By Dick McClain
Growing up, I don’t recall having heard a sermon on Mary, the mother of Jesus. She did get dusted off every December for the Christmas pageant. But apart from her annual appearance reincarnated in the form of a budding young thespian, she hardly existed. Perhaps the folks in my evangelical Protestant circle felt that the Catholics went a little too far.
While I’ve never been accused of tilting toward Rome, somewhere along the line I began to suspect that we were being robbed by our silence about Mary. After all, the woman God chose to become the mother of our Lord just might have something to say to us today.
Which brings up another point. Not only did I not hear much about Mary; I didn’t hear much about any of the women of the Bible. When they were presented, it was only in the context of their being a model for women, never for men. The implication was that the male heroes of the faith – Moses, Joshua, David, Peter, and all the rest – were role models for all Christians, men and women alike. But the female heroes of the Bible – Deborah, Naomi, Ruth, and Priscilla – were only models of Christian womanhood.
I ditched that idea.
All of this leads me to suggest two things. First, Mary’s life is worth studying and emulating. Secondly, she is a good model for my entire family, both male and female.
In the first two chapters of Luke, there are fascinating insights into the quality of Mary’s life and faith. Her godliness was evident in a number of traits that we would do well to pattern.
Faith in God. Who comes to mind when you think of biblical examples of faith? I’ll bet you immediately thought of Abraham. Not a bad pick, considering the fact that he believed some rather unbelievable things God told him. But have you thought about the message Gabriel brought to Mary?
Mary was a teenage girl from a poor family who lived in an obscure village in a tiny nation which itself was under subjection to a foreign power. One day an angel came to her with a message from God.
She had found favor with God; she would give birth to a Son whom she was to name Jesus; her baby would be called the Son of the Most High and would sit on David’s throne forever; his kingdom would never end; and all this was going to happen without her ever having sexual relations with a man.
Now, be honest. Would you have believed that?
The remarkable thing is that Mary did! In fact, her cousin, Elizabeth, greeted her as “She who believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished” (Luke 1:45).
That’s real faith! She was willing to take God at his word, even when what he said didn’t square with anything her experience told her to be true. We too must choose to believe God if we are to be godly people.
A surrendered life. Perhaps you have read Mary’s story, sensed the unparalleled excitement of what she was experiencing, tried to put yourself in her place, and concluded, “Wouldn’t it have been glorious to be Mary!”
But stop and think about it. How could she tell Joseph, to whom she was already legally betrothed? Although they had not yet begun living together, they were considered married and could be separated only through divorce. Don’t you think the prospect of suspicion flashed through her mind? It must have. Under similar circumstances, most of us would have asked the Lord to find someone else to do the job.
But not Mary. Her answer to the angel was a model of submission. “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).
Why was she so ready to submit? Because she understood herself to be God’s servant. Maybe the reason we are so prone to resist God is that we see him as our servant. We’ve got it backwards. We need to come to see, as Mary did, that God is God and not just some spiritual genie that we hope will magically fulfill our every whim.
A life of unassuming humility. One thing about Mary in those Christmas pageants that always struck me was her willingness to go without complaint to the stable.
Not me! If I had been Mary, I probably would have said, “Listen here, buster! This baby I’m about to have is no ordinary child. He is God’s Son and your King. We deserve better than this!”
In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20). Mary was poor. We know that because of the sacrifice she and Joseph offered when they presented Jesus at the temple. Since they fell below the poverty line, they qualified to give a pair of doves or two young pigeons, rather than bringing the customary lamb (see Luke 2:24 and Leviticus 12:8).
I don’t buy into the notion that God loves poor people and hates rich folks, or that the impoverished are constitutionally spiritual, while the wealthy are hopelessly ungodly. But I do know that amidst our affluence we have adopted an inflated sense of our own importance, rights, and prerogatives. Consequently, we have concluded that the world owes us a lot; other people owe us a lot; and God also owes us a lot. We have a bad case of inflated expectations.
The answer is not quitting our jobs and signing up for welfare. But if we are serious about godliness, we, like Mary, must relinquish our rights, surrender our demands, and accept whatever God gives.
Faithfulness in spiritual disciplines. Unlike many people today, Mary didn’t treat spiritual things casually.
When it came time to present Jesus at the temple, Joseph and Mary headed for Jerusalem (Luke 2:22). Only after they “had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord” did they return home (2:39). And when Passover season came, they went up to Jerusalem “every year” (2:41).
The implication is that Mary wasn’t one to shirk her spiritual responsibilities. It’s easy for us to neglect spiritual disciplines. Average annual worship attendance in the United Methodist Church typically limps along at less than half the membership. Many Christians would recoil at the suggestion that we should actually part with 10 percent of our income. I’m reminded of a cartoon that pictured a church sign that read: “The Original Lite Church: Home of the 3 Percent Tithe and the 45 Minute Worship Hour – 50 Percent Less Commitment Required.”
Sincerely godly people don’t neglect the Word or worship, prayer or tithing. They don’t treat spiritual disciplines cavalierly.
Spiritual sensitivity. Read Mary’s song, recorded in Luke 1:46-55. It’s more than magnificent. It is the overflow of a heart that was accustomed to communion with God.
How did Mary come to be so spiritually alert? Luke gives us a clue.
Following the shepherds’ visit, we are told that Mary “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (2:19). And when Mary and her family returned to Nazareth from their trip to Jerusalem for Passover when Jesus was twelve, we read that she “treasured all these things in her heart” (2:51).
Mary managed to carve time out of her busy life to ponder the deeper significance of what was taking place. She took time to pray, to meditate, and to reflect on what God was doing.
Most of us do not decide one day that we don’t want to be in tune with God. We don’t decide not to pray. We just let the priceless treasure of communion with God slip unnoticed through our fingers.
Spiritual sensitivity is not inherited, it is acquired through spending time with God. To borrow Terry Teykl’s phrase, Mary “prayed the price.” If we want to experience true godliness, we must do the same.
In trusting God, surrendering her life, giving up her rights, and learning to listen to the Spirit, Mary set an example for us all to follow.
Was she a super saint? No. Did she demonstrate sinless perfection? Not likely. But a devoted follower of God? You can be sure of it.
We can be the same.