NOV 18, 2018
We’re going to read about the most significant woman to ever live. She wasn’t a princess or a queen, an activist or an author, philanthropist or athlete, or anything else that the world views as important. And even though she is known by most of the world, she has been a polarizing figure throughout history. By some, she’s been thought of too much. By others, she’s been thought of too little. So then, the only way to properly understand how we should think of her is to read her story. And when we do that we need to remember that like all human stories, it’s part of a larger story -- God’s story. So, if this is how we’re to understand every person’s story we have to go to the Bible which is God’s way of telling us his own story. And when we do this, we’re going to see how we can respond to God’s grace with faith, even when we don’t understand his plan. So, take out your Bibles and turn to Luke 1 where we’ll read about Mary the mother of Jesus.
1. WE CANNOT THINK TOO MUCH OF MARY.
HER SIGNIFICANCE IS HER FAVOR FROM GOD.
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary.
“In the sixth month” — this is a reference to the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. The passage before this tells the story of an Angel having a similar conversation with one of Mary’s relatives in which she, too, is told that she will experience a miracle. In her old age, her and her husband Zechariah became pregnant because the Lord blessed them with a son whom they will name John. So, the Angel comes to Mary at the beginning of Elizabeth’s third trimester and has a message for her from God.
Next, we read that the Angel meets Mary in a town called Nazareth. This seems like a passing detail, but man is it important in understanding the greatness of this story. Who has had Rodney Scott’s BBQ right down the street? What town did he move his restaurant from? Hemingway; what’s that, right? It’s about 60-ish miles from Charleston, and if you blink you’d probably miss it… or at least you hope you would. That’s Nazareth. Back then, Jerusalem was the same size as the Tri-County area is today — around 600,000 people, and historians believe the town where Gabriel speaks to Mary was only about 400. There’s a reason Rodney Scott left Hemingway, right? And there’s a reason Nathanael says in John’s Gospel, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It’s nothing. And yet, that’s where God sends his messenger.
Verse 27, [read]. Now Luke tells us two other things about Mary. Not only is she from the middle of nowhere, but she is a virgin who is “betrothed” to a young man named Joseph. In the Ancient Near East, romantic relationships worked a little bit differently. Before you were married you were “betrothed;” this is the ESV translation. Others say “engaged” or “pledged,” because you were legally committed to your significant other for a year before ever living together or consummating your marriage. That’s the season of life Mary and Joseph find themselves in. And history tells us that these two are somewhere in the 12, 13, 14 years old range. This isn’t that odd when you consider the fact that life expectancy in the 1st-century was only about 40 years. Nowadays, this would be the cultural equivalent of getting engaged at 25. In both cases, it generally happens about a third of the way through life. And the Bible tells us that Mary, a teenage girl, has remained a virgin. She hasn’t had sex with Joseph, and she hasn’t had sex with any
other men. She’s a young woman with character, and her decision to refrain from sex before marriage is part of God’s miraculous story.
28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
We’ll pick things up in verse 28, [read through verse 33]. The Angel comes to Mary and he gives her a message; what’s he say? “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Is this how you expect a young girl to be thought of and addressed by God? It’s no surprise that Mary is caught off guard and confused by this. In this culture, it would be very strange for a man to approach a woman in public, much less to have a conversation with her. So Gabriel, likely taking on the form of a man while speaking to Mary, throws her off a bit. But he assures her in verse 30 that there’s no reason to fear, why? Because “you have found favor with God.” Twice in his message to Mary the Angel refers to her as favored. So, if Mary is favored and if we are to look to her as an example, what does it mean to be favored by God?
The Catholic Church has an opinion on this; they’ve kind of cornered the market when it comes to Mary. However, they think so much of the Virgin, in fact, that they have added to what the Bible says about her. For instance, the first Catholic church I ever stepped for in was called the “Immaculate Conception.” You’ve probably heard this term thrown around, and many people think that it refers to the Virgin Conception in which Mary becomes pregnant with Jesus. No, they believe on top of Jesus’ birth being special, so was his mother’s. So, they teach extra-biblically that Mary was also born without sin. This is the root of all the RC problems regarding the mother of Christ. This is why they pray to Mary, begging her to show them grace and ultimately save them: “Hail Mary, full of grace…” The problem with this, as Luke shows us, is that she never considers herself in these terms. And it’s not simply because she has low self-esteem. When Gabriel shows up he calls her favored; Mary was a recipient of God’s grace, not a dispenser of it. She would never have confused her role as equal to her future son’s — she is no redeemer like Jesus.
But, she is an incredible example of God’s grace. In spite of being someone who appears insignificant to the world, she found favor with God. Some people teach that only the righteous receive God’s favorable grace, and they try to justify this through stories like Zechariah’s before this. They say that God chose to do a miracle through him because of his significance as a priest. So, what do you do when you keep reading and he shows an unknown teenage girl in the middle of nowhere the same, if not greater, grace? See, grace comes to the needy. Let me explain to you Mary’s future before God changes her life’s direction: find a husband with a low-income job, have several children of which many would likely die, never travel more than a few miles from home, and then die as a nobody in the middle of nowhere. And then something dramatic happens, something life-changing. God intervenes in her sad story of a life and makes something of it. Our lives are the same way.
They’re going absolutely nowhere if God doesn’t show us grace. And it’s not even because we live in a dumpy town or are financially poor like Mary. But, it is because we’ve all made a dump of our lives through sin and we are so spiritually poor that we can do absolutely nothing to fix it. This is a difficult reality for most of us in the room to wrap our minds around, and on some level we can thank white privilege for that. We don’t view ourselves of being in need of anything! A lot us got the degree to get the job to get the life we always wanted; the whole time completely ignorant of how deep our need for God’s grace really is. See, Mary’s significance is not in the quality of life she has. If it were, she would be forgotten by the world like millions of others over the course of history. Her significance is in the fact that God chooses to change the outcome of her life. That’s what all of us need as well. We desperately need the Lord to give us grace and change the outcome our own lives; because if not then we all face an eternally dark outcome.
We cannot think too much of Mary, but neither can we think too little of her.
2. WE CANNOT THINK TOO LITTLE OF MARY.
HER SIGNIFICANCE IS HER FAITH IN GOD.
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”35 And the angel answered her, “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. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Continuing in verse 34. [Read] Now we finally hear Mary speak; until this point in the story we’ve only heard Luke narrate and the Angel speak. What is her response? A question. God sends Gabriel to let her know that even though she’s a virgin, she’s going to have a baby. And not just any baby, but she’s going to give birth to the Son of God in human form. Is anyone really surprised that by the time the Angel lets her get a word in that she asks a question about all this? I’m surprised she doesn’t throw up right there; that’s what I would do… Instead she asks a logical question, a biological question: “How?” We need to give her some credit though. Medicine has come a long way in the last twenty centuries, but it isn’t a recent discovery that virgins don’t have babies. So, a little insight from God about how he plans to do this seems fair.
And that’s where Mary’s response to the Angel is different from Zechariah’s. See, when he learns that his elderly wife is going to be pregnant with John the Baptist, the priest ironically responds with doubt. Mary’s question isn’t one of doubt, and we know this by the fact that she doesn’t lose her ability to speak like he does. Instead, she asks a question that, ultimately, increases her faith in God’s plan. So, the Angel answers her question by informing her that God the Holy Spirit will receive credit for the child. The Virgin mother hears this and, by her response, finds the amount of information she’s given from God to be sufficient. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” This is exemplary faith. Faith that, I think, should keep us from thinking too little of Mary.
Here’s why: think about the severity of Mary’s decision to submit to the Lord’s plan for her life. She had a plan for her life, nothing crazy by any means, but she had a plan. We all have some sort of plan. And the future mother of Jesus is willing to give it all up. Both her reputation with people and her relationship with her husband would be ruined. She would be thought of as a sleazy teenager who cheated on husband -- unlikely to ever find a husband for herself or a father for her child before dying alone in the same small town where everyone knows her story. This baby would be a kind of “scarlet letter” she’d wear for the rest of her life. And her son’s life wouldn’t be much better. Yet, look at her response. “God, you know what’s best, not me. God, your story matters most, not mine.” That’s faith. We have something to learn from Mary.
So, let me take a moment to say this: before we are shown her faith, we are given her question. In other words, faithful, believing, mature believers are allowed to ask questions. It’s part of growing. After all, Jesus’ mother does it. She hears from God, has questions, and responds in faith. That’s something I hope is true of Uptown. If you can’t come here, learn what God says through Jesus and the Bible, ask questions, and then grow in your walk with God then we have failed you as a church. That’s a healthy environment to have, and I pray it’s the kind of culture we set. Let me tell you what I don’t want and what’s not healthy. When you get to the point, like most people do, where your intelligence outruns your faith. You read a few books, listen to some podcasts, kill a couple sins, and next thing you know you stop having questions. You stop being confused by grace and you start to think that you understand it. That’s not the example the Bible gives us in Mary.
She knows she’s insignificant to the rest of the world and wonders why the God of the universe would choose to show her favor -- why he would choose her to be part of his story. My dad is this way. He is from a small town in North Carolina where he had two options for work once he graduated high school: a tobacco farm or a furniture factory. He chose neither and left town the only way he knew how -- by joining the military. He has what I would call a “simple” faith. Not much throws him off. Things hit the fan, he trusts God. Things turn out great, he trusts God. And here’s why I think he’s able to do that: he hasn’t let his head outrun his heart. He definitely doesn’t have all the answers to things, and he’s certainly still got lots of questions even in his 60s. But like Mary, he’s open to what God has for him because he doesn’t overthink God’s Word. Now, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use wisdom, or discernment, or study. But it does mean that we should be willing to take God at his Word and have faith that his plan is best, even when our plans are forced to change. Why? Look at the Angel’s final words in verse 37, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Another way of saying that is “All things will be possible with God.”
This is something Mary does so well. And that’s why we can’t think too little of her. She’s significant because of God’s favor to use her, but she’s also significant because of the faith she shows in his plan.
I’ll close with this, and it's one that has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. Why does the Virgin Conception matter? Is it really necessary to believe in order to be a Christian? I think it does, and here’s why. Whether or not you believe this is not an isolated issue. Its effects are far-reaching beyond this story and have ramifications for your entire Christology, how you understand the person and work of Jesus. In a New York Times interview, Tim Keller, a pastor in NYC was asked a similar same question and I’ll read his response, “If something is truly integral to a body of thought, you can’t remove it without destabilizing the whole thing. A religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be.” When I read those words, here’s what came into my mind.
Maybe as a child you played Jenga, or if you’ve to one of the two dozen breweries in town you’ve seen it stacked up in a courtyard. Say, this tower represents the body of belief for Christians. And you come to texts like Luke 1 and you have a hard time with the beginning of Jesus’ life, so you remove one block. And then, you come to the middle of his life and get to a place where you no longer believe the miracles of his ministry, so you take away another block. And then, you get to the end of his life and doubt the truthfulness of the Resurrection, so what the heck, it’s just one more block. Then, eventually you’ve removed so much truth that you’re left with no faith at all. All you have is a pile of blocks with no foundation because you’ve destabilized things so much that it’s collapsed on you, and you’re left with no real faith it all. You look around and you having nothing of any substance worth believing, and so you look at the mess and walk away. I’ve seen it happen. People in our church have seen it happen. And it’s heart breaking.
Christology matters not because academia matters, but because Jesus matters. The gospel matters. If you toss out the Virgin Conception of Christ, do you know what else you throw out? Salvation. The only way to salvation is for God to become fully human while remaining fully divine. And this only happens through a Virgin Conception. Born of Mary, Jesus is fully human. Conceived by the Holy Spirit, Jesus is fully God. The Bible says that it takes someone who is fully God and fully man to be our Mediator — to stand between us and the Father and appeal on our behalf so that we can have eternal life. So yes, Mary’s story matters. Without this story, we have no hope; we have no redemption. As Christians, then, we’re thankful for Mary and her example of God’s favor and her faith. And those who aren’t yet Christians have the same hope. That as insignificant as she may seem, God still chooses to show her grace. That as uncertain as her future may seem, Mary still chooses to show faith. The invitation today is to do the same: receive God’s favor and respond in faith. Let’s pray.
Photos used with permission from Callihan Creative
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