2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


O Favored One?

Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38

Archaeologists tell us that Nazareth was a community of perhaps 150 souls when Mary lived there. Everyone knew everyone's business in Nazareth. How hard it must have been for Mary! She must have carried such a load of criticism and scorn along with the baby in her womb. O favored one? And that trip from Nazareth down to Bethlehem, we picture Mary riding 90 miles on a donkey, but I suggest to you that nowhere in the scripture is a donkey ever mentioned; as far as we know, she walked. The donkey is an invention of Christian artists, not of the text. And then to feel those first labor pains in a strange village where you know no one except your husband and you're in a barn. Who's going to help? Those of you that have had babies know how frightening those first labor pains are but imagine what it would be like? You had waiting for you the finest of medical care. She had waiting for her—sheep, cows, and a clumsy husband.

O favored one? Not the kind of favor that any one of us would want to readily sign up for. But that's the story of how God came to Mary. God came in the form of trouble. Mary who was a peasant girl in an oppressed society, who had nothing and was nobody; God came to her as a pregnancy she neither sought nor wanted.

About four years ago, I read a story in the "Christian Century" written by a man named Brian Ragen. He tells of his own childhood. When he was a child, his father had one story that he liked to tell. One and only one. It was the story of the "good little boy" Those are the kind of stories that fathers tell, of course. The story of the good little boy went something like this. There was once upon a time, long ago, a good little boy who was the oldest son of a poor, poor widowed mother. He had younger brothers and sisters and together they had nothing. They barely survived, and the little boy would go to a store after school every day to work and bring home his meager earnings to help his family survive. The family was a Roman Catholic, and on Christmas Eve in the good little boy's parish at the 11:00 PM mass it was the custom for everyone to bring a gift to lay at the manger of the Christ child.

Advent came. The little boy was finally old enough to go to midnight mass and he wondered what he would give the Christ child because he didn't have anything. The only thing that he had in all the world was a little toy car. It was his favorite thing and it was broken. Two of the four wheels were missing, the roof was bashed in, but when he played doctor, the little toy was his ambulance. When he played soldier, the little car was the tank; it was whatever he needed it to be. It was all he had. He couldn't imagine giving that to the baby Jesus. He decided he would get a before-school job. "I'll work during Advent and then I'll have some money to do something for the baby Jesus." He did it. He got up early in the morning before school and worked. And then on Christmas Eve, in the evening, he was sitting at the family table, counting his extra earnings and wondering if there was time to go out and buy a gift for the baby Jesus or whether he would just give his earnings. His mother came through the kitchen, and when she saw him there with that money she said, "Oh my son, thank you so much. Now we'll have enough for a real Christmas dinner." And she gathered up his meager earnings and ran off to the store to purchase something.

The good little boy went to his room and tried not to be angry with his mother, and he saw his broken down little car. That's all he had, so he took it with him to midnight mass and made his way to the manger. The church was one of those wonderful traditional churches with the long, long, long center aisle and then side rooms, wings we might call them, transepts is the proper name, a few pews way over here and a few pews over there. In one transept they put up the manger scene. Everyone came in and laid their gifts at the foot of the baby Jesus and the little boy came hiding his broken down toy in the corner and he sits in the front row among strangers. Just before the service starts an usher goes by and looks at the gifts in their wrappings and sees this broken toy there and says, "Who left this piece of junk here?" And he grabs it and throws it across the room to the far transept. At just that time the procession begins and the clergy with their vestments and fanfare begin down the long center aisle. Just as they get to the front of the center aisle to cross the aisle that moves from one transept to another, they stopped. The baby Jesus had come to life and he was crawling on the cold stones across the sanctuary. Everyone dropped to their knees as the baby Jesus goes to the far transept and finds the broken toy and holds it under his arm and crawls back to his crib to become, with the toy in his arms, the little plastic Jesus in the manger again.

Brian Ragen, whose father told him this story, wrote later that as a child he came to resent the story. He resented it because of who his father was, His father was a drunk and abusive, and Brian had a terrible childhood with this father who would tell him this glorious story. Brian always thought that his father was presenting himself as the good little boy. Brian knew his father wasn't good. When Brian grew up, he left the church and then later as an adult he began to make his way back. He came to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass one time, sat in the pew, and was thinking about the story that his now deceased father had told him as a child. He was thinking about how he had always resented that story and how the father seemed to be lifting himself up as if he had been the good little boy. And then he realized that his father was not the good little boy, but his father was the broken toy, and everything changed. He realized how as broken as his father was, perhaps more than anything in all the world, his father wished to be picked up and cradled in the arms of the Christ child.1

And that's our story, that's Mary’s story. It's the story of how this lonely, frightened, peasant girl could be visited by the Christ child, and it is the story of how we and all of God's children, when we are broken and tossed aside as worthless, are gathered up in the arms of God. Are you broken? Christ's arms surround you. Do you know those that are broken? Christ came to hold them in his arms. Thanks be to God.

Dr. Carl L. Schenck Manchester United Methodist Church

1. From "The baby Jesus and the Angel of Light,” by Brian Abel Ragen, The Christian Century, December 13, 1995, p. 1212-1215.