The Greatest Story ever told
What does it mean?
1st Sunday of Christmas Luke 2:15-21
Are you one of those people who like to read the end of a book first, just to check out that you want to bother with the whole thing? Or are you tempted to throw your book at the person who interrupts your reading with "Can you believe that the butler did it?", and would never take a premature peek at the last page?
The thing is, that with the Christmas story, we know the ending, whether we are an end peeker, or a wait and see who happens person. We know the end very, very well. And we know that with all its twists and turns, it is a happy story: the anticipation of Christmas is followed by the drama and joy of Easter. It's a plot made in heaven.
But for people who were in the first Christmas story over 2000 years ago, there was no such certainty. We find it hard to get our minds around the fact that the story is so old, and there is the temptation to relate it to our times now with all the information and knowledge that is sloshing around the 21st century.
Certainly there were lots of hints at things to come: there were messengers from God, prophetic utterances; shepherds rushing off the fields to tell of an angelic choir singing that the saviour is born. Indeed, I am pretty certain that the people of that time were suitably impressed.
But there were still an awful lot of gaps in the picture, and plenty of ambiguity. People argued about what the signs meant, and disagreed about the interpretation of the prophetic writings in the Old Testament, or they just didn't notice what was going on at all, just continued with their every day living.
And into all that ambiguity steps Mary, and it certainly has an effect on her. It is encapsulated in those few words that describe Mary's response to the whole thing. Everyone else is amazed, but Mary is more thoughtful: "But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart." ‘she put them away in that secret place until the day it all made sense, and I think that was the day of resurrection, when the last piece of the puzzle dropped into place.
But back to the story line - What was she thinking? What did it mean to bear God's child? How will Joseph cope with this child? What did it mean that he would be called the Son of the Most High? Or that he would inherit the throne of his ancestor David? What does it mean to be Good News to all people? To be the Messiah? All these can mean so many things. And how do you bring up a child like this? Can you tell him off? Can you tell him anything?
'What sort of career should he be steered into? Military training, a trade learning? Will he be an outlaw; will he operate inside the system or outside of it? Will he be hurt? Will his family be hurt? Really, there is so very much left unanswered, so much that is unclear about the way ahead. No wonder Matthew wrote "but Mary".
There are quite a lot of "buts", quite a lot to treasure up and think about. It would seem that despite the clear and miraculous interventions of God in the day-to-day lives of this little community in Palestine, an awful lot was left to the humans involved to fathom out. And that seems to be part of God's plan: The way that the story of salvation is woven with the story of humankind. God intends us to think about what is happening, like Mary do a bit of pondering. God’s plan is all there for us to see, just needs to be worked out.
Over the last few weeks, we have celebrated a familiar, well-worn and much-loved story. But for these few moments let us stand in the shoes of those who didn't know how it would all work out, who didn’t have the final chapter to peek at, and who had only their faith to help them put together the pieces of the heavenly jigsaw that was being laid out before them. Often our own lives are a jumble of such pieces; sometimes there are some moments of great clarity, answers to prayer, maybe some signs from God or words of instruction.
But let's face it, these moments of certainty can be rather rare, and there are a lot of questions unanswered and uncertainties to face. And there always seems to be an awful lot of just getting on with it, what some people like to call walking by faith. But this is a great privilege. Rather than tie everything up with spiritual certainties, God gives us the space we need to allow our own Christian story to unfold for each one of us. We don’t and never will have all the answers; part of our faith is living with mystery.
I hope we have been enriched by the story of Christmas as it has been retold again this year. But now is the time to make space too to follow Mary's example and ponder not just the wonderful gifts God has given us, but the questions and uncertainties that those things raise. What does it mean, for each of us, here and now, to be the legacy of the Christmas child? We know the ending in a way, and it's a happy one, but there's so much more to come, each one of us has a part to play in this exciting and rather scary story. This is our chance to take part in the greatest story ever told. We hold the future in our hands, we can pass on the wonder of the story of salvation on – or we can let it slip into obscurity – both in our lives and in the lives of those we touch.