Luke 1:26-38 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 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 ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to 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 holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
This passage from Luke is unique. It shows up nowhere else in the Bible. You might recall that the Gospel of Mark doesn’t have a birth narrative, and the Gospel of John is much more esoteric in its approach to Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew focuses on Joseph and the Wise Men, while the Gospel of Luke focuses on Mary, Elizabeth, and the shepherds. Luke was always focused on the people society normally places on the fringe.
And thus here we are in the very first chapter of Luke, with a teenage girl from nowhere as the central character. Now let’s begin by trying to gain a fuller understanding of who this girl was. Mary was probably around 14 years old, and from a backwoods town that wasn’t really considered important at all. Even though she was young, she was considered marriageable age during this time period. And we know she was engaged to Joseph, who was probably about 20.
Marriage during this time was normally arranged between families. It was a two step process. The legal contract would be drawn up and the couple would be “engaged.” They were not formally married yet, but there was a legal commitment. For a woman to be pregnant, and not by her engaged future husband – she could be exiled from her family and community, or she could be stoned to death for adultery.
Mary full well knew her situation. And so she ponders it. Let’s reflect on the word “ponder.” Mary was a thinker. We all know people who are very thoughtful. They mull things over before speaking or taking action. And that’s a pretty good thing, isn’t it? I’m sure many of us can recall too many times in our own lives when we have spoken or acted without really thinking first!
Mary understood as much as any human could the task she was undertaking.
And this is really the exact opposite of that awful modern Christmas song – you may have already heard it on the radio – Mary, did you know? I wish I could ban that song. It falls into the diminished view of Mary that Protestants have encouraged over the centuries. In the immortal words of the 90s rock band No Doubt, Mary is just a girl – incapable of making her own decisions and just a passive recipient of whatever decisions men might make.
Protestants have made Mary simply a passive vessel – the physical host for Jesus, who had no agency of her own. Our society tends to give women value if they are mothers, and especially if they have given physical birth. I have known so many women who dealt with infertility or who chose not to have biological children – and the assumption is normally made that because they are not a “mom,” that they are selfish or something is wrong with them.
Motherhood is a calling – and it is not the primary definer of a woman or her value. When we look at today’s scripture and reduce it to Mary’s acceptance of a physical pregnancy – we are missing the point!
The point is that both Mary and her older kinswoman Elizabeth were important in God’s kindom because of the love they had for God and their willingness to continue God’s work– whatever that work might be.
Mary is important – not because she was a biological mother – but because she was always willing to be a conduit for God – she supported her son’s ministry, was there when he died, and continued his work after his death (in addition to other women).
Mary is blessed because she believed the words of God and chose to actively follow – wherever that might lead.
Mary was not some meek, mild, willfully ignorant child – she was fierce. We can think of teenage girls today who will not be cowed – who are strong and fight for what is right.
Greta Thunberg– the Swedish teenager who has dedicated her life to combatting climate change, even being dismissed and verbally attacked by some of the most powerful men in the world.
Mari Copeny– sometimes called “Little Miss Flint” – a 12 year old girl from Flint, Michigan, who enlisted former Pres. Obama and others to combat the ongoing water crisis in her hometown.
Malala– the Pakastani girl who is a human rights advocate, especially for education for girls, and who received the Nobel Peace Prize at age 17
Yusra Mardini– a teenage Syrian refugee who helped save other refugees and has been an advocate for the refugee community
Kahlila Williams– a 16 year old voting rights and Black Lives Matter advocate who has had a very busy year
Sarina Krishnan– who founded a non-profit in California to help support immigrants
Melissa Khasbigan– a Texas teen who founded a non-profit which combats global illiteracy
I could list a lot more teen girls who are doing amazing things. But the main point is this –
Mary thoughtful and intentionally chose to accept this offering from God. She is not revered because she was a physical vessel – she is “favored” and lifted up in our faith because of her faith.
When people ask, Mary did you know? The scripture is plain – she knew her child would be named Jesus – a derivation of Joshua, which meant Savior. She and the rest of the Jewish people in Israel lived in an occupied land. The Roman occupiers controlled their lives, their taxes, their politics. Revolts, hoping to overthrow the Romans, had been commonplace. So – when Mary heard her son’s name – she knew what that could mean and the subsequent possibilities.
Rev. Karoline Lewis says that in the text we see Mary move from peasant girl to prophet, from Mary to Mother of God, from denial to discipleship.
She is an empowered young woman who, after thoughtful consideration, makes a conscious decision to accept Gabriel’s words. She takes action by seeking out the mentorship of her older kinswoman, and she continues to actively fulfill her calling as a prophet and disciple throughout her life.
Theologian Mark Allen Powell wrote these words about Jesus, during his ministry “Jesus is teaching a crowd or people when a woman calls out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you.” This is a colorful way of saying, “How blessed to be your mother.” This woman thinks it would be wonderful to be Jesus’ mother because Jesus is a great man and the worth of women is often determined by the quality of sons they produce. Jesus completely rejects this (sexist) ideology and declares, “Blessed rather are those who hear God’s word and obey it!”
Blessed Mary is one of the best inspirations for us today, especially as we continue to face difficult and challenging days this winter –
We might be uncertain – like Mary, feeling unprepared for the challenges of the day
We might wish someone else would deal with this
We might have lots of questions which will never be answered
We might have to deal with some kind of fear and anxiety every single day
We might be afraid of getting it wrong, thinking there is a different way we could be doing this
But just as Mary stepped forward in faith, so can we. The world around Mary – then and now – might have discounted her as a meek and mild teenage girl – but God knew the truth of her – and we know the truth. She was a strong, fierce woman who actively changed the world and brought love into this world in a new way.
Thanks be for Mary’s determined and bold faith and life, and thanks be for God who fills us in such a way that we too might follow her example. Amen.