It’s a Wonderful Life- Believe It
Luke 1: 46-55
I don’t know if this is true of your family, but we’re not big fans of pain in my house. We don’t care for blood and gore and wounds and sickness, and the number of band aids in our closet is proof! It’s actually quite astonishing how many band aids we go through in a given year. It’s so apparent that even Santa knows, because some Pittsburgh Pirate band aids showed up in my stocking last year! It seems that every cut and scrape, whether real or not, is usually met with a look of sheer panic and a mad dash to the medicine cabinet. And we slap one of those suckers on and hope that it will all soon be over. But sometimes, in our haste, we forget that pain isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it can actually signal good news.
You wouldn’t think a bloody lip would be a sign of hope, but for George Bailey, it was a light shining in the darkness. As he stood on the bridge just outside of Bedford Falls, the only thought that crossed his mind was his desire to live again. He had been down to the lowest of lows. The Building and Loan was about ready to close their doors, and George was convinced he was on his way to jail. What would happen to his family? What would become of his marriage? What about all the people who had placed their trust in him? And because of a visit from a funny looking angel named Clarence, George was given the chance to see what the world would be like without him. And it was scary! The fear of that moment was too much to bear, and he felt so alone, with nowhere to turn. It was similar to what the old saints called the dark night of the soul, a spiritual desert that felt like hopelessness and abandonment. And when Bert the cop pulled up, George thought his life, for all intents and purposes, was over. But then he noticed his bloody lip and something in his heart came alive! It was a sign of life. He wasn’t done! He had been given another chance to believe that he was part of something much bigger than himself. And he had been given another chance to believe that his life, no matter how complicated, really did matter!
One of the things I most love about the Christmas story is that everyone in the story matters. Everyone has a role to play, and every role contributes something significant to the narrative God is authoring by sending his Son into the world. I think that’s by design, by the way. There are certainly moments when God raises up unique individuals for singular purposes, but all in all, God typically works through a community of people to accomplish his will. And that’s true of the Christmas story. There is no Christmas without John the Baptist, whom we looked at last week and who reminds us to keep on turning toward the Kingdom even when it doesn’t seem like anything is working out. And there’s no Christmas without the angels, the shepherds, the magi, even all of creation. Each plays a vital role in the birthing of this eternity-changing, eternity-shaping God so loved the world story. And the same is certainly true of a young girl named Mary.
Some of the best Biblical scholars suggest that Mary was no older than a young teenager when she first appears on the scene. Doesn’t that make you raise an eyebrow or two? A teenager fulfills one of the more prominent roles in the Christmas story. Now, I don’t about you, but when I was a young teenager, the things of God were not usually the first thoughts to cross my mind. I was concerned with things like homework and baseball and avoiding my chores. If I could get out of bed and make it to 8:00 church, that was a win! But all joking aside, do you want to know the real reason I didn’t think much about God? I wasn’t sure God could or would use teenagers. Maybe it’s because I only ever saw adults (most of them happened to be men, by the way) preaching, and teaching and sitting on boards and councils- you know, the places where the real ministry action happens. And I guess I started down a path that suggested you had to be a certain age with certain life experiences to be play a part in what God is doing. But Mary has since changed my perspective.
There are lots of theories as to why God chose Mary to be the theotokos, a Greek word meaning the “God-carrier” or vessel of the Savior of the world. Some have suggested that it was Mary’s innocent nature that attracted God’s attention, or maybe it was the way she lived out a fervent devotion to God. Others have suggested it was her sexual purity- she had never been intimate with another human being. And some have even thought that Mary’s life had a certain quality of holiness that just wasn’t typical for the average person. But there’s a part of me that wonders if God chose Mary for a different sort of reason. Now, I know I could get in trouble for saying this in some circles, but what if God’s reason for choosing Mary was less about Mary and more about God. In no way am I trying to downplay Mary’s attributes and character. I’m sure she was a wonderful, God-fearing human being. But what if Mary’s role in the story says more about God? What if God, in choosing Mary, is showing the world that all things are possible with Him? Because let’s face it. The last person we expect to carry the Son of God into this world is an unwed teenage girl. That’s not how we would’ve written the story, and we come to find out that even Mary was perplexed.
Whatever God’s reason, it’s clear that God has a plan…but Mary has some questions and concerns. When the angel announces to her God’s plans, Mary doesn’t just jump in and say, “Here I am, I’ll do whatever you want!” Instead, she asks, how can this be? Out of perplexity, Mary responds to God’s plan by entering into a conversation with God’s messenger. I think that’s a wonderful gift God offers to Mary, because it signals that Mary has a choice in this. And God is willing to entertain Mary’s fears, concerns, and questions. I appreciate how one pastor describes this moment: “…Not only has God chosen Mary, God gives Mary the space and time to choose as well.”
God has chosen us to play a part in His story, but it’s not one-sided. God always gives us the opportunity to choose Him, as well. In those moments between God’s invitation to Mary and Mary’s eventual “yes,” there was a pause. I don’t know how long the pause lasted, but it was at least long enough for Mary to mull everything over. I can’t even begin to imagine what went through Mary’s mind when God’s plan was revealed, but I know what usually happens in my mind. I begin to think of all the ways my life will change and the various apple carts that could be upset. I think of the people who will “get it” and jump on board, but also those who might walk away. I think of the dreams that could be crushed…or discovered; the opportunities that could be lost…or gained; I think of the work it will take and the blessings it could offer; but mostly, I think of this: how is it that I’m the right person for the job? And the answer is always the same: the Holy Spirit will do this. That’s what makes the impossible things of the world possible for God. God’s Spirit will do in and through us what we can’t do on our own! And that was enough for Mary to sign on the dotted line!
George had signed on the dotted line years ago. He tried so hard to get out of Bedford Falls, but Bedford Falls was exactly where he needed to be. There was a moment, however, when George Bailey paused to consider whether his life made any difference or not. And that pause painted a sad truth: the sight of Bedford Falls without George Bailey was rather quite ugly. Mr. Gower was a homeless drunk. Harry drowned in the pond. Ernie’s marriage failed. Martini and his family never make it out of Potter’s slums. Without George around, there just wasn’t much belief that things could be different. Clarence the Angel put it this way: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” What a difference one person can make.
Just like George’s life shaped many in ways he never knew, Mary’s life has the same effect on our faith. Because in spite of all her fears, worries and trepidations, she believes that God can do this. It might be crazy for a teenager to carry the Son of God in the world, but Mary chooses to believe. And this belief doesn’t stop there. It carries over into a beautiful song where Mary invites us to believe what is sometimes hard for us to see: to believe that God sees us, even in our difficult conditions; to believe that God will do great things for us; to believe that God offers us mercy and strength; to believe that God will correct the wrongs of the world, putting the abusers and powerful in their place, and lifting up the lowly, the forgotten, and the sad; to believe that God will fill us, help us and finally, God will remember us. No matter who we are, where we are and what we’ve done, God will remember us.
You might not feel as if you’re a big part of God’s story, but God does. This Christmas, I invite you to believe again in the wonderful news that God is sharing in His Son Jesus. But I’ll invite you to take one further step: I’ll invite you this Christmas to believe again that you also are a part of this story. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is offering to use you as a vessel of his holy work- tearing down strongholds, caring for the forgotten, blessing the nobodies of the world, healing the sick, filling the hungry with good things and so much more. And all this is possible because of God. May we find the same faith this Christmas that Mary found, a faith that chooses to believe that God can do anything. Amen.