We have so many things that we treasure, many of them connected with the Christmas season. We have objects that we treasure. I have a nativity scene that I collected when I was a teenager. I purchased it piece by piece from Grant’s Five and Dime Store with my baby-sitting money. Marc and I have Christmas ornaments that my Grandma Greenlee made. And I also hold on to an old key that Peyton would hang outside on our front door each Christmas Eve—a special key that would only work for Santa, since we didn’t have chimney for him to come down.
Maybe you have a special plate for Santa’s cookies, or Christmas tree ornaments made by children who are now adults with children of their own. We also have treasured stories about the past that get retold every year, and we have traditions that bind us together with past and future generations. These treasures have a special place in our hearts. They reflect what is dearest to us. They help define who we are, and they help to shape who we are.
We learn from our Scripture passages today what Mary treasured. She treasured words about her son Jesus. First there were the words of the shepherds, who told her what the angels had said about her baby: that he was the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord. Of course, Mary had already heard something along those lines from the angel Gabriel, when he came to announce her miraculous pregnancy. Joseph, too, had heard from an angel that the child Mary was carrying would save God’s people from their sins. But now Mary and Joseph understand that this is no longer a private matter. It has been proclaimed to the shepherds, and the shepherds are telling everyone else who will listen. Everyone is amazed, except for Mary, who treasured their words and pondered them in her heart.
I picture Mary, back home in Nazareth, as Jesus was growing up. One day she’s doing the laundry, scrubbing grass stains out of Jesus’ cloak, and she thinks that one day soon it will be too small for her growing boy. And once again she recalls what Gabriel had told her, and the words of the shepherds which she has been treasuring since Jesus’ birth. She looks up and sees Jesus at play with his brothers and sisters. He seems like such an ordinary little boy. How can it be that his small shoulders will carry the weight of the world’s sin?
Skip forward twelve years, when Jesus is a pre-teen. Jesus goes with his family to the festival in Jerusalem, as they did every year. Apparently Joseph and Mary are not helicopter parents, because when they leave the city, they simply assume Jesus is somewhere with the family and friends they’re travelling with. It’s not until the end of the day that they realize he is missing.
They return to Jerusalem and spend three days looking for him. They finally track him down in the temple. When they do, Mary—not surprisingly—gives him a scolding. In typical pre-teen fashion, Jesus is surprised to hear that they were worried. As he says to them, as far as he was concerned, he was exactly where ought to have been—in his Father’s house. They return home, Luke tells us, and Jesus was obedient to his parents from then on.
All these things, too, Mary treasures in her heart. She and Joseph hadn’t fully understood Jesus’ words when he responded to her scolding. So, as she goes about her daily chores, she takes his words out of the treasury of her heart. She ponders them, turning them over and over. Was it during that time in the temple that his understanding of who he was and what he was to do began to dawn? He is still obedient and respectful of Joseph and her. He doesn’t show any signs of feeling superior to them. What will become of this beloved child of hers?
Surely she must have pondered those words many times as she watched him grow to adulthood. Maybe they came to mind at the wedding in Cana, when she reported to Jesus that the wine had run out, and then waited to see what he would do. Maybe she thought of them the day when she and his brothers wanted to talk to him, but he seemed to dismiss them in favor of a larger family—all those who hear the word of God and do it.
She must have pondered them when people began to tell her that Jesus was out of his mind, and when they scoffed at him because they thought he was just a local kid with a Messiah complex. She may have recalled them with a despairing heart as she watched him die on the cross. And how differently she must have thought about those treasured words as she prayed with the community of believers in Jerusalem after the resurrection.
Those words that Mary treasured would have helped her understand her son and his work. Where other mothers might have been hurt by being lumped in with a faceless crowd, maybe Mary pondered the words of the shepherds and of Jesus as a child, and understood that he was simply living out the purpose for which he had been born—to gather God’s people together in one family. Where others saw insanity, maybe the words she treasured helped her see that Jesus’ actions made sense for the Son of God, the Savior, Christ the Lord.
Maybe those words comforted her as she watched her son die on the cross, giving her assurance that he was in his Father’s house even then. Perhaps she pondered them in joyful triumph as she prayed with the disciples in Jerusalem, after the resurrection had proven the treasured words to be true.
Like Mary, we have words that we treasure in our hearts. To treasure them as Mary did means that we preserve them—we keep them within ourselves to prevent them from being lost or forgotten.
Every day we are bombarded by words. Unfortunately, some of these words are ones that tear us down. Facebook, Twitter, and the like are full of negative words posted under the guise of humor. Other people say hurtful things to us—sometimes unintentionally, but painful nonetheless. Sometimes the negative words we hear are our own, words that we tell ourselves over and over. We hold on to these words—our own or others’— preserving them, preventing them from getting away from us. When the words we choose to treasure are negative or self-defeating or death-dealing, they can destroy us from the inside out.
But, we can also choose positive words—words that build up, words that are life-giving. We can choose words that strengthen and encourage, words that affirm our belovedness, words that help us grow closer to God and to others. We can take the advice that St. Paul gave to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” In other words, treasure them in your heart, and ponder them.
Our Christmas carols are full of words to treasure and ponder. They create a picture of Jesus’ birthplace—a place far removed from us in time and space. They fill us with the exuberant praise and joy of the angels. They bless us with the peace of a silent night. They give us the example of the shepherds—first terrified, then willing to abandon what was familiar to go in search of the Christ Child. They give us words of prayer: “cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” Most importantly, they repeat the everlasting Good News of Jesus Christ. None spell it out more clearly than the words of our own Charles Wesley:
“Hark! the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King; peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!’ Joyful, all ye nations, rise; join the triumph of the skies; with the angelic hosts proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!’
Christ, by highest heaven adored; Christ, the everlasting Lord! Late in time behold him come, offspring of the virgin’s womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity, pleased as man with us to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel.
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings. Mild, he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.”
Just as the words Mary treasured and pondered would have helped her understand who her son was, these words help us understand who he is. In these words, we hear how God has kept God’s covenant with us in the birth of Christ Jesus. We hear that Jesus is God in human form—God brought near to us so that we can see what a life lived in perfect love looks like. We hear that he is the Messiah—the one who brings peace and mercy to the world. We hear that, through our faith in Christ, we are freed from the power of sin and we need no longer fear the grave.
Of course, some of the best words to treasure are the words of Scripture. Each time we read our Bibles or hear Scripture read, we encounter wonderful words. As we read and ponder these words, they take root in us and grow. Each time we take them out and ponder them, turning them over and looking for new meaning and beauty, they become more a part of us. As they become more a part of us, the more readily we can dip into our treasury of these words during joyful times and difficult times. The more often we return to these words, the more they increase our understanding of the God they reveal.
Sometimes we decide that the things we treasure are so precious that they need to be put away—carefully stored, sealed into boxes or locked up tight, to protect them from the effects of wear and tear. But that means that no one gets to enjoy their beauty or their usefulness, including their owners.
I always think about this when I hear that some great piece of art has been purchased by a collector who intends to store it in his or her private vault. But we do it ourselves, with our own treasures. When my Grandma Williams died, my mother and dad ended up with a set of blue and white china. They found these dishes in a box in Grandma’s attic. My mom loved them and she started using them on a daily basis. But when my aunt came to visit, she had a fit. Those were special dishes! They should have been packed away and saved! My dad looked at his sister and asked, “Saved for what?” Well, she said the dishes were antiques! They would be worth a fortune some day!
My parents ignored her, and we continued to use them at every meal. Some pieces did get chipped and broken over the years. And you know what? My aunt was right. That china did become very valuable. Oh, not in terms of money. Out of curiosity, I looked it up this week on the internet, and the sugar and creamer set I have is worth about $60.00. But my brothers and I still have pieces of that china, and we treasure them for all the memories that come with them.
The words of Scripture are also a treasure that is meant to be used. And the good news is the more we store up this treasure in our hearts, the more we ponder it and come to love it, the easier it is to share with others—with people who need words of comfort, with people who need to know that God loves them, with people who need to know they can be made new, with people who have yet to meet our God who came to us at Christmas. The words of Scripture are treasures that can never be taken away from us, and they are never depleted by our giving them away.
This week we celebrate the beginning of a new year. Many of us will make resolutions to improve some area of our life—to lose weight, break a bad habit, mend a relationship, learn something new. Here’s a suggestion. Make a resolution to do more treasuring and pondering of what is beautiful, encouraging, and life-giving. Make a resolution to read and ponder Scripture’s words of instruction, inspiration, and hope every day. With Mary as our example, let’s ponder those words in our hearts, and let them become our hearts’ greatest treasure. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young