This season of Advent, we have been pointing out, is a season of preparation for Christians. And not just preparing in the sense of decorating the house, and baking the cookies, and shopping for the presents for Christmas; but also the preparing of our selves, a look inside, a time for reflection and any needed repentance.
How do we do that kind of preparation? Where do we look to find out how to prepare? Well, perhaps some guidance is available from some of the people who prepared themselves for the first coming of Jesus, so long ago. Perhaps they can in some ways serve as a model or example for us, as we seek to do our preparation now.
Our first lesson, our first example, last Sunday, was from John the Baptist, who reminds us that taking a hard look at ourselves, sorting out the good from the bad, and confessing and leaving behind the bad, is part of preparing for the coming of the Lord. It’s not the warm fuzzy message you get from most television Christmas specials, or Hallmark cards, but it’s part of our Christmas preparation nonetheless.
Today we turn to another person who had some preparing to do for that first Christmas, for the birth of Jesus: his mother! Now, every mother-to-be has some preparations to make as she awaits the arrival of her child, or course, but Mary’s situation was a little . . . special, and she had a bit more to think about and deal with than even many more typical mothers do. Today we hear her story, and consider how she can serve as a model or example to us – all of us, not just expectant mothers – in our preparation for Christmas.
The first thing one finds as one tries to do a little research on Mary’s background may be best summed up by this sentence from the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. The article begins: “We know very little concerning Mary’s background.” The kind of sentences preachers love to read once they’ve already committed themselves to a certain sermon topic for this coming Sunday.
What we know as her story begins is that: Mary was a devout Jew, a follower of the one true God; who lived in a small town in Israel called Nazareth; and was engaged to a man named Joseph – her only engagement, never before married, a virgin. And that’s about it. You can find long stories, even books and movies out there, repeating legends or speculation about the story of Mary’s life, but in terms of Biblical or reliable historical documentation, that one sentence is it: faithful practicing Jew, Nazareth, Joseph.
She was probably a teenager, because in Jewish villages of that time the usual age at which a young woman got engaged was in her teenage years; she may have been as young as fourteen or fifteen. And she was probably not wealthy, probably poor – because her engagement was to a carpenter, one of the less prosperous occupations, not to the son of a wealthy family. So when you picture Mary, think of a peasant girl. Think of someone the age of a tenth-grader, one of our high school members. Not an experienced, worldly-wise, has-seen-and-handled-much woman; not a Mother Superior, or any other nun-type person with twenty or thirty years of spiritual reflection under her belt. A peasant . . .
teenage . . . girl. That is who will be asked to take on this most special, most unique preparation for the coming of Christ.
An angel, Gabriel, comes to Mary in Nazareth one day and brings the news: God looks with favor upon Mary, and would like her to be the one who gives birth to the long-promised Messiah. And after a short conversation, Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” If that’s what God wants, OK, that’s what we’ll do.
And over the centuries, and rightly so, Mary has been honored as a model of obedience to God: God approached her, and she said “yes.” God assigned a difficult task, and she didn’t run away – didn’t pull a Jonah, for example. Mary was the faithful follower of God the angel had described; Mary immediately said “yes.”
But in our appreciation of Mary’s immediate obedience, we have to be careful to understand that that doesn’t mean she was a frightened, cowering, fearful obeyer; she didn’t capitulate, assuming a threat or a bullying or some kind of nasty consequences. And she also wasn’t a passive, mousey, wimpy, pushover obeyer; she didn’t say “Yeah, well, whatever. He’s bigger than me; what can I do?” God could have found someone like that; God could have found an “empty vessel” who just went along, out of fear or passiveness or lack of backbone. There must have been someone like that in all Israel. But God didn’t. As we are about to see, God chose instead to pick a woman of strength as well as obedience. Mary is a model of obedience to us, as we consider the character appropriate for preparing for the coming of the Lord, but she is also a model of strength. That’s what God wanted.
We see Mary’s strength immediately upon Gabriel’s arrival: An angel had appeared to a priest named Zechariah in the first verses of Luke 1, to announce the coming birth of John the Baptist; and Zechariah, we are told, “was terrified; fear overwhelmed him.” Mary, by contrast, wondered what the words of Gabriel’s greeting might mean. She was working out a puzzle! She shows no sign of fear.
And it’s a good thing, because Mary will need that strength immediately upon the angel’s departure: In first century Palestine, the marriage of a young girl took place in two steps: First, there was the engagement. This was a formal exchange of an agreement to marry, in the presence of witnesses. It was a legal contract; the man paid a “bride price” to confirm the deal. The second step would be the taking of the young woman to the man’s house, usually about a year later – this was the marriage proper – but it was the engagement which established the legal connection between the couple. It was the engagement which made things official. An engagement, then and there, could be broken only with a divorce. And an engagement initiated the requirement of faithfulness: If the young woman got physically involved with another man during the period of engagement, that was adultery – already. And the law said, following Deuteronomy 22:21, that the punishment for that adultery was for her to be stoned to death, at the door of her father’s house.
Well, now Mary’s engaged – legally contractually committed. And now Mary’s pregnant. And Mary’s fiancé knows he’s not the father. So, what position does that put her in? Mary must be strong enough to bear Joseph’s reaction when he finds out she’s pregnant; strong enough to bear the village’s reaction when they find out she’s pregnant, and not by Joseph; and strong enough to face the threat of death by stoning, should the village decide to carry out the written law. At the very least, she will have to be strong enough to bear the gossip and rejection of the village, being unwed and pregnant. And strong enough to bear the loss of Joseph – because under the law it is Joseph’s obligation to annul the marriage contract, whether he wants to or not. He has no choice. She must expect to lose him too. Mary must expect to be single, outcast, vilified, and possibly stoned to death. That’s what she has to face by saying “yes.” That’s the kind of strength God was looking for, in picking Mary.
Later, Mary will be strong enough to bear the words of prophets who tell her how much pain she will have to endure as she watches her son’s life proceed. It begins with Simeon (Luke 2:35), right after Jesus’ birth: “a sword will pierce your soul” because of this child. Mary will be strong enough to hear Jesus say things like “Who is my mother? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31) Not real tender, affirming words from a son to his mother.
Mary will be strong enough to believe in Jesus first, before he’s made any demonstrations of his power, before the first of his “signs.” At a wedding one day, Mary tells Jesus, “The wine has run out.” Jesus replies, in effect, “And how is that our problem?” – another tender response. And Mary, not put off at all, walks over to the servants and says, “Just do whatever he tells you” – which soon after results in what the gospel calls “the first of Jesus’ signs,” as he turns water into wine. Mary’s faith is strong enough that she believes first.
Mary will be strong enough to hear that her son has enemies – powerful enemies; to hear people saying that he is crazy (Mark 3:20); to watch her neighbors in Nazareth turn against him and plan to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4). She will be strong enough to be there and watch him die – disgraced, beaten, on a cross, at the young age of approximately thirty. It has often been said, “No one should have to bury their child.” Imagine being there to watch him die that kind of death. That’s the kind of strength God was looking for, in picking Mary.
Mary will be of strong enough faith that she will be counted among the disciples. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the remaining eleven of the central circle of disciples gather in a room in Jerusalem to wait, along with, Acts says, “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” It is this whole group, it sounds like, which experiences the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Mary’s faith is strong enough that she is counted among that important gathering.
And that really shouldn’t surprise us, because from the start, from Luke 1:45, we are told that Mary is blessed because she believed, because she had faith in God’s promise. From the start, Mary is a person of obedience, but she is also a person of strength, including her strength of faith.
Who else but a person of strong faith would respond to the dire situation she finds herself in . . . with a song? As James Kay wrote for “Christian Century,” “Mary is poor – dirt poor. She is poor and pregnant and unmarried. She is in a mess. But she sings!” End of quote. Sings a song not of lament, or of self-pity – doesn’t “sing the blues” – but a song of praise, of rejoicing, of confidence in the future. Mary’s faith is strong enough that she can sing, in the middle of her mess. That’s the kind of strength God was looking for in picking Mary.
So, as you look to Mary as a model for how one might prepare oneself for the Lord’s coming – and she is a good model for all of us, women and men – as you look to her, yes, be impressed by her obedience. Yes, say to yourself, “that’s the kind of obedience I hope I will show when God approaches me with a particular task, a particular job, a particular call.” But don’t confuse obedience with weakness, with passivity, with being pushed around by whoever or whatever comes along. Don’t think that one emulates Mary by not having a mind of one’s own, or ideas of one’s own – like changing water into wine. Don’t think that following Mary’s example means to act quiet, powerless, or weak. Mary is a model of obedience and a model of strength, she shows throughout her life. Following Mary’s example in our preparation means setting out to be strong.
So: “Mary Did You Know” of the danger that your choice would put you in? Mary did you know that your baby boy might suffer for our sin?
Yeah, I think she probably did know. And she showed the strength to see it through.
Let’s pray: God, thank you for the example of Mary, her faith and obedience and strength, and for bring with her as she lived out her courageous choice. Help us to be faithful and obedient and strong like her, when you ask us to serve you in a particular way. Amen.