At first blush, she was the most unlikely of women to be called to this extraordinary role. But I think that was exactly what made Mary the perfect candidate for this vital role in redemptive history. Nothing about the birth of Messiah was how it would have been envisioned by the Jewish people of the time. They expected a king – and all the attending pomp and circumstance. Christ’s birth was the complete opposite of that. Everything was upside down – including the “royal couple” who would be His earthly parents.
Mary was an unassuming figure, probably 14 or 15 years old at the time we meet her. She was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter; she was a virgin who lived a quiet life in Nazareth of Galilee (think Danville or Decatur; not a metropolitan mecca or center of cultural or political power). She was preparing to be the wife of carpenter. She did not have dreams or visions of greatness. She was…ordinary.
But her life changed completely when an angel appeared to her:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He 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, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And 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. And 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. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And 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. – Luke 1:26-28 ESV
A few items to note:
Mary was betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal in those days was nothing like what we call “engagement” today. Ending a betrothal was not as simple as returning a ring and canceling the reservation for the reception. In order to sever the agreement, the man would have to write a certificate of divorce. So when we meet her, Mary is a woman who has been promised to Joseph, a woman in waiting for her bridegroom. She was expected to keep herself pure until the wedding night, when her union with Joseph would be consummated.
So, to be visited by an angel and told she would be with child, and that child would be conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit was probably a bit disconcerting to say the least!
I mean, can you imagine the scandal? How many people do you think believed her when she shared this story? Joseph surely did not; when he learned this, he determined to divorce her:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. – Matt. 1:18-25 ESV
We hear this story so often that I think it could be easy to gloss over this, to sanitize it. But this was no small event. Old Testament law was not kind in these situations. The law stated that a betrothed woman who claims to be a virgin but is found not to be is to be stoned to death at the entrance of her father’s house (Deut. 22:20)!
Harsh. And Mary would not have been ignorant of this. She knew exactly what she was getting herself into when she say “yes” to God. And I would imagine she would have no expectation of Joseph standing with her. But she said yes.
Mary believed God. And that belief came at enormous cost. That belief was risky.
Who would believe her?
What would Joseph do?
What would her family do?
What would the public think or do?
Her very life was at risk.
And yet….she said…Yes, Lord. May it be to me according to your word.
There are three things that came to my mind as I thought about Mary.
First – faithfulness is hard, and the road taken is usually the road less travelled. Last night I was trying to imagine myself as Mary. It did not go well. I have so many questions…and not just about the virgin part! All the questions I posed – and more – would have flooded my mind and spilled out of my mouth. The fear that would have gripped me would have been paralyzing.
I have no doubt that Mary felt fear too. I have no doubt that her mind whirled with questions. But she did not hesitate. She knew the road would be hard, treacherous even. And still she said yes.
Secondly – Obedience doesn’t always make sense. How much of what God had revealed to her through His angel “made sense”? Human sense. None of it. Did it make sense that Joseph would understand and marry her anyway? Would it make sense that her family wouldn’t seek to harm her? Did it make sense that she, an ordinary woman from a nondescript town would be chosen to fulfill the promise of God, a promise that is woven through the entire fabric of Israel’s history up to that point? I mean, women dreamed of being the mother of the Messiah. Why would God choose Mary?
Why does God choose any of us? I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t make sense that I am a child of God. It doesn’t make sense that He saved me out of my misery and sin. But He did. And when He blesses me with the gift of ministry, when He showers favor on me, it makes no sense. The only thing that makes sense in that moment is to say Yes, Lord.
Thirdly – Obedience belongs to God, not to other people. Mary’s ultimate statement: I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me according to your Word. This is the battle cry of a woman of valor. A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Mary is praised, is called blessed among all women because she feared God more than man; she sought to obey Him, and not other people.
Had she been consumed with the potential consequences of say yes – even the very clear and present danger of being STONED to death – she would have shrunk back. She would have hidden. She would have said no. God’s plans would not have been thwarted – but she would have had no part in them.
What does this mean to us?
Mary displayed deep faith and enormous trust in God. She was confident, but not in herself. She was confident in her God. Confident in His character, His power. Confident that He would do what He promised. This is not something that can be mustered at the snap of a finger. This is a heart that has been shaped by the Word of God, belief in God, love for God – over time. So the first thing it means for us is a slow, steady walk with the Lord that is day by day. It’s kind of like a marathon. If I were to try to run a marathon tomorrow, I would probably drop dead after half a mile. But if I spent the next six or seven months training and slowly working up to that 26.2 miles, I would probably be able to run a marathon by July or August. Don’t know why I’d want to….but you get my drift. Slow. steady. Consistent. In the everyday and the ordinary. This is where you prepare; this is how you prepare.
Yesterday I watched the state funeral for George HW Bush. One of the eulogizers said something that cracked me up: “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington do not encounter heavy traffic”. To which we all could say a hearty AMEN!
But is that no less true in our everyday lives? What do we hear from our culture. Our celebrity culture is omnipresent – and we all want to capture some sliver of it – hence the term “15 minutes of fame”. Limelight looks good on any complexion. Or so we think. The one on top is blessed, favored, etc.
But the life of humility is much different. It is hard, it can be painful. It can be dangerous. But this is the life that God commends. Mary was said to have found favor with God. I often hear the phrase “Favor ain’t fair”. It usually refers to something awesome happening, as if to say, “Don’t be mad; it’s favor”. But sometimes favor doesn’t feel good. Sometimes favor is hard. Sometimes you want to ask God to stop favoring you so much! But those moments and seasons in life are often where our greatest blessing are born.
Mary traveled the road of humility; a quiet, ordinary, but faithful life. So the second thing, which flows from the first is realigning what we value to match what God values. His values are completely antithetical to what the world values. So that slow, steady walk with God reveal His will and ways to us, rewiring us as the Holy Spirit works in our hearts.
God may indeed call us to extraordinary things. He might not. But regardless, our lives should be under-girded with a faithfulness to God and a desire to follow Him where He might lead – be it in the unseen, everyday of life, or the giant and amazing. In whatever God calls us, our heart’s cry should be “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me according to your word.”