The Barrel
Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 24, 2000
From a Nobody to a Somebody
Luke 1:39-55

The Rev. John H. Pavelko


It is a cold December evening. The snow is covering the ground. In the back corner of the yard stands a lone doghouse with the proverbial beagle lying forlorn on the roof. Snoopy is depressed because he does not know what to say to his little bird friend Woodstock. It is the night before Christmas and Snoopy realizes that he has never told Woodstock about Santa Claus. The beloved beagle fears that Santa Claus would not come to "tiny non-descript nobody bird." Snoopy then laments, "It's kind of sad at Christmas time to be a nobody bird."1

The season of Christmas time is not the only time of the year when it is sad to feel like a "nobody." It is sad whenever we feel unwanted, unappreciated, or unimportant. When we wonder if anyone cares whether we live or die. It can also be sad when we consider that in the grand scheme of things our lives will probably not make a dramatic impact on history. This produces a struggle within a person as the ego attempts to overcome feelings of insignificance. This inner conflict is played out at various levels depending on the person.2

A business woman may attempt to be the top sales person in her company as well as the PTA's "Mother of the Year." She strives to succeed in both in her career and with her family to prove that she can do it. A college professor will spend long hours in the library conducting research for his latest book that he hopes will earn him the Pulitzer Prize. A father will take his son out to the ice night after night to practice his hockey drills. Dad has visions of watching his son play for the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals. He is living vicariously through the life of his son. 

There is also the person who has given up. They know that they will never accomplish anything great. They will never be able to cheat death by making an immortal contribution to humanity. They will not even enjoy their "15 minutes of fame." So they simple have given up. They keep themselves busy with well meaning activities but accept the mediocre and never strive for excellence.

Each person is trying in their own to overcome those inner feelings of insignificance. Ironically, one day in a tiny backwater town, an unknown woman, a nobody really, was lifted up from obscurity and became a somebody. In one stunning, unexpected moment, Mary's life was transformed through the miracle of the Immaculate Conception and she became the mother of God.

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, our Scripture passage captures Mary's response to the news that the angel has brought to her. I will not attempt to prove the miracle that took place that day. N. T. Wright who has written many insightful works demonstrating the trustworthiness of the gospel accounts says that people's perceptions of the birth narratives depend on their perceptions of miracles in general. If they believe in miracles, they will believe in the birth narratives. If they don't, they won't.3 I have also learned over the years that my stunningly logical and skillfully crafted arguments seldom persuade people to believe in the supernatural. Belief in the supernatural requires faith. It cannot be reproduced, replicated, or proven. Therefore, I will allow you to decide for yourself whether this story is legend or not. However, even on the remote chance that it is legend, we can still agree that it presents us with a wonderful message of how a nobody can become a somebody.

Today's passage is a continuation of the angelic vision that Mary experienced. After the angel had left her, Mary hurried to a small town where her relative Elizabeth lived. Luke does not offer us any hint as to why she went to see Elizabeth. Was it to confirm what the angel told? Did she want to share with the older women the joy of their dual pregnancy? Or did she run because of some external pressure? An unwed pregnant girl would bring a certain degree of shame and condemnation on her family. I have always wondered why Luke never mentions the reaction of Mary's mother and father. Could Mary have run to Elizabeth because her parents did not believe her story? Maybe they were anger and upset with her. Angel or no angel, few parents would rejoice over the announcement by their unwed, teenage daughter, "Mom, Dad, I am pregnant?"

Whatever the reason for Mary's departure from Nazareth, her arrival at Elizabeth's and Zechariah's house brings great joy. When Elizabeth hears her voice, the child in her own womb leaps with joy, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and "...she [is] suddenly endued with the gift of prophecy"4 thereby enabling her to pronounce God's blessings upon Mary as the "mother of God." 

Mary's response to her cousin's blessings is in the form of a poem or song. Throughout the centuries, this song has been referred to as the Magnificat because in the Latin, Mary's first word is 'magnify'. The NIV translates the passage to read:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. 
Her words of praise reveal two things about her inner character and how a nobody became a somebody. First, Mary had a heart of gratitude. 

Sadness and anxiety lock up a soul. They imprison the human spirit. A despondent person cannot sing songs of praise but a grateful person cannot help but rejoice and give thanks to God.

Such gratitude enables a person to transcend the circumstances of life. Mary's words of praise may have been easily uttered the day she greet Elizabeth but they were eventually tested. She was warned of this a days after the birth of her son. She and Joseph took the child to the Temple to be circumcised. As they were leaving, an old man approached her by the name of Simeon. God had promised that he would see the Messiah before he died. Simeon knew that God had fulfilled his promise when he looked into the eyes of child. He then told her that not only would her son redeem Israel but also that that redemption would come with a cost-a sword would pierce her side. A sword did indeed cut deeply into Mary's soul when she saw her son hang on a cross.

Throughout the Scriptures, to be chosen by God requires the person not only to wear the 'crown of joy' but also to endure 'the cross of sorrow.' William Barclay writes, "The piercing truth is that God does not choose a person for ease and comfort and selfish joy but for a task that will take all that head and heart and hand can bring to it."5 God does not choose a person so that the person may enjoy self-indulgent pleasure but for sacrifice and service.

Unfortunately, both our society and even the Church are marked by the expectation that the good life is an entitlement. The pursuit of happiness has become the right to happiness. Social critics are worried that we have become not only soft and weak but also a culture of complainers. We are more likely to wine about a problem or file a lawsuit than patiently endure suffering or strive to overcome it. The tragic irony is that while we are a culture that experiences unprecedented affluence, we also appear to be a culture that has the most difficulty experiencing real joy.6 Despite our money, technological advances each of us has an "...inevitable date with discomfort, disease, distress and death."7 We need models like Mary to show us how gratitude enables us to transcend the pain of life.

The second thing that Mary's words reveal is her spirit of humility. Unfortunately, many people have wrongfully concluded she was chosen to bear the Son of God because of her own humbleness.

Early in my ministry, I was reading a children's book that retold the story of the birth of Jesus. The book was quite old and had been passed down through Carol's family. It had very elaborate and colorful pictures that caught the attention of Jennifer and Sarah. However, the author took a great deal of liberty in retelling why God choose Mary to be the 'Mother of our Lord.' In the narrative material he specifically stated that God choose Mary because she was the most worthy women in Nazareth. While I cannot disprove the author's remarks, nothing in the text suggests his conclusion.

John Calvin claims that Mary's use of the term lowliness, "...signifies 'a mean and despicable condition.' The meaning is, 'I was unknown and despised, but that did not prevent God from [consenting] to cast his eyes upon me.' "8 I would agree with the Great Reformer. Mary makes herself as nothing. She knows that she is unworthy to receive such a great blessing from God. She was of no account in the eyes of the world yet God still choose to bless her.

From the Middles ages we are told a story about a wander scholar who traveled throughout Europe studying in various libraries and living a rather meager existence. In an Italian town, he became ill and was taken to a hospital for the poor and destitute. His doctors were discussing his plight in Latin. They never once thought that the poor wretch could understand them. One of the physicians suggested that since he was such a worthless wanderer they might use him for medical experiments. The scholar turned his head and said to the physician in Latin, "Call no man worthless for whom Christ died."9 

God chooses the discarded of the world to accomplish his plans and purpose for many reasons. First, he wants to remind us of the surpassing value of every person and every creature. Secondly, he wants to demonstrate that it is his power at work not our own human strength. The Apostle Paul recognized this and so would write that "[God's] power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor. 12:9) Therefore, we like Mary should never boast of our own accomplishment but always say, "the Mighty One has done great things for me."

Striving for success, power, fame, and fortune have become the trademarks of our society. Mary sought after none of those things and God blessed her not alone with the honor of bearing his Son but also with the sorrow of watching his Son die on a suspended plank of wood. Who knows what honor God may choose to bestow on us. Whatever it be, it will not come because of our pride or our arrogance or how much money we make or how much property we own. He will not make us into a somebody so that we will never know suffering or hardship. Only he can make the nobodys of life into somebodys but he does it to accomplish his plans not to elevate us to stardom. 

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord, let us remember how and why God took a nobody and transformed her into a somebody.

1 Charles Schultz, Peanuts, citied by Glendon Harris, Pulpit Resource, "Getting to Bethlehem for Christmas," Vol. 10, No. 4, 42.
2 David P. Gushee, "How immortality almost killed me," Christianity Today, March 3, 1997 Vol. 41, No. 3,  43, Online: explains that the quest for significance reveals the soul's search for eternity.
3 N. T. Wright, "God's way of acting," Religion Online, Online: 
4 John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels, Calvin Commentaries.
5 William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, Revised Edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press 1975), Logos Software.
6 Paul Brand with Phillip Yancy, The Gift Nobody Wants, (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 291 explores the irony that
7 David Neff, "Let Mary Be," December 8, 1997 Vol. 41, No. 14, 14, 
8 John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels, Calvin Commentaries, Ages Software.
9 William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke.

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