Date: 27 Nov 2016
Text: Luke 1:26-38
Christmas is coming, a time when many people’s thoughts turn to food, drink and the latest John Lewis TV advert! Mind you, given that Christmas goodies have been in the shops and advertised on TV for a few weeks now, I should imagine that that there are many people who are just a bit fed up with this ever increasing commercialisation of Christmas. Many may also be fed up with the fact that maybe, just maybe, we’ve lost sight of the real reason for Christmas. What about Jesus, where does He figure in all this? And, while I think about it; what about His young Mum, Mary? She frequently gets forgotten about doesn’t she? Rather than forgetting her, I want this morning to consider the role that God chose for Mary and how she reacted.
At the time of this story we know that Mary was a young teenage virgin who was living in Nazareth in the region of Galilee. In Judaism at the time virgins would have been young girls usually aged 14 or younger, and as a woman and a young person it is worth noting that she would have had virtually no social status whatsoever. Despite her young age Mary was betrothed to be married to an older man by the name of Joseph who worked as a carpenter in Nazareth. Nazareth by the way had a reputation for its corruption and low morals! We also need to understand that in Jewish tradition whilst betrothal was more than a modern day engagement it was not quite marriage. Money would have changed hands to initiate the betrothal which would normally be followed about a year later by the marriage ceremony. I find it fascinating that, despite the reputation of Nazareth, the attitudes prevalent at the time meant that Mary and Joseph would not have been allowed to spend time alone together; they would always have been chaperoned. Although it isn’t obvious from the passage, I think it is reasonable to suggest that Joseph was probably a few years older than Mary.
One day, totally unexpectedly and out of the blue, Mary was confronted by an Angel. Now, I suspect that most of us would be totally thrown if we came face to face with an Angel, it isn’t something that we would expect to happen and this teenage girl must have been more than a bit taken aback. The Angel greeted her as if his appearance was an everyday event and said to Mary, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you." (Luke 1:28). Not unexpectedly, and as Luke explains, Mary was “greatly troubled at his words”. Sensing this, the Angel reassured Mary with the standard greeting that Angels are taught at Angel School, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 1:29). Whether or not Mary was reassured we don’t know, but the Angel was happy enough to continue with the task which he had been given.
You see, this was no ordinary Angel, if such angels exist. He had been sent by God to talk directly to Mary and give her some news of the utmost importance. No doubt to Mary’s utter amazement, the Angel told her that she had found favour with God and He had chosen her, yes Mary, this teenage maiden to be the mother of His Son. What an honour and what a privilege to be told that she was “highly favoured” by God. All sorts of thoughts come to mind from the idea of Mary having been chosen. We shouldn’t forget that this is God we are talking about, the One Who created the world and everything in it. He is the One Who sustains and controls everything, like the changing of the seasons and the tides of the sea. Given that He is the Creator and therefore all powerful, why did He choose a young maiden from Nazareth to be the mother of His Son, albeit a special Son Who was to be given an extremely special task? The same thoughts must have gone through Mary’s mind as she wondered, why did God choose me? In the Roger Jones musical The Inn Crowd that will be performed here in a couple of weeks’ time, Mary sings a song titled “Why Pick On Me?”. The first verse says this: “Why pick on me? Why, what have I done? Chosen to serve, chosen for honour? What kind of honour covers with shame? Why pick on me? It’s not part of my plans, help me to understand it!” Here was an ordinary teenage girl who was still a virgin and betrothed to be married; so why did God choose her to be the mother of His Son? As ever God had His reasons and we can only give thanks that He did choose Mary.
I suspect that God wanted His Son to come to earth and be an ordinary person; whilst at the same time being a very special presence on earth; in fact, God wanted this ordinary baby to become the Saviour of the world. Quite simply, this baby was to grow up as an ordinary human being whilst at the same time being very special and this young maiden had been chosen specifically by God to be the mother of this extraordinarily special baby. So important was this birth and this baby to be that it was prophesied over 700 years earlier by the prophet Isaiah. He wrote in Isaiah 7:14b, “the virgin will conceive and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The Angel played his part in the fulfilment of that prophecy when he told Mary, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” (Luke 1:31). Although Isaiah refers to the baby’s name as being Immanuel whilst the Angel says His name would be Jesus, it is very obvious that the baby being referred to is one and the same.
This was very obviously a major challenge for Mary. Here she was a teenage virgin, already betrothed to be married and probably contemplating married life, and yet now she had been told by an Angel sent by God that she was to be the mother of God’s Son. I think that it is an understatement to suggest that she would have been totally stunned at this news.
Just think for a moment of the impact that this news would have had on Mary’s young life. It is difficult to determine what people at the time felt about teenage single Mums although we may get a clue about Joseph’s reaction from Matthew 1:19-21. Although Mary & Joseph were only betrothed and not yet married, the only way that their betrothal could have been broken was through divorce or the death of one of the couple. Adultery would have provided the perfect grounds for a divorce and under those circumstances Mary would have faced the possibility of being stoned to death. Under Old Testament law explained in Deuteronomy 22:23-24, the penalty for adultery was death and that law also applied even during the time of the betrothal. Joseph must have been totally shattered when he found out that his intended bride was pregnant, and initially he considered quietly divorcing Mary. A quiet divorce would hopefully have prevented Mary from being found guilty of adultery. As Joseph pondered what he should do, an Angel appeared to him in a dream and told him what was happening. When Joseph awoke, “he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” (Matthew 1:24). Those few words say a great deal. In this day and age it seems that around 50% of babies are born out of wedlock and no one seems too concerned about it. Unfortunately in all too many such cases the father tends to disappear very quickly. Now, think back a few years to the period between the 1940s and the 1960s and try and remember what the attitude was then. A very stark case that has been come back into the news recently concerns single, teenage Irish girls who became pregnant; they were ostracised by their community for bringing shame on the family and were subsequently made to give up their babies for adoption. It is only recently that the Catholic Church has apologised for such an attitude and policy. Think of the heartache that those young girls must have gone through at losing their child. Whether or not Mary’s community knew what was happening or how they felt if they did know, we have no idea. However, whatever they may have felt, this was God’s Son and had there been a problem it strikes me God would have resolved the problem.
Now, as adults we all know how babies are produced and I’m sure that Mary knew too. So, given that knowledge you can imagine that she was totally baffled at how she could become pregnant given that she was still a virgin. She need not have worried since this wonderful Angel happily told her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:35a). Jewish tradition frequently used that word “overshadow” to indicate the presence of God with His people and whilst that may seem strange to us, we need to remember that this is God we are dealing with and He has amazing power. As if to reassure Mary that all this was possible, the Angel gave Mary some news concerning her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth was much older than Mary and was regarded by most as being too old to have a child, and yet, the Angel told Mary, “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month.” (Luke 1:36). On this occasion however, the conception was ‘normal’! Given her response I think it is safe to assume that Mary was reassured. She said to the Angel, “I am the Lord's servant. May your word to me be fulfilled." (Luke 1:38).
That’s a lovely story although not just a story but a true story of how God implemented the first part of His plan to save the world. It’s the story of how God chose a teenage virgin to be the mother of His Son and how she happily accepted what He wanted her to do.
Whilst we can enjoy the story and remember it every Christmas, there are, however, some lessons that we can learn from it. Firstly, when Mary was initially confronted by the Angel, she didn’t totally back away; she allowed the Angel to explain what was to happen and she was open to God and what He had to say to her. Secondly, she was available to God and His amazing plan. She may have been a teenage virgin but she was at the right age to have a child. Thirdly, she was committed to His plan. Just see her reply in Luke 1:38, “I am the Lord's servant. May your word to me be fulfilled." That doesn’t seem to me to be the reply of someone who isn’t happy to go along with this plan. Mary obviously understood that God will absolutely perform what He has said; He always delivers on His promises. Finally, she had been chosen and commissioned by God to be the mother of His Son; the baby Who we know as Jesus.
What About Us
Now, what about us? How do we feel or respond to all that? I think that the story and Mary’s attitude and response are quite challenging for us. Are we open to God’s calling in the way that Mary was? Mary accepted God’s call without question. Are we available to do God’s bidding? It has often been said that God isn’t interested in our ability but He is interested in our availability. As Mary said in that song from The Inn Crowd, “It’s not part of my plans”. No matter what our plans are, we should take note of what the prophet Jeremiah has to say in his prophecy (29:11), “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Do we know what God’s plans for us are? If we do, are we committed to those plans? Mary was! God calls each and every one of us to serve Him in a variety of ways, some seemingly menial and some seemingly important. No matter, whichever way God calls and commissions us, are we ready to accept that commission and serve Him?
This is a fabulous story. It is the story of a young girl receiving a totally unexpected visit from an Angel, an Angel sent by God no less. After an early wobble, she didn’t panic but rather listened to what the Angel had to say, and responded positively to his message. God had chosen her to be a special Mum and despite the surprise, despite being only a teenage girl, despite still being a virgin, she was happy to serve God and go along with His amazing plan.
It would be wonderful if we could respond in a similar way when an Angel knocks on our door.
 Why Pick on Me? – music by Roger Jones, words by Alison Fuggle