Mary, Jacob, and George

In 1946, Frank Capra (1897-1991) released his movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. It was nominated for five Oscars. It has become a holiday classic, seen by many. The storyline revolves around George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997). He wants to see the world but is shackled by responsibility to his hometown, Bedford Falls. George doesn’t have a clue the difference he has made to the people in his life.

I love the scene where absent-minded Uncle Billy, played by Thomas Mitchell (1892-1962) lost $8,000 of Bailey Building and Loan’s money. That would be like losing approximately $122,000 today. On clue, the bank examiner suddenly arrives, played by Charles Halton (1876-1959) and George begins to panic. Without success, George looks everywhere for the money. With his shattered dreams in his hands, he decides to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. He decides life is not worth living. So, to speak, he is wrestling with God and wished he had never been born.

He is saved by his guardian angel, angel second class, Clarence Oddbody, played by Henry Travers (1874-1965). He is the one who grants George’s wish. He shows George what his world would be like if he had never been born. The picture is not pretty. His wife, Mary, play by Donna Reed (1921-1986), never married so his children were never born. His mother struggles for survival. His brother, Harry, drowns, so others he had saved died. His Uncle Billy was institutionalized. His town, Bedford Falls, was run by his enemy, Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954). It is now called Potterville, where life is dark. Considering this new information, George begins to realize the difference he has made on his world. With nowhere else to go, he returns to the bridge and asks for his old life back. He wants to live again! George is a changed man, and the transformation is complete. The life that seemed so pointless suddenly has meaning. That leads us to two questions. How do you feel about your life? How would your world change if you had never have been born? That takes us to our scripture reading.

We find ourselves in the first chapter of Luke, verses forty-seven through fifty-five. The main character in the scene is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Forget about everything you think you know about her. She was not a blond attractive woman in her mid-twenties. She was a dark complicated Middle Eastern girl between the age of thirteen and sixteen years of age. That was common in her age. Her and Joseph’s marriage was an arranged marriage He may have been thirty. The scriptures tell us they were betrothed. In other words, they were not legally married, but they were legally bound. They acted like they were married in every way but one, sex. That fact is important because Mary was pregnant. Did you hear what I said? Mary was pregnant without the need of a man. Jesus’ birth was a virgin birth. Mary was pregnant, but she was sexually innocent. Read the next line slowly so you comprehend it completely.

The story of Christmas began with an unwanted pregnancy. It is not comfortable, but it is true. Annually, I read this passage and wonder why God put Mary in such a horrible position. Surely, there must have been another way. This pregnancy complicated Mary’s life. On the one hand, it was the best thing that ever happened to Mary. Just think about it for a minute. With all the women that have ever lived in this world, God only chose one to be the mother of his son. As Protestant’s we don’t want to look too Catholic, so we are uncomfortable saying it. We both admire and respect Mary. She completely trusted God. On the other hand, this pregnancy was the worst thing that ever happened to her. Unlike our time, she lived in high moral times. Her personal reputation was ruined, and she was a black sheep in the family. She cried tears of joy at the birth of Jesus; she cried tears of sorrow at his execution. This unwanted pregnancy changed everything. Yet, in the face of all this uncertainty, she trusts and praises God.

Our scripture reading is Mary’s response to this unwanted pregnancy. It has been called the Magnificat, which means “glorifies.” It comes from the first verse of the passage, “My soul glorifies the Lord.” It is a great piece of scripture because it reveals Mary’s faith in God. We do not have that kind of faith. With her eyes fixed on eternity, she surrendered her life to God. We are near sighted and demand our way. This is the question you must answer. How far do you trust God? No one has ever trusted God as much as Mary.

Most of the time we are more like Jacob from the Old Testament. His story is found in Genesis twenty-five through fifty. After a period of living in a foreign land, Jacob returned home. It was not just a matter of personal choice. It was all part of the divine plan. At first, Jacob was open to the idea. He was tired of eating foreign food in a foreign land. He longed for what was comfortable; He longed for what was familiar. With every step he takes, he is closer to home. That was the problem. It was the same life he ran from years earlier. An encounter with his red hairy brother, Esau, was inevitable. It would not be a pleasant reunion. After all, Jacob had taken everything from Esau. Jacob dreaded their reunion. He dreaded their reunion to the point Jacob wrestled with an angel (Genes 32:22-32). Jacob knew their reunion was part of the divine plan, but he resisted. Unlike Mary, he did not trust God. Have you ever wrestled with God? Have you ever known what God wants you to do but you resist. At those moments you are more like Jacob than you care to admit. That is what makes Mary so amazing. She didn’t wrestle with God. She simply surrendered to God’s will. What part of your life are you willing to surrender to God?

How much of your personal agenda are you willing to sacrifice to serve God?

Mary accepted this unwanted pregnancy and surrendered her agenda. Answer this question. What would have happened to Mary if God would have chosen another woman to birth his son? This is the answer. Mary would have done what Mary wanted to do. In other words, she would have made her choices within her society’s expectations. It is safe to say, Mary would have married Joseph and birthed only his children. Mary’s name would not be found within the pages of the Bible. She would have lived a common life. That would have been fine with Mary because that was all she wanted. This unwanted pregnancy changed everything. How has Jesus altered your agenda?

I served the Western Reserve United Methodist Church in Canfield, Ohio for twenty-eight years. It was not a megachurch, but it was a healthy midsize church. My longevity surprised many because Methodists are known for their short-term pastorates. I never dreamed I would stay so long. There was a time when I wanted to move on and serve a large membership church to make a name for myself. However, my life did not unfold that way. Through the years, I played the part of Jacob, wrestling with God. There were years during the appointment season, I wanted that call. However, when the call came, I fought to stay here. There were many days l was frustrated by my own lack of success. Through the world’s eyes, I was not a success, but I live at peace with my career, because God wanted me at Western Reserve. At some point I forgot about my agenda and surrendered to God’s agenda. That took me years to accomplish, but Mary did it in an instant. How much of your personal agenda are you willing to sacrifice to serve God? Mary trusted God and surrender her agenda.

Are you willing to sacrifice your social standing to serve God? Mary accepted this unwanted pregnancy and surrendered her social standing. For the rest of her life, she was identified as the woman who had this child out of wedlock. She was the topic of many gossipy conversations. Her reputation was destroyed, and she was an embarrassment to her family. This unwanted pregnancy changed everything. How has Jesus changed your social standing?

You know it is true. There is a stigma that comes along with being a minister. I cannot count the number of times, I have sat at a table, and someone says, “We better behave! We have a preacher sitting with us!” Everyone laughs, but I just smiled. Do you know how many times I have heard that line? Do you know how sick I am of that line? People just don’t know how cool ministers are. It is not just true of ministers; it is true of Christians. Mentioning Jesus will change the way people look at you. Mary trusted God and accepted this unwanted pregnancy, surrendering her social standing. How important is your social standing?

How much of your money are you willing to sacrifice to serve God? Mary accepted this unwanted pregnancy and surrendered her money. On the night Jesus was born, Mary’s heart was filled with joy. Two years later, Magi appeared from the east to worship him. They brought gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. (Matthew 2:1-12) That was the only financial compensation she would ever receive. Jesus was no different from any other child. With his birth came extra expenses. The Brookings Institute reported it costs $310,605 to raise a child to eighteen years old. That is approximately $17,000 a year. That does not include college expenses. This unwanted pregnancy changed everything. How much is Jesus costing you?

Years ago, I officiated at a wedding in the Cleveland area. After the service, the photographer began taking pictures. I sat in the back and watched. A gentleman came up to me and introduced himself as the groom’s uncle. We began to talk. He pointed out one of the ushers. He was another nephew. He told me about the young man. He was bright and full of potential. He said, “You will never guess what he wants to do with his life?” I just looked at him. I didn’t have a clue. He said, “He wants to be a preacher.” I thought, “That is great!” He said, “What a waste! He could do anything and make big money, but he wants to be a preacher.” That gentleman spoke for many in our society. Money is the driving force for many.

Jesus spoke more about money than any other topic because money is revealing. We only spend our money on things that are important to us. If you are going to follow Jesus, then it is going to cost you. I don’t just mean ministers. I mean true disciples. If you are going to follow Jesus, then how are you going to ignore the financial needs of your church? If you are going to follow Jesus, then how are you going to ignore the needs of your community, country, and world? How much of your money are you willing to sacrifice to serve God? Mary trusted God and sacrificed her money.

That takes us back to the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey stood on the bridge. It was the same bridge he had visited in the past. At that time, he was going to end his life. This time he was praying. He had learned a few things about his life. His life wasn’t pointless. His life had meaning. It was unfolding just as God planned. He surrendered to God and embraced every day. That is what the movie teaches us. Like Mary, we need to trust God and let God be our guide. Evangelical Christian Bruce Wilkinson (born 1940) once said, “Dependence upon God makes heroes of ordinary people like you and me!”

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