"Mary, the First Disciple"
There are a lot of approaches we could take to the story of the angel’s announcement of the birth of Jesus. We could talk about what it says about who Jesus is: that he is the Messiah, the heir of David; that he is both human and divine; that he is figuratively and literally the Son of God. But, this morning, we’re going to look at it as a lesson in discipleship as we consider Mary.
When you think about it Mary was Jesus’ first disciple. In her response to the angel’s announcement, Mary is a pattern for us of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. What motivates her response to God? What is our response as disciples when God asks something difficult of us?
The Facts of Mary’s Life (26-28)
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Luke tells us that the announcement by Gabriel takes place six months into Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist. In this way, he ties these two stories together. They have much in common with each other, but there are also many differences between them.
We are told that Mary is a virgin, betrothed but not yet married. This tells us something about Mary’s age. In Jewish marriage customs, betrothal, roughly equivalent to our engagement period, lasted anywhere from six months to a year. During that time, the couple was considered legally married, but they did not live together, nor had they consummated the relationship. Mary would probably have been a young teenager. Today, we don’t marry off young teenagers, but in that time people were considered adults at the age of 13.
Her husband to be was named Joseph. He was a descendant of David, Israel’s greatest king. That wasn’t as impressive as it sounds, a king from David’s line had not ruled in Judah for centuries. The man who currently sat on the throne was not even a Jew; Herod the Great was a puppet of the Roman overlords.
She lived in Nazareth, a small town in Galilee. Nazareth was not a very impressive place. In John’s gospel Phillip goes to his brother, Nathanael, to tell him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:44). To which Nathanael tellingly replies, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (vs. 45).
The opening verses of this passage serve to establish the fact that there was nothing extraordinary about Mary. She was an ordinary young Jewish girl from a not-so-impressive town. She was engaged to be married to man who, although he had an impressive family tree, was just as ordinary and unremarkable as she. Here is our first lesson in discipleship—God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
God doesn’t care about your background. You can have the worst background imaginable but that doesn’t disqualify you from service to God. God doesn’t care about your age. No one should ever say, “I’m too old” or “I’m too young” to do anything for God. In the first chapter of Luke’s gospel God calls an elderly couple to be the parents of John the Baptist and a young teenaged girl to be the mother of Jesus. God doesn’t care about your social standing. Zechariah was an honored priest, Mary was a poor young peasant girl. It makes no difference to God. He can use you if you are obedient to him.
The Fear in Mary’s Heart (29-30)
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.
Mary is alarmed at the angel’s words. Luke says that Mary was “greatly troubled”. The Greek is diatarasso which means to confuse or perplex. It’s sort of like those calls you used to get (or emails you still get) “You may have already won!” You wonder what you have won and what the catch is. I can imagine Mary looking around and saying, “Highly favored? Are you talking to me?”
The angel counters with “Don’t be afraid, Mary.” (He knows my name!) He uses the word phobeo, "to be in an apprehensive state, be afraid, become frightened," from which we get our word phobia. Mary is afraid. And why wouldn’t she be? She’s having a conversation with an angel. That doesn’t happen every day.
Mary’s fear is natural and understandable. Whenever we are confronted with something new and strange we get confused. Alarm bells start to go off in our heads. It’s a natural defense mechanism.
But there is a species of fear that is harmful and sinful. Many people live with a fear of death, fear that a spouse will leave them, fear of illness, fear that they won’t have enough to pay their bills. When we live in fear, we become warped. We respond to situations out of fear rather than faith. Entrenched fear breeds unbelief; as disciples of Jesus, we must not let fear control us. Mary accepted Gabriel’s “Don’t be afraid” at face value.
The Wonder in Mary’s Mind (31-34)
"'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.'
Gabriel tells Mary that she will become pregnant and bear a son who will be the Son of God and the Messiah, David’s heir. That’s a lot of information for a young woman to process! And Mary asks, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
Back in 1:18, when told that his elderly wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son Zechariah asks a similar question, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” For this Zechariah is struck dumb until the boy is born. But there is no indication that Mary’s question is unbelieving or presumptive. Zechariah sought proof—Mary sought information. Her question is perfect natural. “Wait, aren’t we missing a step here? I have never had intimate relations with a man. Doesn’t having a baby require a father?” This is a great come back to those who say, “Of course people in those days believed in a virgin birth—they were primitive and unscientific.” No, Mary knew how babies are made and what the angel was telling her didn’t fit the picture.
Some people say we shouldn't question God, but Mary did. She asked "How?" Questions cause us to grow and learn. Questions stretch our minds and hearts and increase our understanding. Questions and the exploration for their answers is an important component of discipleship, even if the questions themselves ultimately go unanswered. Mary's question arose from faith, not doubt. What would your response to the angel be? Faith—like Mary or unbelief—like Zechariah?
The Submission in Mary’s Spirit (35-45)
"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. Even
Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who
was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with
Mary’s response is awesome. “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” By saying that, Mary is writing a blank check to God. She is giving up her right to marry Joseph. She is accepting the suspicion of her neighbors, the possible rejection of her family, and any hope of a quiet domestic existence. And yet she agrees. Mary affirms the bedrock truth that undergirds our discipleship: "I am the Lord's servant." After all is said and done, after we have explored all the possibilities, we still must decide: am I a servant or a master? Is my allegiance to the Lord or to my own desires?
Sometimes it takes great turmoil in our souls to come to the place of submission, but come to it we must. Even before Jesus was conceived, Mary was faced with the decision: Will I obey and make way for this King? or Will I take the easy way that avoids difficulty and pain? To her everlasting credit, Mary's response of faith is what our response must be: "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said."
That this is Luke’s point is confirmed in verse 45. When Mary goes to see her relative Elizabeth, and the baby John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb in recognition of the Child Mary carries, Elizabeth declares, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
What God Wants from Us
What is it that God wants from us? Total comprehension about the future before we will trust him? No. That’s impossible. And besides, it’s better that we don’t know what the future holds. Does he want us to have perfect knowledge of the Bible? No. If that were the case, then no one would ever trust him. Do we have to be spiritually advanced to the point of sainthood? Thank God, the answer is No. Very few of us would meet that qualification.
What does God want from us? The same thing he wanted from Mary. Simple faith that he will keep his word and trust that will say, “Let it be to me as you have said.”
Our Father, we do not pray for more faith; we pray rather for courage to exercise the faith we already have. Make us more like Mary, willing to submit our will to yours with our whole being. We pray in the name of Him whose birth we celebrate at Christmastime. Amen.