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The Actors of Advent: Mary
Luke 1:26 - 1:38
December 5, 2021
Reverend Jason Harris
Continuing our sermon series, “The Actors of Advent,” in this sermon we pay close attention to Mary, and her favor, faith and future in particular, and explore how God used the unlikeliest person to carry out his mission to make the world new.
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There's a great scene in the novel by Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, when Tom Sawyer goes to Sunday school. On this particular day, the county judge visits the church and, therefore, the superintendent of the Sunday school wants to show off in front of this distinguished guest. There's no one like Mark Twain to point out religious hypocrisy. The superintendent wants to show off in front of this county judge by presenting a brand new Bible to a child who has earned it through memorizing enough Bible verses. It was the superintendent’s regular practice to hand out Sunday school tickets of different colors—blue, yellow, red—depending on how many verses a child had memorized. Unfortunately, there was no child present that day who had memorized the requisite 2,000 verses in order to receive a brand new Bible. Tom Sawyer had not memorized any verses from the Bible, but this is what he did that morning. Prior to Sunday school, he traded whatever he had in his pockets, like a stick of licorice or a fish hook, for Sunday School tickets with all the other kids in the Sunday school. Suddenly, out of nowhere, when no one is available to receive a Bible, Tom Sawyer hops up like a thunderclap out of the clear sky and presents his tickets and demands his Bible. The superintendent doesn't want to let on that this child is not deserving of the Bible, so he plays along with this. The judge is so impressed that a young man like Tom Sawyer could have memorized 2,000 Bible verses; he must surely know the Scriptures. He asks Tom if he would show off some of what he's learned: You must know all 12 disciples. I bet you could tell us, who were the first two disciples that were appointed by Jesus. Tom, of course, has no idea. Others in the room prod him, Don't be afraid, Tom, go ahead, tell the man. Who were the first two disciples of Jesus? After a long pause, Tom finally blurts out, “David and Goliath.” I remember reading that story to my son, Luke, when he was in second grade and he burst out laughing as soon as we read that because he thought it was hysterical that Tom didn't know that David and Goliath were not one of the disciples of Jesus.
It's a good question, isn't it? Who were the first disciples of Jesus? I'd like to give an unexpected answer to that question. You could say that the first disciple of Jesus was not Peter, or his brother, Andrew, but Mary, the mother of Jesus. We're in the midst of a new series, which we've entitled The Actors of Advent. Advent is a time of waiting, and during this season, we wait as we anticipate not only the celebration of Jesus' birth, but also his promised return. Through this period of Advent, we're going to take a close look at some of the key figures who played a pivotal role in the unfolding drama of the original Advent story. As we do, we will realize that they show us a number of things about what it means to wait. During this period of waiting, we're not called to passivity or indifference, but rather, we're called to demonstrate an active and expectant faith. That, of course, is true of the entirety of the Christian life. We're not supposed to just sit back and twiddle our thumbs. No, we're supposed to actively anticipate God's future promises in our life now.
What I'd like us to do is to turn our attention to Mary, the first disciple of Jesus, and see what we can learn from her by considering Mary's favor, Mary's faith, and Mary's future. If you'd like, I'd like to invite you to open up your Bible to Luke 1. I'll be reading v.26-38,
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
35And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
This is God’s word. It’s trustworthy, and it’s true, and it’s given to us in love.
We began the series last week as Rev. Chris Hildebrand introduced us to the figure of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. In the opening lines of the passage that is before us, we learn that his wife, Elizabeth, is now six months pregnant. Then we're presented with a stark contrast. Whereas the angel Gabriel is first sent to announce John's birth to a priest, who is in the middle of public worship, in the temple, in the capital city of Jerusalem, Gabriel announces the birth of Jesus to an unwed teenage girl, privately in a no name, nothing place—a place we know as Nazareth.
The whole point is that Mary is nobody. She's nothing. She's not important. She's not significant. Yet Gabriel comes to her unexpectedly, and out of nowhere the first words out of his mouth are “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.” What would you do if that happened to you? It doesn't quite come through in our translation, but Mary essentially freaks out. That's probably a good way to translate the Greek here. She freaks out. V.29, “She was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” Zachariah was troubled when he received his message from Gabriel, but Mary is greatly troubled. She is perplexed. She's confounded by this, and you would be too. When was the last time an angel appeared to you in your apartment? But in v.30, we see that Gabriel immediately tries to soothe her fears, by telling her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Then he'll go on to explain that even though she's a virgin, she will conceive and bear a son, who will be none other than the Holy Son of God. Mary has an incredibly important role to play. She provides a model of faith for all of us, and I'll come back to that in a moment.
First, I want us to consider what it means to be favored. What does it mean to be favored by God? Notice, nothing is said here about Mary being blameless or sinless, nor anything to suggest that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. There's nothing said here about sex being defiling, or conception being defiling. All those were later ideas that were invented. You won't find those in the Scriptures, and as a general rule of thumb, I think it's best not to believe any new theological ideas that emerged after 1800. For example, some have said Mary herself was conceived without sin, and remained sinless throughout the rest of her life. But that whole idea was not even adopted until 1854, so be wary. Why is that important? Let me tell you why. There are some traditions that believe that the reason why Mary is favored is because she is without sin, and that's why we should pray to Mary. Mary hears our prayer. She can intercede for us, and she can participate in our redemption. But you won't find any of that in the Bible. None of that is in the Scriptures. No, Jesus is the only one who is without sin. Jesus is the only one who is full of grace and truth. Jesus is the only mediator between God and human beings. Protestants are right to insist that we should not pray to Mary or place our trust in any human being other than Jesus himself. We don't have to go through any human intermediary, whether it's Mary or any of the saints, because we've got direct access to God himself in and through the person of Jesus.
Here's another reason why that's important. If you think Mary is sinless, then you're going to completely miss God's favor for you. If you think Mary is blameless and without sin, you're going to miss God's favor for you because we tend to think that God favors those who are good, those who are pure, those who are innocent, those who are blameless, those who are perfect. And therefore if you want to receive God's favor, if you want God to choose you, to bless you, then you've got to try to get as close to perfect as you possibly can. But the whole point of the story is that there is nothing special about Mary. There's nothing special about her. She hadn't done or said anything to draw God's attention to herself. She was a nobody. But that means that Mary could have been anybody. That's the point. Mary could have been anybody. It could have been you, and unless you see that you will miss the significance of God's favor for you because how does God's favor work? God is a God of grace. Many people define grace as God's unmerited favor, meaning that God showers his favor and his love upon you, even though you haven't done anything to deserve it. That's true, but I would say it doesn't go quite far enough. God's grace is even more radical than that because God's grace is not merely unmerited favor, but rather demerited favor. It's not as if God showers his grace upon you, even though you don't deserve it in a neutral sense, but rather that we have actively disqualified ourselves from receiving his favor through our spiritual rebellion and failure. We've disqualified ourselves, yet he showers his love and grace upon us anyway, which means that the love we receive is the exact opposite of what we deserve. God's grace is not merely unmerited, but demerited favor. That's how God works.
Mary understands that because later she herself will sing in v.47, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” If Mary were sinless, she wouldn't need a savior, but she knows that she too needs a savior and that is what God has now provided in and through the son that she will bear. This is how God works. God always takes the initiative. He always showers his favor upon those who least expect it, who aren't looking for it, and then he uses them despite their weaknesses and their flaws to accomplish his good purposes in the world. There's nothing special about Mary. She could have been anyone. Therefore, if God can use Mary, he can use you. The only question is, how will you respond?
That brings me to my second point, which is Mary's faith. I would suggest that Protestants are right to protect the uniqueness of Jesus as the only mediator between us and God, but we Protestants might have overcompensated a little bit and failed to give Mary her due because while Mary may be no different from the rest of us, she nevertheless provides a model of faith for all of us. That's why I suggest that Mary is in effect the first disciple of Jesus.
Compare Mary's response to that of Zechariah. Both of them receive a message from Gabriel that despite all odds, despite the advanced years of Elizabeth and Zechariah, and despite the state of virginity that Mary is in, they're both going to bear a child. Zechariah is to name his son "John." He's going to be the one who prepares the way of the Lord. Mary is to name her son Jesus because he is going to reign over God's kingdom forever. Both of them receive this message. Both Zechariah and Mary respond by asking a question. They ask a question in response to this news. Both of their questions on the surface seem to be essentially identical. It's very hard for us to see a difference between these two questions. Yet Gabriel distinguishes the difference based on the way in which he responds to both. Earlier in this chapter Zechariah says in v.18, “How shall I know this?” Then Mary here in v.34 says, “How will this be?” That sounds pretty similar, doesn't it? “How shall I know this?” and “How will this be?” But Gabriel understands that Zechariah is responding with unbelief. The reason why he asked his question is because he doesn't believe it. He's looking for a sign whereas Mary responds with faith. You can tell she's operating out of faith because of the way in which she responds. She doesn't doubt that God can do what Gabriel says he will. The only question is how. So Gabriel goes on in v.35 to say, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” That's what the Holy Spirit always does in the life of a Christian. The Holy Spirit comes upon you and enables you to be and to do more than you ever could in your natural state. Then he goes on to say that, “The power of the Most High will overshadow you.” God's sovereign power will completely surround Mary. To be clear, this is nothing like the Greek myths, where some pagan god takes advantage of a mere mortal. No, what we're being told here is that the God, the Creator God of the Bible, is doing what he does best: bringing something out of nothing. This is what the God of the Bible does. The Creator God brings something out of nothing through his love and his power, in order to bless the world. If God can create the world, then he can create a child within Mary's womb. That's what God is going to do, and that is why Elizabeth's pregnancy becomes the sign that God will in fact fulfill his promise because as v.37 reads, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
Mary's response to all this is utterly remarkable. That's why I say that she provides us with a model for faith. In v.38, she says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Mary not only understands what Gabriel is telling her, but she also believes it, and she acts upon it, even though she knows that this isn't going to be easy, even though she knows that this is going to come at a cost to her. She's not a fool. She's going to go around and say that she's pregnant with God's child. Who's going to believe her? You're pregnant with God's child? Yeah, right. No, she's going to have to endure scorn and shame and ridicule. She knows what she's signing up for in a traditional ancient culture, with very strict norms when it came to sex. Yet she makes this choice. She makes this choice and willingly receives the role that God has appointed for her.
I wonder if you would do the same? Would you be willing to receive whatever role God has appointed for you? What is it that God might be calling you to do right now today in this moment? Do you understand it? Do you believe it? Are you willing to accept it and to act upon it? Is there something that God is asking you to do? Or to stop doing? To think or to stop thinking, to say or to stop saying. Is there a dark secret you need to confess? Is there an unhealthy habit that you need a break? Is there a broken relationship that you need to repair? Is there a person that you need to pursue? Is there a message that you need to share? Are you willing to do it despite the risk, despite the cost? What is the next step of faith that God is asking you to take? You don't always know what God might have in store for you. It might be the hardest thing that you've ever had to do. Yet you can trust that it will be for your good. You can trust that it'll be good. So the question is, can you say along with Mary, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Mary takes that step of faith, and it fundamentally changes her future forever. Imagine what an incredible privilege it must have been for her to bear the one and only Son of God within her womb. She carries Jesus and she brings him into the world, but she does it not merely for her own benefit, but rather so that Jesus might literally change the lives of billions of people. She bears Jesus for the sake of the world. The earliest Christians, often referred to Mary as the Theo-Tokos, which comes from the Greek meaning "God-bearer." Theo=God, Tokos=bearer. She is the God-bearer because the early Christians knew that Jesus was not only fully human, but fully divine, and therefore the child that she carries within her womb is God himself. She is the God-bearer.
She, of course, played a unique role, but in a derivative sense, you could say that we're all called to be God-bearers. It's true, not one of us is going to carry the Christ child in our bodies. That position has been filled. But every last one of us who receives Jesus for ourselves, is called to carry him for the sake of others. I wonder if you see yourself that way? Do you realize that you have a responsibility to share Jesus with others, in a similar way to the way in which Mary bore Jesus for the sake of the world? I want you to stop and think about this. Is there someone in your life right now who needs Jesus? Is there someone that you could pray for? Is there someone that you could invite to join you at church, or is there someone that you could invite to attend Bible study with you? Are you willing to talk to someone about their questions? Are you willing to share with them some of the reasons why you follow Jesus? Is it possible that you could give someone a Bible as a Christmas present this year, with a note inside perhaps describing why your faith is so important to you?
Let me just speak to the Christians in the room for a moment. Some of you have been coming to this church for years, and so my question for you is, have you ever invited someone who is not yet a Christian to join you? If not, why not? Is it because you're afraid? Afraid of what? Afraid that they'll think you're strange, because your friends, your colleagues find Christianity to be socially unacceptable within your school or your place of work? Is that all? Maybe you might say, “I've tried. I've invited people, but they're just not interested.” Why is that? Is the way in which you live your life so uncompelling as a Christian? Is it so unattractive that other people aren't the tiniest bit curious about what makes you tick as a Christian? These are the types of things that we should ask ourselves.
By the way, if someone who is not yet a Christian shows up at church on Sunday, or shows up in your Bible study, would you please do me a favor? Would you please go out of your way to make them feel welcome, regardless of what beliefs or doubts they might express because we need to create a place where people can explore the claims of Christianity before they have it all figured out, rather than shutting them down and making them feel stupid because they don't believe the same things that we do or they don't know the Bible as well as we do. We all need to start somewhere. How else will people ever learn what it means to follow Jesus in this world? We have to go out of our way to make people feel comfortable. What that means as well is that we will sometimes hear in our Bible studies people express views that are wrong. You've often heard me or Ashley say: Heresy should be encouraged in Bible studies—not because it's coming from us—but there should be people present who are expressing views that aren't accurate, that aren't correct, but we're not going to shut them down. We want to encourage them to talk. We want to encourage them to engage with the Scriptures for themselves, ask their questions, and over time, they'll figure it out. We've got to be a place that welcomes people regardless of where they are in the process because this is part of our calling—to be Christ bearers to the world. We have to bear him for the sake of others. If we're willing to do that, if we're willing to join Mary in saying, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,“ regardless of the cost or the risk, or the potential ridicule or scorn, then you can be a God-bearer too. It just might change a person's life. I know, because it happened to me.
I was 14-years-old. I grew up attending church. I had gone to church and to Sunday school. I went through confirmation class. If you'd asked me as a 14-year-old, do you believe in God? Yes. Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins? Yes. Do you believe that Jesus rose again from the dead? Yes. I would have affirmed all those things, not because I had thought about them, but precisely because I had not thought about them. I had no idea what it actually meant to live the Christian life because I never bothered to think about it. Then one day, a very unlikely person invited me to attend a Bible study. This was a family friend who was two years older than me. We were at some family gathering, and this was an unlikely person to invite me to a Bible study. He was sort of a cynical, sarcastic, chainsmoker. At this gathering, he asked if I'd go for a walk, I think just because he needed a smoke. In between puffs on his cigarette, he says, “You know, you should join me at this Bible study I go to on Friday.” For whatever reason, I said, “Sure. Yes, I'll go.” So he picks me up, gives me a ride in this car which reeked of incense, because he was trying to cover up the smell of all the cigarette smoke from his parents. I go to this Bible study, and I can remember that night with crystal clear clarity, because there were a number of things about it that struck me. First of all, I had never attended a meeting like this where people my own age were voluntarily choosing to read and to discuss the Scriptures together—not because they had to, but because they wanted to. No one was forcing them to be there. That was unheard of. I'd also never heard people pray like this. I only heard people pray to "Almighty God." I had never heard people, especially my own age, praying directly to Jesus by name, personally, intimately, assuming that he was right there in the room with us, and he knows us. I'll never forget listening to those prayers. I also recall that it was December 1992, and the passage that we read that Friday night was the very same one that we're looking at: Luke 1:26-38.
Here, I'm reading the story of Gabriel announcing the news to Mary that she will conceive and bear a son, who is God incarnate—that God himself is becoming a human being in the person of Jesus. The words of Gabriel rang out in my mind. “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then it sort of hit me. If this actually happened, if this really happened, this changes everything. I didn't do anything that night. I didn't say anything. I don't think I ever participated in the conversation. I just listened, and I watched. You know what I did do? I kept coming back. I kept going. From that moment on, my life completely changed. Now, 30 years later, I am a Christian minister, which just goes to show you have no idea the impact that little decisions that you make can have on the people around you. If we're willing to model Mary's faith, and to follow it, and to say, “Let it be to me according to your word,” then we too can become God bearers in the lives of others. We need to follow Mary's example. She doesn't keep Jesus to herself. She knows that she has to share him with the world. She has this incredible privilege of being his mother and raising him up. It just shows us that it doesn't matter who you are. You could be a very unlikely candidate for the job, but God can use you to change someone else's life, if you're willing to be a part of his plan. That's not to say that it'll be easy. No, there will be a cost. There will be risks involved, but it's worth it. It's always worth it.
But the risks are real. That's why after Jesus is born, Simeon approaches Mary, and he foretells that Jesus will be the cause of many to rise and to fall. Then almost as an aside to Mary, he warns her that a sword will pierce through her own soul as well. Her own heart is going to be pierced, and why is that? What Simeon is telling Mary is that she will not only be a witness of Jesus's birth, but she will also be a witness of Jesus's death. But she's willing to endure both the joy and the sorrow because she knows that she can't hoard Jesus for herself, that he's got a mission to fulfill.
Little did she know that that little baby that she swaddled and nursed, would end up hung up on a cross, naked and thirsty, so that he might become her savior, and ours. She went through with it. She bears Jesus for the sake of the world, and therefore calls us to do the same for one another, so that we too might be God bearers. My question for you is, can you join her in saying, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Let me pray for us.
Father God, we thank you for Mary's favor, and what it tells us about your grace, that it's not merely unmerited, but demerited, that the love we receive from your hand is the exact opposite of what we deserve. We thank you, Father, for her faith, that even though she's an unlikely candidate, she takes a step of faith in order to be faithful to you. Father, we thank you for the future that it opens up for her and for us. We pray that we might also find the grace in you to follow in her steps so that we might bear Christ for the sake of one another, so that they too might experience the life transformation that only you can bring. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.