One day in January before sunrise, about 4 in the morning, while our neighborhood is totally quiet, we’re going to hear people out in the street. Our bedroom overlooks the sidewalk, so they’ll probably wake us up. They’ll draw near our house, go under our window and then pass by to walk up and down the streets, talking as they go. Pretty soon we’ll make out that they’re praying the Hail Mary:
The leader will say: Dios te salve María, llena de gracia, el Señor está contigo, bendita eres entre las mujeres y bendito el fruto de tu vientre, Jesús.
The group will respond: Santa María, madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte.
They’ll be dedicating our neighborhood to the Virgin Mary for the following year.
Then later, in August, there will be a pilgrimage of people who will walk from our town, San José, Costa Rica, about 15 miles to another city, where there’s a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Some will have walked hundreds of miles. They go every year. One time they estimated that 1.5 million made the walk. Whole highways will be given over to them. The country shuts down.
Some treat the Virgin Mary in a distorted way, certainly. But on the other hand, Mary is typically neglected by evangelical Christians. How should we establish our doctrine? We don’t do so by looking around at what others are doing, others with whom we disagree; and then do the exact opposite and assume that that is God’s way. No, the Bible directs us to learn from Mary, as from a fellow disciple, in the same way that we might learn from Peter, Timothy, Paul or Barnabas. We can learn much from the way she responded in faith, taking God’s Word the Bible, and then God’s message through the angel, and making it her own.
According to Luke 1:26-45, Mary’s faith exists on several levels. First she says, I know from the Bible that God is the kind of God who defends and vindicates and blesses Israel. They she affirms that, God defends people like me. And then she has faith in the deepest, most authentic sense: the Spirit shows me that’s what God is doing right now. You see, that’s what true faith is all about. It’s not just affirming that “I know God can help people” – that is not FAITH or TRUST IN GOD. But true faith is the kind that Mary experienced: “I know the truth of the Bible, and that it means that he can help ME, and I’m going to seek him out”. She says that “He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant”, that is, of Mary herself. The NLT version is excellent: “For he took notice of his lowly servant girl”. God helps nobodies like me, and in fact, God helps me, Mary.
Let’s hear Mary’s story:
She was engaged – contractually betrothed, in a binding legal contract – but not yet married. That puts her at about 12 or maybe 13 years old. Boys that age would already be working on the farm or fishing or woodworking and quickly making themselves valuable. But girls of the same age were thought to be a loss economically, so the parents tried to marry them off as quickly as they could biologically bear children.
Mary was engaged to a carpenter, or better, a general contractor or jack of all trades. They were not destitute, but neither was Mary high up in society. She wouldn’t have been in the 1st-century equivalent of People magazine. She didn’t have nice clothes, or go to parties. She couldn’t ask her Daddy for this and that. She didn’t spend her summers on the Mediterranean, like the rich girls did. She was just Mary, María from the neighborhood.
Of course she dreamed of her wedding and her future husband. But when she got married, what did she have to look forward to? According to custom, she’d be moving in with Joseph’s family. She’d be under the authority of her mother-in-law. She’d do a lot of work, even before she had a baby: tending animals; grinding grain with a heavy stone mortar and pestle; cooking bread like pita bread over an outdoor fire or boiling stews. She would sew and mend clothes. She would haul water from the well. Can you imagine young Mary hauling a 40 pound jar of water on her head? This is why the boys were encouraged, don’t just marry a cute face, get a wife with a strong back!
That and Mary could look forward to having a baby every couple of years. Because of the dangers in bearing children, the life expectancy of a married woman was about 30 years old. Women died giving birth all the time. Every pregnancy was potentially life-threatening.
In Luke 1:26 it says that “an angel was sent to a city of Galilee, named Nazareth” (NKJV). This is not a city by any modern standard; the NIV has “town,” but “village” is even better. The population of Nazareth in Israel today is about 60,000; in the time of Mary it held maybe 200. Think of a Walmart – you could have fit the whole town in its parking lot. Can you imagine what it would be like in that society to turn up pregnant and unmarried? Can you imagine how ferocious would be the small-town gossip?
We know from elsewhere that people from Galilee had a strong country accent, so when Mary went to the big city she sounded like a hick. In every respect, Mary was the “low man on the totem pole”: a person with no power, no vote, and little influence even within her family.
What kind of government did she live under? The Roman system wasn’t the cruelest possible. On the other hand, they was about to force her and Joseph to register in Bethlehem. A 9-months pregnant 13-year-old would ride a donkey for many days. It was 80 miles in each direction.
What kind of encouragement did her faith get? She would have attended synagogue, but the rabbis would not have taught a girl. Mary was almost certainly illiterate, but the only Bible she saw would be in the synagogue, and what she knew of it she knew from hearing and repeating it. In cultures like that, people worked harder at developing their ability to memorize. Probably she learned the Bible from her mother or some other woman of the village. That makes what she says in Luke 1:46 so striking, because it is saturated with Bible language from the Old Testament.
Her praise is called the Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)
The first part echoes the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel, as she prays for a son:
1 Sam 27:7 – The LORD makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up. 8 He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, To set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory.
But she also reflects the teaching of other passages:
Ps 18:27 (NLT) You rescue the humble, but you humiliate the proud.
Isa 57:15 (NLT paraphrased) The high and lofty one who lives in eternity, the Holy One, says this: “I live in the high and holy place and with those whose spirits are contrite and humble. I restore the crushed spirit of the humble and revive the courage of those with repentant hearts.”
This is a theme that is repeated throughout the Old and then New Testaments, the Great Reversal: in God’s kingdom, the exalted are humbled, the humble are exalted. But wait – Mary’s Son, Jesus, teaches the same thing:
Luke 6:20 Then He lifted up His eyes toward His disciples, and said: “Blessed are you poor, For yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now, For you shall be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, For you shall laugh. 22 Blessed are you when men hate you, And when they exclude you, And revile you, and cast out your name as evil, For the Son of Man’s sake. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! For indeed your reward is great in heaven, For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets. 24 “But woe to you who are rich, For you have received your consolation. 25 Woe to you who are full, For you shall hunger. Woe to you who laugh now, For you shall mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when all men speak well of you, For so did their fathers to the false prophets.
He’s not saying there’s some sort of virtue in being poor or weak; he’s saying that despite being these things, God will take special notice of you.
And the Apostles teach the same message!
1 Corinthians 1:27, 28: God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. 28 God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important.
1 Pet 5:5 – God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
James 1:9 Let the lowly brother or sister glory in their exaltation
These are the rules in God’s kingdom. Mary is blessed, not because she’s the Queen of Heaven, but because God decided to show her favor. She seems to have wavered in her faith during the earthly ministry of Jesus, but then she comes around: Acts 1:9-11 tells of the ascension of Jesus to heaven after his resurrection; then…
13 they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James. 14 These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.
And so Mary is our fellow disciple. And her faith teaches us that, “I know the truth of the Bible, and that it means that he can help ME, and I’m going to seek him out.” This Christmas, let’s take Mary’s good example, and seek the Holy Spirit so that we might read the Bible into our own lives and internalize it and make it our own.
How can we make today’s passage a part of ourselves? First, Mary’s story can encourage us and lift us up Maybe you can relate to her experience today: no power; not in a place to make decisions about things that affect you. You feel at the mercy of forces stronger than you. Being involved in politics is good: but you cannot depend on politics, whether liberal or conservative as your savior You would like some financial stability: I don’t need to be rich, I just wish I had some assurance that I’ll keep my house; that my kids will have a better opportunities than I, or at least as good; that when I retire, Social Security won’t collapse, or my pension fund. Working hard; making an honest living; planning ahead, all are good: but your vindication won’t come through money, but through trust in God.
Second, her story might challenge us to rethink our position in the world. I’ve preached on this text in Costa Rica, at a wealthy Baptist church; beautiful building, great equipment, sound system – everything first-rate. Down the hill from the church, in its very shadow, is a village, a cluster of houses. To get to the church you pass through it: stray dogs are lying in the street; the road is barely passable; families sit outside and stare at you as you go by. I told the church: Listen: when the angel went to Mary, he didn’t meet her in a nice church, he visited her in a village like that one.
What if we happen to fall into the categories of the relatively satisfied, relatively comfortable financially, relatively well-placed? “OH, I’m not rich,” you think, “especially during this recession!” Very well; but, if you have a roof over your head, and three meals a day, you’re ahead of most people around the world. If you have clean drinking water, you are ahead of the billion people who do not. If you can read and write, you’re way ahead of most Afghans. In India, according to UNICEF, there are over 100 million children out of school. If you can read the Bible in your own language, you’re way ahead. We can buy corn, here we get excellent New Jersey or Pennsylvania corn. We have so much that we converting it to ethanol and put it in our gas tanks. Meanwhile, in Mexico where people survive on corn tortillas, the price has gone up in the last few years, and there have been “corn riots”.
What does it mean then in Luke 1:53 – He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty? If we are going to apply the Bible to ourselves, we need to listen to this:
“In order to understand this song of praise, we need to bear in mind that Mary is speaking on the basis of her own experience, in which she was enlightened and instructed by the Holy Spirit. No one can correctly understand God or his Word unless he or she has received such understanding directly from the Holy Spirit…When Mary experienced what great things God was working in her despite her insignificance, lowliness, poverty, and inferiority, the Holy Spirit taught her this deep insight and wisdom, that God is the kind of Lord who exalts the humble and puts down the mighty from their thrones, in short, he smashes what is whole and make whole what is broken.”
So said Martin Luther (paraphrased) about our passage. You only get that insight through the Spirit teaching you. Commentaries are good, using several Bible translations, excellent, software – but there is no human way on earth for you to grow in your confidence in God unless you seek it and find it from the Spirit. That’s what Mary’s experience shows us.
We close with this word from Luke 2, later on when Jesus had been born, and the angels appeared to the shepherds, “a savior, who is Christ the Lord”:
16 The [shepherds] hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often.
“Mary’s Magnificat, Luke 1,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica