December 21, 2014
Back in March of 1944 on 1,400 acres of land in Conyers, Georgia, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit was established. Still today, some 70 years later, the Monastery remains the home of 48 monks.
Each day begins for these 48 monks at 4am as they gather in the chapel of the Monastery for prayer and worship. As the day continues, they will gather in the chapel six times with the last time of prayer and worship being at 7:30pm in the evening. Each time they gather, there is a grand stain glass window that occupies the space above the altar and that looks down on them. That window pictures Mary with outstretched arms. It also pictures Jesus, located inside Mary as if in the womb, also with outstretched arms. The painting is called Theotokos, or in English, the God Bearer.
It is in Luke chapter one that we encounter the story behind this stained glass window in one of the most beautiful and moving passages in all of the scripture found in verses 46-56. We refer to these poetic words from the young girl who would be the mother of Jesus as Mary’s song or The Magnificat which comes from the Latin rendering of Mary’s first few words in the passage when she says, “My soul magnifies the Lord”.
Mary’s joy in this passage is startling and unexpected without question. After all, she was an unmarried, very young girl. And as a result, the task that God had chosen her for was one that was filled with obstacles, concerns and possible dangers. Yet, in the midst of a situation that would likely cause most of us to say “no thank you” or ask God to please find someone else, Mary expresses her sense of honor. Mary sings of her joy regarding this grand opportunity that has been afforded to her.
From this point on, Mary takes on the role of being the earthy mother of Jesus. Contrary to what some may suggest, this doesn’t mean that Mary was any more special than anyone else who played a role in the early story of the Christian movement. But, at the same time it does mean that she serves as the first of countless others like her who would follow in her footsteps as ordinary people through whom the Son of God became known to the world.
In the Eastern church in particular, Mary became known by a rather interesting title, they referred to her, as the stain glassed window in the Conyers, Georgia monastery is named, as Theotokos which is a compound Greek word which again means the God bearer.
This morning, on this Sunday before Christmas, what I want to remind all of us of is that as people of faith who live in Mary’s legacy, in essence, we are God bearers too.
I really don’t think this is too big of a leap for us to make. No, we were not at Bethlehem and we didn’t wrap baby Jesus in swaddling clothes in a manger. But, just as Mary and Joseph helped the child of Bethlehem to be known to the world, so too, all of these hundreds of years later, we are called to do the same.
When I survey the Christmas tree standing in our living room right now, my eye catches numerous ornaments whose worth far exceed the value of the material they are made of or their artistic splendor.
Just like the ornaments that adorn your tree, looking at these Christmas decorations carry me back in time. There is the handmade ornament given to us by a member of the very first church I served in seminary, there are figures and decorations that hang from the tree which are connected to numerous places we have been or lived, ornaments from our wedding that was at Christmas time and hand-made pieces lovingly crafted by our children at school, church and in other settings.
Like similar ornaments that cover your trees, these decorations of the season really transcend snow men, Santa’s, Christmas bells and angels they tell stories, recreate joy, warm hearts and remind us of where we have been.
In essence, these ornaments and decorations exist on two levels. They are snow men, Santa’s, Christmas bells and angels but they are also so much more than that. They convey much more than what we see on the surface.
In connecting our lives to Mary’s life, what I want to invite us to see this morning is that the very same thing is true of each of us. As people of faith, and like Mary as bearers of God, the actions of our lives are so much more than what they appear to be on the surface.
Time with a neighbor who has been through a tough time or lost a family member is so much more than a cup of coffee spent together or a warm embrace. The cookies that were sent to a college student studying for final exams are a lot more than a box of sweets. Money given from our church to the Memorial Home, Habitat for Humanity, to buy food for backpacks at Laurens Elementary or given to our Baptist Missionaries at Christmastime is much more than fifties, twenties and tens. And, our time simply spent building relationships with a new person in our midst is much more than our acquiring another friend. Make no mistake – this may be the way that things appear on the surface, but all of these in truth are the ways that we, like Mary bear God to the world.
About a week and a half ago, we watched again the holiday movie Christmas With the Kranks based on John Grisham’s little book called Skipping Christmas. If you recall, the story is about a man named Luther Krank who along with his wife decides to skip the Christmas season. Luther’s daughter, who has joined the Peace Corp, is going to be away from home at Christmas for the first time and so as a way to both deal with his grief of his daughter’s absence and as a way to respond to his frustrations with the demands of Christmas and the holiday season, Luther convinces his wife that they should skip the whole thing. No tree, no gifts, no decorations, no party with the neighbors nothing. They will give to their church and their favorite charity but besides that the Kranks decide to skip the whole season and instead spend the saved money on a once in a lifetime cruise that leaves port on Christmas Day.
If you have read the book or seen the movie then you know what happens next in the story. If you haven’t, I don’t feel too bad about spoiling it since the book has been out now for thirteen years and the movie for nine!?!
Just a day before the cruise is to leave, on Christmas Eve, the daughter phones and says she has decided to come home unexpectedly for Christmas and bring her new fiancé with her. With only hours to prepare before their daughter arrives, the Kranks suddenly have a food to prepare, a house to decorate and gifts to buy. Likewise, Luther must decide what to do with the two cruise tickets that are for the next day and that were bought with no travel insurance. In the end, he decides to give them to their across the street neighbors whom he has feuded with for years. She is dying of cancer and this will likely be her last Christmas. The story ends with Luther walking across the street to surprise them with the tickets and to provide for them, one last Christmas memory.
In the midst of an otherwise silly movie and book, it quite frankly is a beautiful, heart-warming scene. For in the twinkling of an eye, those tickets, become much more than tickets, they are a way that Luther, after all these years, makes peace with his neighbors. They are a way from him to offer long withheld love. And, they become a way for him to share his sympathy.
The Christmas, we must regain the courage to believe the same about the actions of our lives as people of faith. They are so much more than what they appear to be. We must not doubt. We must not doubt. In light of Mary’s story, even our most basic life actions bear God to the world.
In fact, Mary reinforces this point in a rather profound way. Did you notice that in these verses that are the center of our attention for today, each time Mary speaks of the change that God’s son is going to bring to the word, she does so using verbs that imply action that has already been completed. In other words, ever statement that she makes about what Christ is going to do in the world is offered as if the actions are already in the past. It is Mary’s way of saying that the hopes and dreams placed in this one are not just wishful thinking, instead, they are, as we would say in 2014, a done deal.
The challenge is for us to look at the work of God done through us in a similar way. It is not that God might use our actions to change the word, rather, it is the assurance the as we give our lives and our behavior over to God, we will change the world. We will bear God. It is a done deal.
This should be our source of peace. It is not that God might change the world. Rather God will change the world through you and me. The author Donald Miller famously once said that all that anyone wants to know is that they are here on for purpose and for a purpose. On this Sunday before Christmas, part of the peace of the season is found in knowing that this is, without question, true. We are here, to bear Christ to the world! Amen.