Advent Three: Mary
Can you think of specific people in your life that have been influential in your spiritual development? When I think about those who have helped me grow, I can think of a number of pastors and professors. Of all the people you thought about, how many were teenagers? I would like to suggest that there is a specific teenager that we can all learn from. Her name is Mary.
Based on Jewish traditions that we have, scholars believe that Mary was probably around thirteen or fourteen years old when she became pregnant with Jesus. Let that sink in. I was thirty-two years old when my first son was born and I felt very unprepared to be a parent. And my son was just a normal child, not the Son of God or Saviour of the world.
Yet Mary’s young age makes here example even more praiseworthy. But before going too far down that route, we need to acknowledge that protestants and Roman Catholics have different views of Mary. Roman Catholics have a very exalted view of Mary. They believe that she was born without sin, that she remained a virgin her entire life and she was taken up to heaven without having died. They also believe that she has an important role today, being someone whom you can go through to bring your needs to Jesus. Since none of those things are found in the Bible, we are going to look at Mary as a normal young woman who was called to take on an important role. I believe that by setting aside all of the later additions to Mary, we can find an example that is practical and relevant to our experience. We are going to look to Mary as a model for us of the Christian life.
Mary Experienced Awe
Like Zechariah and Joseph, Mary was visited by an angel. These angelic visitations are such a familiar part of the Christmas story that we sometimes take them for granted. Angels visiting from heaven are just one of those things that happen.
What I see in this story about Mary is that she has an appropriate reaction and that is awe. Gabriel tells her not to be afraid, presumably because he could sense her reaction. This is not because she was only a young girl and was being silly. Experiencing God’s presence, even through an angel, is a big thing.
Have you ever been in the presence of great power? It could be something natural such as a waterfall. Or it could be manmade such as a nuclear power plant. Did you have a sense of awe being around it? Not necessarily fear, as if you were in danger, but a feeling of being near something very powerful?
At a previous church, we lived near a Canadian Forces training base. Sometimes as we were leaving for church, we would hear machine gun fire and other times we would hear artillery fire. We were near power. More than that, there was once an earthquake that took place under Georgian Bay that for some reason gave off a loud bang and shook our house. That was power.
What do we believe happens when we gather for worship? Do we believe that this is just about hearing Bible verses and singing Christian songs? Or do we believe that we are coming into God’s presence? And what is our reaction to that presence if we believe it?
Mary is our model. She experienced God’s presence and she demonstrated a sense of awe. I don’t see a fear in terms of terror, but an realistic concept of reverence and appreciation for what was taking place.
For all our talk of being in a personal relationship with Jesus and having God as our loving Father, all good things, we should also regain that sense of awe. Let us never get so familiar with God that we forget about the incredible power we are coming into contact with.
Mary Sought Wisdom
As we read the various announcement stories in Luke, we should notice something. Similar messages were given to Zechariah and Mary and both of them responded by asking questions. But when Zechariah asked his question, his ability to speak was taken away, while Gabriel politely answered Mary’s question. Was this a double standard?
There are some important differences. One is about who they were. Zechariah was an elderly priest who knew the Bible well and would have been familiar with how God had done similar things in the past. Mary was a young girl who lived in a culture where girls didn’t receive much training because their role was primarily that of being a wife and mother. Zechariah and Mary were coming from two very different places.
But there is more than this. Although both Zechariah and Elizabeth were old and Elizabeth was barren, what was being promised was at least in the role of the imagination. The conception would take place the good old fashioned way and it was something that God had done in the past. Not to take away from the miraculous nature of what took place, our technology today enables women who were considered barren and those who normally considered too old to have children to become pregnant.
What took place with Mary was completely different. Never before had a woman given birth to a baby conceived as a virgin. This was completely unique. Mary asked about this, not out of a spirit of doubt but as someone legitimately needing to know. What was the process by which this baby would come about?
I firmly believe that Christianity is a faith where questions are welcome. We are called upon to ask for wisdom. There is so much that we don’t know. Even without virgin births, this world is extremely confusing. Why are bad things happening? Why are good things happening? What is God calling us to do? What steps do we need to take to follow that path? Those are good questions and we need to ask them. We see in this story a young woman who sought wisdom. We need to follow her example.
Mary Offered Service
We have seen that Mary experienced awe in the presence of God and that she sought wisdom for God’s will. All of this is very good and both should be a part of our Christian experience. But there is one more step.
The next thing that Mary did was make herself available to God. She offered her service to God, agreeing to do what he called her to do. This does not mean that she had all the answers or that there were no more questions. It just means that at a certain point, we need to roll up our sleeves and do what needs to be done.
For Mary this was the beginning of a path that would be very difficult for us. As Jesus grew up and began his ministry, we see that there was some family conflict. His brothers and sisters, and possibly Mary herself, didn’t understand what Jesus was doing. They tried to rein him in and to act more “normal” but with no success. Worse than this, Mary had to see her son arrested, condemned and executed. Parents who have had to experience the death of their child will tell you it is one of the worst things that could happen. But Mary still made herself available.
When do we make ourselves available? Is there a certain level of knowledge or experience that we need before we can do it? Is there ever a point where we feel fully prepared and equipped? I’m all for training and preparation, but these are not meant to indefinitely postpone our service for God. One of the things that I appreciated about my seminary experience was that I had to do a ministry placement right away, before having completed any courses. It felt a bit like being thrown into the water and then being told how to swim. But it was good.
The Bible includes a number of stories of prophets and others who tried to get out of their call. They weren’t ready or didn’t have the right gifts. The thing that they have in common is that God didn’t let them get away from it. There is a time when God calls us to do something and we, like Mary, need to make ourselves available.
This is not limited to pastors, missionaries or professors. This is something for all Christians. There is no division within the church between those who do ministry and those who receive it. All there is are those who do ministry. We are all called to ministry. We are invited to seek wisdom from God as to what that looks like, but we still need to make ourselves available, whether or not we feel ready.
We need a hero. We need someone to look up to. That person is Mary. I don’t mean an exalted semi-divine Mary that can work miracles. I mean a young teenager Mary who was called by God to serve in a very intimidating situation. There is so much that we can learn from Mary. We can rediscover what it means to be in the presence of God. We can seek that same kind of awe that Mary experienced when she was visited from heaven. Our context may be different but it is the same God. We can seek God’s wisdom. It is okay to have questions and it is important to ask God for wisdom. There is so much that we don’t know and God has the answers. As important as it is to ask questions, we can’t wait until we have all the answers before we do anything. Imagine all that Mary had on her mind and yet she offered herself to God as his servant. God has a call on everyone of our lives. While we seek his wisdom, let us offer ourselves to God, trusting that we will get the on-the-job training that we need. That’s what Mary did and that’s what we need to do as well.