by: Denise Robinson
Treasuring Words … Pondering Meanings
Matthew 16:13-15; Luke 2:19
Our Advent journey is over. For the past four weeks, we have visited the houses of the four Gospel authors, where we’ve experienced what Christmas means from that Gospel writer’s perspective and how Christmas is celebrated there. We’ve learned about the hope of the resurrection at Mark’s house, rejoiced in God’s faithfulness throughout history at Matthew’s, found peace in the orderly story of Jesus’ life and ministry at Luke’s, and felt the love and seen the light at John’s. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke transported us to the angel Gabriel’s appearance – first to Zechariah and then to Mary – and then to the manger where Christ was born as a child. The angels have announced Jesus’ birth, the baby has been born, and the shepherds have visited and now have returned to their fields glorifying God. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are now alone. I suspect that after their long day, Joseph and Jesus are sleeping. But what about Mary? Luke 2:19 tells us: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Can you see Mary sitting in the darkness of the stable, staring at her newborn Son? She is no doubt exhausted by the day’s events, but her mind is spinning. Her mind takes her back to that day just over nine months before when Gabriel greeted her with the words, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” She recalls how the angel told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and she would bear a son and how the child will be holy and called the Son of God. As she looks at the baby lying next to her, she treasures the words because she knows the child is not Joseph’s son, but was conceived of the Holy Spirit. But she ponders as well: What will this mean for the child? For her? For the world? What will it be like to be the mother of the Son of God? Teach him to walk and talk and how to live in the world? What will he know? What will he need to be taught? And then she recalls the words of Elizabeth who sent went to see after Gabriel left that day. Mary entered the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Elizabeth greeted her as the “mother of my Lord” and then said to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And finally, there were the words of the shepherds who came to the stable, telling her of their visit from angels declaring her son to be the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. These are words to treasure. But, what do they mean she wonders?
In 1984, the Gospel singer and comedian Mark Lowry composed, for a Christmas program, a series of questions he had for Mary. The inspiration for the questions came from comments made by Lowry’s mother. The first related to Jesus’ birth. His mother said: “If anyone on earth knew for sure that Jesus was virgin born, Mary knew!” Then Lowry recalled the words of his mother about Mary who stood silently at the cross while Jesus was crucified. As Lowry tells the story, he comments that if he were being crucified for claiming to be God, his mother would be pitching a fit. He’s crazy, but don’t kill him. He’s a liar, but don’t kill him. The silence of Mary at the cross is such a great testimony to the fact of who Jesus is.” Lowry held on to his list of questions for Mary for seven years until, in 1991, he approached Gospel songwriter Buddy Greene about putting them to music. Two weeks later Greene called Lowry and “Mary, Did You Know?” was the song we just heard.
The song asks several questions. Some of the questions have to do with miracles: did she know Jesus would one day walk on water, give sight to the blind, calm a storm. Others have to do with Jesus’ divinity: did she know Jesus would save us, that he had walked with the angels, that he is Lord of all Creation, and that he is the great “I Am,” meaning God himself come to earth as a child. On one hand, when I hear the words of this song, I find myself wanting to say, “Yes, Mary knew the answer to all of those questions.” But then I wonder. The words Mary heard about Jesus – the ones she treasured and pondered – certainly spoke to her son being the Son of God. But they left a lot of gaps. The Gospels don’t give us much insight to Jesus as a child.
In the second chapter of Luke, we are told about two other events Mary witnessed in Jesus’ childhood. The first takes place when Jesus, at 40 days of age, is brought by his parents to the temple in Jerusalem. There they are met by an elderly man named Simeon, who had been promised he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. Seeing Jesus, Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God, saying, “My eyes have seen your salvation … a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Luke records that Mary and Joseph were amazed at what was being said about Jesus. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.” And then he gave her this warning: “A sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Then, secondly, when Jesus was 12 years of age, he went with Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover. When the festival was over, Mary and Joseph set out for home and assumed Jesus was in the caravan somewhere with family or friends. A day’s journey toward home, they realize Jesus isn’t anywhere to be found, and they return to Jerusalem to search for him. It takes them three days to find him. Where do they find him? He’s in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening and asking questions. Mary has only one question for him and I can only imagine the tone of voice: “Child, why have you treated us like this?” Jesus responds, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Luke comments that Mary and Joseph did not understand what he said to them, meaning that even with the information given to them, Jesus’ earthly parents still had questions. Luke tells us that Jesus returned to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, and was obedient to them. Luke 2:51 parrots the words of Luke 2:19: “Mary treasured all these things in her heart.”
We don’t know what Mary saw or heard for the next 18 or so years. But the next time we read about Jesus and Mary together, Jesus is about 30 years of age and he and the disciples have been invited to a wedding in Cana in Galilee. Mary is there at the wedding as well. At some point in the wedding reception, Mary turns to Jesus and says, “They’ve run out of wine.” That’s all she said to him, but it was enough. Jesus knew what she meant. Mary wasn’t asking Jesus to go buy more wine – by now, she knew what he could do. What was Jesus’ response? He said his time had not yet come. But it had; it was time for him to begin his ministry and to let the world know who he really was. Mary knew it and hearing it from his mother, Jesus accepted it.
Then we get to the cross. All four Gospels writers tell us that as Jesus is crucified his mother, Mary, stands and watches. No reaction is recorded. No screaming, no crying. It seems that by this time Mary knows: knows of the miracles, knows of Jesus’ mission in coming to earth, knows that he is Savior, Messiah, and Lord. The next we hear about Mary is in Acts 1. Jesus has been resurrected from the dead and has ascended into heaven. Mary is in the Upper Room with the disciples and other believers, praying and waiting for the Holy Spirit. Mary’s mission in raising Jesus has ended; but her mission in the kingdom of God continues.
In our Advent journey to each of the Gospel houses we’ve been looking at how they experience Christmas. But the real question each have answered is: Who is Jesus? For Matthew, he’s Emmanuel – “God with us” – the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. For Mark, he’s the good news, come to call us to repentance and to bring us into the kingdom of God. For Luke, he’s the one to bring peace to the world – to bring together Jews and Gentiles and to reconcile us to one another and to God. For John, Jesus is the light come into the world that overcomes darkness, revealing to us the love of God.
Jesus, in his teaching, asked a lot of questions. All four Gospels record instances of Jesus asking people who they think he might be. Matthew 16 gives us one such example. Jesus has been teaching and healing and performing other signs, all pointing to his true identity. He has claimed to be the Son of God and forgiven people of their sins. The Jewish leaders have challenged him, asking for a sign from heaven – conveniently ignoring all the signs he has already given. Now, alone with his disciples, he asks them who people say that he is. The disciples respond with a number of choices: Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. But then Jesus gets to the real question: “But who do you say that I am?” The disciples are those closest to him. They have heard all of his teachings, seen all of his miracles, been with him daily. The question is intensely personal and Jesus waits for the answer. Only one, it seems, of the disciples is willing to answer the question. Peter speaks up and says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
It’s the end of Advent for this season. We’ve visited the four Gospel houses and we’ve gone inside and heard all the stories. We have one more stop to make – and that’s to return to our own homes. In keeping with our Advent journey, what does your Gospel house look like? Is it a simple log cabin like Mark’s? A large, old, rambling Victorian like Matthew’s? A neat and orderly Colonial like Luke’s? Or an old sturdy house with lots of windows and light like John’s? It’s probably a question you haven’t thought of before.
Martin Luther, for example, viewed God as the all-powerful, all-knowing king of all creation. He even wrote the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” In my mind if we were to visit Luther’s Gospel house, we would see a large impregnable German castle set atop a mountain and filled inside with warriors armed for battle. In contrast, Charles Wesley wrote these words about God: “Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of Heav’n to earth come down; fix in us thy humble dwelling; all thy faithful mercies crown! Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure unbounded love Thou art; visit us with Thy salvation, enter every trembling heart.” Wesley’s house is not near as grand, but it’s filled with love.
Having problems seeing your house? A key to the answer is answering the question Jesus asked so often: “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a question that no one else can answer for us; each of us must answer for ourselves. Begin with how you would answer that question.
Perhaps right now, if you’re being honest, your house doesn’t reflect Jesus at all. Your house reflects just you. Or, perhaps Jesus has one room in your house – and he’s encouraged to stay in that room. Where you can visit him on your terms and keep him away from the rest of the house. Maybe your house reflects Jesus on the outside, but once you get inside, there’s not too much of him to be seen. If any one of these is the case, I have to tell you that the only answer Jesus will accept is the one given by Peter – you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God – and by the four Gospel writers. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all gave us a different perspective of Jesus, but each one of them made him the focal point of their home. What does your home say about Jesus? Who do you say that he is?