I’ve been thinking a lot about Mary the last couple of weeks. For obvious reasons, given that it is the Christmas season and she gets a lot of press this time of year, but also for the fact that she absolutely astounds me. No, really. We are talking about a teenager who said yes to something that would radically alter her life without seemingly thinking twice about it. I’ve worked with a lot of teenagers over the years (let’s see roughly 25-30 per class, 6ish classes a year, 12 years…That’s like 1,800- 2,160 teens) and a good many of those teens do not accept authority, suggestion or direction; you tell them to do something at least 3 times with a personal anecdote about why they should and a good bit of the time (I don’t know the exact percentage), they do the opposite or at least not exactly what you advise and then come back and ask you what went wrong. Despite the permanent facepalm imprint on my forehead, all I know to tell them is: you didn’t listen.
Mary was one of those rare exceptions. The angel told her what to do and she did it. Now I’m not dogging teens, cause quite frankly it’s not just a teenage problem. It’s a faith problem and I’m not sure I have the kind of faith Mary had. Of course I hope I do, but let’s just say there are many reasons why God didn’t choose me to be the vessel that would birth his one and only son.
Luke has always been my favorite gospel. The man was a doctor and his logical approach to these happenings make everything seem less ‘fairytale’ and more real. He starts off the Gospel in chapter 1: 3 stating that he has “carefully investaged everything” and will write an “orderly account”. This makes my type one heart just soar with expectation—because Luke, well, he just gets me. His gospel starts from the beginning with John the Baptist before we ever hear about Mary, but then he is the only one who gives us an account of Mary’s experience. Starting in chapter 1: 26-38, he carefully documents the encounter. And clearly this is written by a man, because we are not given a lot of information about how Mary reacts other than upon hearing the news that she is “highly favored”, she is “greatly troubled.”
Her reaction to this greeting is curious, but let’s get real. No matter what this angel had said, Mary was probably freaking out. To put it in perspective: Mary couldn’t have been more than about sixteen (chances are she was younger since she was ‘pledged to be married’ and that could happen at a very young age in ancient cultures). This giagantice man-angel, who had to be pretty darn intimidating, appears to her—alone. The first thing you are going to wonder is if you had too much wine with the last meal, long before you ever register what the man is actually saying. However, the fact that the text tells us that she is reacting to the words and wondering what it might mean (vs. 29), reveals more about her character than anything else.
When you are told you are ‘highly favored’, we can expect one of three reactions:
- Blatant pride (‘Of course I am. I’m me and I’m the greatest. Who wouldn’t favor me’)
- False humility (‘Oh stop it. I’m not that great, after all!’)
- True humility (‘Come again? What do you mean?’)
Mary wasn’t faking—she was truly humble in a moment that could have puffed her up, she wondered at what the greeting could mean. I would like to say that I’d respond in the same way to those words, but the truth is, I spend most of my life hungering after words of affirmation and when I get them I’m more on the #2 reaction where I say ‘Oh, stop’ but really I feel in my heart that I deserve every bit of that praise. I’m not saying that reactions one and two are always bad, but God certainly appreciates a truly humble heart and I don’t think he would have chosen Mary if he didn’t know that her humility was genuine. After all, we really don’t deserve any kind of acknowledgement for our ‘awesomeness’ because each and every one of us is a sinner and the only one who really deserves the praise is God. Not that we can’t appreciate others for what value they bring to our lives, but we can definitely lean more toward ‘greatly troubled’ and away from ‘proudly justified’ as we strive to be more like Jesus—or in this case, his mother.
I am the Lord’s Servant
Again, in Mary’s response in vs. 38 I think perspective is colored by the gender of the author, but also because the author had no way of being inside Mary’s head. Yes, ultimately she said “I am the Lord’s servant” and that may have been the end of the story…but I wonder if she didn’t have a slightly longer conversation with the angel. Women—even in ancient cultures—tend to want a few more details than what is recorded in history. Times have changed, but the nature of a woman’s needs have not. I suspect there is a little more to that conversation, but Luke’s pragamtism and second hand account leaves us with the finality of Mary’s response, which, after all, is all we need to know. I’m not suggesting that she turned the angel down at first, but I am suggesting that she may have hesitated, or wept, or asked ‘why me?’ Not in a bitter, surly way, but in a humble—how could the Lord possibly think I’m worthy of this?—way. Like the first time a mother holds her first born child. She looks down at that infant in absolute wonder that not only did she help create that little human, but that God entrusted her with this little human’s life and she wonders, what have I done to deserve such a blessing?
And the truth is, it’s not what you have done, Mary (or any of us), it’s the potential the Lord sees in us that showers us with his blessing and favor. God didn’t choose Mary because she got all A’s on her report card and swept the house the right way every day, or because she could make a perfect latke. No, he choose her because he saw her heart and he knew that she would say yes in the right way and be a conduit for the rest of his plan. Just like he sees in each of us the potential to fulfill his plan and entrusts us with what he knows each of us can be successful with.
Each of us has a choice, like Mary, every day. We can say “I am the Lord’s servant” or we can say “I am my own servant” and that choice defines how and where our lives will run. As Joshua so elegantly puts it: “…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euprhrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living..” or yourself and the gods of America, the money, power and narcisism that runs rampart in our world (Joshua 24:15). It is up to us to decide. Mary could have said ‘thanks, but I’d rather live the picket-fence life Jospeh and I had planned.’ She could have seen her pristine reputation as proof that she was still favored when she turned the Lord down, and he would have found another vessel. His plan is never derailed by our choices. But he knew she wouldn’t say no. Because she choose to serve the Lord—she chose a hard path, but the only one that would bless her in the long run: to serve the Lord no matter the consequences.
The most realistic part of this account, to me, is not Mary’s response to the angel. It’s not her humility. It’s not the fact that it all came to pass. To me it’s that the second the angel left, and she ‘hurried’—ya’ll she RAN to Elizabeth, her girlfriend. Because all ladies know that when something is going to change your life, you go and find another lady who is older, wiser, and who has some experience with angel visits, and you spill your guts out to her. I love that not only did she run to her, she shared her heart. They laughed, they cried, and girls, you better believe, they sang together. Because let’s face it, 2000 years has not changed girl talk or slumber parties. There will always be secrets shared and songs sung. And boy did these two ladies share secrets: miracle babies and unimaginable blessings—promises through the pain that living in a broken world would inevitably bring. Because let’s face it: this was a happy moment that would soon be followed by heartache, judgement and hardship. Mary risked everything in saying yes to the Lord, and she knew she would need support and instead of wallowing in uncertainty she RAN to the support that God provided: Elizabeth.
It’s hard sometimes to recognize that we need support outside ourselves. Our culture preaches independence and self reliance. But God did not intend for us to live life that way. In the very beginning he stated: “…It is not good for man to be alone…” (Genesis 2:18) and that rings true even today. Living a Christian life is not easy. In fact, it’s downright hard sometimes. Look at Mary: she had it all (reputation, favor, a fiancé)—and then she said yes to God and nearly lost it all. But God is faithful and the community he builds for us is meant to support us in all of the hardships that accompany saying yes to God and living counter-culturally.
Saying yes was risky, but saying no even more so. After all, it was that one simple act of obedience that quite literally saved the world.