READ : Luke 1:26-38
No other woman in history has been honored as Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been. Would you like to know why?
She was just a girl, really. If she was typical of her culture – and nothing in the New Testament story leads us to assume otherwise – she would have been young, in her teens (perhaps 14 or 15 years old), a simple peasant girl betrothed to an ordinary man. In the Jewish culture of that time, betrothal was as binding as the marriage vows themselves. Once a couple was betrothed, only death or a formal divorce could break them apart. She was living in Nazareth, a village in Galilee, as was her husband-to-be, a man named Joseph. He could trace his line back to the great king David, but Israel’s glory years were a long time ago, and there wasn’t much left to show for a royal pedigree a thousand years later. You can’t eat a family tree, nor will it earn you much when the treasury has been empty for centuries, so Joseph worked as a carpenter. Both Mary and Joseph were humble folk: pious, devout, upright in character and righteous in conduct. They were people of the land, not famous, not important, not great achievers, just working class people who trusted in God and loved each other, who hoped to make a home and start a family. In other words, they were a lot like you and me. And “the virgin’s name was Mary.”
We would never have heard of her if she hadn’t had a visitor one day. Listen to the story, as told by the gospel writer Luke:
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How shall this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
Luke 1:26-38, NIV
During this time of the year when Christians commemorate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we’re focusing together on the stories in the Gospels that tell the Christmas message.
Of all the human actors in this wonderful story, none has attracted as much interest and attention as this young Jewish maiden who was chosen by God to be the mother of his Son. What a wonderful story it is, and Mary, who is at the center of our Scripture reading today, has been celebrated, sung about, even venerated, down through the centuries. But I’m convinced, the proper way to view Mary is not as an object of faith, but as a model for faith. Mary is a pattern for us to follow. She shows us in her response to the visit of the angelic messenger what it is to hear, believe and obey the Word of God. She was the mother of our Lord. She was, as her relative Elizabeth described her, “blessed among women.” No human being was ever chosen for a greater honor, or a more demanding role. But the thing that makes her blessed, that for which we ought to honor her and in which we ought to imitate her, is not the physical act of bearing Jesus (indeed, we can’t imitate her in that). Nor is Mary a model because of her purity or her virginity. Lovely as those qualities are, they are no more holy than is being a faithful wife and mother. No, what makes Mary special is her faith. The Bible says that no mighty work can be done where there is no faith. And the reverse of that is that where there are mighty works done, great faith must be there. When you consider the greatness of the miracle that we call the incarnation, where God came in person and assumed human flesh in the womb of this girl, entering our world as a little baby, helpless, weak, dependant on his mother for everything – well, I think you get some idea of the greatness of Mary’s faith.
A HEAVENLY VISITOR
A British economist named Lord Keynes once said, “The inevitable never happens. It is the unexpected always.” If you knew that God was going to become a man, could you have correctly guessed where and when it would happen? Could you have predicted the details of how God would choose to enter human history? Who would have imagined that the child born to a young Jewish girl from Nazareth would turn out to be, not just the most important human being of all time (he is that), but the very Lord of glory? And yet, that’s exactly who he was and is. Mary’s life changed forever the day she received a visit from a heavenly messenger. The angel Gabriel who appeared to her appears also in two other places in Scripture, both times in the role of a messenger. Gabriel’s sudden appearance must have stunned her, just as his greeting to her puzzled her. “Greetings,” he said to her. “You are highly favored by God. The Lord is with you” (v. 28). Gabriel then proceeds to deliver the incredible message that Mary has been favored by being chosen to have a child who will be the Savior of the world, the king whose reign will be endless. To which Mary very naturally asks how she is to bear a child when she’s a virgin. Back comes the answer that the child will be conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit without any human father, and will therefore be the Son of God (vv. 30-33).
Most modern people are victims of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” which is the assumption that because ancient people were ignorant of some things which we have learned from science, that means that they were gullible and ready to believe anything. The modern prejudice is that primitive people accepted things like miracles and angels and supernatural births because they didn’t know any better, but we understand how the world really is and realize that such things can’t happen, they’re simply legendary. Well, listen again to Mary: “How will this be?” she asks, “I am still a virgin” (v. 34). She wasn’t stupid; just because Mary didn’t know the theory of relativity doesn’t mean she didn’t know the facts of life. She knew how babies are made, and Gabriel’s response is to say that what is humanly impossible is possible with God. “Nothing is impossible with [him]” (v. 37).
A MODEL OF FAITH
The key thing, though, is to note Mary’s response. She is a model of faith who demonstrates the two crucial components in real faith. First, she believed God’s Word. Really, she had nothing else to go by. She had no evidence or proof that the Lord would do the fantastic thing he announced to her through his messenger. She wasn’t given a sign. For that matter, she didn’t ask for one. She had nothing but the naked Word of God. There was certainly no precedent for this promise to her; Mary couldn’t reassure herself by reflecting on all the other times in history God had sent his Son to be born of a virgin. This was the first, and the only time. How could Mary possibly accept this? And yet she did. She trusted God’s Word with nothing else to go by. The Bible says of her, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (Luke 1:45). So Mary’s example teaches us to trust the bare word of God even when appearances might seem to contradict it. Second, Mary submitted to God’s will; more than that – she embraced it. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary said. “May it be to me as you have said” (v. 38). Imagine: The fate of the whole human race hangs upon the answer that a frightened 15-year-old girl will make to an angel. Did Mary know what the price of her acceptance of God’s will would be? Grace is costly, not cheap – and it cost Mary, as well as God. She could not have foreseen all the honors that would come in time, the devotion of countless millions of people, all the churches that would be named after her. But she could very well have seen the tough times that were immediately ahead. There was the difficult interview with Joseph. How could she possibly explain to him? Then think of the scorn and the shame and even the physical danger that would be visited upon someone suspected of adultery, particularly in a conservative place like Nazareth. God wasn’t asking much of her; just to risk her life, to surrender herself entirely to an uncertain future. And for what? Who could say? There is no hint here of the dark days that would follow for Mary: the days when Gabriel’s words “highly favored. The Lord is with you” must have sounded hollow, the days when a sword of sorrow pierced her soul. But still Mary submitted, still she said yes to God’s will, no matter what it meant. Make no mistake – Mary didn’t give up more than she received; whatever her obedience cost her, it was more than worth it. But it did cost, and she was willing to pay the price. So this is what real faith is. It believes the Word of God. It casts itself upon that Word, committing everything to it, embracing it, obeying it whatever the consequences. This is what Mary shows us.
How great a thing it must have been to be the mother of the Son of God! Do you wish it could have been you? But, you know, you can have something still greater. You can share Mary’s faith. You can accept God’s word. You can embrace his will, believe his promises, live for his purposes. Once when Jesus was passing through a crowd, a woman called out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you!” and he instantly shot back, “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!” (see Luke 11:27-28). You can’t literally be the Lord’s mother, but you can belong to his family, for he said, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). Will you do that? Will you be that?