Leading into Christmas this year I want to invite you to join in my family tradition of unpacking the nativity scene and placing it at the centre of our thoughts this Christmas. Unpack it not simply by taking the figures from out of a box and arranging them in a certain way but unpacking it in the sense that we look again and afresh at each of the figures from that scene and look past the way they have become very much stylised characters and see what they have to say to us as we too allow the one born at the stable to have a central role in our lives as he did in theirs.
This week I want to invite us to reflect on Mary, a woman of faith and of courage. Maybe she is the hardest figure for us to unpack because she has become a figure of deep religious devotion and adoration. The cover story of a ‘Time’ magazine in April this year reported on the way that Mary was growing in importance even in protestant circles. Despite this how we should honour Mary has been a focus for division and argument between various Christian traditions. This perhaps hides a lot of what she has for us today.
The best sermon I ever heard about Mary was from a 16 year old girl from our youth group at St john’s in the City, Leslie was a gifted speaker and when I had asked here to speak on Mary all I had given her as a starter from this talk was well Mary would be a girl about your age, and Leslie really related to it. You see Mary was a young woman possibly no more than in her mid-teens. She came from a lowly place. She lived in a small town in a small unimportant province in occupied Israel. In here society she had little importance, position or status. In fact even Luke, who of the gospel writers are most prepared to use women’s remembrances and perspectives, starts not by naming her but referring to the name lineage and occupation of the man she is betrothed to. She would have been a virtuous Jewish girl and we can see from her song recorded in Luke that she had a deep faith. Like most Jewish women of her time she would have been praying for the coming of the messiah to deliver Israel.
In Phillip Yancy’s book “the Jesus I never Knew” he reflects that in religious art Mary is always shown as accepting the angels visitation like it was a benediction but this does not reflect the gospel narrative. It tells us that she was troubled by the angel’s message.
She is troubled at the angels affirmation that God is with her and that he has blessed her greatly. The angel goes on to tell her that she will become pregnant and have a son and name him Yeshua or as we know him by the Greek equivalent Jesus. The angel tells her that this child will be the messiah taking on David’s throne and reigning forever. This does nothing to alleviate her troubled mind and she asks how it is possible for her to have a son, as she is a virgin.
The angel says that this will happen by a miracle, God’s power would rest on her. The angel then points to another pending miraculous birth, Mary’s relative Elizabeth who was barren and deemed too old to have a child is now six months pregnant and the angel concludes ‘there is nothing that God cannot do’: A good definition of a miracle.
Mary’s reply shows her faith she says, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it happen to me as you have said”. AS her relative Elizabeth will say to her how blessed you are to believe that the Lord’s message to you will come true. Mary continues to show her faith in her song, known as ‘The Magnificat’ that points to the profound effects that this child will have and God’s goodness to his people. She has been described, as being the first disciple, declaring the Kingdom of God her son would usher in.
But we see that Mary not only had faith she also had courage. For Elizabeth there was great rejoicing and praising God for her pregnancy and the birth of her son. Luke tells us her neighbours and relatives rejoiced with her and celebrated the baby’s birth. In Jewish custom the Village choir would gather and sing for the birth of a baby boy, as this maybe the coming of God’s promised messiah. But for Mary it was a troubling time. She was a young girl only betrothed to Joseph and her she was pregnant. Maybe the impact of that has been lost in our society today where there are many teenage pregnancies but it was a great scandal. Her husband Joseph could have easily rejected her and she would have been stoned for adultery. Matthew tells us he was going to give her a quite divorce until the same angel too visited him.
We are never told how the grandparents reacted to this situation but perhaps from friend and family dealing with similar situations you may guess some of the anguish they went through. Despite all this Mary faces the situation with faith, trusting in God. It may have been wise for Joseph to take Mary away from her home village for the birth of the child, as she would not have to put up with the shame of not having the rejoicing and support of everyone. It is rather ironic that the village choir would not have come to sing for this particular birth because of the stigma of the child being illegitimate. It fell to the angels to herald this child’s birth. She would have had the child without the comfort of relatives, as a mere male it’s interesting to note that when each of my children was born my mother in law appeared, God bless her, and that was of great comfort to Kris. It took courage for Mary to face this.
Malcolm Muggeridge questions weather it would have been much different today, with family planning clinics offering convenient ways to fix mistakes that may bring embarrassment to families. He says “it is point of fact, extremely improbable, under existing conditions, that Jesus would have been permitted to be born at all. Mary’s pregnancy, in poor circumstances, and with the father unknown, would have been an obvious case for an abortion; and her talk of having conceived as a result of the intervention of the Holy Spirit would have pointed to the need for psychiatric treatment, and made the case for terminating her pregnancy even stronger. Thus our generation, needing a saviour more, perhaps, than any that has ever existed would be too humane to allow one to be born.”
Courage and faith exemplify Mary through out the gospel accounts. When she goes to the temple a week after Jesus birth simeon the one person in the Christmas story who seems to be able to look beyond the child to see the shadow of the cross tells Mary that a sword will pierce her soul she stores even these things in her heart. In John’s gospel we see her prepared to approach Jesus about the wine problem at the wedding in Canna, looking to her son to do something, even though his time had not come. Maybe in a moment of doubt and confusion in Marks gospel it tells us that she and Jesus brothers came to bring him home fearing that he had become deranged, it took courage to question what she had stored in her heart. She is there at the cross, as her son is brutally and unjustly crucified. She receives his kindness as Jesus asks his much beloved friend to care for his most beloved mother. She is also there in the upper room at Pentecost, knowing her son has risen from the dead and faithfully standing with his disciples. This is the woman of faith and courage that God chose to carry and nurture his only begotten son.
For us today there is there are two things I want to draw from Mary.
Firstly, that we need both faith in God and the courage to live that faith out. Seeing the kingdom of God being born into the world today not only takes convictions it takes the courage of our convictions. Our faith needs to be put into action. Mary’s words “ I am your servant may it happen to me as you said” are not words of passive resignation to fate they are an active embrace of God’s will and purposes.
It takes courage and faith to allow God’s kingdom to be our priority. For example in Mary’s song it tells us the good news of Jesus Christ will mean that the poor receive their fill and the rich go away empty handed. We tend to want to think that the rich are blessed, that we are blessed in this country with what we have, but the gospel call on people who have much, is that much is expected. Jesus calls us to side with the poor and the powerless in our world and it takes courage to go against the flow of consumerism and materialism. It takes courage to speak up and say that we follow a different set of values and truths when the situation demands it, knowing the resistance we will face, the possible scorn and being written off.
Secondly, we need to realise that God is able to use the humble and lowly to achieve great things for him. The fact that a young Jewish girl of faith could be chosen to bear the son of God shows that we too who ever we are can be used to achieve God’s plans and purposes in the world if we will be prepared to respond with faith and courage. It does however take faith and courage.