The scriptures say: “But Mary treasured these words…and pondered them in her heart.”
When I hear this familiar part of our Christmas story…an image comes to my mind. I picture Mary, holding the baby Jesus, rocking him. It is so peaceful…she’s smiling… reflecting on this new life in her arms…contemplating the words of the angels and the shepherds. It is a serene image. It is calm, it is quiet.
I am also not so sure that it is accurate. “Mary pondered these things in her heart.” The Greek word that is translated into ponder is actually a mash up of two words, forming the Greek word “sumballo,” which literally translates into “thrown together.”
So, this scripture could be translated as “Mary treasured all these words, and threw them together, in her heart.” Threw together. Like a baker throws together ingredients into a mixing bowl. It feels a bit more chaotic and confusing, than when I think of the word “ponder.”
But think about it for a moment: In just 9 months, Mary had experienced so much. It had to be overwhelming:
- Mary was a teenager
- An angel appeared and spoke to her
- She suddenly found herself pregnant
- Her fiancé, who was understandably upset, planned to break up with her, but the angel spoke to him and so he stuck it out
- They had to leave home to travel to Bethlehem, a strange city
- They can’t find a place to stay, and have to stay in a stable
- In that strange stable, she goes into labor and gives birth
- Again, angels appeared
- And a star showed up in the sky
- And then a bunch of shepherds show up
It’s a lot to take in. And the scriptures tell us she was “throwing all of this together” in her heart. Mary had to be asking: “what does all of this mean God? What does this mean?”
Tonight, I get Mary. I understand. And I think at some level, we all do. As we gather to celebrate this holy night, there has been so much that we all have experienced in this past year.
- Who knew a year ago, that tonight, we would be worshipping with candles and communion at home, and that the Sanctuary would look…well, it would look like this…
- Who knew a year ago, that we’d spend ten months…and counting, in a pandemic, separated from family and loved ones?
- Who knew that people we know, or know of, would be exposed, or get sick, or even die
- Or that individuals and businesses would be struggling financially the way they are
- Or that milestones and celebrations, like graduations, birthdays and holidays would be changed or even lost
- Or that we’d have to learn to work, or go to school, online
- Or that this would all be so exhausting
- And then we are here tonight, celebrating the birth of the Savior
A year ago, who knew any of this? It has been a lot. “Sumballo.” It’s a lot to throw together in our hearts…it is a lot for us to ponder. Tonight, we ask the same question as Mary: “God, what does this all mean?
But then tonight we hear the Christmas story. And from this story, there are a couple of things that I think we can learn from, and we can lean in to.
The first is this: There is light.
On Monday night, Lori, Nathan, Sam, our dog Kennedy and I drove out into the country, out by Rice Lake State Park. We found a dark spot away from any lights, and turned off onto a gravel road, and we got out and we stared at what is being called the Christmas star. Of course, we know it is not really a star. It is the planets Saturn and Jupiter, aligned in such a way that they looked like a bright star.
It was really cool to see. And I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t similar to the star that was overhead that night in Bethlehem. When God created the heavens and the earth, when God put the planets and stars on their courses, did God know then what would happen, and arrange it up in such a way that on that first Christmas night, 13.8 billion years later, Saturn and Jupiter would align, and that “star” would appear over the baby Jesus, to guide those who wanted to see him? As a sign of hope? I think so.
And I can’t help but wonder: when God created the heavens and the earth, and put the planets and starts in their courses, did God know that we, here in the year 2020, would need a sign of hope? Could God have set it up in such a way that 13.8 billion years later…this week, in fact, these stars would align? So that we too would receive a sign of hope, just when we needed it? I think so.
Because in the midst of darkness, humans are, I believe, hard-wired to follow light. As a child, I remember my parents driving us past darkened farm fields at night, on our way to celebrate Christmas with my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. We looked out the car windows, and we couldn’t see anything out there.
And I remember that as we’d get close, my brothers and I would keep watching, looking for our first glimpse of the light…in this case the big, bright yard light that lit up my grandparent’s farmyard. And when we saw it, we knew we were almost there. It was like a beacon that guided us.
Since humans first began moving from place to place, we have used the stars to guide us to our destinations.
In the darkness, we are hardwired to follow light. In the midst of all of the things we have to deal with…in the midst of the challenges and difficulties…pandemics…racial strife…political division…in the midst of all of this that we ponder…that we throw together in our hearts… the story we hear tonight reminds us to simply see the light that God puts before us.
The second thing that we can lean in to in our story, is trust.
Not long before his death, one of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen wrote a book called Sabbatical Journeys, in which he wrote about some friends of his who were trapeze artists, called the Flying Roudellas. They told Nouwen that there is a special relationship between the flyer and the catcher on the trapeze. This relationship is governed by important rules, such as “The flyer is the one who lets go, and the catcher is always the one who catches.” As the flyer swings on the trapeze high above the crowd, the moment comes when he must let go. He flings his body out in mid-air. His job is to keep flying and wait for the strong hands of the catcher to take hold of him at just the right moment. One of the Flying Roudellas told Nouwen, “The flyer must never try to catch the catcher.” The flyer’s job is to wait in absolute trust. The catcher will catch him, but he must wait.
Nouwen said, “… Waiting is not a static state, it is a time when God is working behind the scenes, and the primary focus of his work is on us.”
My friends, I cannot pretend to know what your life is really like. I get to hear tidbits. But I don’t know all of your joys…I don’t know all of your sorrows. I am, however, pretty confident about one thing: At some point this past year, you have felt like a flyer. And maybe…just maybe, you still do.
You have felt like the person who has let go of the trapeze, and you’re hanging out there in midair. Maybe you are focused, expectant and calm. But maybe…just maybe you feel like you’re flailing around out there, and you are reaching, feeling out of control, trying so hard to catch, because you’re not certain that you are going to be caught.
Is this you? Because to be totally transparent, there have been days that I’ve felt like this. There have been some days, especially this past 10 months, when life has felt out of control.
But here’s the thing: God is at work. God sent a star. God sent light. And the light exists to show us the way…and the light exists to remind us to trust.
And the light has a name. The name is Jesus.
You may feel like a flyer, out of control…but God is going to catch you.
Remember the first words the angels spoke to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy. Unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”
We treasure God’s promise, and we ponder it…we throw it together in our hearts with everything else going on in our lives. And we remember: Look for the star, for it will bring you to the child Jesus, and trust that God is with you, and that no matter what, God will catch you. God will catch you. Look, and trust.
Thanks be to God!