Thomas J Parlette
“Twists and Turns”
Luke 1: 39-55
Pastor Melvin Newland tells about a man in Salt Lake City who decided to send out 600 Christmas cards to total strangers. He got telephone books from several cities, addressed 600 cards to people he had never met, put his return address on the envelopes and mailed them out.
Amazingly, he received 117 responses from these total strangers. One lady wrote, “It was so good to hear from you. Your card arrived the day I got home from the hospital, and I can’t tell you what an encouragement it was to hear from an old friend.”
Another person wrote, “I have to admit that when we received your card we couldn’t really picture you. We had to think hard for a long time before we remembered. By the way, please give our regards to your father. He is such a wonderful man!”
But I think this response takes the cake. One guy wrote, “It was so good to hear from you after all these years. By the way, we’re going to be in Salt Lake City next summer. Would it be alright if we came and spent a few days with you?”(1)
Maybe it’s not such a great idea to send Christmas cards to people you don’t know – they might stop by for a visit.
I wonder how Mary, the mother of Jesus, notified her cousin Elizabeth that she was stopping by for a visit. After all, Mary lived in Nazareth, a town west of the Sea of Galilee. Elizabeth lived in the hill country of Judah, somewhere between 80-100 miles away. How did she send word that she was on her way?
Luke doesn’t mention whether Mary made any preparations for the trip or how she traveled – she may have gone on foot or as part of a caravan. In Mary’s day, a person traveling by foot could cover about 20 miles a day. If Mary walked to Elizabeth’s house, it would have taken her four or five days. If she went with a caravan, she could have done it in about three days. Still, it was quite a journey. And the circumstances were quite unique.
Listen closely as Luke begins his story: “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.”
Those first three words are significant. We’re not certain what “at that time” refers to, but a casual reading of the chapter would suggest that she made this journey immediately after Gabriel’s announcement to her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her and that the child whom she would bear would be called the Son of God. This would have been quite a revelation for a 13 or 14 year- old girl to receive. The fact that she hurried to make this journey indicates that she probably didn’t confide in her fiancé Joseph about the angels visit before she headed out to Elizabeth’s. Perhaps Mary wanted to consult with her older and wiser cousin about how to handle this delicate situation.
Of course, Elizabeth had her own interesting situation, married to a priest named Zechariah, way past the normal child-bearing age, and yet, she too was carrying a very special child – a child who would also become known throughout the region. He would be named John, better known as John the Baptizer.
It was quite a distance from Mary’s home to that of Elizabeth and Zechariah. There was a lot of time for Mary to ponder the wonder of what was happening to her. Surely she knew that angels don’t appear to every girl – particularly to tell them that they will become with child by the Holy Spirit. What was happening to her… and what did it all mean? Finally, she arrived at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah. It was a wondrous and joyful scene as these two cousins, so different in age, greeted one another.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, Luke tells us, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Mary answered with a song: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name…”
What were some of the thoughts that went through Mary’s head as she made her way to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home in the hill country? For that matter, what were her thoughts when the shepherds left to go back to their flocks after that holy night in Bethlehem? After all, we read in Luke that “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Still later, what were thoughts as she watched her miracle boy grow? Luke tells us again in verse 51 of chapter 2, “She treasured these things in her heart.” Even more important, what were her thoughts when she saw her boy suffer and die for the sins of the world? What were the thoughts that ran through her head as the mother of the Christ child?
Perhaps she thought, first of all, that life has some strange twists and turns. The announcement by the angel that she would bear God’s son was literally right out of the blue. It’s just as well. How could you ever prepare yourself for such an event? Never again would her life be the same. Of course, that’s true of all new parents. A child has a way of changing life forever.
Mary’s life was certainly changed. Right from the very beginning of her life as a new mother, her life had twists and turns. The story of the pilgrimage to Bethlehem is an enchanting one. We pass over it so quickly as we tell the Christmas story.
We read in Luke 2: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to their own town to register.”
“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”
Mary should have known right then that her life would be no picnic. There would be many twists and turns along the way, for this would not be her last journey under adverse circumstances.
In Matthew’s account of the first Christmas, Mary and Joseph and the new baby are forced to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. So once again, Mary and Joseph were on the move – fleeing to protect the life of their son.
Martin Luther, in commenting on the flight to Egypt remarks, “The artists give her a donkey. The gospels do not.”(2) It is most likely that Mary trudged over the hills in winter on foot, nursing her child and leaning on Joseph for support. It was not until after Herod’s death that the young family was able to return to their home in Nazareth. In a world filled with refugees, it is important to remember that our Lord was once a refugee himself.
The next dozen or so years in Mary’s life were probably good ones. We don’t know much about them, but we do know there were several other children after Jesus. She and Joseph were never wealthy, but he was an able provider and her oldest son, Jesus, was turning into a fine young man.
But then something happened to Joseph. We don’t know what. In another twist to the story, Joseph disappears from Scripture. He is never mentioned again. In a harsh turn of events that happens to many people, Mary found herself a young widow. As the oldest son, Jesus would take Joseph’s place in the carpenter’s shop – a role he would fill until about his 30th birthday, when he was baptized by his cousin John and began his ministry.
The loss of Joseph would not be the last one for Mary. She endured the harshest blow that can be dealt to a parent - she watched her oldest son die as a common criminal on a cross at Calvary.
Life took some strange twists and turns for the mother of our Lord. Just like it does in many people’s lives. Many people have a difficult time coping with life because we often think that life ought to be smooth and predictable. When it’s not, sometimes we are unable to cope. Yet, in the providence of God, sometimes we discover that we have our most reliable times of growth when life is the most challenging. People who cope successfully with life are those who understand the importance of discipline and self-denial, who realize that life is a training school, that happiness is not a permanent state but an elusive quality best achieved in the search for something higher.
Life has some strange twists and turns. But even in the harshest conditions, God will redeem pain and suffering and out of the struggles, God will bring something good. Mary may have wondered about her life’s twists and turns, but she was also confident about God’s faithfulness and how God always keeps promises. Note how Mary responds to her situation in this passage from Luke. First of all, she is overwhelmed that the God of Creation could have chosen her for the high honor of bearing his son. In her words, “He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant…” In Mary’s mind only a kind and gracious God would bypass the wealthy and powerful of this world to have a peasant girl bear his Messiah. Mary was confident that God was indeed good.
God is good. Not only because God chose the lowly maiden of Nazareth, not only because God is aware of our needs, but because God keeps promises. That is a major part of this great miracle in Mary’s eyes. The coming of the Messiah was the fulfillment of a long awaited promise. Throughout all life’s twists and turns, God keeps promises.
Bruce Larson tells a beautiful and true Christmas story that appeared years ago in the Denver Post. A week or so before Christmas, a pastor told his congregation about a needy family who was facing a very bleak Christmas. One young father decided to do something about that. He and his son set out in the family pick-up truck to cut down a fresh evergreen tree and deliver it to this needy family. On the way, they ran into a rock slide and a boulder hit their truck. It was totally destroyed. The windshield was smashed, and while the father was not hurt, his son was cut pretty badly was losing a lot of blood. They tried to wave down a passing motorist, but to no avail. Finally, after dozens of cars had zoomed past, a car stopped to help. The couple bandaged up the boy, gave them a ride to the hospital and went on their way. The father and son never even got their names.
About a week later, the truck had been replaced and the boys injuries were healing nicely. On Christmas Eve, the pastor asked this same man if he would deliver a basket of food and toys to the needy family that they had intended to supply with a tree. The father said he would be glad to. They loaded up the truck and drove to the address they were given and rang the doorbell. And who should answer the door but the same couple who had stopped to help them on the highway just a week ago.(3) Life is full of strange twists and turns.
It sure was that way for Mary. But from the beginning of her journey, she could sing God’s praises. For God is faithful. God keeps promises. God loves us. And God will never forget about us through all life’s twists and turns.
And for that, May God be praised. Amen.
1. Dynamic Preaching, Vol XXXIV, No. 4, p. 68.
2. Ibid… p. 70.
3. Ibid… p. 71-72.