Sermon Dec 24

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

December 24, 2013 • Christmas Eve

“Something to Ponder” • Luke 2:1-20

Christmas Eve is always a time to hear the Christmas story again. However, the writer Kathleen Norris suggests that the very familiarity of the Christmas story can work against our hearing of it, along with all of the distractions of this season. She wrote: “We have many defenses against hearing the Christmas readings and taking them to heart. The images are resoundingly familiar … and the nativity story is so colored by nostalgia that listening takes considerable effort. It’s hard for us to remember that, as is always the case with scripture, we are continually invited to hear ‘a new song,’ words full of possibilities we have not yet seen and can’t imagine. All we need are the ears to hear, but our tired old ears resist us at every turn.”

And then Norris adds that maybe it can happen if we are willing “… like Mary, to take the words in, to treasure and ponder them, because so much is possible when we do. As these words wash over us they penetrate, despite our defenses and distractions. Their spirit can move us and change us, whether we will it or not.”

There’s a line in Luke’s account that has always intrigued me. It comes at the end of the passage. Luke says: “All who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” Then comes this line: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

This was Mary’s biggest moment and what we hear from her is silence. The only time she ever speaks in the gospel stories is in Luke chapter 1, before the birth of Jesus; at the end of chapter 2 when Jesus is a boy of 12 in the temple in Jerusalem; and in John’s Gospel, at the wedding at Cana. Interestingly, here at the center of the Christmas story, the birth narrative, Mary says nothing at all. It’s as if what was happening at Christmas was too deep for words. Instead, Mary pondered all these things in her heart.

What does it mean to ponder? The dictionary definition suggests that it can mean a “careful weighing” or perhaps more pejoratively, “prolonged inconclusive thinking” about a problem. The roots of the word “ponder” in old English meant “to weigh”, or in another form, “to suspend” or “to hang”. The Greek verb implies “throwing together” or “tossing things around” in one’s heart.

So to ponder means to contemplate, to meditate, to chew on something over and over in your mind. Mary is caught up in a speechless wonder about the birth of Jesus. In the pictures you see of Mary in artwork or on Christmas cards, she always looks quiet and meditative, reflecting on all that has happened. And that seems like the right thing to do. In the book of Proverbs, the wise man urges his son: “Hold in your heart my words.” And the author of Psalm 119 says: “I have laid up thy word in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.”

Sometimes that’s what it takes to come to grips with some significant event, a turning point in life. We have to resist the temptation to try and explain it too quickly in words. But instead, to sit back and ponder it, to let the meaning sink in, to let it percolate down inside of us. That is when things fall into perspective and we learn the true value of events and happenings.

What do you suppose Mary was thinking about? Certainly she must have thought about the amazing truth that in the birth at Bethlehem, God has come to us. And especially I think she pondered the lowliness of God’s coming in the birth of Jesus. The most amazing thing about Christianity is our assertion that God has come down to earth and taken on a human life in the man, Jesus of Nazareth, that the Son of God was born and suffered and died as a real man.

Mary must have wondered about the implausibility of it all. Christmas seems so illogical. The birth of God’s Son takes place in an insignificant corner of the Roman empire; a common laborer; his young wife with an unexplainable pregnancy; a baby in a feedbox; and visited by shepherds. It’s all so gloriously topsy-turvy. Who would expect the Son of God to come under those circumstances?

What happens when we ponder the meaning of the Christmas story? In his book, “Beyond Survival,” Gerald Coffee, a U.S. Navy pilot, tells of his 7 year imprisonment as a P.O.W. in North Viet Nam. One Christmas he received some chocolate that had been wrapped in a bright red foil with shiny silver inside. He carefully folded the wrapper in the shape of a star – his Star of Bethlehem. With a thread from his blanket he attached the foil ornament to a straw he pulled from his broom and then jammed it into a crack above his bed. He wrote: “There was nothing to distract me from the awesomeness of the story of Christ’s birth … I was beginning to appreciate my own spirituality because I had been stripped of everything else. Everything by which I measured my identity was denied: my rank, my title, my uniform, clothes, money, car, the trappings of my religion … I realized that although I was hurting and lonely and scared, that this might be the most significant Christmas of my life.”

God came into the world centuries ago to ordinary parents in simple surroundings, and God still meets us in the common patterns of life. At Christmas, we sense life’s deeper dimensions, and God gives fresh meaning to the actions and relationships of our lives. And we too are witnesses to the wonder of Christmas.

It is something to ponder that God comes to us in the baby of Bethlehem. We are amazed at the lowliness of God’s approach. It’s so simple. We are not overwhelmed and swept off our feet by an irresistible force. Nowhere does it say that God knocks anyone’s door down. Instead, the Bible says: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens to me, I will come in.”

If I could give a gift to each of us this evening, it would be the pondering heart of Mary, so that as we ponder the Christmas story afresh, we may be filled with amazement and wonder at the grace and power of God.

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