Scripture:Luke 1: 39-49
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
December 18, 2016
When we hold a baby in our arms, we often find ourselves overcome by wonder. Wonder at the gift of life. Wonder at the miracle of birth. Wonder at what this child will become… When Mark Lowry penned the words to “Mary, Did You Know” he pondered what Mary wondered as she gazed into the eyes of her baby boy.
Mary, did you know, that your baby boy will give sight to the blind man?
Mary, did you know, that your baby boy would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know, that your baby boy has walked where angels trod
And when you kiss your little baby, you’ve kissed the face of God?
Oh, Mary did you know?
When I first heard this song in the air, I immediately fell in love with it. I decided to play this contemporary carol one day in staff meeting and I asked my music director to sing the song in worship. He refused. I wasn’t surprised. The music director was one who emphasized the humanity of Jesus over the divinity of Jesus. He was a bit of a skeptic and I knew that he did not believe in the literal miracles of Jesus – giving sight to a blind man, calming a storm with his hand, raising the dead to life.
Moreover, I knew that my music director would take issue with the words, “Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters…the child you delivered would soon deliver you” as well as the words, “Did you know that your baby boy was Heaven’s perfect Lamb.” Those words – save, deliver, perfect Lamb – all imply an atonement theology – the belief that Jesus needed to die on the cross for our sins. My music director wasn’t having it – If God is so powerful and all forgiving, why would God need a human sacrifice in the person of Jesus in order to forgive us?
In addition, I knew that the words, “Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?” would not sit well with the Music Director either – he did not believe in an exclusive claim of Jesus as the only way to God, as the Lord of all creation. He did not believe that the human Jesus created the sky, the ocean, the earth. He did not believe that Jesus was God, the Lord of all creation. Nor did he believe in the line “Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nation”. That line refers to the reference in Revelation of the 1000 year millennial kingdom in which Jesus begins a thousand year reign on earth. No, my music director did not believe in the traditional second coming of Jesus.
In fact, I do not know if there were any lines in the entire song with which my music director agreed. But even so, it quickly became a favorite Christmas song of mine. I loved the image of Mary holding baby Jesus, gazing into his eyes, filled with joy and wonder. “Mary, did you know? Did you know who this child would become?” And so each Advent I would beg my music director to sing the song and each Advent he refused. Conversely, the more I heard the song, the more I fell in love with the song. I loved the image of Mary tenderly holding the baby Jesus in her arms wondering at all that he would become.
Finally, after serving for many years, the music director decided to retire. His last service was on Christmas Eve. As a surprise and final gift to me, as I was serving communion during that Christmas Eve service, the music director went to the piano and began to play and sing, “Mary, Did you Know?” It was a holy moment.
My former music director is not alone in his skepticism. We have many skeptics in our own congregation. And there are many in our society who are skeptical of the Christmas story. Some declaring that hearing Christmas stories from the Bible is like listening to fairy tales. After all, stars do not announce the birth of a human being. Angels do not sing to hillside shepherds. Virgins do not conceive and give birth. There are some in society who are ready to throw out the baby Jesus with the bath water.
And even in the church, those who may not be ready to throw out baby Jesus, do often throw out the details of the Christmas story.
- For example, I am sure that many of us have questioned whether Mary was really a virgin? Matthew quotes Isaiah 7: 14, and says that a virgin will give birth to the Messiah. However, Isaiah 7:14 actually says, “A young woman is with child and will bear a son and you shall call him Immanuel.” Mary, obviously at 14 years of age, was a young woman, but that doesn’t mean that she was a virgin. Besides, there have been others who were said to have been born of a virgin as well because there was something extraordinary about them. Buddha and Plato were said to have been born of a virgin.
- Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem or is that a made-up story to simply align Jesus with the royal lineage of King David – because David was from Bethlehem and to fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem? Luke says that Joseph took his wife, who was “great with child” either on foot or on donkey, the 94 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Why? To be enrolled? Women were not counted in the census. And women did not normally travel – especially a woman who was 9 months pregnant. It would have taken 7 – 10 days to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem in a world with no restaurants or hotels. One female scholar said, “Only a man who had never had a baby could have created such a story” (John Shelby Spong, “A Post Christmas Look Back at the Stories of Jesus’ Birth”, January 11, 2006).
- The gospels assert that Herod was king when Jesus was born, but historical records show that Herod died in 4 B.C.E. Luke says that the enrollment required Joseph to go to Bethlehem while Quirinius was governor of Syria. But historical records show that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until the winter of 7 C.E. by which time the baby born in the lifetime of Herod would have been at least 11 years old. So, what was it? Was Jesus born during the time of Herod or during the time of Quirinius? (Spong, “A Post Christmas Look Back at the Stories of Jesus’ Birth, January 11, 2006).
- And what about the star? Was it a divine light placed specifically by God or was it a rare occurrence of Jupiter and Saturn falling into alignment? Was it a comet or a meteor? There are Chinese historical records that indicate that around the time of the birth of Christ there was a “Broom star” in the East. Is that what the wise men saw? The Bible is silent on the specifics of the star. The Greek word here in the Bible is vague. It simply means a general bright object in the sky. Since the gospel writers are silent about such mysteries, I wonder if they are encouraging us to be silent too. To simply marvel in the wonder of it all. “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.”
The truth of the matter is that I don’t know what actually happened 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. And I may suggest this morning that ultimately it really doesn’t matter. Whether Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus or whether she wasn’t, it really doesn’t matter. Whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem or Nazareth, it really doesn’t matter. Whether Jesus was born during the time of Herod the King or Quirinius the Governor, it really doesn’t matter. Whether the star was miraculously placed by God in the skies for the wisemen to follow or whether it was a rare scientific occurrence or whether there was any star at all, it ultimately doesn’t matter, I believe.
For you see, there is a greater truth in the story than in the facts. There is something much more important here than explanation; it is adoration; it is wonder. C.S. Lewis says there is a time to debate the faith and there is a time to feed on it. That is, one can analyze, dissect, study and memorize scripture but in the process, they may forget the gospel.
And so this Christmas season I encourage you to forget about trying to figure out the facts of the birth narratives and listen to the story. Let it come to life inside of you and then decide whether the story is true or not. Does it make you more human or less human? Does it open you up or shut you down? Does it speak to your intense longing for the Divine?
Two thousand years ago, in the person of Jesus, people discovered the God presence in a new way. Gospel writers wondered how mere words could be big enough to capture the divine presence of Jesus. And so with imagination they expressed that when this life entered human history, the heavens rejoiced. A star appeared in the sky. A heavenly host of angles sang hosanna. Judean shepherds came to behold him in wonder. Eastern Magi journey from the ends of the earth to adore him. The heavens sang, “Glory to God in the Highest”. For centuries people have rejoiced in the transcendent beauty and wonder of the Christmas story.
Personally, it is in Jesus where I meet God. That is what is most important to me during this Christmas season. In this person of Jesus, I find a way into the heart of God. In this person named Jesus, I discover that humanity and divinity flow together. In this person of Jesus, I have an ultimate model of forgiveness and compassion, radical inclusivity and social justice. In the person of Jesus, I learn about extravagant grace and immeasurable love. And so I welcome Jesus birth into my life because this babe in the manger will grow up to change my life. I don’t know what happened 2000 years ago, but I do know what has happened in my life and in many of your lives because of this babe in the manger. And so with integrity, I believe I can say “Mary, did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod? And when you kiss your little baby, you’ve kissed the face of God? Mary, did you know?”