Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Cast of Christmas: Mary

Bwana asifiwe! Praise the Lord. Several years ago, when I was in Kenya, I spent a few days visiting a small village in the mountains, up overlooking the Great Rift Valley. The only way up to Mwimutoni was by a sharply winding, difficult path, bumpier even than the regular roads – a real delight for jeep or van, let me tell you! The village has dirt roads where goats roam freely. I saw chickens cooped up inside some of the houses. Some of the houses I saw were built of sod and sticks; some had holes in the walls or roofs. Plenty of children are orphans, courtesy of the AIDS crisis. I watched as some of them played soccer with a ball made of plastic bags and rubber bands, and rolled a tire down the dirt road with a stick. And while I was there, I met a young woman, a high school student, named Tabitha. She was the daughter of one of the village's pastors, Elijah. We spoke for a few minutes after a seminar on youth ministry we came to co-lead; I spoke for a while with her father as well. I wish I remembered what about. I don't recall any mention of great big dreams and aspirations. To them, the village was simply home. I sometimes wonder how they and their village are doing these days.

Mwimutoni was a small village. By its native name, you'll scarcely get a hit on Google. You'd struggle to find it on a map; I know I did. Despite the proliferation of cell phones – some of those villagers get pretty good reception up there! – as far as I can tell, neither Elijah nor Tabitha has much of an online footprint. They have no international fame to their credit. But as small as Mwimutoni was when I was there, it was bigger than first-century BC Nazareth. And as little known as Tabitha may be in the broader world, the same could have been said about a humble teen peasant-girl of Nazareth named Miriam... 'Mary.' Later legends tried to situate her in the religious centers and halls of power, giving her an upbringing in the Jerusalem temple itself. But the truth is, Mary was a small-town girl in an obscure little village, under the distant thumb of pagan Rome. Her parents or grandparents were probably some of Nazareth's founding settlers; it wasn't an old place. Mary doesn't seem to have had any special status in town. She was just one of the girls – no doubt very nice, no doubt quite devout and God-fearing, but nobody famous. Over in Capernaum or Bethsaida, her name was utterly unknown. She wasn't wealthy, wasn't popular, wasn't a trendsetter. She didn't wield great authority and influence. She didn't have bragging rights anybody would have recognized – not that she would've been the type to use them if she did. She was just a teen peasant-girl in a teensy village, out in the hinterlands of backwoods Galilee (Luke 1:27). Doesn't get much more humble than that.

And that's when it happened. To Mary, a young girl a couple years younger than Tabitha, suddenly a figure appears. Did he pop into visibility suddenly, I wonder? Did he come with light streaming from his every pore? Or did he look like a normal human, strolling down a common dirt road in her direction? But Mary knew what he was: an angel. A messenger of God, sent from the throne room in heaven on an errand to the human world. A special and rare turn of events. And for all her apparent worldly insignificance, her societal obscurity, her humble peasant upbringing, her lack of notoriety, for all that, this special messenger who flew down directly from the presence of the Omnipotent Creator of the Universe, greets her like one of the blessed women in the earlier sacred books, like Hannah. Mary is “the favored one,” this messenger says – and he announces that the Lord of Everything is on her side (Luke 1:28).

When he says that, she's rather confused and concerned (Luke 1:29). Wouldn't you be? She doesn't know quite what to make of it. Would you? What does this inhuman, unearthly creature, this blazing fire in the form of a man, want, and what is going to happen to her now? Why is this happening? Is this good or bad, helpful or harmful? I'd want to know, if I had a run-in with Gabriel and he talked to me like that. But he talks to her by name, tells her that she's found “favor with God” (Luke 1:30). She's in the Most High's good graces. God and Gabriel know exactly who she is, even if the folks in Capernaum and Bethsaida don't. For all her worldly smallness, she's big news way up yonder. And that's news to her. She's going to be, Gabriel says, the mother of the Messiah – she's going to have a son, and he'll be hailed as “the Son of the Most High,” who will have title to the long-vacant Davidic throne and who is destined to claim it (Luke 1:31-33).

If you read back in the Gospel of Luke, this isn't Gabriel's first earthly rodeo. Just six months earlier, he paid a visit to the finely-garbed priest Zechariah in the temple sanctuary, surrounded by gold and the woven images of cherubim on the veil. But when he made a surprise announcement to Zechariah, Zechariah reacted by asking Gabriel for proof – to back up the angelic proclamation with something more convincing (Luke 1:18). (Life tip: If you ever run across a bona fide angel, don't ask for extra proof!) The priest, ministering in God's own house, didn't believe Gabriel's words without a sign (Luke 1:20). But the teen peasant-girl from a village that wasn't even on the maps – she has no trouble believing whatever God sent his angel to say. She has questions, sure, but she's not looking for added confirmation, just added information (Luke 1:34). She wants to know if she should expect the normal course of events – she is engaged, after all – or if something more peculiar is in store. And, of course, the answer is pretty peculiar.

Gabriel tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). We read those words so often. But we don't grapple with them. If you survey the Old Testament, which Mary probably knew pretty well, you'll notice that there are two kinds of people that the Holy Spirit is said to be upon, or to come upon, or to rush upon. On the one hand, there are prophets. When the pagan Balaam was to be employed as God's unwitting mouthpiece as he surveyed the Israelite camp from afar, “the Spirit of God came upon him,” and he prophesied (Numbers 24:2). In the days of King Asa, we meet an obscure prophet named Azariah, and when “the Spirit of God came upon Azariah son of Oded,” he prophesied to the king and sparked a national revival (2 Chronicles 15:1). And in the days of King Jehoshaphat, when the people were in crisis and begging God for help, there was a Levite named Jahaziel – you're all familiar with Jahaziel, I assume! – and “the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel” (2 Chronicles 20:14), who soon enough was pronouncing a 'Thus saith the LORD' (2 Chronicles 20:15-17). Ezekiel says that he prophesied when “the Spirit of the LORD fell upon me” (Ezekiel 11:5). And the prophet Simeon of Jerusalem – more on him in a couple weeks – of him, too, we read that “the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25). Even King Saul took his turn in prophesying when “the Spirit of God rushed upon him” (1 Samuel 10:10; cf. 19:23).

And on the other hand, there are warriors. Caleb's nephew Othniel, the first of the judges, when the people had cried out under foreign oppression – we read that “the Spirit of the LORD was upon him … He went out to war, and the LORD gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand” (Judges 3:10). Eight chapters later, we meet the less savory judge Jephthah, called “a mighty warrior” (Judges 11:1), and when the time comes to fight the Ammonites, “the Spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah … So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand” (Judges 11:29-32). And then there's Samson. Attacked by a strong lion in its prime, “the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him,” and he ripped it in pieces (Judges 14:6). Tied up by his own people for the Philistines, “the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him, and the ropes that were on his arms became as flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands,” and soon he was winning a fight against a thousand men (Judges 15:14-15). And, whether as warrior or prophet or both, we read that after Samuel anointed him as future king, “the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13). And David's ultimate descendant, the Messiah – Isaiah says“the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him” (Isaiah 11:2; cf. 61:1); Isaiah reports that God himself says, “I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).

So what Gabriel is describing to her: this is the language for warriors and for prophets. And Mary is both. The great warriors of the Bible had the Spirit come upon them for miraculous power to win victories and accomplish deliverance for God's people. And so does Mary. God's power is going to flood through her, fill her, and bring about the downfall of evil and the triumph of good, for the rescuing of the faithful. Mary, the humble teen peasant-girl, is to be God's chosen warrior in her generation, whose weapon is her prayerful childbirth, laying a ticking time bomb under the devil's nose. But the great prophets of the Bible had the Spirit come upon them to fill them up with the truth-unveiling word of God. And so does Mary. She won't merely carry God's words on her lips; she'll carry God's eternal Word in her womb, supplying the Word with humanity from her very own flesh and her very own blood. God's loudest and greatest declaration to Israel and the nations alike was to come, not through the speeches of Isaiah or the tears of Jeremiah or the visions of Ezekiel, but through the mighty birthing labor of Mary, who delivered the Eternal Word of God. Her mission is to be God's great warrior-prophet – the Messiah deserves nothing less for a mom.

We Protestants are often a bit squeamish about expressing our appreciation for, our admiration of, Mary. After all, we've seen the dangerous excesses in some church traditions. But a very deep, very intense respect for her goes back to the earliest centuries of the Christian movement. It was an early way of celebrating the divinity of Christ to call his mother Theotokos – Birthgiver of God. And if Mary is God's great warrior-prophet, I'd say she's more than warranted high billing on any list of big-name Bible heroes. And if Mary herself was inspired to say, “from now on all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48), well, shouldn't we? The Blessed Virgin Mary has an impressive destiny outlined for her by her heavenly visitor!

That's her mission: to be God's great warrior-prophet in being mother of the Messiah. And now she's got a choice how she should react. It's an impressive destiny, alright, but it won't come easy. She's got some reasons to fuss about it, actually. If she gives in to this charge, how's she going to explain it to Joseph? She may well lose the love of her life. She certainly can't expect him to believe she hasn't cheated on him. Same goes for her parents – what are they going to think when their little girl comes home pregnant and her ex-fiancé disavows having done it? In days like those, that could very well get her lynched! She'll be disowned and friendless, at the least – a target of mockery. You know how gossip circulates in a small community like a village! She has her whole life ahead of her. Does she really want to be “that woman” for the rest of her days? Is she prepared to become an outcast? Because that could very well be what saying yes entails: becoming the first of her generation to bear the reproach of Christ (Hebrews 13:13).

You could understand if the gears in her brain started churning out excuses. You could understand if she wanted to back away or hide. You could understand if she tried to bargain some extra assurances out of Gabriel. You could understand if she asked him to come back in a couple decades, or even if a few months 'til the wedding night, at least. You could understand if she wanted this whole Christ thing to be a lot easier than it was looking to be. You could understand all that. But that's not what Mary did. Mary trusted the rewards of God to far outweigh the cost – and, oh yes, she certainly was counting the cost (cf. Luke 14:28). Like Moses long before her, Mary “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (Hebrews 11:26) – or, in her case, than the treasures of friends, family, respect, safety, and a nice normal life in Nazareth. And so, with great conviction and great submission, she doesn't presume to argue with God, to confront him, to rebuke him, to call his wisdom into question. She simply accepts: “Look, I'm the Lord's handmaiden; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Hers is a costly faith – but is there really any other kind?

Rushing off to the hill country to where her elderly kinswoman Elizabeth, wife of the priest Zechariah, lived – probably in Hebron – Mary found all the confirmation she needed. And after Elizabeth pronounced her blessed, Mary – like Samuel's mother Hannah – answered with a prophetic song. Costly faith is a valuable thing, but only if the faith finds the right object. Costly faith in Zeus, in the Devil, in money, in yourself – that only yields loss. Costly faith in the path of the Zealots or the Pharisees – that won't get you nowhere. But Mary's costly faith is in her topsy-turvy God, who's turning the world around. The God she worshipped from childhood, she's now encountered herself in ways she can't totally understand. But she knows her God is holy and strong (Luke 1:49). She knows her God has mercy on the humble (Luke 1:48, 50, 54). She knows her God is faithful to all his promises (Luke 1:54-55).

And she knows that God is topsy-turvy. Mary's God reverses the fortunes of the strong and the weak, the proud and the humble, the rich and the poor: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). In Gabriel's words, Mary has discovered a God by no means content with the status quo. This is good news for the poor, this is hope for the helpless, this is relief for the oppressed. This is acclaim for the unnoticed, strength for the sick, a shield for the beaten-up and beaten-down. There is no malady, there is no frailty, there is no exhaustion, there is no despair or grief, that can't turn upside-down when a topsy-turvy God gets involved. This is a God who breezily turns poverty into riches, weakness into strength, barrenness into fertility, death into life. This is a God ready to hold this rock-bottom world upside-down – which, as it turns out, was the right way to hold it all along. And this holy God will do it by placing his holy Son in Mary's womb through his Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). This holy Child will be really somebody special – the Messiah, born not in a palace but in poverty, not amid prestige but amid peasants – but he will be great, and he'll receive power and authority, and he'll tame the beastly kingdoms of the nations and rule over an unending dominion – he'll be King of the kingdom of God (Luke 1:32-33; cf. Daniel 7:12-14).

That's the power of a topsy-turvy God. That's the power of the God Mary was prepared to call “my Savior” (Luke 1:47). And as we keep reading the story, we find out how intimately acquainted with God her Savior she became. We read how she and Joseph – more on him next week – traveled to Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David (Luke 2:4-5). We read how she “gave birth to her firstborn son and … laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:6-7). And after she hears more reports of how significant her Child really is, we read that “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

Mary was a just a girl from a humble background in a tiny village, thinking she was a nobody; but God loves a small-town girl like her. And so she was given an impressive destiny like none other, as God's warrior-prophet handmaiden whom all generations would call blessed once she became mother to the Messiah. It would come at a cost, a steep social price that would follow her all her life, and indeed would be accompanied by deep and painful grief like a sword slashing her heart to ribbons. But in her humility, she counted the cost and reached out with a costly faith toward the topsy-turvy God she called her Savior. And when she saw him faithfully keep his promise, when she delivered God's Great Word to the world, she treasured everything in her heart's memory. And thank God Mary delivered the Word of God to us, because that Word is our Savior, too!

That Word, taking on flesh and blood from Mary to become a Holy Human Child named Jesus, the Messiah – that's who this life is all about. And his appearance in the flesh on our world stage – that's what this upcoming season called Christmas is all about. And we stand on the other side of that first Christmas, looking back on the costly faith of the humble peasant-girl Mary in her topsy-turvy God – and where does that leave us? Like Mary up to that day, I dare guess that many of us don't have a fame that reaches far and wide. I dare say what Paul said to the Corinthians can be said of us: “Not many of you were wise according to the flesh, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:26-27). Like Mary, I'd guess most of us here come from humble origins: we're not especially strong, not especially rich, not especially powerful or influential or famous. We just try to get through our day-to-day lives, doing our jobs or pursuing our retirement hobbies, trying to care for those around us, trying to please God how we can.

And yet we're not so unlike Mary. She was God's warrior-prophet, because the Word of God called Christ was to be formed in her womb. But Paul said to us that he was likewise “in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). The One who was born from Mary's womb is born in our hearts and dwells there. And with this Word in our hearts, we have “the testimony of Jesus” which is “the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10), and from this Word we are commanded to speak “as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). And with this Word, we are equipped with God's armor and armaments to “stand against the schemes of the devil” and “wrestle … against the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12). If Mary is God's warrior-prophet, we follow her example and her call, as something like warrior-prophets bearing the Word of God. Long ago, the prophets prophesied that, in the days of the Messiah, God's Spirit would be “poured upon us from on high” (Isaiah 32:15). And so he has been: the Holy Spirit that came upon Mary has come upon us, too.

As with Mary, it doesn't come cheaply. Discipleship is no wimpy thing; it's a hard road to travel, a tough fight to take on. We may receive scorn and exclusion like Mary had every right to expect. But, we're told in Scripture, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:14), like Mary. Mary would've loved that verse. So should we. Because Mary's topsy-turvy God is ours, too. And there is no challenge, no trial, no disadvantage we face, no exhaustion we endure, no infirmity or sorrow we bear, that our topsy-turvy God can't flip over into something beyond our wildest imagination. Living as you have, you may well have experienced that firsthand on many occasions – and certainly on the day you could first say for yourself, with personal conviction, that phrase of Mary's: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:47). You, too, from whatever humble background you come, can share an impressive destiny through a costly faith in this topsy-turvy God. Just look to the cradle, look to the cross, look to the vacant tomb and the Risen Son of God on his Father's throne, and say, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This season, will you treasure and ponder all these things in your heart? Let it be to us according to his word. Amen.

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