Mary did you know?
Director Frank Capra's favorite film was It's a Wonderful Life. Most of us have seen it and if not it is not because we haven't had the opportunity. It's a mainstay of the Christmas season with NBC and its affiliates. It isn't the sweet story of Rudolph or the classic of Dickens. Some people dismiss it because it seems hokey or simple but it is really a rather dark story about the question of identity and purpose for one's life.
Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey who wants to travel the world. His goal is simple he wants to "dust this crummy little town off [his] feet and see the world." He is going to" build airfields... skyscrapers a hundred stories high... bridges a mile long". Repeatedly, his plans to escape Bedford Falls are highjacked. His father suffers a stroke and he takes over the savings and loan. His brother marries and goes to work for his father-in-law. The money saved for his honeymoon get away is used to stop a bank run so he and Mary stay in Bedford Falls. George sees his purpose and identity as "out there", in doing grand things, in "being somebody else". What he discovers is that he is exactly where he was meant to be.
Why does this film remain popular? I think one reason is that it touches a question that some people have asked themselves, "Would the world be better off without me?" It confronts a tendency for us to think, "If only I could...then I'd be..." It attacks the root of bitterness and discouragement that some have for not getting the breaks in life.
Consider for a moment the predicament of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Here is a girl, living in a time when the lives of most people never changed. Her life is lived among people with a strict understanding of what is and isn't allowed. Unlike George, she doesn't want to get away, she wants to do what is expected of her and be a normal person. Like George, she doesn't get her wish.
Have you ever wondered why it is that angels tell us to "Fear not" when they suddenly make themselves known to us? It's because we know what they tell us will change our lives forever. Mary hears the most amazing promise. She, who is a virgin, will bear a child. In Gabriel's announcement there are three parallel statements and then the ultimate point. A son will be named Joshua, or Jesus, meaning God Saves. He will be great and known as the Son of the Most High. He is given David's throne and rules over Jacob forever. All of this, his name, his purpose, his identity, his Lordship leads to the unalterable fact that Christ's Kingdom will not end. Faced with this news Mary, made aware of Elisabeth's pregnancy her response shows amazing faith and understanding. "Let it be to me as you have said." Mary wasn't the first woman to face such a challenge. Esther was put into a potentially deadly, no-win, situation but as her uncle reminded her, it may be that she was born for such a time as this.
Last week we started on this Advent journey. We're moving along toward the unknown future which God has lined out for us. We're not alone but travelling with other's who want to see what God is doing. We are getting rid of our unneeded baggage. The unexpected will come and we're ready for it. We'll meet it with flexibility and assurance that God is in charge.
God is in charge of our journey. It goes best when our response is like Mary's. It goes less well when we harbor bitterness and regrets like Capra's George Bailey. Let's add to our attitude about our journey one of "peace". Biblical peace is first an inner sense of "things are okay" even when the situation screams disaster. To gain a sense of peace we start where we ended last week. God is in charge of the journey.
Add to this the attitude of Mary which includes humility, unquestioned willingness, stark awareness of her reality, and plain old guts. This will happen in our lives when we are open to hearing God answer our prayers in His way, not our way. "Lord, get me through this season" is a valid prayer, but our understanding of what that means may NOT be God's desire for our lives. When we embrace God's answer we're showing the type of faith Mary showed.
Peter Larson, Pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church, said, "Despite our efforts to keep him out, God intrudes. The life of Jesus is bracketed by two impossibilities: a virgin's womb and an empty tomb. Jesus entered our world through a door marked "No Entrance" and left through a door marked "No Exit."
Today, this tree and this table remind us of this truth. All those who are baptized are invited to come, eat and drink for this is the reason Jesus was born. No celebration of Advent would be complete without remembering the depth of love God showed for us and the willingness of Christ to come and die in our place.