Friday, January 12, 2007

The Right Thing to Do

Hebrews 10: 5-10
Luke 1: 46b-55

Preached on the fourth weekend of Advent

Four Sundays of Advent. 30 some-odd days of Christmas songs on Magic 93. 1 Christmas pageant, one Christmas concert, 1 showing of It’s a Wonderful Life, and at least one showing of “Christmas Story”. We’re making our lists, we’re checking them twice, were going to find out where there’s butter and spice. Turkey, ham, tofu for Mia, got it all. Vacuumed the house, swept the kitchen, set votives in all the right places. Almost ready.

Almost ready for what?

This is a time of gift giving. It is a time of remembrance, of asking forgiveness, of renewal of one’s first principles in faith. I hope that the past month has been one where you have journeyed to this point of remembering who Christ is for you, why he has come, and why we celebrate his birth. And now, nearly at the end of Advent, we return some measure of ourselves and our talents in an attempt to give back what we have been given. For our having been saved by who this baby becomes, we want to somehow spread our joy and gratitude. So we clean, we cook, we invite people over, we seek to repair torn relationships. We seek to maintain relationships that mean something to us.

God knows we care by the care that we take. Let me explain by telling a story. It is a story from Mexico, but of course I have to hear it in Pennsylvania for the first time! I first heard it in song on a Christmas album by a newgrass group I saw about a month ago.

There was once a girl named Maria who was walking to market. She stopped to rest, and under the brush next to the path lay a small bird with a broken wing. She picked it up gently and laid it in her apron pocket wrapped in a handkerchief. At the market, she bought her goods, but her last peso went to buy a small birdcage with which to protect the bird. On the way back home, she picked up stray kernels
of corn to feed it with, having spent all her money.

The bird, over time, got stronger.

Christmas Eve came to Maria’s small town. The tradition there was for the villagers to leave gifts for the Child at the altar of the church, in front of the manger they had set up. There were gifts of incense, some of the richer townspeople had left gold and diamonds, and other rich gifts left in ornate and beautiful boxes, all piled in front of the manger.

Maria carried the birdcage to the church, and was ashamed for her gift—this ratty old cage, made of rushes, grass, and twine, holding a small bird.

Because she was ashamed, she waited until almost midnight to go inside. It was dark, other than the light from the candles and the reflected glow from the tinsel and the gift boxes. And she was alone. This was good, because no one would see who left this pitiful gift. Suddenly, but gently, a voice called out. “Maria? What brings you to me? If the bird in the cage is your offering, open the door, let me see!”

So, she did. Well, of course, the bird flew right out of the cage, and up into the dark rafters of the church, and she cried to have lost even that gift, as pitiful as it was. But then, it turned to midnight, and the church bells began to ring.

And the bird began to sing. It was a nightingale, and it sang with the bells. Its voice matched the bells perfectly, and the duet was glorious. On and on the bells went, accompanying the voice of the fully healed and joyous bird. It was a song that no one could recapture with whistle, or guitar, or voice. The bird sang it’s thanks to Maria for saving it, and Maria realized that the gift she had given to the Christ Child wasn’t the gift of the bird that night. It was the gift of mercy all those weeks before, and this song at this moment, the first minutes of the day of Christ’s birth, was actually the gift she was to receive.

The things that are important aren’t always given on Christmas. Sometimes they are given months before, and Christmas is the time to acknowledge them, or to receive them. Mary wasn’t told she was with child at Christmas. Like any mother, she carried Jesus nine months. When she was informed and agreed that she would be carrying a child to term, and that the child would become the Son of God, then that is when she said what she said to Elizabeth in today’s gospel passage, what classical musicians can tell you is the text of the Magnificat, which is what “magnifies” is in Latin.

She joyfully agreed to do God’s will, and it is for this she is celebrated. And that did not happen at Christmas, but it is at Christmas that we acknowledge what she did, and what it meant.

Because of Mary, Jesus was able to be born. Because of Mary, God’s plan to show us his love for us in this way came together. Because of Mary, Jesus grew as a human being.

Mary chose to do God’s will. And it didn’t seem immediately to be a wise thing to do. Joseph was greatly affected by her decision, and came close to undoing the agreement he had with her family. After Jesus was born, they had to run in fear to Egypt to avoid the death squads of Herod. But it all came to fruition in the end—Jesus grew to be a man; a man whose choosing humanity and dying on the cross saved all of us.

If you act in faith, if you choose the faithful path, then God’s purposes will come together. On God’s time, in God’s way. Our responsibility is to apply faith, and persistence, and courage. It may not look like it is supposed to, but we have to believe that in the end, God knows and will bring it all together.

And so we do the right thing. We clean house, we maintain or renew old relationships, and sometimes we receive grace from an unknown direction. We feed and keep our hurt birds because it is the right thing to do. We don’t do it because we expect something, but we do it because it is the right thing to do.

Mary accepted God’s responsibility because it was the right thing to do. And she had the faith to carry it to the end—to birth a baby, to raise him through childhood and then to manhood. And like the bird, the gift she received was unexpected and glorious. It was the gift of a son. This son, the Son of God.

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