2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


The First Christmas: Mary

Luke 1:26-28

During the middle years of my childhood in Nashville, Tennessee, we lived across the street from a Roman Catholic Convent and School. The main building was located far back from the road, which heightened the aura of mystery that enveloped the whole place. I remember seeing nuns go in and out and walk about the grounds in their black habits. And during the summer, when the windows were up in the chapel, I remember hearing their chants, particularly the one that went: "Hail, Mary, full of grace." The whole enterprise was a world far removed from my Southern Baptist context, and yet even back then I can remember feeling a certain curiosity about this one called Mary. Who was this person who evoked such adoration? It was not until many years later, when I set out to learn more about the members of the holy family in the first Christmas, that I came to understand more clearly why this one is held in such high regard.

Let me state clearly that I think in some circles the veneration of Mary has gone too far. This one is by no means "a fourth member of the Trinity," nor should she be regarded as the co-redeemer of the human race. She was very much a human being, just like one of us, a Palestinian peasant girl from the hill country of Galilee, and this is precisely why her experience can be so significant for us. The way she responded to God before the first Christmas is a classic example of how human beings were meant to relate to the Almighty. I can think of few others in Scripture who embody the essence of obedience more completely. Thus, I want us to continue our preparation for Christmas this year by looking carefully at the mother of our Lord to see what we may learn about relating to the mystery of Godness in our own time.

As was the case last week with Joseph, the amount of biographical material in the Bible about Mary is very meager indeed. All we know is that she came from the Galilean hill town of Nazareth and probably was of Levitic descent, because Elizabeth, John the Baptist's mother, is called "her kinswoman." Tradition has it that her parents were named Joachim and Anna, but of this we cannot be sure. Mary was obviously a part of that devout circle of Jewish persons who were steeped in the traditions of Israel and lived in the hope that Yahweh would soon act to deliver His people. The best insights we have into her personhood come from the experiences that took place nine months before the birth of our Lord (Luke 1:26-28).

I am referring now to that mysterious encounter between Mary and the angle Gabriel. We are not told just how this took place—as a dream or a vision or just what. All we know is that a real confrontation occurred in which two astonishing things were proposed to Mary. First, she was told that the favor of God rested upon her, and she was to become the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. This obviously came as a total surprise to Mary, for later on at her cousin's house she spoke of her "low estate" as a peasant girl and how amazed she was that the Almighty would choose her for such a role. However, I doubt if this assertion was as much of a shock as the second thing she was told. Having heard the promise of Gabriel, Mary understandably wondered how this event would come about. At that particular moment she was betrothed to a man named Joseph, which meant that she was legally engaged to him, but the marriage vows had not yet been performed nor had their physical union been consummated. Mary was undoubtedly familiar with the miraculous births of Isaac and Samuel to aged and barren parents, and she may have thought that the Messiah-birth was yet many years away. It is doubtful that she had any intimation of what was about to follow. For the angel proceeded to say to her in words of solemn beauty that there would be no human partner in this act of conception. Just as in the beginning, when the Spirit had hovered over the formless deep and called forth life out of nothing (Genesis 1:2), so now the same Spirit would overshadow her and call forth the Son of the Most High from her virgin womb. Such a deed would be comparable to the original act of creation itself; in fact, it was to be the beginning of a new creation, distinct and unique from all else that had happened up to that time in history.

What could an individual say in response to assertions like these? They are so staggering and overwhelming that one wonders how Mary could speak at all. Realize, now, she was probably only fifteen or sixteen years old at the time, for this is when girls in that culture became betrothed and married. What on earth would it be like "to be overshadowed by the Almighty," for one who had never been intimate with anyone before? It was enough to scare any normal woman out of her mind; but as we shall see, Mary was no ordinary human, young and peasant-like though she was. Hear her incredible courage and capacity for trust when she said: "I am the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me as you have spoken." Those two sentences have to be among the finest in all Holy Scripture.

In a sense, it is almost a travesty to probe any further into something as mysterious and awesome as this episode, and yet for our purposes in this series, I feel that we must, for in this one compact little episode there are two very important things about God's ways with us and our ways with God that I am anxious that we all see and try to incorporate into our own lives.

First, in what happened to Mary, we get a good image of what it means "to be favored of God." Our first impression may be to equate such a reality with things like ease and comfort and special privilege, but that is not how it worked out in Mary's experience at all. The favor of God turned out to be an invitation to participate with Him in a costly adventure—specifically, the redeeming of His people from their sins. By their very natures, rescue operations are high-risk, hazardous affairs. It is like going to war—much is asked of one, and little consideration is given to things like comfort and ease, and this is exactly what Mary was to discover as she lived into what it meant pragmatically "to be favored of God." Instead of bringing order out of chaos, as far as Mary was concerned, initially at least, the favor of God brought chaos into the order of her life. Here she was, as I have already indicated, a simple peasant girl of fifteen or sixteen years of age engaged to a solid, dependable man, and boom, an angel appears suddenly, and everything she held dear was placed in jeopardy—her body, her reputation, her impending marriage—every facet of her existence. And this was no momentary trauma. The rest of her life had to be lived under the shadows that grew out of "the favor of God." I am referring now specifically to the shadow of suspicion that surrounded the way Jesus came into this world. Respectable Christians like ourselves do not usually dwell on this point, but the fact remains that to the old timers around Nazareth, Jesus was probably always regarded as an illegitimate child, the one "who came too early" to an engaged couple. Mary and Joseph knew better, but it is expecting too much of "the rank and file" to think that they would have believed such a story. When Mary returned from her extended visit with her cousin Elizabeth, betrothed to Joseph and obviously with child, you can be sure the whisper of scandal began to spread in Nazareth. And as I suggested last Sunday, this is probably why Joseph took Mary with him on that torturous seventy-mile journey down to Bethlehem. He undoubtedly could have registered with Rome for the whole family if that had been his only concern. It was to get away from the wagging tongues of Nazareth that prompted the journey. This was a sign of Joseph's tender support of Mary, and that must have been very reassuring to her. But the move itself created real problems for Mary, because it meant that she was separated from her family and those older women who normally would have assisted her in her hour of need. In those times, and even to this day in the Middle East, the process of birth was regarded as preeminently a woman's affair, and there is an added note of pathos to the Bethlehem scene when you realize that Mary not only had to go to a stable in a cave to have her baby, but also that she was cut off from the kind of help and companionship any Jewish mother could have expected in such an hour. Only a man—Joseph—and some animals were with her in that needy moment—something that was unthinkable in that culture, and I repeat, this is part of what it meant for Mary to live out the favor of God. And even the traumas surrounding the birth were not the end of the difficulties which came from being the mother of the Messiah. The little family had to flee to Egypt while Jesus was an infant, and then back—of all places—to the poverty and the whispers of Nazareth. Later on, Mary watched a child grow up whom she did not fully understand and saw him leave the carpenter's shop for a career that made little sense by Galilean peasant standards. Then came the stories of his strange actions, the rumors of growing hostility toward him, and finally the awful week in Jerusalem when he was accused, tortured, and eventually crucified right before her own eyes. All of this was bound up in that phrase, "the favor of God," and it explodes the idea that when one is doing the will of God, all is sweetness and light. Sometimes God's coming into a life brings order out of chaos; at other times, initially at least, God brings chaos out of order, and we need to recognize this awesome fact once and for all. However, there is a reason for all this, and it goes back to the fact that ours is a fallen creation and in desperate need of rescue, and there is no way of getting accomplished apart from suffering and risk. Centuries ago the Old Testament recognized that "without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins." This means there is no way of getting folk out of what they have gotten themselves into without suffering and sacrifice on the part of everyone concerned, and this is a law of reality that applies even to God. There is no magic wand that even God can wave over certain situations and heal them painlessly. If you have ever tried to work with an alcoholic or a disturbed teenager or a sociopathic personality, you know what it costs to try "to redeem people from their sins." Yet this is precisely what God is trying to do in God's great mercy, and so it would not surprise us that "to be favored of Him" boils down to being invited to share God's inmost passion; namely, the saving of God's people from their sins. Such favor has little to do with comfort or ease or special privilege, everything to do with being involved in something dangerous and demanding, but eternally significant.

I once had a "fireman" in a congregation I served, and he taught me much about how "favor" and hardship were not antithetical, but belonged together. Given the nature of his profession, favor did not mean a cushy job back in the safety of the station house, but the most dangerous assignment in trying to put out a fire. Challenge—not ease—is what "favor" meant to this one, and the same is true with God, given Who God is and God's particular passion to save God's people from their sins. We have it all wrong if we equate the favor of God with life made easy. It is rather the high and holy chance to participate with God in something infinitely hard but at the same time infinitely worthwhile.

And believe me, this is where the deepest of all joy is to be found. It is easy to confuse joy with pleasure or comfort, but in the Christian sense, it is something far more profound than these. Joy is what one experiences, event in the midst of pain and conflict, when he or she senses that they are sharing in something God is trying to get done. The writer of Hebrews catches this paradox perfectly when he says of Jesus: "For the joy that was set before him, (he) endured the cross and despised the shame." This is exactly what his mother, Mary, did before him. She was called on to endure a lifetime of difficult and draining experiences, but not for nothing! It was all part of the high drama of redemption. God denied this one ease that God might grant her glory. God let her in on "a piece of the action" called redemption, which is how "the favor of God" is always manifest in history. The grand mark here is not just how much one is given, but how much is asked of you, and this is the first important lesson to be learned from the life of Mary.

The other thing that stands out so clearly in Mary's experience is the true nature of obedience. I never realized until I studied it carefully just how much was asked of Mary and what tremendous trust she displayed by responding as she did. I have already alluded to the fact that here she was, a young virgin, engaged to the man she loved, being asked to give birth to a child before her marriage. Perhaps only a woman can fully comprehend the awesome implications of this demand. It threatened everything she valued—her honor, her reputation, her hopes and dreams for a home of her own. Yet, in the face of it all, she was able to say: "I am the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word," or as J. B. Phillips paraphrases it: "I belong to the Lord, body and soul. Let it happen to me as you say."

Honestly now, how many people do you know who would be willing to go to this length to participate with God in what God is doing? By and large, we middle-class Americans value our reputations above all else. "What other people think" is the functional god who brings most of us to heel. But not Mary—she proceeded to give back to God everything that God had given to her, and in my judgment this is the secret of the Christian life—this incessantly giving back and forth between Creator and creature that makes for highest joy.

How was such radical obedience on Mary's part made possible? It grew out of the sense of trust that had developed in her as she heard the stories of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and how God had always dealt with her people. That long history had taught her two things about this God Yahweh—that God was utterly mysterious, and yet always good. Almost never were God's ways obvious, but they inevitably worked out better than one ever dreamed. Therefore, what Mary did when Gabriel came and made God's fantastic proposals was not to take a leap into the dark, but rather to lie down trustingly in the hand of God and give to God the life God had given her. Notice carefully that her part in the process, like Abraham before her, was to trust and to collaborate. She was not asked to do this thing on her own. Had she been instructed to give birth to a child all by herself, it would have been impossible, but God does not make this kind of demand on us. God never asks that we do miraculous things, but rather to allow God to do miraculous things through us. Our part in the process is willingness and the consent to dance with God as God leads and directs.

I like the way Louis Evely describes this translation. He compares it to parliamentary procedure, and says Mary said in effect: "I second the motion." God had, in fact, proposed something, as one in a business meeting would make a motion, and Mary was the one "who brought it to the floor" by joining God in this endeavor. I find this image in line with the whole sweep of Biblical religion. God alone is the One Who started creation, but for reasons of God's own chose to involve us humans in completing the finishing of this project. God wants us to be in collaboration in creation, which is at once the glory and the burden of our humanness. Because of God's commitment to such parliamentary procedures, our human role is crucial. We have all witnessed business sections where motions die for the lack of a second. In my judgment, this is at the root of so many of our problems right now. Why is there so much poverty and ignorance and destruction in the world? Is it God's fault? By no means! Again and again, God makes a motion that the hungry be fed and the naked clothed, or the prisoners released, but what happens? We, unlike Mary, do not second God's motions. By our selfishness and lack of concern, or whatever, these good intentions never got to the floor to be acted upon.

A hungry child in a city slum prayed earnestly one Christmas for some food and toys, but nothing happened. She related this to a cynical friend, who asked with a sneer: "What happened to this God of yours? Why didn't He hear and answer you?" To which the child answered simply: "Oh, I'm sure he did hear me and told someone to bring me a Christmas gift, but I guess they just forgot." There is more than childish naive in that reply. More often than not, this is where the breakdown occurs: not with the God Who makes the motion, but with us, who hear so faintly and forget so quickly. In a similar situation, Mary said: "Yes, yes, I second the motion. Let it be to me as You have spoken." Our failure to do likewise is probably the main reason things are as they are.

Which brings me back to what I said in the beginning: Mary is not to be worshipped as a god, but she is to be admired, yea, even imitated as a human being. What she did in response to God was a heroic act of courage and trust, and look what came of her faithfulness. Not a life of ease for her, to be sure—that is never the shape the favor of God assumes. No, what came out of all her hardships was One who knew how to save people from their sins. What a gift that is to all of us, and it all happened because a peasant girl had trust and courage to say: "I belong to the Lord, body and soul. Let it be to me as You have spoken. I second the motion!" And I ask you: is there any response we could make to God that would be better for us or for the world?

I think not. Let it be, Lord, let it be to me—us—according to Your word. Amen.

John R. Claypool Birmingham, AL