Mary

Good to Great


Matthew 1:18-25 (NRSV)

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel,”


which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


Over the next two weeks, we’re going to take a close look at Jesus’ earthly parents. Matthew focuses on the good Jew Joseph; Luke spends more time examining Jesus’ conception and birth from Mary’s perspective. Let’s start with Dad.

Joseph was a righteous man. We know this because the fact is stated flatly in the story we have heard today. By “righteous,” the author of Matthew is implying Joseph is more than a simple keeper of the law; he has what we might call a good heart.

Most Christians know the basics of the story. Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, found herself to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, carrying the promised Messiah in her womb. This meant very real trouble for Mary. In her day, an engagement carried with it all the legal and moral requirements of a full marriage, even though the couple had not yet consummated the relationship.

Upon discovering Mary was pregnant by another, Joseph under the law had every right to have her publicly shamed and even stoned to death. Instead, he resolved to let her escape what he believed to be her sin, “planning to dismiss her quietly.”

It was very much the right thing to do, a gracious, loving and noble act, abundant in mercy toward someone Joseph believed had wronged him terribly. He was truly a good-hearted man.

Our righteousness can never match God’s holiness, however, and sometimes we are called to go beyond good behavior to follow God’s will. When an angel later came to Joseph in a dream, he learned the truly spectacular facts surrounding the child in Mary’s womb.

Joseph proved to be the kind of man God sought. Apparently without hesitation, he took on the tasks given him as soon as he awoke. He also would receive other instructions from God (head to Egypt, now go home) in a similar manner, and again act without hesitation, despite how odd they might have seemed.

I’m certainly not God, but I’m going to ask Joseph to do something else today. I’m going to ask him to serve as an example of what is possible when we move from good to great. By that, I mean when we move in our lives from laudable righteousness to radical obedience, regardless of what obedience may cost us in this world.

Note that Joseph’s righteousness is described as an ongoing state; certainly he was considered righteous by those around him before he learned Mary was pregnant, and before God began to speak to him through angels and dreams.

We can assume saving Mary cost Joseph a great deal in terms of how he appeared to others, who watched the situation without angelic guidance. To call already pregnant Mary his wife, he had to risk his honor, exposing himself to the whispers that almost certainly would begin in a small village: “Joseph could not control himself,” or another possible rumor, “Joseph is foolish enough to raise another man’s child.”

If Joseph had been about being righteous before human beings, he actually would have chosen to ignore God. Instead, he followed the difficult path, acting as if God’s will is all that matters.

Most of us gathered here today have achieved some appearance of righteousness in the eyes of other people. Success in worldly matters can make us seem righteous. We are perceived by others as “blessed.”

Even without financial success, we can take on roles in life that carry with them the veneer of righteousness. People in what we might call the “helping” professions certainly have it: Doctors, nurses, law enforcement officers, firefighters, military personnel and maybe even clergy seem to have some  sort of special status akin to righteousness, at least until doing something to lose it.

Dedicated churchgoers certainly can have an air of righteousness about them, particularly if they are known for giving and service to others.

Don’t get me wrong. That’s all good, quite worthy of notice.

But what about that next level? What about that radical obedience Joseph demonstrated? What does it take to work on God’s behalf as God alters the world for the better?

Well, first of all, we have to be careful not to get too comfortable in our situations. Biblically, we know contentment is a good thing, but we don’t want to settle into a righteous-looking life as if it were a big, comfy couch.

We miss so many opportunities when we are content to the point of being complacent. I would note the danger of such complacency increases as we get older, when we should have more time and freedom to explore radical responses to God’s call on us.

Beyond getting up off the big, comfy couch, we also have to be alert, listening to what God says to us. Joseph heard from God and recognized God’s truth for what it was. Our righteous praying and use of Scripture should have a result: We should hear from God from time to time, in ways that challenge us.

And of course, we need courage. We often simply need to regain that old-fashioned idea that this life, while precious, may even be shortened or put at risk when we really go to work for God—and that even losing our lives while working for God is not that big a deal, if we really have faith in what comes next.

Buck up, little Christians!

I do not know what each of you might be called to do. I do not know what I might be called to do, or what we as a church might be called to do. I just know there is much more to do as we await Christ’s return.

I pray I have just afflicted the comfortable so we, with Christ as our message and the Holy Spirit as our guide, will do the work of God in radical ways. That’s where the story of Joseph takes me, anyway.

Advertisements

Worshiping with Abandon

John 12:1-8

It’s not difficult to discern that Mary—the sister-of-Lazarus Mary—did something strange and even shocking when she used a small fortune in perfume on Jesus’ feet.

If you see Christianity as a straitlaced, rules-oriented faith, and you would rather hold on to that view, you might want to avoid a story like this one altogether. The characters in this story had been swelling with emotion for days, and Mary finally exploded in an act of love that defied logic and propriety. The only speaker of earthly logic in this story was Judas, who was a few days from falling under Satan’s complete control, ultimately participating in Jesus’ death.

Siblings and Friends

Bible readers will remember Mary and her siblings Martha and Lazarus. There is a story in the tenth chapter of Luke where Mary sat at Jesus’ feet as Martha worked in the kitchen. When Martha complained, Jesus said Mary had “the better part.”

John tells us all three were Jesus’ friends. It’s likely their home in Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem, was where Jesus stayed when he drew near to the heart of Judaism. They also may have been wealthy, and because the sisters are described as living with their brother, they either were young and unmarried or widowed.

The described volume of nard, probably spikenard from India, was worth about a year’s wages to a common laborer. It is unclear why Mary had it. In a world without secure bank accounts, it might have been a compact way for her to maintain some financial security. She may have intended it for her wedding night—the Song of Solomon demonstrates that nard’s warm, musky, intense smell was associated with sex. And, as is clear from the story, it could be used to prepare a loved one for burial.

For whatever reason Mary owned it, the nard represented her concern for the future.

Statements of Faith

I mentioned before that these characters, particularly Jesus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, were likely overwhelmed with emotion. Just a few days earlier, Jesus had performed his most astounding miracle, the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

As you may recall, Jesus deliberately dallied in going to his friends despite knowing Lazarus was sick, telling his disciples this event was occurring so “the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead and in the tomb four days. In the exchange that occurred between the sisters and Jesus, one thing becomes clear. They believed in Jesus fully. Martha went so far as to call Jesus “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Jesus, moved by Mary and Martha’s pain, then proved he has power over life and death by calling Lazarus out of the tomb.

We need to keep all that context in mind to understand Mary’s seemingly wasteful activity. She was riding an emotional epiphany—she and Martha had a better understanding than anyone in the room what it means to be friends with someone who has power over life and death. Their beloved brother had been restored. They had experienced the pain and stench of death, and Jesus had replaced all of that with hope and joy.

An Act of Worship

When Mary poured out that overpowering nard and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, Mary worshiped. There really is no other word adequate to describe her actions. And in her actions, we are reminded why we worship.

Yes, she was thankful, enormously thankful. Yes, she was filled with a sense of love for Jesus. She may have even hoped to love him as his wife—the act of letting down her hair to wipe his feet was undeniably sensual.

There’s more going on here, however. I think this woman who had sat at Jesus’ feet to hear his teaching knew in some way that salvation for everyone—life from death—was in the works. And knowing this, Mary dropped to her knees before our savior and worshiped, abandoning any concerns or cares she had for this world. She poured out her future on Jesus’ feet, knowing the work he would do as Messiah would provide any future that really mattered.

As we draw near to Holy Week, to Good Friday and Easter, can we learn to abandon ourselves so? Can we learn to trust so completely?

Those who do so will find true worship, and the scent of eternity will be on them and all who gather around.

A version of this article first ran here March 19, 2013.

Another Voice

Luke 1:46-55

As I launch into a new sermon series, I need to give credit where credit is due. All four of these 2015 Advent sermons are inspired by Dr. J. Ellsworth Kalas’ book “The Scriptures Sing of Christmas.” For older folks raised in Sunday school, many of these Bible passages are familiar, and I link to them in the King James Version for this series, simply because this translation is what they will most likely remember.

Over the next four weeks, we’re going to take a close look at some positively lyrical Bible passages. In fact, some of them are historically thought of as songs, and have continued to be practiced as such in one way or another.

We begin with what is sometimes called “The Magnificat,” Mary’s song of praise to God after learning she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, due to give birth to the promised messiah. Songs of praise can also be songs of revolution, we quickly learn.

Mary declared something glorious had happened; at the same time, she made clear that God’s intervention in the world was designed to create great upheaval. God showed this by beginning a divine invasion of a fallen world via the womb of a girl who was, by the standards of her day, barely a person.

Mary lived in a rural, outlying village of no importance, one embedded in a region where the people were considered rubes, identifiable by their accents. Even the more prominent of her people had fallen from power, their so-called “Promised Land” now representing little more than the frontier edge of the mighty Roman Empire.

How does God reach everywhere? By starting pretty much in the middle of nowhere. All he asks is that people “fear” him, that is, show the creator the respect the creator is due, and great mercy comes forth.

The proud? They will be scattered. God says so, and little Mary declared it loudly.

The mighty? They will lose their positions, to be replaced by the least. God says so.

The hungry will be fed, and the rich will find themselves empty. God says so.

Mary’s song was part of a larger promise, a promise God made to the people of Israel. It took thousands of years for the messiah to come, and even today God has not completely fulfilled these big, revolutionary promises. God works in his own time, but we must never forget, God says so, and what God promises does happen.

It is easy for us to forget where God is taking us. We are all drawn to worldly power. Once again, we find ourselves in an election cycle. Money rules, bluster seems to be the only winning strategy, and the proud spend a lot of time imagining what they will do if voters will just give them the chance.

Perhaps our Advent season can be a corrective to some of this. Mary’s song provides us with another voice to hear when we consider wars and rumors of wars, refugees’ cries for help, and even the real meaning of Christmas, which, by the way, has nothing to do with the design on a Starbucks cup.

Mary spoke first because her unborn child was not yet able, despite being divine. About three decades later, Jesus re-sang Mary’s song with his life.

He warned the proud of their folly, of their need to humbly submit to God.

He told the mighty they would fall, that the first would be last and the last would be first.

He fed the hungry with his own miraculous hands, and he told us to do the same.

And then he went further and actually started the process by which everything is changing and will be changed forever. He gave up his own life on the cross to defeat sin and death.

It’s a song worth singing with our own lives.


Featured image: Detail from “The Magnificat,” James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Really Good Folk

There’s the right thing to do, and then there’s the really right thing to do. Usually, God has to show us the latter.

The Bible calls us to remember the different roles faithful human beings played in the arrival and upbringing of Jesus Christ on earth. The stories of Joseph and Mary have a particular twist to them that we should keep in mind whenever we’re trying to discern God’s will.

Joseph was a righteous or “just” man. We know this because the fact is stated flatly in his story as found in Matthew 1:18-25. By “just,” the author of Matthew is saying that Joseph is more than a simple keeper of the law; he has what we might call a good heart.

Most Christians know the basics of the story. Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, found herself to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, carrying the promised Messiah in her womb. This meant very real trouble for Mary. In her day, an engagement carried with it all the legal and moral requirements of a full marriage, even though the couple had not yet consummated the relationship.

Upon discovering Mary was pregnant by another, Joseph under the law had every right to have her publicly shamed and even stoned to death. Instead, he resolved to let her escape what he believed to be her sin, “planning to dismiss her quietly.”

It was very much the right thing to do, a gracious, loving and noble act, abundant in mercy toward someone he believed had wronged him terribly. Joseph was truly a good-hearted man.

Our righteousness can never match God’s holiness, however, and sometimes we are called to go beyond even high standards of goodness to follow God’s will. When an angel later came to Joseph in a dream, he learned the truly spectacular facts surrounding the child in Mary’s womb.

To follow God’s will, Joseph had to do several difficult things. He had to trust that his relationship with God was strong enough to let him hear God correctly. He had to risk his honor, exposing himself to the whispers that may have happened in his village: “Joseph cannot control himself,” or another possible rumor, “Joseph is foolish enough to raise another man’s child.”

And most of all, he had to take on a challenge few people would feel equipped to handle, the protection and rearing of the Savior.

Joseph proved to be the kind of man God sought. Apparently without hesitation, he took on this task as soon as he awoke.

In Luke, which focuses more on Mary’s story, we see a similar ability to go beyond the human definition of what is right and dwell in God’s holy plan. When Mary prophetically utters what we now know as the “Magnificat,” we see a mind open to God’s extraordinary plan to turn the world topsy-turvy through Christ.

I believe we still experience Joseph and Mary moments today. There are decisions we face where there are at least two answers, one demonstrably good to the world, the second riskier but even more in tune with something new that God seems to be doing.

Maybe the decision lies in how we deal with our spouses or raise our children. Maybe it has to do with the work of our church. Perhaps it is in the very calling God has placed on our lives.

The key is to stay in tune with God through prayer, study and worship, and then watch for God’s guidance in such moments. We’re left then to ask ourselves, “Can I respond as bravely as Joseph  and Mary?”

It’s not hard to get to “yes” if we keep in mind the lesson of the coming Christmas season. God is with us, and as the angels tell us repeatedly, we have nothing to fear.

Senseless Acts of Love

John 12:1-8

It’s not difficult to discern that Mary—the sister-of-Lazarus Mary—did something strange and even shocking when she used a small fortune in perfume on Jesus’ feet.

If you see Christianity as a straitlaced, rules-oriented faith, and you would rather hold on to that view, you might want to avoid a story like this one altogether. The characters in this story had been swelling with emotion for days, and Mary finally exploded in an act of love that defied logic and propriety. The only speaker of earthly logic in this story was Judas, who was only a few days from falling under Satan’s complete control, ultimately participating in Jesus’ death.

Siblings and Friends

Bible readers will remember Mary and her siblings Martha and Lazarus. There is a story in the tenth chapter of Luke where Mary sat at Jesus’ feet as Martha worked in the kitchen. When Martha complained, Jesus said Mary had “the better part.”

John tells us all three were Jesus’ friends; it’s likely their home in Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem, was where Jesus stayed when he drew near to the heart of Judaism. They also likely were wealthy, and because the sisters are described as living with their brother, they either were young and unmarried or widowed.

The described volume of nard, probably spikenard from India, was worth about a year’s wages to a common laborer. It is unclear why Mary had it. In a world without secure bank accounts, it might have been a compact way for her to maintain some financial security. She may have intended it for her wedding night—the Song of Solomon demonstrates that nard’s warm, musky, intense smell was associated with sex. And, as is clear from the story, it could be used to prepare a loved one for burial.

For whatever reason Mary owned it, the nard represented her concern for the future.

Statements of Faith

I mentioned before that these characters, particularly Jesus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, were likely overwhelmed with emotion. Just a few days earlier, Jesus had performed his most astounding miracle, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, with Jesus and the two sisters weeping their way toward the event.

As you may recall, Jesus deliberately dallied in going to his friends despite knowing Lazarus was sick, telling his disciples this event was occurring so “the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead and in the tomb four days. In the exchange that occurred between the sisters and Jesus, one thing becomes clear. They believed in Jesus fully. Martha went so far as to call Jesus “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Jesus, moved by Mary and Martha’s pain, then proved he has power over life and death by calling Lazarus out of the tomb.

We need to keep all that context in mind to understand Mary’s seemingly wasteful activity. She was riding an emotional epiphany—she and Martha had a better understanding than anyone in the room what it means to be friends with someone who has power over life and death. Their beloved brother had been restored. They had experienced the pain and stench of death, and Jesus had replaced all of that with hope and joy.

An Act of Worship

When Mary poured out that nard and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, Mary worshipped. There really is no other word adequate to describe her actions. And in her actions, we are reminded why we worship.

Yes, she was thankful, enormously thankful. Yes, she was filled with a sense of love for Jesus. And yes, I think she fully got it. By that, I mean that this woman who had sat at Jesus’ feet to hear his teaching, who had seen him at work, understood what was coming. Jesus had said clearly and repeatedly that he must go to Jerusalem to die.

Salvation for everyone, life from death, was in the works. And knowing this, Mary dropped to her knees before our savior and worshipped, abandoning any concerns or cares she had for this world. She poured out her future on Jesus’ feet, knowing the work he would do as Messiah would provide any future that really mattered.

As we near Good Friday and Easter, can we learn to abandon ourselves so? Can we learn to trust so completely?

Those who do so will find true worship, and the scent of eternity will be on them and all who gather around.

The Favored One

Luke 1:26-38

The mother of Jesus fascinates some people to the point of controversy. A lot of Protestants find the Roman Catholic devotion to Mary disturbing, particularly if that love seems to elevate her to a godlike status.

Scripturally, Mary is to be understood as human. We Protestants, however, need to be careful not to throw momma out with the baby’s bath water—Mary is perhaps the most important mere human to have ever lived. (I say “mere” human to take Jesus, who was in some mysterious way both fully human and fully divine, out of contention.)

After all, Mary was the “favored one,” the first chapter of Luke’s gospel tells us. God found Mary worthy to carry the messiah, God in flesh, in her womb. Jesus’ devotion to and love for her was evident even as he hung dying on a cross.

So, what made Mary so special?

Earlier, when I described her as perhaps the most important mere human to have ever lived, some of you may have flinched a little. Did you begin to run other possible candidates through your mind: biblical characters like Abraham or Moses, or great historic figures?

If you did so, consider whether you’re attaching worldly standards to the word “important.” God’s standards are different from worldly standards; humility and unwavering faith would seem to top the divine list.

Oh, and we shouldn’t forget bravery. Stoning was the punishment of the day for a poor, unwed pregnant girl, which is how her neighbors would have viewed Mary. To follow God while facing such dire circumstances required a heart wide-open to God’s will, one willing to disregard the potential personal cost.

God chose Mary, it seems, because she had the right soul for the task. She was young, perhaps as young as 14, but Luke 1:46-55 demonstrates her remarkable understanding of the meaning of Christ’s coming.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary said. She was rejoicing with her much older cousin Elizabeth, who carried in her womb John the Baptist, the prophet who would announce the coming of Jesus’ ministry in adulthood.

As Mary continued in her prophetic rejoicing, she laid out the radical mission of Christ. He brings mercy to those who believe and follow God. He scatters the proud. He brings down the powerful. He lifts up the lowly and the hungry. He does all of this as a fulfillment of a promise made to the world through Abraham long ago.

And of course, we now understand that Jesus grew up to accomplish this radical realignment of power through his death on the cross, a sacrifice designed to break the grip of sin.

Governments and armies still seem to have power, but none can help you establish a relationship with God. At best, they can keep the relationship freely available.

Mary’s song also calls us to magnify the Lord, regardless of our ability to carry children. The baby in her womb would reveal God’s nature to all; as the body of Christ on earth today, Christians similarly exhibit God’s Spirit to a hurting world.

And while this task requires humility and faith, it also makes us revolutionaries, like the quiet, demure Mary who suddenly sang of a world to be turned upside down.

The great Scottish theologian William Barclay noted that Mary’s song declares three great “revolutions” that her child would spark in the world.

First, God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” That is a moral revolution, Barclay noted, bringing about the death of pride. People cannot understand their brokenness and their need for Christ and at the same time remain convinced they are somehow superior to others.

Second, Mary sang that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” That, Barclay said, is a social revolution.

If we are to magnify God, we ignore labels used to sort people as important or unimportant. In every face, the Christian sees God’s creation. In every person, a Christian sees a life for whom Christ died.

Third, Mary tells us that the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty. Barclay called this part of the song a declaration of an economic revolution.

“A non-Christian society is an acquisitive society where each man is out to amass as much as he can get,” Barclay wrote. “A Christian society is a society where no man dares to have too much while others have too little, where every man must get only to give away.”

Oh, to magnify the Lord in every moment of our lives, to allow revolution to occur in every choice we make. It isn’t easy, of course.

Fortunately, the baby who grew to be a man and live out his mother’s prophecies did not shrink from the difficult task of the cross. May God grant us similar courage in this season.