The Christmas story is so familiar many of us could recite it in our sleep – and over the next little, while we are so Christmas-focused, might actually do that. In amongst all of the busy-ness, it is possible that Christmas comes and goes and we have little opportunity to actually be still and reflect on this incredible event. So, what I would like to do is focus on the three main characters in the story. Today: Mary.
We don’t give Mary the honour and even the worship that Catholics do but that might mean that we are also not as aware of what an amazing woman she was. As we will see in a little while, Elizabeth, her relative, declared “Blessed are you among women”. Of all the women who have ever lived on this planet, Mary stands out. Mary has been blessed more than any other woman.
What do we know about her? Today, let’s just see what we can learn from Luke’s version of the Christmas story.
Read Luke 1:26-38.
If we play detectives and search for the facts about Mary, what can we discover?
We are given some basic information about Mary. We are told her name, that she was a virgin and that she was pledged to be married to a man named Joseph. We know that she was in Nazareth, a town in Galilee and we know the timing: in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. If we go back to the earlier verses we learn that this was in the time of Herod, king of Judea and that Elizabeth was the wife of one of the priests at the time, Zechariah. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were “well advanced in years”.
In the course of the story we read, we learn that Elizabeth was a relative of Mary’s (1:36). OK, so that gives us a little context – who, when, where. The story itself of course is the account of the angel Gabriel visiting this Mary. Angels aren’t necessarily giant, glowing beings with wings. Often in the Bible they appear simply as men. Maybe Gabriel was big and glowing, I don’t know, but just bear in mind the possibility that Mary simply received a visit from a man she didn’t know, who said she was highly favoured, and the Lord was with you.” I am not an expert in first century Jewish conversational etiquette. How would Mary have understood that greeting? Was it unusual? Was the implication that she was highly favoured by God or was it unclear who was favouring her?
Mary didn’t know what to make of it either – which suggests it certainly wasn’t a conventional greeting. In fact, she was greatly troubled by his words and wondered what sort of greeting this might be. It seems that Mary confused and befuddled. What on earth was happening? What did these words mean?
But Gabriel immediately reassured her: “Do not be afraid.” And he used her name. She might not know who he is but clearly he knows some things about her. If there had been confusion about who was favouring her, Gabriel clears that up: “You have found favour with God.”
There is our next bit of information about Mary: God was pleased with her and was showing His favour towards her. There is a hint here that God is going to do something. She was going to experience God’s favour. A little later, in v.42, Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women.” Amongst the women of all history, God blessed Mary in a unique way. Of course we know that God is going to do something and we will read about that in a minute. But let’s pause and consider what information this gives us about Mary.
You have found favour with God – past tense – suggests that she had lived in a way that had pleased God. What do you imagine Mary’s life had been like? What words would you use to describe a God-pleasing life?
Devout? Submitted? Obedient? Godly? Righteous? [Bring up words]
In the Sermon on the Mount, how did Jesus describe godly living? Righteousness and obedience.
For some clues, look at how Zechariah and Elizabeth were described in v.6: ‘Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. Righteous and obedient.
Look at how Simeon and Anna are described in Chapter 2. Simeon was righteous and devout; waiting for the consolation of Israel (in other words, waiting for the coming of God’s Kingdom) and the Holy Spirit was on him. It is speculation of course, but I suggest the same words could be used of Mary and were possibly even more true of Mary: righteous, devout, expectant that god was going to establish His Kingdom and full of the Holy Spirit. Anna never left the Temple but worshipped day and night, fasting and praying. Mary wasn’t in the Temple but maybe she also was a woman and worship, prayer and fasting.
We don’t have that information about Mary. But we do know that she had found favour with God and we do have other descriptions of godly people so we can assume that Mary had a similar sort of character.
Gabriel then revealed what God was going to do. Mary would conceive and give birth to a son whom she was to call Jesus. Some wonderful things are said about her Son but let’s leave those until we consider Him because, obviously, he is one of the main characters in this drama too.
Mary asked, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” From that we can conclude that she was a very logical person! It seems impossible. How can a virgin conceive?
There are other instances in scripture of people being told they will have a child when it seems impossible and, apparently, doubting that that could happen. Sarah laughed and was punished. Zechariah had already been visited by this same angel, Gabriel, and didn’t believe him when he said that Elizabeth would conceive. He was struck dumb until the baby was born.
There is no suggestion that Mary doubted. On the contrary, look at v.45: “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil His promises to her!” So her question was not “How can that be? Impossible!” but “Wow! How?” Not doubting that it would be but questioning how it would happen.
Given Elizabeth’s comment in v.45, we see that one of the key characteristics of Mary was her faith. She believed. God said it; she believed it. Even though, in the natural, she could not work out how this would happen, she believed that it would. Faith; belief, trust.
Gabriel explained how it would happen. The Holy Spirit would come on her. The power of the Most High would overshadow her. The conception of her baby would be not through the normal process but by the power of God. God would supernaturally create this baby in her womb.
Maybe to encourage her faith, Gabriel then said that Elizabeth, her relative who was old and unable to conceive, was also going to have a child. Indeed, she was already six months pregnant.
After the angels’ visit, Mary went to visit Elizabeth who lived in the hill country of Judea. Mary lived in Galilee, remember. I am not sure why she made that journey. Maybe it was to be with someone who might understand what was going on – who might understand what God was doing – because undoubtedly Mary’s neighbours were not going to understand and were not going to be very sympathetic when it became obvious that she was pregnant. Maybe it was so as to be able to talk to someone but it would also have bolstered and confirmed Mary’s faith. At six months, Elizabeth’s bump would be visible. Mary would be able to see the evidence of a miracle and be even more sure that she could believe what God had said.
Furthermore, the angel said, “For no word from God will ever fail.” Undoubtedly, Mary hung onto those words. If God makes a promise, God keeps it.
Mary’s response is wonderful: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to your word.” There was no arguing or bargaining; simply “If that is what God wants, I am His servant.” What words might we use to describe that? Availability, submission, obedience. It would not be easy being a (probably) teenage girl and pregnant outside of marriage but Mary simply says, “I am the Lord’s servant.” Stunning!
Then the angel left. Mary hurried away to visit Elizabeth. Look at what Elizabeth said to Mary and remember that, in this society, honour was given to the elderly. The elderly Elizabeth said to the teenage Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favoured that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the lord would fulfil His promises to her.”
Elizabeth exalted Mary calling her blessed among women. She called Mary’s baby her Lord and Mary the mother of her Lord. To have this teenager come to visit her is to be favoured in a way that she doesn’t deserve. “Why am I so favoured?”
Mary was a unique part of God’s plan and was blessed beyond others. But notice the humility in the song that she then recited. This could have all gone to her head. She could have been very proud but she worshipped God; she gave Him glory; she referred to her own humble state and that fact that God, in His goodness, had been mindful of her. “The Mighty One has done great things for me.” She wasn’t taking credit for it – even though she had lived a life that had won God’s favour. It was not her doing.” 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…”
We can add another word that describes Mary: humility. She was simply the Lord’s servant.
Mary was simply a human being just like us. She is not more than that. She didn’t get everything right. There were occasions later in Jesus’ life when she doubted Him. She was just a human being but she was a remarkable human being. She is a model for us.
Here is an example of a person who found favour with God and whom God was able to use to change the whole history of creation. Do you want to be like Mary? Do you also want to be pleasing to God and be someone He can use?
If so, let us aspire to the same qualities: devout, godly, submitted, full of faith, available, obedient, worshipful, humble.
It is a high bar just as Jesus set the bar very high in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, it is an impossibly high bar. Maybe our response is, “I cannot do it. I don’t have it within me to be that sort of person. Every time I have tried I have failed.”
Blessed are those who know that they are spiritually bankrupt – who know that they don’t have it within them and who therefore cry out to God for help. Blessed are those who, like Mary, say, “I am nothing. God has remembered me. God has been gracious to me. God has extended His mercy to me. God has done great things.”
Mary is an amazing model of godliness. She is someone we should admire and aspire to be like. Those qualities delight God. In fact, they are Christ-like. Jesus was devout, godly, submitted, full of faith, available, obedient, worshipful, humble.
If we are really going to be like Mary then we will take no credit for it ourselves but simply trust God. We will not assume we can do great things for God but we will believe that He can do great things in us (changing us) and through us (changing the world.) God is looking for people He can use. Who knows what He might do through us when we trust Him completely and say, “We are the Lord’s servants.”