December 4, 2021 - Mary

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Today we're going to talk about Mary the mother of Jesus.  Did you know what the most popular girl's name in the world is?  For boys, it's Muhammad.  For girls, it's Maria, the Greek/Latin/Spanish way to say "Mary."  Tens of millions of women around the world are named Mary or Maria.

Mary was correct when she predicted with astonishment, “From now on, all generations will call me blessed.” She wasn’t issuing an order. She was making a statement of fact. Look how many women are named after her! How many women wish they could take Mary’s place in the spotlight? But when we take a closer look at what it took for Mary to get there, how many of us would say, “Forget it!” How many of us would gladly give that honor to someone else instead?

Let’s take a look at Mary’s story. We’ll find that Mary had an exceedingly rare virtue that truly sets her apart from the crowd.

Luke (1:26-38) tells us that the angel Gabriel gets sent by God to a village called Nazareth, a town so small that it never appears on any ancient maps until Jesus comes along. God sends the angel to a young Jewish virgin named Maryam (or in Hebrew, “Miriam”). How young was she? Let’s not exaggerate. Although 12 was the legal minimum age for a girl to marry under Jewish law, Mary was more likely in her mid-teens. She is old enough to be engaged to a young construction worker named Joseph.

The angel says, “Greetings, O favored lady! The Lord is with you!” Luke says that “Mary was thoroughly perplexed at the word, and was wondering what kind of greeting this might be.” So the angel says, “Fear not, Mary! For you have found favor with God! Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

Mary is confused. She says, “How can this be, since I’ve had no relations with any man?” (I’m sure she also wonders, who’s the father going to be, Joseph, I assume, once we get married?) The angel gives her a straight but astounding answer: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. You don’t believe me? Look what’s happened to your kinswoman Elizabeth. They called her barren, but now she’s 6 months pregnant. Hey, with God, no decree is impossible!”

So a messenger from another world appears to this peasant girl and says, “Congratulations, Mary! You are luckier than the winner of this year’s Publisher’s Clearinghouse! God has chosen you to be the ultimate surrogate mother, to bear a child who will be God in human flesh!”

Being a surrogate mother is hardly what we would call just another job. How do you put a price tag on the prospect of another couple borrowing your womb, conceiving a human egg that comes from you (or the couple), disrupting your body and its chemistry for the next 9 months, forever changing your life? Such a job description involves an unparalleled invasion of privacy. It involves monumental emotional complications. We’re not talking about just a job. We’re talking about total commitment! $20,000, even $50,000 is not enough compensation for such a giving of oneself.

Such is the choice presented to Mary. Through the angel, God is saying to Mary, “I want you to surrender the most private part of yourself to the miracle-working power of my Holy Spirit, so that a child will be conceived in you who will be my one-and-only human Child, a child who will be holy, a Child who will be a perfect reflection of who I am, and of what I created humans to be.”

Young Mary has the ultimate veto power over this offer. No doubt she wonders to herself, “What will happen if I let God have his way?” If we think over what all else is involved in what God’s asking Mary to do, there are all kinds of reasons for Mary to say No, not the least of which would be the devastating misunderstanding that Mary will suffer. Mary’s name will be dragged through the snake pit of gossip. She will be pitied, she will be laughed at, she will be humored. (“Sure, Mary! A virgin birth! Get real!”)

Lots of false stuff will be flying around about Mary. 150 years later, an arch-enemy of the Christian faith will falsely claim that hers was the child of a passing Roman soldier. And worst of all, her beloved Joseph will be the one to whom the story will be the hardest to explain. Mary wonders, “How can I expect him to believe the truth? Nothing like this has ever happened before. Who’s going to believe me?” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Mary would be better off, politely asking God to find some other girl for the job.

Countless gushing women through the ages have whispered to themselves, “Oh, how honored I’d be to be the mother of our Lord!” Whenever I hear that line, I think, “Hogwash! How many of us (men or women) would accept such an honor and be willing to pay the price, once we read the fine print?” You see, as we read the story, we already know how the story is going to end. It’s far more difficult to stand in Mary’s shoes and say Yes to the Lord, not knowing what will happen, not knowing what sort of strings are going to be attached to such an act of faithfulness.

But see how Mary responds to the angel’s announcement! See what courage she displays in the face of uncertainty! See how ready she is to do whatever God asks! What does Mary say? “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” Mary was able to manage whatever fears she may have had, because she had confidence in a God who was bigger than she was. She was taking a huge risk, but she had confidence that this angel was real and was from God. She probably had no idea what “Son of God” meant, but she knew that God had promised a Savior to end all saviors, and that was all she needed to know.

Mary says, “God, I am available wherever I am needed. You can use me to scrub your floors. You can use me to be the ultimate surrogate mother. I am the handmaid of the Lord. I am available, to do whatever you ask.”

Mary’s willingness – Mary’s spirit of availability – is remarkable when we consider that God was asking a LOT more out of Mary than we usually get asked to do. What has God asked us to do lately? Certainly God has not asked us to bear a child who will belong to someone else. But has God asked us to take a bullet in the head for the cause of what is right? Has God asked us to serve time in jail resisting an unjust law? Has God asked us to surrender our share of the good life here and go to the uttermost part of the earth, to help bring the Good News to a culture that has never heard of Christ?

Has God asked you to open your home to an unwanted child, or an unwed mother in crisis? Has God asked you to come out of retirement and serve the Lord as a half-time volunteer? Has God asked you lately to teach Sunday School or minister to youth? Has God asked you to take HIV patients to the doctor, or to care for the children of stressed-out mothers? Has God asked you to befriend an unchurched neighbor and build a bridge between them and God? Has God asked you to volunteer in service to the poor: helping to repair homes – helping the poor to get their feet back on the ground? Has God asked you to remember the church in your will, or to be a committed faithful giver?

Pastor Rick Warren asks, “Are you available to God anytime? Can he mess up your plans without you becoming resentful? As a servant, you don’t get to pick and choose when or where you will serve. Being a servant means giving up the right to control your schedule and allowing God to interrupt it whenever he wants to.” Servants never get so tied up that they’re unavailable where God needs them at the moment. To approach God like Mary means you “hand God a blank sheet with your name signed at the bottom and tell him to fill in the details.”

Michael Slaughter says, “When the angel gave God’s message to Mary, she didn’t say, ‘No, not me! Take my cousin; use her! I’m too busy right now!’” You want to know why Mary is so blessed among women? Because she is so unlike us! Her readiness to do whatever God asks, sets her oceans apart from most of us, including me.

Certainly God has never made to us as costly a request as what God asked Mary to do. How often do we say Yes to what God does ask us to do? How often do we pretend we’re hard of hearing? Perhaps we are hard of hearing. Maybe God has quit asking, because God knows we can’t be relied on to say Yes when asked.

Did you ever make phone calls asking for volunteers, and find that there are some people you eventually quit calling because you get tired of them always telling you No? Imagine how God must feel trying to get an answer out of us!

Sometimes we complain, “Why is God always asking me?” But think. What if God stopped calling on you? What if God decided that calling on us is a waste of time, that we can never be counted on to be available when needed? If we want to be used by God in special ways, we’d better say Yes to those opportunities that God is already giving us to serve, if we ever want God to call on us again. If we want to be used by God, we must prove ourselves available and reliable.

What often happens is that we set our hearts on being used by God in grand and glorious ways, like the way that God used Mary, but we pass up those smaller, less glorious chances to serve where God needs us more. But Jesus says, “Whoever is faithful in a little is faithful also in much.” (Luke 16:10) If we want God to keep calling on us, we must prove ourselves to be available, like Mary was.

Good intentions aren’t enough. If we hear truth, we’d better act on it. If we don’t, the less likely we will be to ever take action. Breaking the connection between faith and action is deadly to our faith. Michael Slaughter says we begin to die in our spirit as the distance grows between what we know to be true and how we live. Faith isn’t the absence of doubt. Faith is acting on what God says.

Why was Mary so blessed? Why was she set apart from the rest of us? It’s because Mary had a spirit of availability greater than anyone who wishes they could take her place. Mary was willing to yield herself to God, to do whatever God asked, even to become the ultimate surrogate mother. We need to learn to yield ourselves to God like Mary did, to make ourselves available whenever we are asked, to serve wherever we are needed, to say with Mary, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.”

Mary leaves town to go way down to Judea to see what’s happened to Elizabeth, which gives her some time to process what the angel has told her. When she gets there, Elizabeth runs to the door and cries, “Blessed are you among women! Where did this blessing come from, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Blessed be the woman who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord!”

Here we see how Mary has processed the meaning of all that she has been told. Here Mary launches into the famous piece we call the Magnificat, which comes from the first word in Latin: “My soul magnifies the Lord!” Here is one of the few pieces of God’s word that we know was composed by a woman. (Mary probably didn’t sing to Elizabeth when she said this, but her words naturally fall into the form of lyrics for a song, which is how her words got remembered.) All that I am is now a magnifying glass to show how great God is. (God is the actual hero here, Mary is just God’s best supporting actress.)

How does this young girl compose such great stuff on the spot? Partly it’s the Holy Ghost, but also it's because Mary knows God’s word so well, which is why she can see God for who God is so clearly. Mary also knew her spiritual ancestors. She knew where she came from. She had the DNA and the faith of her ancestors flowing through her. She models the faith of Hannah, Deborah, Miriam, and many others. (She’s actually got David’s DNA in her family line, like Joseph does, and she’s named after Miriam.)

Mary says, “Henceforth, all generations will call me blessed!” That’s not a command; that’s stating a logical conclusion as to what people will say when they see what God has done in her life. Mary can hardly believe it: “God! Out of everyone you could have chosen, you chose me? Go figure!” Mary says, See how God favors the lowly, the nobodies, while bringing down the proud and sending the rich away empty. When God’s picking the ultimate Miss Israel, God goes, not to some royal princess or Hollywood star, but to the bottom of the Who’s Who social ladder, to a powerless, blue-collar trailer-park peasant. Mary was not a prima donna, and she did not seek out this role for herself. But through Mary, God’s going to turn the social class system upside down.

Mary’s song expresses the desire for liberation that was felt by Israel as a whole at this time, with the exception of a very favored few. Mary’s song declares that those favored few are due to have the rug pulled out from under them, including Rome itself. Mary’s song celebrates what God is about to do in Jesus, and what God has been doing all along. God’s mercy here probably means his ḥesed, his love that never quits, God’s love that stays loyal no matter what. God will do what is right. God will act with justice for all victims of oppression. God will bring reversal and judgment on all who oppose God. God more than levels the playing field. Mary is excited that God will engineer moral justice (by bringing down the proud), social justice (by bringing down the powerful), and economic justice (by putting the silver spoon crowd in their place).

The first half of what Mary says is God’s amazing favor toward her. The second half is God delivering on his promise to her people. Mary declares herself to be the final installment in God’s mighty acts of deliverance done for Israel. God keeps his promises, and the child that she will bear will be the fulfillment of all those promises. N. T. Wright says Mary’s story is “the climax to which Israel’s history has been building all along.” What God has already done comes to completion in what God is about to do in and through Mary’s child, a glorious truth that Mary celebrates as if it is already a done deal.

Mary was not free from all sin. To call her “blessed” is not a command to canonize her as a saint, but to declare how happy a place God has put her in. Mary does not earn this astounding blessing from God, although it is hard to find a human sinner more worthy than Mary is. Nowhere can we find anyone more ready to say Yes to God.

We might wonder: Why was Mary so ready to say Yes to God? Ultimately, the reason is because God made her that way. Mary cannot brag or claim credit for being more willing to be used by God. Mary was simply being who God made her to be. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 12 that God gives the gifts of the Holy Ghost as God wills. Do you have the gifts of teaching, or of service, or of hospitality? You can’t boast about that. God made you that way. It’s not fair, but what right do we have to make that judgment? It’s not fair that God gave J K Rowling or Albert Pujols the talent to do what they do, but God has the right to give out gifts and talents as he chooses. Jesus teaches in his parable of the Talents that God gives us however much he chooses. God merely expects us to use it to advance his kingdom, like Mary did.

Now, what about this miraculous conception and birth that God has promised to Mary through the angel? Is this just a pious legend, or is this historical bedrock we can place our faith in? We’ll explore that question next time on Biblical Words and World!