When I began at secondary school, I was given a homework diary. It was designed as a record of all the homework I was assigned and had completed, and my parents had to sign it each week. Within it were the expectations of the school about the amount of work that would be involved. When you started at the school, you would have two pieces of homework a night, each lasting thirty minutes. But by the time you revised for public examinations, that would increase to what the headmaster gleefully called “endless toil”.
I suspect many churchgoers see the Christian faith as a matter of ‘endless toil’. Not simply the relentless list of jobs to be done in church (as some people here know only too well), but the sense that you will never have done enough in order to please God. The Methodist ordination service says that the ministry will make great demands on ministers and their families, and while it goes onto promise the help of the Holy Spirit, it nevertheless leaves an impression that genuine ministry is about ‘busyness’. That’s certainly the way congregations often measure their ministers – are they busy? More worryingly, it’s often the way ministers measure their own value. Am I busy? A full diary becomes a sign of spirituality.
So we come to Martha and Mary. We may be tempted to think that the contrast is between Martha, who is on her feet, and Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet. If we value the idea of being busy, we will have a problem with Jesus’ commendation of Mary. A church member I once knew said she felt sure Luke didn’t record the whole story, and that Jesus would have asked Mary to go and help Martha.
But the story is not a contrast between Martha ‘doing’ and Mary ‘being’. It cannot be. It occurs immediately after the Parable of the Good Samaritan (which was last week’s Lectionary Gospel reading, and you may have had a sermon on it). Jesus can hardly commend the radical action of the Samaritan one day, and condemn Martha for being busy the next day. Maybe instead this story balances the Good Samaritan story.
Martha’s problem is not that she has a lot to do. It is that she is ‘distracted by her many tasks’ (verse 40), as Luke puts it. Jesus tells her she is ‘worried and distracted by many things’ (verse 41). The worry and the distraction are the core issues. Martha is frantic and fretful. And that’s where Jesus picks her up.
In some respects, worry and distraction are only human. How often have you said to someone – perhaps a loved one – “You drive me to distraction”? Maybe a son or daughter gives you cause for concern. Perhaps you don’t have enough money for all you think you need. It wouldn’t be surprising if worry took over.
Or it might be that you believe that your acceptance by God depends on whether you are a good enough person. You devote all your energies to doing what you are believe are the right things. However, it’s a tyranny, because you never know whether you have reached an acceptable standard. Probably you haven’t, and so with even more worry you redouble your efforts. All the time you do this, you might say you believe in the love of God, but really your whole existence is being lived in complete doubt as to whether God loves you or not. Your image of God is actually of a tyrant.
Think of some attitudes we encounter in the church. We are told that we should not be slapdash in our preparing to meet God – quite rightly: excellence is a noble thing. But someone then says to us, “You wouldn’t be so careless if the Queen were coming to your house; why are you about meeting the King of Kings?” We then feel that nothing we can ever do is good enough for God. Either we strive even more, or we give up in despair.
If it’s not a matter of fear, it might be a question of pride. If I can earn my own place of favour with God, how good am I? it’s tantamount to saying, “I don’t need the Cross of Christ. I can make my own way to God on my own.” It’s as if we dare to stand before Jesus on the Day of Judgement and say, “Lord, it was awfully decent of you to die on the Cross for the sins of the world, but you really didn’t need to, old chap.”
Another way of looking at the motives behind being distracted by the tasks we have to do is to see it in terms of urgency. There is so much that needs doing, and so little time. So I have to crack on. I can’t let up. Something will be missed if I don’t keep at it relentlessly.
But of course, while this may sound like an efficient use of time, it is both foolish and dangerous. It is like saying, “I have a long car journey to make today. I cannot afford to stop for a rest, and neither do I have the time to call in at a petrol station and refuel.” This is the plague of being distracted with busyness: our commitment to keep on do-do-doing all the time may be for honourable intentions, but it sucks us dry. It leaves us with nothing to feed on, and nothing to offer. Is it any wonder many churches seem as arid as the desert when the distractions of busyness dominate such places?
All of which brings us to Mary’s honoured place in this story. We pause a moment to note how revolutionary it was that Jesus was teaching her in the first place. Women did not normally have the privilege of being taught by a rabbi. But Jesus was different. He was ushering in a kingdom that was open to female and male, child and adult, Gentile and Jew. Martha in her fretting and worrying had missed the fact that Jesus was teaching a woman – like her! She could have had this privilege, but her over-busy lifestyle means she misses this radical implication of the Gospel. It makes you wonder how much of the Good News we also miss, because we are too obsessed with doing this, that and everything.
So what makes Mary’s grabbing of her Gospel privilege as a daughter of God so important? For one thing, she understands something about grace. She knows that before anything else, a disciple needs to receive from Jesus. Discipleship doesn’t start or depend on all the effort we make for God: it begins with God graciously and lovingly approaching us in Christ, especially in the Cross. For there we learn that we are not people who are capable of pleasing God by our own efforts. We need God’s forgiveness in Christ through his death in our place. Everything starts there for the Christian. And it sets a pattern for the whole of life. It all begins with Jesus, not us. In a simple way, I believe Mary knew that.
Therefore, alongside the joy Mary has being a woman whom Jesus has chosen to teach, there is a basic humility. If Martha stands over Jesus, Mary sits at his feet. Everything worthwhile will come from Jesus taking the initiative and listening to him. Jesus himself said he only did what he saw the Father doing; it becomes the rôle of the disciple to listen to Jesus first and then respond.
All of which tells us that Mary’s action is not a case of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. It is ‘being’ before ‘doing’. She takes the old maxim of ‘Don’t just sit there, do something’ and reverses it into ‘Don’t just do something, sit there’.
Why? She knows that you can’t set off on all those good and noble tasks that Martha has plunged herself into unless you have first received direction from Jesus. What does he want me to do? There are plenty of good things to do in the world, but I cannot do them all. Which ones does he want me to take on? When you know that, you are freed from the frazzling effect of a Martha-like frantic lifestyle. There is no danger that Mary will simply stay at the feet of Jesus and not turn it into action – she won’t be a hypocrite like that. But she knows what needs to come first.
Put it this way: the English word ‘obedience’ has its roots in the Latin word ‘audire’ – which means ‘to hear’. Mary has to hear from Jesus first, before plunging into work.
Not only that, Mary knows that you need a balance in your Christian life that features both being and doing. We need both action and reflection. It is something the early church came to understand very quickly. Think of the story in Acts chapter 6 where there is a crisis over the distribution of food to Greek-speaking widows. The apostles resist the idea that they must do everything. They ensure that the food distribution project continues by having the community appoint a team of Spirit-filled people to undertake it. For themselves, though, they cannot compromise their call to ‘the ministry of the Word and prayer’. Between the apostles and the team appointed to serve the widows, the balance is held: the community together embraces both listening to God and practical action for the kingdom of God.
What it amounts to is this: you can’t just be a ‘being’ person and you can’t just be a ‘doing’ person. Nor can the church just be one or the other. If all we do is listen, pray and contemplate, we will be too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use. If all we do is plunge ourselves into action, we shall burn out. The Marys of this world know that you have to fill up the car before you can set out on the journey.
I hope the implications for all of us are clear, especially because I believe this is often important for Methodists. Surveys in recent years have shown that generally we are a people who are good at social action but less comfortable with prayer. Jesus wants Marys, but Methodists are often Marthas. Too many of us therefore become discouraged, exhausted and burnt out.
We need to find our ways of sitting at the feet of Jesus before we do anything else. Exactly how we do it will vary from person to person, because we have different personalities and temperaments, and our life circumstances are not the same. But we need our own ‘ministry of the Word and prayer’ in some form: we need to reflect on the Scriptures and how they are pointing us to Jesus, and we need to pray. These things need to be more than just something that is done for us on a Sunday, and they need to be more than at crisis times. In my experience, we need to aim for a daily pattern of devotion.
So you may find that first thing in the morning works best. You may like to reflect prayerfully on the day at its end. You may be one of those people who likes to read the Scriptures and pray during a lunch break, reviewing how things have gone so far and looking forward to the rest of the day.
You may use Bible reading notes, a daily Lectionary, a website or some other pattern. You may find one approach to prayer works better than another for you. Just so long as it’s Christ-centred, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the time of Bible reading and prayer doesn’t just feed your head with interesting titbits of information, it draws you close to Jesus.
For if it does, you will soon find that by sitting at the feet of Jesus like Mary, he will then raise you to your feet for action.
And – unlike Martha – you will be ready and equipped.
During our first summer as ministerial students, the college sent us all out on six-week placements in circuits. Because I came from an urban area of London not known for its wealth, I was not exposed to poverty as some students were. Instead of ‘Mission Alongside the Poor’, as a certain church campaign of the time was known, I was sent on what amounted to ‘Mission Alongside the Rich’ in Surrey. (So perhaps it was a good experience for our forthcoming move to that county!)
The church was large, and well-to-do. When I heard what the weekly offerings averaged, they dwarfed my home church.
Until I did some Maths, that is. I realised that in this wealthy church, the average giving per member per week was exactly the same as in my home church. It didn’t seem quite so impressive then.
It was a story that came back to mind this week as I read the account of Mary lavishing her expensive perfume on Jesus.
Imagine you are in the house where the incident happened. The first thing that would strike you would most likely be the aroma. A strong, pervasive smell has a powerful effect upon people.
When I visited the Holy Land on a special trip for theological and ministerial students, we were a mixed bag ecumenically, from free church types to bells and smells. One of our number was an Indian. He was a Syrian Orthodox priest who had been studying in the UK. One evening he took prayers in the chapel at the institute where we were based. Before the service began, the pungent smell of incense from the censers filled the chapel. I found it so overpowering that I couldn’t stay for the service. As a result, a friend dubbed me ‘low church by reason of allergy’!
But other smells greatly appeal to me. Freshly baked bread. Our breadmaker has languished in the garage during our Chelmsford sojourn, but to set it to work overnight and come down in the morning to that aroma was a joy. Maybe in the new house?
I think we are meant to understand the aroma of Mary’s perfume as a beautiful sensory experience in this story. It contrasts with the stench present elsewhere. Firstly, it stands over against the thought of Jesus’ death. He says that
She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial (verse 7)
And you can see why it would be a contrast. The beauty of the perfume counters the smell of a corpse as it degrades. Remember that when Jesus brought Mary’s brother Lazarus back to life four days after his death, people were fearful of the smell that would emanate from the tomb. But here, the beauty of Mary’s act symbolically says that death will not end in defeat. Decay will not have the final word.
After all, Mary has only recently had a glimpse of what that might be, through the miracle of her brother’s return to life. In that story we learn that she and her sister already believe in the Jewish doctrine of the resurrection of the dead at the last judgment, but Jesus tells them he himself is ‘the Resurrection and the Life’, and then they witness him calling Lazarus from his tomb as a foretaste of what is to come. She may not have grasped that Jesus will be raised on the third day after his forthcoming execution any more than any of his disciples had, but she has had this glimpse of the kingdom coming. And the aroma of a perfume that quenches the stench of death is a suitable symbol. For that is what Jesus will bring to all who follow him.
Therefore we his disciples know here – as in so many places – that we need not be dismayed or discouraged by the prospect of death. There is plenty of stench around it for us, as we watch people suffer, or as we hear the taunts of militant atheists. But we have smelt a beautiful perfume – the Resurrection of Jesus – and we face death and suffering differently because of it.
That isn’t the only way in which the beautiful aroma of Mary’s perfume contrasts with a foul smell in the story, however. The miserable words of Judas, in despising her devotion, are words that stink, particularly when we hear what his heart was like when it came to money:
“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) (Verses 5-6)
He hides behind a moral reason, but he isn’t going to get his hands on Mary’s cash, because it’s been spent on the perfume. It’s no surprise his loyalty will soon be bought for thirty pieces of silver. The perfume seems to represent the beauty of Mary’s devoted heart, in contrast to the polluted heart of Judas. Its beautiful smell here, then, becomes a warning that it is worth us examining our own hearts for unworthy motives that might grow into disloyalty to Christ. The story calls us to simple, whole-hearted commitment to our Lord.
Then there is the stench of the chief priests, so angry that people are beginning to follow Jesus because he raised Lazarus that at this point they don’t merely plan Jesus’ death, they plan an execution for Lazarus (verses 9-11). Here too are poisoned hearts, experienced religious people whose commitment has been twisted from the kingdom of God to personal empires. Why else would they be worried about desertions to Jesus? It’s like the spiteful comments you hear about different Christians and their churches in some parts of our religious world. Again, the contrast is with a woman who – by virtue of her sex – will not have had the education of these chief priests, yet she can outshine their commitment in one simple, beautiful act. All of which should make us pause to consider what our priorities are.
The second aspect of this story I’d like us to consider is that which strikes us so powerfully apart from the aroma. It’s the extravagance of Mary’s gesture. Her extravagance shocked people then, just as extravagant acts of devotion to Christ shock religious people today.
For example, you have heard me talk about a project I was involved in ten years ago. An Anglican rector I worked with in the last circuit had a vision for celebrating the Millennium. He wanted all the churches in Medway to close and gather together in Gillingham FC’s Priestfield Stadium to worship Jesus. I was one of a number of local church leaders who were willingly co-opted onto the planning group for the project.
From beginning our plans to the date of the event was two and a half years. We held a morning service with an orchestra formed from local Christians and masterminded by a local Salvation Army musician. The late Rob Frost came to preach. We brought a Ugandan gospel choir over to sing (and tour Kent). In the afternoon and evening we planned a concert with leading Christian musicians such as Noel Richards, Ishmael and Phatfish, with Roger Forster as the preacher. In the event, about two and a half thousand people attended that concert, and in the morning six and a half thousand local Christians gathered for worship. Of the ninety churches in the area, over seventy closed their doors that Sunday morning for that united service. A few insisted on keeping their doors open, one at least saying they were doing so ‘in case a visitor turned up’.
The budget was somewhere around two hundred thousand pounds. Fifty thousand pounds of that was for a special covering over the pitch to protect it, which we had to hire from Wembley Stadium. The debt was not cleared by the day of the event – that took the best part of a further year.
Some scoffed at this enterprise, and some of the reasons given – apart from the church that wanted to stay open for the mythical visitor – were rather like Judas Iscariot’s protests about giving money to the poor. But my rector friend kept coming back to this story: sometimes it is simply the right thing to make an extravagant act of devotion to Jesus Christ as a sign of our love for him. It is one aspect of loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
We do not stint from showing extravagant love to other human beings on certain occasions. I was utterly moved by the gifts and special things arranged by Debbie and my children for my recent fiftieth birthday. In one respect they really didn’t need to do it, and I would certainly have been happy with less than what they did. Yet somehow the fact that they went to such expense and effort was a touching sign of their love. Might something a little bit similar be true of our relationship with God?
Maybe part of the problem is that extravagant giving and devotion challenges us. The other day, I was reading another minister’s blog. She was reflecting on this passage, and included a powerful story. She told of a grumpy missionary surgeon who was invited to lunch by a lady on whom he had operated. The woman and her husband were poor. They owned an angora rabbit and two chickens. The woman combed the rabbit for hair and span it to sell for income, and their diet was the eggs from the two chickens. What went in the pot for the meal? The rabbit and the two chickens. Truly a ‘widow’s mite’ story, and also one of extravagant love, just as Mary spent a year’s income on the perfume (verse 5).
And I think the reason these examples are challenges to us is that they make us feel uncomfortable about our own grudging love for Jesus Christ. How many times have I heard people with an amazing testimony to God’s forgiving and transforming grace be dismissed as nutters or patronised as immature by other Christians? Too often, I’m afraid. Is Judas alive and kicking in some church circles? I fear he is.
What’s the difference between extravagant Mary and her detractors? Mary has not lost her simple, passionate devotion to Jesus who will die for her and be raised from the dead for her. Judas may well have started out with a commitment to following Jesus, but he found other things more attractive – money, for one. The chief priests have become devoted to religion and the institution, much in the same way that many of us become caught up with maintaining a building.
All of which amounts to a warning for many of us. Mary’s despisers were consumed with the very things that dominate our thinking at Church Councils and the like – finances and institutional matters. But Mary kept the main thing the main thing. For her, faith and live were about unswerving devotion to Jesus. May that be true of us, also.
For weeks now, the shops have had a soundtrack of Christmas carols and Christmas songs. (Or is it months? It feels like it.) Slade with ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’, Wizzard singing ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, Elton John inviting us to ‘Step Into Christmas’, Wham recalling ‘Last Christmas’, and Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ now soundtracking mass consumption rather than relief for the poor.
Oh – and Johnny Mathis crooning ‘When A Child Is Born’. Musically it’s not my taste, but he sings of the hope that a child’s birth will bring. And as Christians we think of the particular hope brought by the infant Jesus.
Not that the announcement of a pregnancy or a birth is joy for everyone. Debbie and I know how carefully we had to release the news of her pregnancies for the sake of dear friends who had been unable to have children, and it was only right we tried to be sensitive about that.
However, when Mary and Elizabeth get together for their first-century NCT ante-natal meeting, the vibes are all positive. Not because both pregnant women are merely excited about the prospects of motherhood, but because both prophetically know something about the significance of their forthcoming arrivals. It is those responses I want us to think about this morning.
The first response is joy. Being six years older than my sister, I have a few memories of when my mother was expecting her. One is of how Mum invited me to put my ear to her tummy to hear the baby. Unfortunately, all my ear got was a kick from the womb!
Elizabeth feels John not kick but leap in her womb when Mary arrived and greeted her (verse 44). Elizabeth herself is filled with joy in her own response to Mary. She is filled with the Holy Spirit (verse 41) and says, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (verse 42). None of this is to give Mary some unique status, for Mary only sees herself as a humble servant of the Lord. But it is to illustrate the great joy that surrounds the forthcoming arrival of God’s Son in the world.
Joy, however, is not always our instant reaction to Christmas. Either we witness alcohol-powered celebrations, or our to-do list becomes so crowded with writing cards, buying and wrapping presents, getting decorations down from the loft and a hundred other things that the simple joy of Christ’s coming is squeezed out of us. For me, if it’s a Christmas with a lot of church services, I can just get to Christmas afternoon and collapse. Not that two young children, and one big kid of a wife want me to!
However, in this story, Elizabeth and her unborn son bring us back to the source of true joy:
The attitude of Elizabeth is representative of what Luke desires in any believer. What a joy to share in the events associated with Jesus. What a joy to share life with him.
We too ‘share in the events associated with Jesus’ and ‘share life with him’. For although we do not feature on the pages of Holy Writ with him, we are part of his ongoing story. The invitation to faith is an invitation to share in the story of God through Jesus Christ. We have the privilege of sharing life with him, because he came, because he called us and because he sent the Spirit.
So perhaps the Christmas story is a time to recover the joy at the heart of faith in Jesus. it’s a fair criticism that many churches seem devoid of joy, even when you account for the fact that not everybody expresses joy in a loud, exuberant way.
Now I can’t somehow command people to be joyful – although in various places Scripture certainly exhorts us to have joy. But what I can suggest is that we take time this Christmas simply to meditate on the great story of Christ’s coming again. As we dwell on it, unwrapped from the paper and the tinsel, we shall find our sense of wonder being renewed, and with it the joy that the coming Christ has made us part of God’s story of salvation. How astonishing is it that God took on human flesh?
Martin Freeman, the actor best known for his portrayal of Tim in ‘The Office’, has recently appeared in a film called ‘Nativity!’ It’s a comedy based on a nativity play at a primary school. In an interview to promote the movie, Freeman said he couldn’t help but be impressed by the fact that in the Christmas story greatness is expressed in humility. He couldn’t think of a better story. To my knowledge Martin Freeman is not a Christian, but if he can get excited by the nativity, surely we can recover a spirit of joy, too?
The second response is faith. In her final words attributed to her in the story, Elizabeth praises Mary’s faith:
‘And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Verse 45)
Mary is blessed in this sense: she is
‘happy because God has touched [her] life. Such divine benefit rains down on those who trust him and his promises. Blessing emerges from God’s ability to bring his promises to completion, but to share the benefits, we must be confident that God does what he says. The first sign of such faith in Mary was her willingness to let God use her (v 38). The second was her immediate (hurried) visit to Elizabeth, who herself served as a sign that God keeps his word and can give life (vv 36, 39).’
Elizabeth and Mary are both examples of faith because they trust God’s word. He will fulfil his promises. They act accordingly, and such is Christmas faith. Our faith is not merely to ‘ooh and aah’ at a newborn baby. It is to stake our lives on God’s promises.
If that is the case, then how crazy it is to celebrate Christmas with schmaltz and sentimentality. If a true Christmas response is about faith in the promises of God, then our celebration should surely be marked with acts of daring belief in our God, because he has spoken and he will deliver on what he has said. Here, there and everywhere in the Christian Church we seem to have contracted a disease which makes us play safe all the time. We are like the man with the one talent who buried, rather than those with more who risked all in the name of serving their master.
For if with joy we have been incorporated into the story of God by the gift of Christ, then one consequence is surely to start going out on the edge for him. Not just for the sake of it, I mean, but because that is what God did for us in the Incarnation: he went out on the edge.
Many of our churches are dying of good taste, where everything has to be ‘nice’ and inoffensive. We’re doomed by a combination of Einstein’s definition of insanity – ‘Insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result’ – and ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – except it is broke. Isn’t it time for daring faith in Christ who took the risk of human flesh?
So perhaps we could give Jesus a Christmas present. We could be willing to go out on a limb for him. Not just for the sake of it – otherwise it’s like the temptation he faced in the wilderness to thrown himself from the Temple – but actually to get on with listening to the promises of God and then get on with risky faith.
The third and final response is one of praise. Mary’s great response is praise, and it comes to us in the form of the song we call ‘The Magnificat’. But what kind of praise does she offer?
Put simply, Mary praises God for his works of salvation, and she does so comprehensively. She covers his salvation in the past, present and future – in the past with God’s people, in the present as he is at work in her, in the future as people recall what he has done in her and with all who revere him. She celebrates God’s grace and mercy to those who humbly trust him, and his justice against the rich and proud.
There is so much we could draw from Mary’s song of praise, and I, like many other preachers, have preached whole sermons just on the Magnificat in the past. But for this morning, let me just be content to say that a key aspect of Mary’s praise is that she praises God for his mighty deeds.
Maybe you think that’s unremarkable. So what? Let me suggest that sometimes we base our praise of God on other criteria. How often is our praised based on our feelings? We praise, depending on whether we feel up or down about God, faith or life in general. If our circumstances are good, we feel inclined to worship. If we are down in the dumps, we may not think about praising God.
But what Mary shows us is that God is worthy of praise purely on the basis of his deeds – what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do. Worship may be emotional, or it may not. But regardless of our feelings, God is worthy of praise. ‘I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,’ said the Psalmist. It’s why we rehearse the story of salvation from creation to the Cross and on to the return of Christ when we say the Thanksgiving Prayer in Holy Communion.
God has done great things. He is still doing great things. He will continue to do great things. Sometimes the thought of this will stir our hearts and we will be lifted to raptures. Other times we won’t, but our praise will be no less genuine, because we are giving God the praise due to his name as an act of obedient faith. It may well be a ‘sacrifice of praise’ on those occasions, but it is true praise when we choose to acknowledge the truth of God’s mighty deeds in Christ.
So if this Christmas you are feeling disheartened about your faith, it may be an act of faith to choose to praise God. Meditate on his creation, his persistent wooing of a wayward humanity, leading to him sending his Son, who one day will rule the created order unchallenged. You may or may not feel any different for doing so. But you will find your perspective on life more truly aligned with God’s.
And that is good. It’s what the Christmas message and the entire Gospel does.
 Darrell Bock, Luke (IVP New Testament Commentary), p44.
Wandering around St Augustine’s last Sunday morning before the service, I noticed the place where the Catholic community leave their votive candles burning after their 9 am Mass. I’m sure there is a special Catholic word for it, but I’m afraid I’m ignorant of these technicalities.
In front of the candles is a kneeler and small rail. On the rail are some cards containing the texts of prayers. Prominent among them was a prayer to Mary written by the current Pope. Of course as I read it I realised it was not addressing Mary in prayer in the way you would God. It was asking Mary’s help in approaching God, and in the ways of discipleship.
Nevertheless, my Protestant bones got nervous! And maybe a number of us still do at the mention of Mary, despite warmer relations with Christians of other traditions.
Yet whatever reservations I want to enter about traditional Catholic attitudes to Mary, it’s entirely wrong just to be negative about her, which is the Protestant error regarding her. Mary is a great example of Christian discipleship herself. Remember she was at the Cross and among the disciples praying in the lead-up to Pentecost.
And she is an example of Christian discipleship here, too, in the famous story of the Annunciation. How so? In ways that are fundamental to all followers of Jesus. Her life – even here, at the tender age of about thirteen – is a testimony to Christian basics.
‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessèd art thou among women,’ say our Catholic friends. They are quoting this very passage. To quote it from the reading, Gabriel says:
‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ (‘Blessèd are you among women’ is not in the best manuscripts.) (Verse 28)
The difference I have with Catholics is that Mary is not the giver of grace but the recipient of grace. ‘Full of grace’ means she is the ‘favoured one’. God has favoured her. There is no indication of any reason why she has deserved this. Rather, this is the sovereign choice of God in deciding to favour one of his children. There is no requirement that Mary is sinless, it is about the sovereign grace of God.
But what kind of favour is it? God has chosen her to bring his Son into the world. In one respect, that is the most enormous honour. It is an incredible decision of favour towards Mary. What could be more wonderful than to carry the presence of God in her womb for nine months? What could be more incredible than to be the one who brings God in the flesh into the midst of humanity?
So you could say that we have a similar privilege. God’s favour towards us is that – while we do not carry Jesus physically as Mary did – we carry his presence with us by the Holy Spirit, and we have the missionary privilege of bearing his love into a broken world. God honours us, too, then: he makes us what Paul calls ‘ambassadors’, but not only in representing Christ to the world. We take Christ to the world. God chooses every follower of his Son do this. It shows his favour towards us.
But it is a favour in the form of a double-edged sword. For Mary to accept the call was to risk scandal or even worse. In a society that held strongly to its morals, pregnancy outside marriage would bring shame. Adultery, of course, was punishable by stoning. It was potentially costly in the extreme for Mary to embrace the favour of God. She did so, taking a huge risk. Certainly there is ancient evidence of stories being put around that Jesus was the bastard son of Mary and a Roman soldier. Receiving and accepting the favour of God meant she could be reviled and despised.
And the favour of God is a challenge for us, too. Yes, it is a privilege to bear witness to Christ in the world, but we know that sometimes comes at a price. Snide comments, ridicule and on other occasions worse things than that. Yet the early church considered such opposition their badge of honour. Mary’s willingness to take on all that the favour of God would mean for her is an Advent reminder to us that the favour of God in Christ carries a price that is worth paying.
One of the things I most like about Mary is that she asks questions. ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ she asks (verse 34). I’ll say something more about her questions in the final point, but for now let’s notice the angel’s reply:
‘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. 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. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ (Verses 35-37)
Mary, you don’t have to abandon your morals to accomplish this. You don’t have to worry about doing the impossible. The impossible is God’s department, says Gabriel. Mary, you cannot fulfil your calling under God except by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And this too becomes an important reminder for us about the nature of Christian discipleship. There is so much we do and maintain in the church and in the world purely on the basis of our own strength. Our criteria are whether we think we can do something, rather than asking what God has called us to do, and then depending on the Holy Spirit.
It’s the latter which is true discipleship, not the former. We are the agents of God’s impossible ministry, and it is accomplished not on the basis of our abilities (however important it is to dedicate them to God). Nor is it achieved by force of strong personalities. God’s work is achieved by our co-operation with the Holy Spirit.
So when Gabriel tells Mary, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you’, he doesn’t just tell her the mechanics of what is to happen in the near future: he foreshadows the way in which God will send the Holy Spirit on all the followers of Christ.
A wag once said that if the Holy Spirit were withdrawn from the church, then ninety five per cent of all church activity would continue just the same. That may be a trifle unfair, but the point is probably a sound one. We have got so used to running the institution of the church that somewhere along the line many of us have just assumed the presence of the Holy Spirit, rather than lived in active dependence upon him [her?].
So let’s not confine the Holy Spirit to an annual remembrance on the Day of Pentecost. Advent is a time for remembering that the work of the Holy Spirit is three hundred and sixty five days a year, twenty four hours a day. As we celebrate the Annunciation to Mary today, will we recommit ourselves to seeking the power of the Holy Spirit to do the will of God, rather than confining God to the limits of our abilities?
Yes, today is a day to say, ‘God, we give you permission to stretch us. Challenge us to something beyond our capabilities, and we shall rely on your Spirit to accomplish your work.’
Now here’s the point where I want to bring back the fact that Mary asks questions. That might not be what you expected me to highlight when talking about her faith. You might have thought I would have gravitated to those wonderful words of hers, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’ (verse 38). Certainly those are words of faith. Taken on their own, they might depict a serenity of faith to which many of us aspire.
And in contrast to that, some might think that when she questions the angel, saying, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ (verse 34), that those words reflect doubt, lack of faith, or even unbelief.
But I submit to you that Mary’s question is not an act of doubt or unbelief. If you had read Luke’s Gospel from the beginning, you would have come across an example of that, where Zechariah hears the angelic announcement that his wife Elizabeth is to bear a son, John the Baptist. Zechariah’s unbelief leads to his being struck dumb until the child is born.
Gabriel doesn’t react that way here. He gives an explanation in response to Mary’s question. I suggest the difference is because Mary feels secure enough to ask questions from within the framework of faith. Having faith need not mean we don’t have questions. The Old Testament is full of such faith. Read the Psalms, where so many of the Psalmists complain to God from a standpoint of faith. Mary isn’t even complaining, she’s just asking ‘how?’.
What’s the difference between faith with questions and unbelief? That’s in Mary’s willingness to obey. You can question but still obey, and that’s what Mary does.
One hymn I hate and will not choose (not that it’s in any Methodist books any more) is ‘I vow to thee my country‘. I take particular exception to the line, ‘The love that asks no question.’ Not only does the hymn require a devotion to country that outstrips our loyalty to God (whatever the final verse says), I’m not sure I even offer God a ‘love that asks no question’. Certainly Mary didn’t. And there’s no reason why we should, either, just so long as we are willing to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
When I began my career in the Civil Service, I had to spend four weeks away on a training course. I shared accommodation with someone who had a Philosophy degree, and whose dissertation had been written on the subject, ‘Logical disproofs of the existence of God’. Knowing I was a Christian, he asked why I believed in God. But at the end, he made it clear he had no intention of taking it seriously and only did it for a joke. His questions were those of unbelief, not of faith.
Similarly, there are some within the church whose questions can be little more than scorn, rather than honest exploration in the service of Christ. That is hardly a questioning faith.
The key point is that faith has legs. Questions and concerns are fine, just so long as we retain a basic commitment to say ‘yes’ to Christ. Because that’s what a disciple is. Someone who imitates him. That’s going to require a faith that isn’t merely theoretical, but shows itself to be real in obedience. Provided that is at the heart of our faith, we can ask all the questions we need. God is not threatened by them.
Mary, then, is not some unattainable, semi-divine figure. She is a human, vulnerable follower of her Lord. As such, she can be an inspiration to us as we seek to walk in the way of faith.
Like her, let us accept the gracious favour of God to share Christ with the world, and accept the cost we may have to pay.
Like her, let us depend on the Holy Spirit for the accomplishment of all that God wants to do in and through us, rather than continuing to go through the motions.
And like her, let us bring our questions to God and yet press on in the obedience of faith.
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Verse 38)