God offers God’s very self to us, through Christ, through the Holy Spirit, yet we too often turn away. Let us confess our turning to the one who loves us.
Gracious God, you have given all things needed for life, yet we have too often squandered such resources. You have given us family and friends to share this life bearing one another’s burdens, yet we too often let our relationships go or resent the intrusion. You have given us an invitation to be disciples, to learn and to serve Jesus, yet we are often too busy to fully participate in the opportunities you put before us. You have given the best of yourself to us, yet we too often hold back from giving the best of ourselves to you. We seek your forgiveness and renewal, as we turn back to Jesus, our Savior and Lord.
Through Jesus the Christ, God chooses to forgive us. Through the Holy Spirit, God can renew us if we are truly willing to turn our lives more fully to God.
Thanks be to God!
PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
As we listen to the familiar story, may God open our minds and hearts to hear something new that God would speak to us today.
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 1:26-55, NLT
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting. 30 So the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! 31 Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 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 father David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?” 35 The angel replied, “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 holy; he will be called the Son of God.
36 “And look, your relative Elizabeth has also become pregnant with a son in her old age—although she was called barren, she is now in her sixth month! 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 So Mary said, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
39 In those days Mary got up and went hurriedly into the hill country, to a town of Judah, 40 and entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 She exclaimed with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child in your womb! 43 And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come and visit me? 44 For the instant the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
46 And Mary said,
“My soul exalts the Lord,
47 and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior,
48 because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant.
For from now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name;
50 from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him.
51 He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy,
55 as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
SERMON Mother Mary – Courageous Obedience
The texts are familiar since we are just past the Christmas season. We’ve heard them all recently in one format or another. But they are the proper starting place as we look at Mary, Mother of Jesus.
I’m impressed with her calm as the conversation with the angel Gabriel proceeds. Yes, she was startled at first, who wouldn’t be? Angels didn’t talk to humans that often in any era. It’s why the message often includes early on, the gentle approach, “don’t be afraid.” She is also told twice in the opening that she is favored by God. She listens to Gabriel’s specific message for her, one that seems impossible, one that would change her life completely from that point onward. She asks how, but she doesn’t say “No.” You can already glimpse her deep trust in God, her courage to obey faithfully. Mary listens quietly to the explanation and the example of God’s power.
Her relative, Elizabeth is already pregnant with a child, though she was considered barren and now perhaps too old to conceive. Rather than continue to debate or discuss the issue, Mary simply and quite humbly accepts the assignment. “I’m the Lord’s handmaiden, may it be to me as you have said.” She said this in spite of the damage it will do to her reputation, the possibility that her parents will be against her, that Joseph, her legally betrothed, may divorce her, and since Joseph is not the father, the righteous community will likely assume she committed adultery, punishable by stoning.
Jeanne Stevens focuses her study of Mary on this courageous moment when Mary said, “May it be….” Remember that at this time Mary was just an ordinary teenage girl in a committed, even legally binding relationship with Joseph. They still lived apart but were pledged to be married sometime within the year. Most scholars put her age around thirteen, a typical age to marry in her culture. When she said, “May it be…” she surrendered all her future possibilities in obedience to God’s plan.
Most of us fight against that at every turn. Even when we say “yes,” it is often conditioned by an “if” or “let me do this first.” At a bare minimum, we argue awhile and list all the reasons why it won’t work, before God can convince us to try. I’m guilty of that, but I’m not alone. Plenty of other Bible characters have done so, from Moses to Isaiah. Reactions to God’s assignments sometimes include fear, that it’s too hard, or telling God to find someone else. We don’t want to abandon our comfort for courage. Many fear failure, so they don’t try to pursue their own dreams or God’s plan. Some would rather live with their insecurity than take the risk of something worse. But then we lose the chance at something better, something worthwhile.
It takes courage to take a risk at a disadvantage. It takes courage to venture into the unknown. It takes courage to surrender your dreams to fulfill God’s plan. But Mary willingly, without much hesitation, did all of these.
In her video message, Jeanne Stevens shared the story of another woman, in our time, who took a chance and surrendered to God’s will for herself and her husband. She had something in common with many of the women’s stories in the Bible; she couldn’t conceive a child. The couple had talked about adoption, but it was hard to give up her dream until she became friends with her husband’s co-worker, a single woman who had adopted five children already from Russia and was waiting for a sixth. They went through the process together, and soon each brought home a healthy baby boy from the Ukraine. The two families spent time together especially at the holidays. But sometime later, the single friend became seriously ill. The couple rounded up her children and brought them home for the time being. The wife also spent time in her friend’s hospital room. It was there the question came, “Will you take my children?” The answer was already in mind. “Yes.” When the single mom died, a family with one young adopted child suddenly had six more children with ages ranging from preschool to high school. Qualms and questions? Of course! Hesitation? No! Courage and love won the day. Obedient to God’s plan, this new family made it work.
God puts many challenges in front of us. Courage allows us to say, “May it be…” The challenges help us grow. Without them we would be complacent, and our faith would be weak. When we say “Yes” to the opportunities God asks us to consider, the small spark of faith that wants to trust God learns that God is indeed dependable, that God’s strength is sufficient, that God can and does meet our true needs. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. A challenge is still challenging!
Stevens states a couple of things that moving from comfort to courage will do to you. One is “to question your decision. It will cause you to look around for the safety bars, seatbelt, and any kind of security button.” We do tend to seek security by any means. But here’s where the real security can be found. “Moving from comfort to courage will cause you to feel weak in the knees – a good indicator that you should stop standing up and get ON your knees.” (both quotes from Twelve Women of the Bible Study Guide, Session 7 “Mary, Mother of Jesus” by Jeanne Stevens, p. 87) Security comes from God and is sought through prayer. I’m sure Mary spent a great deal of time in prayer for her son throughout Jesus’ life.
Can you even imagine what it would be like to raise God’s Son as your own child? The birth stories are extraordinary enough. John MacArthur suggests as I have often suspected that Luke’s detailed stories about the events surrounding Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ birth come from Mary’s own memories. He gives us a great deal from her perspective in chapters 1 and 2. I don’t know if it came from Mary directly, as MacArthur believes, or if it was handed down through another party, but Luke gives us more of her story from a mother’s point of view than the other Gospel writers.
Having said, “May it be…” Mary goes to Elizabeth and they share time together, encouraging each other and marveling at the miracles God has granted to each of them. God has convinced Joseph to take Mary as his wife. There are none of the feared consequences from family and community as God watches over them. As Mary celebrates with Elizabeth, she offers a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God that echoes so many Hebrew scriptures including Hannah’s prayer from the book of Samuel, as well as Psalms, Isaiah and other prophets. We see not only her devotion and love for God, but also that she is well versed in the scriptures and traditions of her Jewish faith. Jesus will learn much as a boy growing up in her home.
But MacArthur points out, as Jesus grows into his ministry, Mary will have to accept a very different relationship with her son. I think these words summarize it best, “As a man, He was her Son. But as God, He was her Lord.” (John MacArthur, Twelve Extraordinary Women, p. 122)
When Mary and Joseph searched three days for the twelve year old Jesus after leaving the Passover Feast in Jerusalem, they found him back at the Temple in earnest dialog with the rabbis. He said, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) Mary must have begun to see that this child would follow the extraordinary path God had set for him, and she would have to sit back at times to let that path unfold.
On another occasion, when Jesus was in his thirties, had begun his ministry and gathered his disciples, they were invited to a wedding feast where Mary was already helping a close friend. Mary came to her son when the supply of wine was running low, knowing he would somehow have the means to help. Jesus responded, “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My time hasn’t come yet.” (John 2:4) She did not make further demands, but she trusted him, telling the servants to do whatever he asked.
MacArthur sees no disrespect in these accounts, but a playful, easy-going, yet strong and loving relationship between mother and son. I hadn’t really thought of Jesus and Mary that way, but there is another mother and son I knew years ago with that kind of relationship. By late Jr. High, David was taller than his mom. In the kitchen they would banter back and forth in a manner that could have sounded like he was talking back to her. They would even bump into each other’s arms as if they were fighting, but from the grins on their faces, I knew it was all in play. Even after he moved away and until his death, David’s protective care for his mom and deep love for her were real. It’s easy for me to imagine then, that Jesus and Mary had that deep love and respect for each other, that they truly cared about each other, enough that they could carry on the same sort of banter in a playful way, and that they would care for each other to the end.
As Jesus grew into manhood and ministry, there had to be a healthy change. This is true for all parents and children, at some point we have to let them grow up, respect them as adults, and accept that we don’t get to tell them what to do any more. That doesn’t change our love for them or their respect for us, but child becomes adult deserving to be treated as an adult but also needing to take on adult responsibility. For Jesus, that change also held the significant factor, that he had God’s work to do, that he was even God in the flesh. Mary’s role shifted from teacher to student, from mother to follower, from parent in charge to background support.
Mary watched with love and sometimes concern as Jesus entered these ministry years. For all the things Mary had treasured and pondered in her heart since the night the shepherds came prompted by angelic pronouncement and song, I think the toughest words for her to bear must have been those of Simeon, the prophet whose lifelong hope was fulfilled when he beheld the infant Messiah as Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple for dedication. Simeon had prophesied, “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. 35 As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” (Luke 2:34-35)
Watching Jesus become a man of God and God as man, I’m sure Mary felt many moments of both wonder and pride. But there must have been a shadow in the back of her mind from that prophecy. As she watched his ministry unfold, she knew how tired and even hungry he must be, how many demands were placed on him. She was probably also aware of the political stirrings against him. At one point she and his brothers tried to convince Jesus to take some time out, but again, Jesus’ words were a reminder that he had God’s work to do. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who were sitting around him in a circle, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33b-35)
Mary accepted Jesus’ commitment to his ministry. She may have worried as any mother does and expressed her concerns as we mothers often do, but she was wise enough not to try to manipulate him or in any way try to control or hinder his work. She was not in charge, and she knew it. Instead she humbly played a supporting role as one of his followers until the time came that I’m sure she had dreaded all along.
In one of the final scenes we have of Mary, Jesus’ mother, we find her standing at the foot of the cross where her Son is hanging, stripped of his garments but not his dignity. He is bloody and bruised from the lashings he suffered. He is tormented by the crowds as he was tortured by the soldiers. This is not the glorious victory many expected of the Messiah. But somehow, I suspect Mary knew this was closer to what Jesus had expected. She would have known the suffering servant passages in Isaiah and perhaps understood how her Son related to them personally. She didn’t comment on where he had gone wrong or join the crowd in telling him to come down off that cross. She somehow humbly recognized and accepted that this, too, was part of his ministry, part of what he came to do. When she heard the Centurian declare, “Truly this was the Son of God,” Mary had known and trusted that all along, even before her Son was born. She held that deep and abiding faith as he died.
But standing at the foot of the cross, again taking a risk even to be there and to be identified with an executed criminal, Mary did all she was able to do. She was there for her son, an expression of love, her only way to offer comfort and support. She remained steadfast to the bitter end. Again, it took courage to do this. Many of his disciples and friends were not there. The Bible only records Mary his mother, Mary of Magdala, and one beloved disciple, John. Jesus did not ignore this gesture. Even as his life was waning, he looked with compassion at his mother and placed her in John’s care also asking John to be a son to her.
Beyond this we only know that after Jesus’ ascension the disciples continued to gather in the Upper Room to pray, awaiting the Holy Spirit as Jesus’ commanded. Acts 1:14 tells us that they “all were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” That’s our final glimpse of Mary, in the difficult position of knowing the pain too many of our members have known, that of outliving your child. Yet she remains with the rest of his closest followers. I picture her offering them comfort, sharing her memories, even as they try to comfort and care for her.
Beyond Jesus’ life and ministry, Mary remained a humble servant, courageous and obedient to God’s plan, in spite of the pain and cost of that faithfulness. This is her legacy to us: to have the courage to choose God’s plan, the humility to surrender our lives in obedience, to take the joy and the privilege along with the sorrow and the pain, to face the challenges that will help us grow as we say “Yes” to the opportunities God sends our way, to treasure and ponder God’s Word in our hearts and to devote our lives to service and prayer for Jesus’ sake. That is the privilege we ordinary folk share with one extraordinary woman named Mary.