Meet Mary the mother of Jesus.
Few persons, if any, have been more frequently eulogized in portrait and statuary. Our usual image of her ranges from medieval or renaissance Madonna-and-child portrait — with golden halo arching her head — to the rugged realism of Michaelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Cathedral. There, as a broken-hearted mother three-decades-plus later, she holds the limp body of her crucified Son prostrate in her arms.
Let’s try to move beyond these immediate mental images of this woman to a thoughtful growing acquaintance with her.
The Bible gives us some background. It describes a devout, Jewish girl, perhaps in her mid-teens, betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter from Nazareth. Betrothal in the Bible differs considerably from modern engagements. It was an act preliminary to marriage. It implied a commitment almost as binding as marriage itself. Its dissolution involved at least a formal divorce.
Betrothed persons were referred to as husband and wife and were to be completely faithful to each other. Any violation of the betrothed state was treated as adultery. And, according to the Old Testament Law, it could result in death for the offender.
The permanency and faithfulness within the betrothal bond are pictured in God’s relation to Israel. In
We don’t know too much about her background. There is a second-century apocryphal infancy narrative called the Protoevangelium which literally means “first Gospel” of James. This book is not included in the New Testament Canon. How reliable it is in its facts we do not know. However, this early second-century history says that Mary was the child of elderly parents, Joachim and Anna, who lived in Jerusalem. This would accord with her priestly family connections noted in
There is another tradition supported by two references in early apocryphal Christian writings to “Mary the Galilean.” This tradition gives her birthplace as Sepphoris in Galilee.
The greatest weight of early church tradition would incline us to think that Mary went from Jerusalem to live at Nazareth. Various buildings have been built on sites associated with Mary and her history. There is the Church of St. Anne, closely linked with the Pool of Bethsheba in Jerusalem. This church gives tribute to her mother.
In Nazareth today you can visit two sites church tradition associates with Mary. One is the new Latin Church of the Annunciation, the most recent of numerous churches having been built on a site where the Greek graffiti of “Hail Mary” was found which dated back to the second century. The Latin Church believed that this was the site where she was visited by the angel Gabriel. The Orthodox Church has a tradition that the Annunication took place not only at the site of the present Latin basilica but also at Mary’s well, a short distance away, over which it has built its own church. This tradition also comes from the apocryphal Gospel of James, which has no canonical authority.
What we do know for certain is that this young Jewish woman was a virgin, betrothed to Joseph. We do know for certain that when Elizabeth, Mary’s relative, was six months pregnant with John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel appeared to her.
Mary was greatly troubled. She wondered what kind of a greeting this might be. The angel alerted her to the fact that she should not be afraid.
“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” (
Mary, stunned by this word, questions this. “How will 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” (
Then the angel went on to tell how Mary’s relative, Elizabeth who was barren and elderly, would, in her old age, have a child. “For nothing is impossible with God” (
You can picture what must have been going on in this young woman’s mind. She had heard her parents talk about unwed mothers. Jewish teenagers got pregnant in the first century the same way as do American teenagers in the twentieth. It made sense that she would go visit her relative Elizabeth who lived some eighty miles away in the hills of Judea. Upon Mary’s arrival, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She sensed the baby in her own womb leap. With a loud voice, Elizabeth proclaimed these words so etched in Christian tradition: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” (
To this Mary responded in words that also are etched in the history of Christendom. They are called “The Magnificat.” Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the mighty One has done great things for me — holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers” (
So the story unfolded. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for approximately three months and then returned to Nazareth. Then we come to that very familiar portion of this narrative when the decree came from Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken.
Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem. As we know, there were no vacancies in Bethlehem’s inns. So the Christ Child was born in a stable area. The shepherds came. The word spread that something most unique had happened at Bethlehem. However, as far as Mary is concerned, we don’t hear much more of her for a while. There is one powerful phrase that capsuled her life, attitude and actions. It reads: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (
We don’t see that much more of Mary. We know of her presence at Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day and in her own purification and presentation of the baby a few days later at the temple in Jerusalem. We know how they fled the wrath of Herod by moving to Egypt and later back to Nazareth. We see her when Jesus was presented at the time at age twelve, again at the wedding feast in Cana and then in casual reference made to her by Jesus. Our last and most vivid view is at the cross when she stands by her Son only to have to learn that the mother-son relationship through Christ’s death and resurrection becomes the woman-Lord relationship, as Jesus referred to her as “woman.”
So we have revisited Mary. It’s healthy, isn’t it, to reacquaint ourselves with the biographies of important, biblical characters? How easy it is to forget them and the heritage they are willing to share with us. Yet the intent of this message is not simply to review history. We are endeavoring to apply insights from the lives of these Christmas characters to our lives where we live today.
First, a word to young people: God uses young people!
Jesus came in the form of a baby. Mary most likely was a teenager. God has through history used young people.
Sometimes young people are more sensitive to spiritual matters and make themselves more available to be used by God than do older persons. This was the case with Mary. Contrast her to Zechariah. Both of them were eminent in character, persons of exemplary conduct. Both were confronted by the angel Gabriel. In those two ways they were similar. Observe the contrast. He was a mature, established priest of God. She was a lowly, inexperienced young woman. He had devoted years of his life praying for the Messiah to come. She had probably given little thought to the topic.
Yet Mary was way ahead of Zechariah. He doubted; she believed. She believed so much that she was willing to face slander in the confidence that this was the Word of God coming to her. She may have been young, but she wasn’t stupid. It was no inconsequential matter to be the mother of our Lord.
There are those today who scoff at the notion of the virgin birth. If they are still doing it today, imagine how it was then in Nazareth. She who bore in her womb the Christ Child knew what it was like to be scorned by the polite society of Nazareth. Imagine the catcalls and the hoots she got as she went to the well to draw water for her family. Imagine the conversations she and Joseph must have had as two persons who were endeavoring to go about their relationship God’s way. They had all the onus upon them as if they had cut corners sexually. Imagine her fears that Joseph would disappear, with the pressure becoming too great, and she would be left a single parent in a society that had little room for illegitimacy and out-of-wedlock parenthood. Far from letting this destroy her, her response was not one of doubt, not one of objection. Her response was: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (
God, throughout history, has worked in the lives of young people.
Another Joseph, eighteen-hundred years earlier, was a young man when he was sold into slavery. He had every reason to cut corners, disowned as he was by his own brothers. He became a slave in a foreign land but remained true to his God, even when betrayed by Potiphar’s wife. Languishing in an Egyptian prison, the months went by. How tempted he must have been to have repudiated the God of his great grandfather Abraham and his grandfather Isaac and his father Jacob. But he didn’t. And God reached down into that prison, singling that young man out for significant service, both for the people of Israel and the people of Egypt.
The Apostle Paul writes to the young pastor Timothy and urges him to let no one put him down for being so young.
Check out church history, and you will find that even as God has used men and women who are His venerated, long-term saints, He has also worked through young men and women in our own day. Billy Graham was only thirty years old in that epic evangelistic crusade held here in Los Angeles. He is now ninety. Think of the sixty years of faithfulness in which God took youth, mellowed it into middle age, and continues now to use him.
Take the example of Jesus. The God of the universe chose to flesh out His earthly ministry in the God-man who was done by age thirty-three, sixteen years younger than your pastor.
Young man, young woman, God wants to use you now. God will use you now as you are available to Him.
Second, a word to people who need and want to know more: God is willing to teach you.
Whereas Zechariah wanted a sign to prove it was God talking, Mary simply wanted to know more. She knew that virgins didn’t get pregnant. She wasn’t going to doubt God’s power to do this. She wasn’t going to run away from whatever God wanted to do. She was open and available. She simply wanted to know how this would be since she was a virgin.
Her questions were answered. They were answered by Gabriel’s explanation. They were answered by Gabriel’s putting her in touch with her relative Elizabeth. Her questions were answered by her previous and future study of the Old Testament Scriptures.
Some of us muddle along in life not knowing a whole lot about God and the way God does business with us. Every so often I run into a young person who simply refuses to study. He may major in athletics. She may concentrate on her social life. The notion of doing homework, of staying awake in class, preparing for exams, is so foreign to this kind of person. How sad it is to observe the high school dropout. It is one thing when a person simply does not have the capabilities to do the work. It is another thing when that person really has the intelligence but somehow does not have the motivation.
You can make a direct parallel to the Christian life. There are some people who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior, and they simply leave it at that. They are not claiming the promises of God’s Word because they don’t know the promises. They are confused by every “wind of doctrine” that blows around them. They don’t know the difference between historic Christianity and some Christian cult or some anti-Christian religion or philosophy.
The Bible is a closed Book. They seldom expose themselves to preaching and even less seldom expose themselves to adult education. This person is a professing believer — but there is not much professional about that. Just as there wouldn’t be much professional about a doctor who never went to medical school or who did but didn’t continue to keep up-to-date in that profession.
Mary was a young person who was a student of the Word. She knew the Old Testament Scriptures. Her life was not marked by biblical ignorance. In the presence of her relative, Elizabeth, she broke forth into a psalm that incorporated some of the thoughts of a woman named Hannah over a thousand years before. You can read it in
Be teachable. God is willing to instruct you.
Third, a word to ultra-conservative people: God has a radical understanding of the gospel.
That is right. Don’t turn me off before you have a chance to hear what I am going to say. I am very aware that there is an ongoing debate between liberals and conservatives. I am not unaware that this is Orange County, which has historically been known as a bastion of conservatism. I, myself, am proud of living in that dynamic tension between being conservative in some ways and liberal in other ways.
God’s Word calls on us to be conservative, persons who conserve the very best from the past. Yet God’s Word calls us to keep pushing forward. How pathetic it is to be a person who lives basking in nostalgia, living in the past, dreaming of a better day which is gone and will never return.
And God calls us to be liberal. We are to move into the future with a sense of expectancy as part of Christ’s mission. Unfortunately, there are some liberals whose notion of that word means that they are prepared to destroy the heritage of the past so as to bring in a new order. Unfortunately, often the new order has some of the same deficiencies as the old order. Human nature doesn’t change.
Events around the world have certainly proved that to be revolutionary for the sake of being revolutionary accomplishes very little but the tearing down of old structures and replacing them with new structures which are similarly dysfunctional and corrupt.
The word I am trying to share with you at this moment zeros in on that ultra-conservatism in which some of us will uphold the virgin birth of Jesus because the Bible says it but will not take seriously the content of Mary’s great “Magnificat” which declares God’s social agenda for humankind. Not only does she declare glory to the Lord, making a humble statement of how blessed she has been by Him. Not only does she declare the mercy of the Lord from one generation to another. Not only does she declare the mighty deeds of God. She talks about how this God is sovereign and has a social and political agenda of justice and righteousness. This God brings down rulers and lifts up the humble. Listen as Mary speaks.
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers” (
God hates injustice whatever its form may be, and He wants to radicalize you and me to not have our heads in the sand, enjoying all that we have without a sense of conscience for a world where there is hurt. God would not have us close our eyes to injustice.
On the other hand, I can be so attuned to the injustices out there that I forget my own participation in injustice close to home. I was told a story this week of an affluent church in Chicago. Because of the holiday season, that church wanted to help someone who was poor. So one year in the Thanksgiving-Christmas Season they genuinely searched through their rolls to find someone in poverty, and they couldn’t find anyone. Yet our seasonal guilt tends to be so great that we cannot go through Thanksgiving and Christmas without doing something for someone.
Finally, they found a widow, living in a North Shore Chicago high-rise. They picked her out of their membership for a concentrated holiday generosity. They brought her a turkey and all the trimmings. They rushed her with seasonal hospitality, only to offend her sensibilities. For here she was, yes a widow — but actually a multi-millionaire widow who was appalled by the high concentration of attention to her non-existent material need when there were so many in real poverty in Chicago. That woman has enlisted herself as a result in one of our World Vision subsidiaries called “LOVE INC,” which endeavors to match truly needy persons with those of us who can give attention not just in the holiday season but throughout the year.
You see, Mary, a young woman, was willing to learn. In the process of learning, her thinking became radicalized to God’s way of thinking. She felt the discrepancy between the rich and the poor. She truly wanted her heart to be broken with the things that break the heart of God. Am I willing? Are you willing?
Fourth, a word to flamboyant people: God functions in very quiet ways.
Mary knew how to keep her counsel. She was a young woman of deepening understanding. She had a vision of God’s redemptive work, both through personal salvation and corporate justice. She also was a person who observed all the events of the Advent Season which we celebrate now. The Scripture says, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (
Whereas Zechariah was speechless because of the judgment of God upon his unbelief, Mary was caught up in a kind of speechless ecstasy that centered upon God. That’s quite unusual in our activist society. So much of our faith has become a very exterior thing with much more commotion than devotion. There is a time and place for the quiet, deep reflection. We talked about this some last week.
Let me reemphasize it by urging you during this Christmas Season to find some time alone to ponder the true meaning of this season. Let me push you even beyond this recommendation. Let me challenge you to find a time each day, starting today and throughout each day between now and next year at this time, to be alone with God and savor the things of God.
Read unhurried from His Word. Have a devotional booklet or two with thoughts that complement and supplement Scriptural teaching. Have a time of prayer — musing on what God has done for you, done in you, and is desirous of doing through you. Let me warn you. If you and I do not find time to quietly meditate and deepen in the things of God, the secular, materialistic society in which we live will gradually and ever so subtly destroy us.
God does not function with whistles and sirens. God’s strategy was not to blitz Rome, charging through the forum to the senate, with a warrior Messiah on a white stallion. No, God chose to come to the womb of a sensitive teenage girl who was willing to grow in her understanding of the things of God, who had a vision, at least partial, of what God was about, and who, in the quiet setting of a stable in Bethlehem, God through her took flesh.
The Messiah came as a baby, a carpenter lad, an itinerant rabbi. Thirty-three years later, He rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, and His greatest act of triumph was to be crucified, bearing your sins and mine and to rise triumphantly, offering the promise of individual life transformed and society transformed by His redeeming power.
Think upon these things. Ponder them in your heart!