Today we continue our summer sermon series of “Questions You’ve Always Wanted to Ask.” It’s a time when you get to ask the questions you’ve always wanted to ask about something from the Bible, or about God or faith, or about life in general. And then during the sermon time, we look at one of those questions in the light of God’s Word.
And the question we are considering today is about Mary. Now there are several Mary’s in the New Testament and sometimes we can get them mixed up. Mary, or Miriam as it would have been in Hebrew, was a very common name among Jews in Palestine at that time. But the Mary we are looking at today is Mary the mother of Jesus. And here is the question about her: “Jesus’ treatment of his ‘mother and brothers’ when the come to talk to him (cf. Matthew 12:46) and his words to Mary at the Cana wedding seem harsh and terse. I feel He wasn’t very kind to them then. Of course He made provision for her care by assigning John to her at the crucifixion. Yet the Roman and Orthodox churches honour Mary to the point of veneration. How would you describe Jesus’ attitude toward Mary, and what should our attitude be?”
Let’s begin by asking ourselves, “What do we know about Mary?” She was a woman from Nazareth, a town in the north of Palestine that was looked down upon with disdain. In fact they used to say, “Nazareth, can anything good come from there?”
Mary was likely, along with Joseph, her future husband, very poor. Forty days after Jesus was born, when the time came to go to the temple and give a sacrifice for Mary’s purification, they could only afford to give two pigeons for the sacrifice, when a lamb and a pigeon was normally given for such a sacrifice.
And Mary was young, probably only about 13 or 14 years old when she was betrothed to Joseph In those times, that was the usual age for young women to become betrothed. Betrothal was stage one of the two stage marriage process. It is kind of like getting engaged except that the bride and the groom were legally bound to one another and this covenant could only be broken by divorce. They were committed to each other, but not living together and they were chaste. Only when the groom had a home built for his bride would he come for his bride, initiating stage two of the marriage process, which is the wedding, and then, and only then, would their marriage relationship be consummated and they would begin their life together as a single family unit—one flesh as the Bible describes it.
According to the world’s standards, there wasn’t much significance in the life of Mary. Not much there to attract your attention. Just a poor, young girl from the backwater town of Nazareth. And yet God looked at one that the world saw as insignificant, and chose her to bear the Saviour of the whole world.
While Mary was betrothed to Joseph, the angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her that she would be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and become pregnant. She would give birth to a son whom she will name Jesus. Gabriel also said, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:32-33)
Now for Mary to agree to be used by God in this way was a very risky thing for her. We look back in time with the advantage of knowing how it all works out in the end and it is easy for us to assume that things were all sweetness and light for Mary. But it wasn’t really that way for her. For Mary to agree to become pregnant before her wedding day would mean that she would be a disgrace both to Joseph and his family and to her own. The marriage was likely to be called off, and being an unwed mother in those days would offer little hope that any other man would have her for his wife. Saying yes to God risked economic and social ruin for Mary and it could cost Mary her life. Becoming pregnant before her wedding point would indicate to others that she had committed adultery and the penalty for that was death. And yet, in spite of all the risks and all the dangers, Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (cf. Luke 1:38) So we know that Mary was a woman of faith.
And Joseph came through for Mary and married her even though she was pregnant. And they had their little baby in Bethlehem. And there were angels singing over the baby and shepherds worshipping the baby and Wise Men bringing gifts for the baby. And all of these amazing events indicated that Mary’s son Jesus was exactly what the angel Gabriel had said he would be: “the Son of the Most High.” And Mary treasured up all these things in her heart (cf. Luke 2:51b).
But life as Jesus’ mother was not always joyful for Mary. When Jesus was presented at the temple forty days after he was born, Simeon spoke these words of prophecy over Jesus and to Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34b-35)
And one of the things that must have been hard for Mary was the way that her relationship with Jesus changed when he began his ministry. For we have these curious incidents that cause us to ask “What was Jesus’ attitude towards Mary?” Shortly after Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, Jesus and the five disciples he had chosen so far joined Mary and other family relatives at a wedding in Cana. Wedding celebrations in those days usually lasted for a week, and to run out of wine in the middle of the celebrations was a major social faux pas and a huge embarrassment for the family. Perhaps Mary is involved with organizing the feast, or maybe it is because the wine is stored near the women’s tent. In any case, Mary gets advance notice that the wine is running out. Joseph is no longer mentioned in the Scripture narrative. Perhaps he stayed home. Maybe he has already passed away by this point in time. And in the absence of her husband Mary goes to her oldest son, as would be natural for her to do, and tells him what is happening. And then Jesus addresses her as “Woman” instead of “mother” and he says “what is this to me and to you?” This could be a hostile rebuke, but it is more likely a statement of disengagement, for, as Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come.” For Jesus, that hour would come when Jesus was lifted up on the cross, and any miraculous intervention by Jesus in human affairs would begin the process of moving towards that cross. From this point forward, Jesus would no longer be living his life according to who his earthly parents were, he would be living his life according to who his heavenly Father was and according to the mission his heavenly Father had given him. And so some distance grew between Mary and her firstborn son. And yet, Mary again responds in faith, saying to the servants at the wedding, “Do whatever he tells you.” And Jesus changes water into wine so the wedding celebration can continue.
Later in Jesus’ ministry, Mary and her sons go and find Jesus to take him home. They know Jesus is in great danger because he has been upsetting the religious leaders with his teaching and they want to get to him before the religious authorities do. No one in their right mind would tweak the noses of the scribes and Pharisees like Jesus has done.
And yet, when Mary and her other sons come to the house where Jesus is teaching inside, and he is told that they are outside waiting to see him, Jesus doesn’t even go out to greet them. He asks the rhetorical question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then, referring to those gathered around him, he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother!” (Mark 3:34-35) It’s is a very unusual thing to say, especially in an Eastern culture with its strong emphasis on family ties. But Jesus’ point is that now his mission is more important than his family of origin, and anyone who is with him on this mission from God is now his family.
But the sharpest point of all for Mary must have the sword that pierced her soul as she watched her son hang naked, dying an agonizing death on the cross. Jesus’ attitude towards Mary was always one of love, even though their relationship changed over time. And as he hung on the cross he looked at his mother and his disciple, John, and said, “Woman, behold your son! And to John he said, “Behold, your mother!” And John took Mary into his own home and cared for her from then on (cf. John 19:26-27)
Mary was a woman of faith. And perhaps after the resurrection she understood more fully what before she only accepted and believed by faith. Maybe now it made more sense to her why things had to be the way that they were. We don’t know what was going on in Mary’s mind and heart. But we do know that after Jesus ascended into heaven she was part of that small group of believers huddled together in prayer in Jerusalem waiting for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit.
There are additional teachings about Mary in the Christian church. In the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches it is believed that Mary’s body was taken up into heaven when she died. The Roman Catholic church also teaches that Mary was conceived without sin and lived a sinless life. And it is also taught in Roman Catholic churches that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life, not just before Jesus was born.
Because the Protestant Reformation was a movement that went back to the original sources, that is, the Scriptures, for the basics regarding what is to be believed and taught, and because there isn’t support for these teachings in the Scriptures, Protestants, generally speaking, do not support these additional teachings about Mary. Nor do they agree with the veneration given to Mary in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.
So what should our attitude be towards Mary? We believe that Mary was a woman who was blessed by God and who found favour with God, but that she was a sinner in need of a Saviour just like all the rest of us. But we can be thankful to God for what he has done through Mary.
And we can look at Mary and see an example of what it means to follow God in faith wherever he leads us. There are times in our lives when we experience a faith crisis. There are moments when everything in us that longs to be “normal” strongly objects to following Jesus because we have a hint of the danger to come. There are moments when following Jesus means taking a risk of losing our friends, losing our money, or losing a close relationship with someone we love. And being the imperfect, broken people that we are, we tend to forget about our faith in those moments when it becomes difficult for us to follow God. But in those moments, we can remember Mary, that poor, young girl, who said “yes!” to God when she was barely a teenager. And she said “Yes!” to God throughout her whole life, even when it was hard, even when it was painful, even when a sword was piercing her own soul. And all of us are blessed because of Mary. Because Mary carried Jesus in her womb for nine months, and nursed him, and changed him and cared for him as he grew up, you and I get to have a Saviour who gives us hope and courage and forgiveness and life and peace. And that makes all the difference for us in the world.
So imagine what it would be like if all of us could be like Mary. Imagine what it would be like if the people in this room could say, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) What kind of a difference could we in our homes and in our neighbourhoods if we said “Yes!” to God in the way that Mary did. Imagine what an impact we could have if everyone in this faith community said, “Yes!” to God like Mary did. Imagine what it would be like if the people of Walnut Grove no longer hoarded their wealth because they knew that they have a Father in heaven who loves them and will always provide what they need for life. Imagine what it would be like all the people of Surrey and Langley and Abbotsford were no longer burdened down by their guilt and shame and no longer worried about dying because they knew that they have a Saviour who loves them and will take away all of their sin and guilt and shame and give them a life with him that will last forever. Imagine what it would be like if every person in the Lower Mainland was no longer afraid because they knew that the Holy Spirit loves them and lives within them and will give them all of the courage and wisdom and direction that they need to face whatever challenges they will face. Imagine what that would be like! That would be a far different world from the one we live in right now. But with God’s help, things can be different. And it begins right now, with each of saying “Yes!” to God.God works in the small and insignificant things of this world to do great things. May he do so among us again today.
As we close our message time in prayer today, would you say these words of Mary together with me? And may these words not only be our prayer to God, may they also be our song of praise to God.
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for 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 with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” (Luke 1:46b-55)
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 23 August 2009.)