During the Christmas season we often focus on Jesus' parents, Mary and Joseph, and the many things that they did in order to prepare for the birth of their divine son. In many ways, our idea of what they went through is probably inaccurate. For example, we often think of them traveling to Bethlehem on their own, when in reality, they were most likely with a large group of family members. And when we conceptualize Jesus' birth, the picture we get in our minds is one of Mary and Joseph alone in a stable, surrounded by animals. This is almost certainly not the way it happened. In ancient cultures, fathers had almost nothing to do with the actual birth of a baby. Instead, midwives carried the mother along through the labor and actual birth. In our modern context, we simply know of a mother and father going to a hospital for a few days, and then coming home with a baby. But in first century Israel, it was a process that usually involved the whole extended family and a team of midwives.
I think another thing we misunderstand about the birth of Jesus is the social and cultural implications there would have been for Mary. After all, she was most likely a teenager when the angel Gabriel announced to her that she would be the mother of Jesus. And not only that, but she was also betrothed (engaged) to Joseph. An unexpected pregnancy no doubt brought suspicion of unfaithfulness on Mary's part. For example, upon learning of her pregnancy, Joseph assumed that she had been unfaithful to him and became pregnant outside of their betrothal, so Joseph actually decided to divorce (annul the engagement) Mary. If this would have happened, Mary would have found herself an unmarried teenage mother on the verge of destitution and poverty, and probably starvation. In first-century Israel, women relied upon men for their provision and even their daily food and shelter. Without Joseph, Mary and her baby would almost certainly be doomed to die.
No doubt these potential difficulties were going through Mary's mind when Gabriel told her that she would miraculously conceive in spite of her virginity. There must have certainly been flashes of fear, doubt, and uncertainty going through her mind. After all, she had no idea how Joseph would respond to her unexpected pregnancy, no less the news that it was immaculately conceived. And Mary likewise had no idea what the social and cultural response to her out-of-wedlock pregnancy would be. Put simply, from all natural indicators, Mary appeared to be staring down the barrel of a very difficult time in her life.
But the fascinating and wonderful thing about Mary is that she does not focus on what could happen as a result of this unexpected pregnancy, but instead she focuses on the faithfulness of what God had done in the past. Rather than magnify the many uncertain circumstances of her life that could lead to difficulty and even pain and suffering, instead she chooses to magnify the faithfulness of God. In so doing, she gives us a wonderful example for how we should respond to difficult circumstances in life.
Have you ever looked into a microscope? I have, but probably not since sophomore year biology in high school. But if you're familiar with the concept, you'll be able to follow what Mary wants to teach us. When something is magnified it becomes bigger in appearance. A microscope "blows up" an image so we can see it larger and in more detail. The tiny features that were hidden before become obvious and apparent.
Mary's remedy for dealing with the potential problems in her life brought about by her circumstances is to magnify (or "blow up") the truth about God in her mind. She says in Luke 1.46-47 "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Here Mary makes a conscious decision to focus intentionally on truth about God, and to put that truth into practice in her life by believing it and acting upon it. In the sermon I preached this past Sunday, we looked at five truths about God that Mary "magnified" instead of magnifying her problems in life. I'd like to focus on just two of those truths now.
1. First, Mary magnifies the truth that God watches over his people. In Luke 1.48 Mary says, "...for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant." God is a God who looks upon and sees his people, and when he looks, he sees them through eyes of compassion. Sometimes the image that we have of God is that he is sitting up on his throne in heaven, watching us, just waiting for us to mess up and make a mistake. But this is not at all how God watches over his children. Instead, he watches over them with eyes of tenderness and compassion (1 Peter 3.12). He knows where his children are and what is going on in their lives, and he responds to their prayers. You and I can't even see what's going on in the other room next to us (without a window), but God can. He can see in every corner of the earth at all times, and that included Mary and her potential problems brought about by this unexpected pregnancy.
Mary also says that not only is God watching, but he is watching here even though she is in not a very important person. Mary was from the town of Nazareth, which was known at the time as something of a ghetto. It wasn't a city that had a lot of culture, and the people from Nazareth had a bad reputation of being low-class individuals (John 1.46). But that didn't matter. No matter where Mary came from or who she was - even if she was a nobody - God was watching, and he knew exactly what was going on in her life and what she needed.
The same is true for you. God sees you. He knows exactly what is happening in your life, and he knows exactly how it's going to play out. He knows exactly what you need to get through your challenges, and he is faithful to give you what you ask for in prayer. And he knows all of this because he is watching. When life gets difficult, as it has the tendency to do, don't magnify your problems. Instead, magnify the truth that God sees you and he is watching you with eyes of compassion. Blow this truth up in your mind, and believe it, and then act on it.
2. Second, Mary magnifies the truth that "He who is mighty has done great things for me." That's what Mary says in Luke 1.49. One of the biggest temptations that we face when life is difficult is to forget all that God has done in the past. We can get so caught up in the moment and the difficulty of our circumstances that we can become shortsighted. It's easy to let the discomfort of "the now" to cloud our memory of all the great things God has done for us in the past.
Scripture teaches that the gift God has given us to fight for faith in the present is remembering what he has done in the past: "I will appeal to this to the years of the right hand of the Most High. I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds" (Psalm 77.10-12). The remedy for getting caught up in the present difficulty of life is to remember that "he who is mighty has done great things for me." It's magnifying what God has done rather than magnifying the present discomfort.
This is what Mary must have been saying to herself: "You know, things are pretty hard for me right now, but I can take comfort because he who is mighty has done great things for me. And if he has done great things in the past, he will again in the future." That, my friends, is hope. Instead of magnifying your present difficulty, magnify the truth of the mighty things God has done in the past. That knowledge should give you hope for today, tomorrow, and any time in the future.
Let's be frank: when troubles come, it is very easy to get caught up in the nagging questions about how and why we ever ended up in such a difficult spot in the first place. It's easy to find ourselves questioning God and even being angry or feeling sorry for ourselves. It is in those times that we must resist the temptation to magnify our problems, and instead magnify what we know to be true about God: that he looks upon his children and knows their suffering, and that he is faithful to keep his promises. Make your faith in those promises big, and your problems will begin to seem much smaller.