December 16, 2018 Third Sunday of Advent
Scripture reading – Luke 1:39-56
Sermon: “Songs of Advent: A Song of Joy From Mary”
Despite her major appearance in the beginning of the Gospel accounts from Matthew and Luke, Mary, the mother of Jesus, really doesn’t get much respect in the rest of the Bible. She only appears a handful of times, and even when she does, not much can compare to her appearance in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. She is at the crucifixion of Jesus, watching her beloved son die on the cross. She is at the wedding feast at Cana when Jesus performed his first miracle – sort of against his own wishes. (Mothers can get all of us to do things we would rather not do, can’t they?). And even in Luke’s second book – the Book of Acts – Mary only appears with the other Eleven Apostles on the Day of Pentecost. Now maybe Mary was part of that mysterious group known as “the other women” who went to the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning to wash and properly prepare his body for burial. But none of the four Gospel writers identifies Mary specifically.
Other than that…not much about her.
It would seem that the Gospels have more to say about Peter than Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Paul’s actions and Paul’s letters cover most of the New Testament itself and begins its wonderful early Christian theology, but Paul never mentions Mary.
You would think from the writings in Scripture that she is just not that big of a deal…I think that’s a pity.
Because throughout Christian history, Mary has become an amazing figure that today inspires billions of believers all over the world. Her actions, strength of character and unwavering faith are what Christians can all aspire to imitate and follow. Yet the Protestant reformers believed that the Roman Catholic Church had elevated Mary up too high. In many parts of the world, Christians are not just inspired by Mary, they pray directly to her to intercede on our behalf with Jesus. She is considered to be so special that she is not given the title “Saint.” Her title is “Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.” This may come from her own words that we heard and read today: “…from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
Reformers have a real problem with all that because Protestants believe that Jesus intercedes on our behalf, and we have no need to pray to saints or to Mary to do it for us. In our own various writings in the Presbyterians Book of Confessions, it is clearly stated that we are to admire and imitate the lives of the saints, but we do not need to pray to them. This directive includes Mary.
And while I believe in all this, I continue to also believe that Mary doesn’t quite get the credit in the Protestant churches that she deserves…except at Christmas. If you disagree, imagine me preaching a sermon about Mary during any other part of the year – except for Advent. It might not strike you as an ordinary part of our Scripture readings and sermons.
But let’s examine this magnificent woman today and let’s ask ourselves three simple questions:
First, who was Mary?
Quite simply, Mary was a young, righteous Jewish woman who had lived in two very small towns – Bethlehem and Nazareth. Mary was betrothed to be married to a day-laborer named Joseph who truly loved and respected her. Mary lived a very simple life, and she and her family were most likely poor. Because of her situation, Mary probably had few prospects for fame or prosperity. She was just like thousands of other Jewish women in first century Judea who had to constantly watch their steps with the occupying Roman army, as well as the local Jewish authorities. On paper and historically, there didn’t seem to be anything special about Mary.
- She was ordinary.
- She was common.
- She was just like everyone else in her state and in her time.
- She certainly didn’t seem to have much to be joyful about.
At least, that’s how Mary appeared to be.
Second, why did the Lord choose Mary to bear his son?
We don’t really have much direct evidence from Scripture that helps us answer this question. However, we DO have some indirect evidence that is pretty compelling.
When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and first told her that she would be the mother of Jesus, she didn’t challenge his words; she only asked for clarification since she was not married to Joseph yet. Compare this to Zechariah’s reaction when the same angel appeared to him in the Holy of Holies in the center of the Temple in Jerusalem and told him he and his wife, Elizabeth, would be the parents to the one who would announce the coming of the Messiah. Zechariah was afraid and astonished; Mary was startled and puzzled. Zechariah didn’t believe Gabriel, so he was struck mute until John was born. Mary accepted Gabriel’s explanation of how she would become pregnant, and then said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In doing this, Mary demonstrated the faith in the Lord that would have been pretty scary to the rest of us; her life was about to be turned upside-down forever, and she calmly accepted it as soon as the explanation was clear to her. No wonder the Lord chose her! How many of us would react the same way?
When the wise men appeared in Bethlehem, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that they greeted Mary and the Child, knelt down, and paid homage to Jesus. We have no mention at all of Mary’s reaction or panic or troubled words. We have only what we have: They appeared, they knelt down and worshiped her Son, and then they left.
This indicates that somehow Mary may have known they were coming. If extremely rich and important foreigners come to your house, wouldn’t you react in some form or fashion? What if they knelt down and worshiped your son? This tells me that Mary already knew her Son was someone special, and so this scene was not that unusual. Once again, no wonder the Lord chose Mary do be the mother of his Son. Mary was cool…
But the third question for today is most likely the most important one: Once Mary became the mother of Jesus, what happened next?
I believe the answer lies in the actions of Mary herself – but also with our reaction to Mary’s faith and strength and joy.
When Mary was told by Gabriel that she would bear a son, she accepted this. It was never forced on her; she was not manipulated by the Lord into doing what He wanted. She was a “free agent.” Mary was an active – not a passive – participant.
When the shepherds appeared at the stable to see the Child that the angels told them about in their fields, they left praising God and telling everyone what they had seen and heard and experienced. And what was Mary’s reaction? Did she brag to the other women back in Nazareth or Bethlehem? Did she insist on saying something about the occasion, some words for us to remember 2000 years later? No, Scripture only tells us that Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” That’s it.
Except for our reaction to the person of Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ.
Throughout Christian history, did you know that most groups of people who were downtrodden or captives or slaves bonded with Mary? Their bond with her was born of their own powerlessness. In the Egyptian Coptic Christian Church, Mary is revered by the people and worshiped. So, it should surprise no one that the Coptic people of Egypt are the lower-class people of that country. Their leader is sarcastically called “The Pope of the Garbage Men” because of their low status. Yet, today, the Coptic Christians hold Mary in an incredibly high esteem.
Slaves in the American South also held strong to the story and example of Mary. While the slave holders wanted their slaves to see Mary meekly submitting to the will of God, the slaves themselves often saw the truth for what it was: a true, humble servant of the Lord who chose to accept her role. They saw her humility and drew strength from it.
Women in Third World countries, especially in Central and South America and Africa, see Mary as someone who understands them. Many of their countries are often torn apart by poverty, war, and brutal military action; sound pretty similar to Mary’s lot when she lived in occupied Judea back in the first century A.D. Those women, who often lose their husbands and sons to violence, can relate to Mary – who also lost her beloved husband, Joseph at some early point, and who witnessed her own son tortured and murdered on that shameful cross next to a pair of thieves. No one was there to comfort her, except for one friend who loved her Son more than himself. She wailed and cried and probably screamed out to the Father when her son’s dead body was taken down from the cross and quickly put in a nearby, convenient tomb.
How may women throughout human history, throughout our own world today, can related to this? Those who have lost their sons in many instances have no standing in their own communities and are forced to become beggars. They see John’s care for Mary as directed by Jesus from the cross in a different lens than most of us can even imagine.
So, to answer the third question directly: Mary became the Mother of God, not only in Bethlehem and in Nazareth, not only in Egypt and at the cross in Jerusalem; Mary became an icon that all of us can admire and love.
And her song of joy sung to Elizabeth should resonate with us today:
“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, just as he promised our ancestors.”
My friends in Christ, when we read about Mary or think about the Mother of Jesus Christ, may each of us be inspired to serve with as much joy and as faithfully as she did.