her sense of bewilderment is transformed into joy. Note her response in the song preserved for us in vv. 46-55. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she shouts. The verb translated “rejoice” here, I might add, denotes a mood far beyond mere happiness or pleasure. What Mary expresses is nothing less than uncontrollable enthusiasm—ecstasy in fact. And as remarkable as it might seem, the promised child, who is apparently the source of her newfound joy, has not even been born yet! Although his birth will come later in chapter 2, Mary already considers it to be a done deal. Something, as I said before, clicked for Mary. The same Spirit who spoke to her concerning the upcoming birth of her son also enabled her to find in that promise a deep-rooted faith. “Let it be with me according to your word,” she said. And in receiving the assurance of God’s promise, her awareness of the impossible vanished.

Pause for just a moment and reflect on the words of Mary’s great song. Various themes seemingly explain her now overwhelming sense of joy. She is overcome, for one thing, at the sheer magnitude of God’s grace. “He has looked with favor on me,” she announces in vv. 48-49. “Me. A nobody from Nazareth. A lowly servant.” Nothing that I know of can transform a weighty sense of the impossible like a fresh glimpse of God’s virtually indescribable grace, grace that he freely extends to each and everyone of us, regardless of our apparently limited self-worth. “Me? A truck driver from Carlisle? Me? A school teacher from Mechanicsburg? Me? A homemaker from Shiremanstown? Me? A pastor from Grantham?” Mary just can’t quite get over the fact that God would come to her, of all people.

But look further. Mary similarly rejoices in the fact that, though God’s mercy has been wonderfully extended to her, it is also offered to all those who fear him. Here, it seems to me, is a source of joy that should not easily be dismissed. Many people these days seem to adopt “religion” solely as a means of self-improvement. Reflection and contemplation, after all, can calm our souls and help us to experience more in life. Or worse yet, others assume that they, and not someone else, are God’s preferred people and who therefore privatize or protect their faith. God’s grace, Mary clearly recognizes, is not reserved for her alone or the other “privileged few,” and the joy that she derives from realizing this nearly overwhelms her. All who fear him—past, present, and future—will know the riches of his mercy.

And finally, Mary celebrates what she perceives to be the greatest reversal in human history (vv. 51-53). People in our country continually complain about the supposed preferential treatment given to the wealthy and influential by those in government. This tax plan benefits the rich, and that refund only improves the lives of those who need it the least. If only, many of us often think, there could be a plan or program that genuinely addresses the concerns of the weak and the poor.

Here is such a plan, Mary seems to recognize. In this promised child, Mary sees nothing but hope. In this child, the powerless find strength. In this child, the lowly are exalted. In this child, the hungry are fed. In this child, the very structures of society are turned on their heads, and the standard systems by which people are evaluated totally turned inside out. Think about it. In Mark Lowry’s and Buddy Greene’s song entitled “Mary, Did You Know?” Mary is asked a series of questions:
Mary, did you know that your baby boy would someday walk on
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered will soon deliver you….
Mary, did you know…?
The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the Lamb.
Mary, did you know…?
Did she know? According to her song, she at least had an inkling! That’s why she is rejoicing! After all, what began as an apparent promise of a baby to a virgin—an impossibility in and of itself—has now become a prophecy of redemption to the entire world! Mary can scarcely contain her excitement.

She was confused. She was bewildered. The word “impossible” must have entered her mind. “It just can’t be,” she surely thought. But look at her now, singing a song of praise that reaches a crescendo with her nearly dancing in the aisles. And what brought her from a sense of the impossible to being overcome by joy? What enabled her to move from hearing these wonderful things—God’s grace and hope for her and the world—to experiencing them in her own soul? A total and unwavering openness to God and his promised child. In this ceramic figure crafted by Marianne Hieb, Mary stretches her arms wide and reaches heavenward. Her arms are joined so as to from a sort of funnel, giving the impression that Mary does not want to miss a single drop of God’s presence in her life. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” Mary responded. “…let it be according to your word.”

Pause with me for a moment or two and ask yourself, “What in my life seems to be impossible today?” Your impossibility could be something about you that you have been unable to either change or adjust to in healthy ways. “A thorn in your flesh,” to use Paul’s words. Some of you know exactly what I am talking about. “If I could change this one thing about me,” you’ve thought, my life would be completely different.

Others among us have been engaged in destructive activities for many years and we feel powerless to change now. Perhaps your impossibility is a broken relationships that, try as you may, you seem totally unable to restore. Maybe it involves unfulfilled dreams, and you’ve lost the ability to hope. Or a calling? God is nudging you to do something, and you feel totally incapable of doing it. It could be, like Mary, your inability to accept a promise that God has made to you. Gabriel announced to Mary that she would have a child, and she said, “How can this be?”

Maybe God similarly has announced something to you, perhaps over and over again, and you ask, “How can this be?” “I love you,” God declares, and all we can say in response is “That can’t be—I’m not loveable.” “I will help you set aside those sins that you are involved in,” God announces. “That can’t be,” we conclude, “for I am powerless to change and have been over this time and time again.” “I will take care of you through these lean times and will help you experience my presence, even in the midst of the darkness that surrounds you,” God promises, but we stutter, “That can’t be—for the darkness overwhelms me and I see no light.” What, I must ask you again, is the impossibility in your life this morning? What are you confused about? What are you bewildered by?

I offer you today, not some simple solution to all of life’s difficulties. I have no gimmicks. No spiritual “get-rich-quick” strategies to leave you carefree. No two or three easy steps that will ease all of your pain, restore all of your relationships, and fulfill all of our dreams. Life, as you well know, is rarely if ever that simple. What I do have to offer is a child—no, a Savior and Lord—who in his own way has an uncanny knack of bringing joy out of the impossible. And what does he ask of us as a beginning point? A first step? What he asked of Mary. To say, even in the face of unanswered questions and lingering frustrations, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Many of the youth apparently assumed that I would never consider putting a bust of Handel on the pulpit during the sermon this morning. “It is impossible,” they thought. I guess you don’t know me well enough yet, for here it is. What do you think is impossible for God to do? What is it in your life that clouds your thinking and tears you down? What promises has God made that you struggle to believe? Might you, along with Mary, be able to open yourself up this morning and say, “Here am I, your servant; let it be with me according to your word?” Could it be that you have focused for so long on the impossibilities in your life that you no longer sense the excitement of Christ’s coming to transform both you and the world? From the unexpected—a baby in a manger—comes love. From the impossible—a savior in a human womb—comes joy.