Week Four of Advent Sermon

December 14, 2011 · Print This Article

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord …” Mary is very much a part of the gospel story. The mother of Jesus is one of six women so named in the New Testament. Mary is the Greek form of the Hebrew, Miriam, meaning exalted. Moses’ sister bore that splendid name.

Mary of Nazareth – has any individual in Scripture suffered more at the hands of the church? Rome has elevated her to goddess – Mariolatry. It really was late in being officially established, not until December, 1854 when Pious IX promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (immunity from stain of original sin). This was followed in 1950 by the Assumption (bodily transplanted to heaven). A cultus developed with multiplication of festivals in her honor. In reaction, Protestants have ostracized her, deprived her of personality and identity – almost afraid to mention her. Some writers have – unsuccessfully – attempted to make her of questionable morals, a camp follower. Others have drenched her in pious sentimentality, swathing her in a nun’s habit. In reality, Mary is a remarkable individual. Scripture provides a brief, yet fascinating portrayal of her spiritual pilgrimage, an unfolding, a maturing in faith.


There is an old theory that Mary – a descendant of David was of the priestly tribe of Levi. Tradition has given the names of her parents as Anna and Joachim. We first see Mary as the young maiden of childlike innocence, visited by Gabriel, “Hail, the Lord is with thee …” The scene is completely natural, “… she was troubled at his saying …” We recognize a naive peasant girl of humble piety, abashed at the news, “… thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son …” In complete candor and modesty, she insists this cannot be, “… seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:28-34) Much in life lies beyond comprehension. There are many mysteries. Indeed, there are miracles, and they are necessary if life is to hold any wonder. It would be awesome to be told one would become mother of the Son of God.

In her desire for companionship, Mary visited her kinswoman, Elizabeth, who was likewise expecting. What a joyous meeting in the hill country of Judaea. In response to her cousin’s greeting, Mary sang her Magnificat possibly one of the earliest hymns in Christendom “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”

In Nazareth, Joseph was deeply troubled. News was abroad that his betrothed was with child. Not wishing to make a public scandal, he “… was minded to put her away …” Everyone reacted, naturally; townspeople, acquaintances, and friends gossiped about the engaged couple. Mary was pregnant! Of course, all realized she had been with some man … after all. How could Joseph think otherwise? If was God who spoke once more, encouragingly, “… that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.” Jesus is the name to be given the child yet to be born.


In due time, while in Bethlehem for the census, Mary’s child is delivered, cradled in a manger, “And she brought forth her firstborn son …” Shepherds came, so Luke records, and Matthew tells us the magi arrived, later perhaps, bearing costly gifts. What wonders! What did it all mean? “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” Years later, did she tell the story to Luke? Is she responsible for the priceless account we lovingly read?

Presentation in the Temple followed, with the blessing from aged Simeon and fearful words addressed to Mary, “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul …” Did she remember as she stood by the cross some thirty-three years later? Anna’s prophetic thanksgiving – did it not likewise disquiet the young mother? Who was this her child? What was his destiny? How terrifying the flight into Egypt as she became a refugee in a strange land, because her child was threatened by a malevolent dictator.

How proud Mary and Joseph were when the twelve-year-old walked in Jerusalem, possibly celebrating his bar mitzvah. What anxiety when they could not find him in the returning caravan. They spent three frantic days searching the city, only to discover him in the Temple. She reprimanded him, just as any mother would: they had “… sought thee sorrowing.” Her son countered with an incredible “… I must be about my Father’s business.” What was he talking about?

We can imagine Mary’s Nazareth home. Other children were born: James, Joses, Juda, Simon, and daughters. (Mark 6:3) Perhaps Jesus’ public ministry was delayed until his thirtieth year due to Joseph’s death. As first son, Jesus became head of the household, and Mary’s chief support. The carpenter shop was undoubtedly the means of livelihood.

Even after the public ministry began, Mary had yet to comprehend fully this extraordinary offspring of hers. At the wedding in Cana he gently remonstrated, “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is riot yet come.” (John 2:4) Was he saying that his mission was more than relieving an embarrassed host who failed to provide adequate refreshment? Later, when she and his brothers sought him, possibly to bring him home and put an end to his embarrassing peripatetic teaching, he enigmatically inquired, “Who is my mother?” (Matthew 12:48)

Her greatest agony came that dreadful afternoon when she steadfastly lingered with her sister, “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister …” At the cross she heard him call to her. In gasping words he arranged that she should be cared for, “Woman, behold thy son! … Behold thy mother!” (John 19:26-27) She saw him die. Amid the shame and brutality of a Roman execution, she waited. Should any mother be made to suffer this much?

Quite incredible

How she could recall

Word and miracle,

Pain and passion! All

Through the days she pondered

In her heart, and wondered.1

Who can fathom the greatness of God?

Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the

flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power … by the resurrection from the dead … (Romans 1:3-4)

Mary experienced Easter. She certainly would have been among the “… other women that were with them …” (Luke 24:10) And when do we last see her? In Jerusalem, with the other disciples, “… all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the Mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.” (Acts 1:14) We take leave of Mary as she is on her knees, praying for the coming of the Holy Spirit. She is part of the fellowship, numbered among the faithful, yet without a particularly prominent status. We last see her as she prays. The Paraclete was soon to come.


Life has come full circle, from maidenhood to motherhood; from wonder, doubt, and perplexity to faith and fulfillment; from Annunciation to Pentecost. In truth, is this not the spiritual journey all take? In Mary, do we not – in some measure – behold ourselves?

As we make our way through the varied and beauteous seasons of the Christian year, we see Mary as she fills her historic roles: in Scripture, poetry, music, drama, and art. We see her at Christmas with the creche. We view her in paintings of the Passion and Easter. She belongs, for she is part of the gospel – the Christian story – and part of humanity.

Martin Luther makes a special point regarding Mary. He stressed the element of faith. “The Virgin Birth is a sheer trifle for God; that God should become man is a superior miracle.” Luther continues, “… the most astonishing of all is that the maiden [Mary] would believe the announcement.”2 For Luther the point is very clear: it was the virgin’s faith rather than the virgin birth that is complete miracle.

And this is Mary of Nazareth: a woman of honest faith who moves in faith as far and as fast as she can. It is not overnight, it is not a year: it is a lifetime. It is life lived in a real world, along with real people where the situations resemble those most of us face, daily. Mary helps us take a long look at ourselves, asking if we are growing in love, in understanding. We remember vividly those scenes when our devotional habits were strong, fresh, and clear – as though Gabriel were speaking to us, calling us to commitment. What has happened in intervening years? Have we ceased to grow? Has the world so caught up with us that spiritual reality has all but gone?

Mary reminds us that we must continue to move, become. If we fall – and we do, almost daily – God will pick us up. If we misunderstand – and misunderstanding seems to be part of living – we are corrected and admonished. If we sin – and that we do, in spite of our good intentions God will forgive. We must move into greater truth, from youthful naivete to spiritual maturity. If a cross comes in life, may we not run from it, but at least may we stand that may be all we are able to do. In the end, may we know Easter as Mary experienced it, and may Pentecost find us on our knees.


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