“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
My message this morning will focus on two verbs in verse 20: “treasured” and “pondered.” But first, let me tell you about my saddest childhood Christmas, back when I was 10 or 11 years old. Oddly enough, it was the one and only Christmas when I got everything on my wish list. That didn’t happen any other year because my desire for stuff usually outstripped our family’s means. Also, I don’t remember ever having been that good and obedient leading up to any Christmas, or any other time of the year, for that matter.
But in the one Christmas when all my wishes came true, my happiness after opening all my presents soon wore off and gave way to a surprising letdown, the realization that the thrill of wishing for stuff, and of getting stuff, are only temporary, and overrated. And now I can’t even tell you what all those things were that I wished for and got. If any of them are still around anywhere, either they’re forty feet down in the depths of some landfill, or they’re floating around in bits and pieces in the middle of the Pacific, or someone is trying to sell them at some antique store. Perhaps I’ve even bought one of them back recently.
My spiritual director often asks me, “Where have you seen God in your life, either of late or in the past?” Taking the long view, I look back to that surprising sense of disappointment and deflation on a childhood Christmas morning as a powerful spiritual experience, a gift of God greater than any of the gifts I opened that day, a moment in which I can now see how God was present and active in my life even before I cared about God or looked his way. God took the initiative to disenchant me with temporary trinkets and treats so that I might someday desire eternal delights and treasures.
I wish I could remember who it was that said, “we are not rich because of what we own; we are rich because of what we value.” But whenever I Google that sentence, all I get are ads and links for financial services. Another way to put that is: The treasures that we own are not what make us rich; it’s the treasures that own us that make us rich.” Not the temporary treasures of stuff; but the eternal treasures that God brings into our lives through Christ, through Creation, through people, through insights and experiences. Like the works of God, the words of God, and the people of God, in Mary and Joseph’s life. It’s when we give ourselves over to God and to his eternal treasures that we become truly and eternally rich.
Just eight days after Christ’s birth, Joseph and Mary will go to the temple in Jerusalem to offer the sacrifice of redemption for a first-born son. They are so hard up financially and materially that they can offer only the poor people’s sacrifice of two doves, while other, wealthier parents traipse into the temple bringing the bigger and more costly sacrifice of a certified spotless lamb.
But when you add up the experiences in their lives so far–her visit from an angel, Joseph’s dream of an angel, telling them both about the mission and identity of Mary’s son, the joy that Mary shared with her cousin Elizabeth, the excited visit of the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth, and the testimony they brought about the angel choir—Mary and Joseph are infinitely more rich than anyone who makes the Forbes Magazine list of the One Hundred Richest People in the World, or anyone you’d see on a TV show like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Mary even had a bank in which to put her heavenly treasures: her heart. And that brings me to the second verb in this verse: “Pondered.” Luke says, “she pondered these things…. in her heart.” She stored these God-given treasures not just in her mental memory bank between her ears, but in her heart, by which the Bible means our emotion and volition: where we do our willing and our wanting, where our feelings and our values do their accounting.
That tells me three things: The first is that the beautiful Christmas passage we hear every year is not only from the Gospel According to Luke. I think that we have just heard words from what we might call, “The Gospel of Mary.” Luke starts his Gospel by saying that he made a careful study of sources and eye-witnesses in order to write his Gospel, recording words and events in order and in detail. Mary is very likely the source of much that we find in Luke’s Gospel, especially those stories and prayers and poems that we don’t find in the other three Gospels. The words and events that are unique to Luke’s Gospel seem to have Mary’s fingerprints on them. How would Luke know what Mary treasured and pondered in her heart, unless that came from her? She alone could have remembered and recounted things like that, maybe directly to Luke, maybe to someone close who then told Luke. That’s why I suspect that we can call Luke’s Gospel, “the Gospel According to Mary” as well. The Christmas story that we recount and reenact, especially with babes in bathrobes in our church Christmas pageants, may well be one of the treasures that Mary had “pondered in her heart,” and then brought out for Luke to share with us.
The second thing this phrase, “pondered in her heart,” tells me is something about Mary’s inner spiritual, devotional life, how deep, how rich, how constant and focused were her life of prayer and meditation upon God’s Word and God’s works. If I were to ask Mary, “Where and how have you seen or heard God lately?” I would hope that my schedule was open for the rest of the day. Not only would I hear nearly incredible experiences of her angel visitation, and of excited, scruffy shepherds crowding into her stone cold and very unsanitary maternity ward to celebrate with her her son’s birth. Out would come the fruits of deep reflection and of long, concentrated contemplation as “she pondered these things in her heart.” Out would come her insights, emotions and excitement about what she saw God doing and what she heard God saying through the events in God’s World, and through God’s Word, the Scriptures that were in her head and heart, and how they guided her and gave meaning to her experiences with Jesus. Those Bible verses and stories would also be part of the eternal, infinite wealth, the secure and sacred treasure which she pondered and carried in her heart through this life to the next.
Which is quite surprising because, as Pastor Jana mentioned last Sunday, Mary would never have been allowed to attend Sabbath School, and probably never learned to read and write, certainly not in the Hebrew of the Bible. First Century Jews reserved that kind of education for guys only, sad to say. And yet, Mary’s prayer about which Jana spoke last week shows how deeply the Word of God had entered into her heart and mind, probably through the weekly synagogue services, and through the daily devotional practices of her Jewish family upbringing.
That she memorized and knew so much of the Bible should not surprise us. Nonliterate people often have amazing capacities for concentration, and for memorizing things like songs, poems and stories upon first hearing, because they can’t rely on books, libraries, computers, cell phones or “the cloud,” to keep track of life’s treasured words and memories. There’s something about memorization that makes words become more than just words to us. Memory becomes fertile ground for words to take root and grow into attitudes and actions.
This Advent season we have been hearing messages about “the prayers of our mothers,” our mothers in the faith, like Mary, Elizabeth and, next week, the prophet, Anna. Again, those prayers are in Luke’s Gospel, or The Gospel of Mary. So far, those prayers have been the words that our spiritual mothers have said to God, like Elizabeth’s, “Why am I so favored?” and Mary’s “May it be to me according to your word.” Today we consider another kind of prayer: God’s words to Mary. What Mary heard from God through events in her life, and what she heard through contemplation, prayer and meditation. God’s words to her were not lightning bolts of revelation, no striking, stunning flashes of vision about some secret that only God could have known and shown, not urgent messages that seized prophets like Jeremiah or Ezekiel and shook them and their nation to the core with holy fear. God’s words to Mary came patiently and steadily through times of recollection and meditation, doing like what Psalm 119 says to do: “I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.”
My own mother often said to me, after giving me some advice, “A word to the wise should be sufficient!” I like what she assumed about me. If our spiritual mother, Mary, could see us today, here’s what I think she’d say: “Put down your cell phones for a moment, take a break from surfing the web from one distraction to the next, stop entertaining yourself to death, for your heavenly Father has things more wonderful to tell you than anything you’ll get from the world of nonstop entertainment and distraction. God has infinitely greater and enduring treasures to give you. You don’t have to run all over the world to find them, either. All you need to do is stop, think and listen, and God’s treasured word will come to you.”
I think that Mary would go on to say, “As for treasure, sure, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, whatever in the world that is, is now over 28,000. It’s a full employment economy, sort of, though not always a living wage economy. But what treasure can match the One whom I carried in the womb, to whom I gave birth in a barn? Add to that all the ways in which God encouraged and sustained Joseph, Jesus and me with just what we needed, and just when we needed it, and the people whom God brought into our lives to do that, plus all the love, the peace, the wisdom and the joy which God has used us to give to others through the centuries, and treasures like those will never disappear nor depreciate; in fact, those are the very treasures we can bring with us through this life, through death, and into eternal habitations. And they are yours forever, just for noticing them, just for receiving them, just for valuing them and enjoying them, and concentrating on them, and, of course, by sharing them.
If we would be rich in the way that Mary was, then let’s forget for a moment about the stuff that’s on our Christmas wish lists and look for the people and the experiences which God has used to teach us what truly counts, what truly endures, what truly profits an eternal soul. Even if they were disappointments and difficulties that broke the spell of our enchantment with the shiny, glittery, but temporary things of the world. For God is the eternal alchemist who can turn even the trash and the trouble in our lives into treasure. The greatest treasure of all is the Christ who dwells among us and within us.