1st Sunday of Christmas – 31st December 2017
May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be always acceptable and pleasing in your sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer. Amen
What a busy time it has been over the last few weeks, and I cannot quite believe that my first Christmas in Hadlow has been and gone. In fact, I am not quite sure where December has gone if I am honest! There has certainly been a great deal to do, with all that Christmas involves, both in and out of church plus in our house two birthdays within the first three days after Christmas, but I must add it has been an enjoyable one. It has been a time of change too as last Christmas I wasn’t ordained, and I celebrated Christmas at church in a different way. All in all, there has been a lot to reflect on and to ponder.
As I read those words in the Gospel reading we heard this morning, it was indeed that word ‘ponder’ that really stood out.
“And Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19)
The word ‘ponder’ for me is a rather lovely word that conjures up many thoughts in my mind. There is that sense in which it goes beyond just thinking about something momentarily, to really thinking about it deeply or thoroughly. One could almost say meditatively. Not only that, but ponder is also a word that implies what you are thinking about weighs carefully on your mind.
“And Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19)
So, what is it that Mary was pondering? What was it that she had to take in and think about that first Christmas time?
We reached Christmas day after a period of waiting in suspense, during Advent. A period in which there was so much to think about, of greater or lesser importance. Possibly where we were going to spend Christmas and with whom? What do we buy Uncle Bill who has everything one could possibly need? Now Christmas is over we can forget all those things for another year and turn our thoughts to what really matters. Let us think for a few minutes about the reality of what we celebrate at Christmas. Let us remember and ponder again on Mary’s story.
Mary appears to be just an ordinary girl from an ordinary village. Her parents I expect, were not of great means, but I am sure Mary did as her parents expected and her hope was to find a man who was kind and gentle. A man who would in time be a loving father to her children.
So, Joseph, a carpenter whose trade was always in demand, and an older man, would surely provide all the stability that Mary had dreamed of. Their engagement was announced, and Mary and Joseph prepared to live the rest of their lives together. A usual situation for the time and not one upon which Mary would have to ponder.
That was until Mary received a visit from the angel Gabriel telling her that she was to have a son. She had found favour with God and was to bear his son. A son who would be called Jesus and would be the Saviour of the world.
Mary, I expect was a sensible girl, and what the angel told her just didn’t fit into the world she knew. Her world and her thinking were being turned upside down. So, she asked the angel, “How can this be?”. “Nothing is impossible with God” replied the angel. Maybe not, but it is hard to see how the angels reply might reassure Mary, a young girl in a small village, faced with the knowledge that she was pregnant before she was married. In the weeks that followed, Mary had so much to think about, to ponder…
Would anyone believe her story of an angelic visitor? Would she be cast out of her family and her community? Would Joseph still want to be with her? If the answer was yes, would he be able to love the child when he was born?
Oh yes, Mary had plenty to ponder.
While pondering these questions, things were then to become even more confusing, of course, when the baby actually arrived. Called to Bethlehem, away from her home town and friends and family. Surely Mary must have thought, if her child was truly God’s son, wouldn’t things have been expected to be a little easier for the family. But they were homeless. No young mother’s dream when you are about to give birth to your first child. Not only that there was to be no rest or quietness either. For into the stable came the visitors, the shepherds all wanting to see her baby.
I expect though despite the interruption they were a welcome sight to Mary, as they brought her some reassurance that she hadn’t imagined everything, that this baby boy of hers was all that had been promised. All the same, it cannot have been easy as the weeks passed, and the wonders of the birth-night became a memory. In many ways for Mary, life went on just as usual, with only a few clues along the way that she had given birth to no ordinary baby. More things to ponder. For the most part, Mary just had to be his mother and trust in the promises she had been given. As Jesus grew, this must have got harder for her. Instead of becoming a rabbi (surely the most appropriate profession for a boy close to God) or a ruler (if this child was indeed to rescue Israel) her firstborn became a travelling teacher, mixing not with the great and good of the land, but with tax collectors and prostitutes and all those on the margins of society. Finally, his story would seem to end in the most terrible way, with a cross on a hillside outside Jerusalem.
Mary must have pondered. Pondered with an ever-increasing weight within her heart.
For Mary those years between Bethlehem and Calvary were surely a time of suspense and intense pondering. Nothing can have turned out as she had expected, and the ending of the story seemed far removed from that night of stars and singing angels and visiting shepherds. What could she do but ponder?
Mary’s experience of confusion might well match our own, as we leave behind the wonder and expectation that once made Christmas a magical time of infinite possibility and promise.
For us too, the darkness in our own world threatens to destroy our hopes and dreams, of the people we want to be, of a world built on justice for all, of peace and happiness for all. On the 28th December we remembered the Holy Innocents, those children murdered by Herod in his determination that nothing should threaten his rule over Israel. As we read the news today we are still confronted with the continuing massacres of innocent people in our world. This can be hard to deal with – just days after we have heard the song of the angels – but though our dreams may fade, we too need to pause, and to ponder, for the angels also brought a promise for us.
“Good news of great joy that shall be to all people”.
Like Mary we do not yet see how that will be worked out. But like Mary, we are never far away from the answer to our longings. Even as she pondered, her beloved Jesus truly God’s own Son, was there beside her. As events unfolded in his life and hers, she may sometimes have lost sight of the truth of this. Yet Jesus was with her beyond the stable and the star, beyond the moments of miracle when all seemed clear and beyond the desolation of the cross.
Through the weeks of Advent while we waited to celebrate the birth of Christ in church, we sang the hymn “O Come, o come Emmanuel”…
Emmanuel, of course, is another name for the wonderful counsellor, prince of peace, the baby in whose face we see the face of God. It is the name that tells us the message of Christmas, for it means,
“God with us”.
God not remote and untouchable, but as close and as intimate as a baby held safe in his mother’s arms. God with us whether we recognise him or not. God with us in our realities. Ponder that, if you will.
Mary pondered, until at last on Easter day there was no room for doubt. She knew with glorious certainty that the song of the angels was played out in the resurrection of her first-born Son.
Who knows when a like moment of clarity and recognition will arrive for us?
It might be now or at some time in the future, even next Christmas. Meanwhile, we must simply keep on pondering – and treasuring in our hearts the knowledge of a God who loves us, and dreams greater dreams for us, and for the world, more than we could ever imagine.
As you leave here today I hope you will all keep on pondering. Pondering on a God for whom nothing is impossible, a God who is with us today and always, both as the babe in the manger and the man on the cross, born once in Bethlehem, but born in us today.