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A Faith Like Mary's

God entered human history through Mary because she was open to his will and obedient.

It may very well be the story in the Bible. The account was read to you this morning of the angel Gabriel's appearance before a young, Jewish peasant girl no more than 16 years of age. He announced to this girl that she was going to be the mother of the Son of God.

She blushed and wondered aloud how such a thing could be possible, since she was still a virgin and engaged to be married to a man named Joseph. The angel told her that she would be made pregnant by the Holy Spirit. He said, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. . . . For nothing is impossible with God."

Nothing impossible, indeed! Not only would a pregnancy have to be effected, but they were going to have to deal with the grave problem of how Joseph was going to react to the announcement that his fiance was pregnant. Their explanation is that it's because of the Holy Spirit.

According to the law of Moses, adultery was punishable by stoning to death. Even though few adulteresses were actually stoned, all were shamed, as were their children, for the rest of their lives.

But that was God's problem, as far as this exemplary young woman was concerned. All she had to worry about was just doing what God told her to do. So she said to Gabriel, "I'm the Lord's servant. Let it be to me as you have said." That was that.

From one generation to another this little girl has been known as the mother of God, the one who gave birth to Jesus Christ — the one who was fully human and yet fully divine, God's own Son.

I want to ask two questions of this story this morning: What was God doing here, and why did he choose Mary to do it? I'll just spend a few moments on the first question, but I will linger for a while over the second.

God entered human history through human flesh in Jesus Christ.

First, what was God doing here? Well, stated in the barest terms possible, he was entering into human history, into human flesh in Jesus Christ. The child to be born was to be born of woman — fully human. The child was also to be born of God — fully divine. The mystery of Jesus Christ is present at the moment of his conception. He is the G.

Too often we get hung up on the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. How could such a thing happen? We don't see that kind of thing in normal, human experience, but that misses the real point. The miracle of the Virgin Birth rests on a greater and a deeper mystery than that. God enters our plane of existence, and he begins as an infant.

If we're to carry the logic of that to its limit, we must also affirm that God himself stooped to enter at the most basic and primitive human level — an embryo implanted in Mary's uterus.

The miracle of the Virgin Birth rests upon the mystery of the Incarnation. Next to the mystery of the Incarnation, the question of how a virgin could conceive fades into insignificance. That's small stuff. The grand miracle is the mystery that God took on human flesh. When God took on human flesh, he did something that was equivalent to what he did when his Spirit hovered over the watery chaos at the beginning of time and spoke the universe into existence. It was not much different from what he did when his Spirit impregnated a young girl. A new creation was begun.

Jesus Christ was to be the first of a new humanity. That would reverse the process that death began when mankind sinned. I submit to you that next to what God was doing in becoming a human being, the question of how a virgin could give birth is hardly worth asking. The real question is: "How did God do this great miracle and walk among us?"

Why was Mary chosen to do this? When universities want to pick a new president or when churches want to add new staff, the process of selection usually begins (at least in Presbyterian churches) with the formation of a search committee. The first job for a search committee is to take a hard look at the job description and formulate from that a list of the qualifications necessary to get the job done. Then they look for someone who fits those qualifications.

I just outlined for you what God was doing in the Virgin Birth. He was entering human history. He was beginning a new creation — something without precedent. He was going to save the world. Now in view of that job description, what kind of person did he need to launch his great program? When God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit met to decide on the person for the job, what qualities were they looking for? Why did they choose Mary?

I want to suggest to you three qualities in this woman. We Protestants should not be afraid to venerate this great lady. Why was she chosen?

God chose Mary to carry out his plan because of her receptivity.

I think the first reason God choose her was because of her receptivity. Maybe that seems too obvious. Like so many things that are obvious, it can be so basic that it's overlooked. Clearly Mary was receptive. What I find so fascinating about her is that she was not surprised that God was speaking to her or that an angel appeared. It was what he was saying that had her so disturbed.

She wasn't like her Uncle Zechariah, who was terrified at what he saw. Mary seems able to accept what she's seeing. It's what she's hearing that has her off balance: "Mary was greatly troubled at his words, and wondered what kind of greeting this might be." More on that later. The point I want you to get is that Mary was open to be spoken to by God. She was, therefore, also open to bear God's Son in her young body.

Medieval artists were fond of portraying this quality of Mary by depicting the entry of the impregnating Holy Spirit through her ear, not through her sexual organs. The organ of perception is the organ of conception. Her faith is her receptivity to the Word of God, her openness to hear what he would say to her.

And so it must be for those of us who would hear and receive the Word of God. It must be something that happens to us, and all we can do is keep quiet and passively receive it. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth says that Jesus came from above, not below. He comes, and he came, because of God's will and not our own. It is something that you can only open yourself up to.

When we want to get something done, it's our habit to say, "Don't just stand there. Do something."

When God wants to get something done in us, he says, "Don't just do something. Stand there." We cannot make God happen in our lives. We cannot bring new life. We can only receive it. Jesus said the Spirit of God is like the wind that blows where and when it wants to. It cannot be controlled or predicted. The best we can do is to keep our sails spread out to catch broadside the wind of the Spirit when it blows.

I'd like to make a comment here that will probably be misunderstood. So I want to say from the outset this is not the Word of God; this is the word of Ben. But I've long been disturbed over the fact that there are more women who are Christians than there are men. It would appear so, at least in church attendance. We have no absolutely reliable statistics, but it's something like 60 percent of all the people in church this morning across America are women. For the Christian reading public, the Christian Booksellers Association assumes readers are 80 percent women to 20 percent men.

I want to offer a hypothesis this morning. It is my conviction that most men in our culture perceive becoming a Christian as somewhat feminine in nature. And I want to say this morning that I think they're right. Opening yourself to passively receive something not runs counter to every male psyche I know in our culture.

We men compete. We make it happen. The Bible says the Church is the Bride of Christ. In our relationship to God, we men must learn to be feminine in the sense of opening ourselves to receive. How difficult that is for us! Relatively speaking, it is much easier for women.

In George Bernard Shaw's play Saint Joan, Joan of Arc is always hearing voices from God, and the king is angered by this. He complains to her, "Oh, your voices! Your voices! Why don't your voices come to me? I'm the king, not you."

"They do come," she replied. "But you do not hear them. You've not sat in the field in the evening listening for them. When the Angelus rings, you cross yourself and have done with it. But if you prayed from your heart and listened to the trilling of the bells in the air after they stopped ringing, you would hear the voices as well as I do."

Nathaniel Hawthorne described happiness as a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you. And it's like that with the Spirit of God. He is not seized. He is received.

How can we become receptive people? I think it begins, first of all, by asking God to make us that way. Even receptivity is something we cannot make happen for ourselves. It is a gift from God. If you're willing to let God create that grace in your life, then ask him to do it. If you're not sure you're willing, then ask God to make you willing. The point is, the gift of God's Spirit is not something you and I can make happen. The quality of receptivity is something God's Spirit must create in us.

Secondly, if we're to become receptive people, we need to become willing to be interrupted. God will not be scheduled. If your whole life is scheduled like mine is most of the time, you're going to find yourself waiting a long time before you hear God speak to you. God will not be restricted to Sunday morning. If he cannot meet you on his own terms and in his own time, then he will not meet you at all.

This gets very practical. Jesus said we meet God when we meet our neighbor's needs. Jesus said feeding the hungry and clothing the naked is the same as feeding and clothing him. If you have no time to receive your neighbor, you don't have time to receive God. If little children and the lonely housewife next door cannot interrupt you, the chances are God will not interrupt you either.

Third, receptive people have an attitude of expectancy. You can expect God to make himself known. You cannot control how or when he will do it, but you can trust his promise and wait expectantly for him. One of our Lord's favorite expressions was "If you have ears, then hear." Listen; keep your eyes open; expect. When you come to worship, expect God to meet you here.

I read of an active church woman who was asked if her husband was, too. She was embarrassed to say, "I have to confess I'm rather ashamed of my husband. He goes to the Sunday evening service just to make a note of the hymn numbers. They seem to bring him luck in his forecast betting at the dog races." That's not the kind of expectancy I'm talking about.

God chose Mary because of her humility.

God chose Mary because she was receptive. She could be interrupted. How expectant she was! He chose her also because of her humility. You've already seen that her surprise is not so much that she is spoken to by God, but what it is she hears.

Gabriel says "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." That's what troubled Mary. It's that exalted salutation. Why should she be spoken to with those words? Later, when Gabriel explains to her what's going to happen, how she will conceive a child as a virgin at the risk of her reputation and perhaps even her life, she can only respond by saying, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said."

With Mary everything is directed away from herself to what God will do through her and in her. God dwells with the humble and the lowly. That's the promise of Scripture. Psalm 138:6 reads, "Though the Lord is on high, he looks upon the lowly. . . ."In Isaiah 57:15 we read, "For this is what the high and lofty One says — he who lives forever, whose name is holy: 'I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite, and lowly in spirit. . . .' "

Medieval artists often portrayed Mary in stained glass windows. Her pane would be the only one with no color on it. Clear glass. All the other window panes would filter the light of the sun through their own distinctive designs. Mary was clear, unfiltered. There was nothing of herself to affect the light that came through. She could not advance herself and advance the work of God.

What a feminine faith this is! Can anyone know better than a mother what it means to stop advancing yourself? A mother's entire body adjusts itself to the necessities of childbirth. From the moment of conception, her body is no longer her own. There's a letting go of personal sovereignty in the bearing of children that is analogous to the life of God in our lives. It means stepping back and playing second fiddle.

Leonard Bernstein, the celebrated orchestra conductor, was once asked, "What is the hardest instrument to play?"

Without a moment's hesitation he replied, "Second fiddle. I can always get plenty of first violinists. But to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm, or second French horn, or second flute, now that's a problem! And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony."

Musically and spiritually speaking, our life with God is not to be sung in unison. Our life together is not to be sung in unison, but in harmony.

Living as we do in this age of birth control and planned parenthood, can we ever truly imagine what it must have meant for Mary to be told by God that she was blessed with a child not of her own choosing and not in her own time? Could any of us accept that? Only the humble could. Only those who know that they are not their own could be that accepting.

God chose Mary because she was a servant.

All this leads us to the next reason why God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus, his Son. He chose her because she was a servant. She said, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." Mary was the Lord's servant. Her body was not her own. Her reputation was not her own. She was the Lord's servant. Therefore, her future was not her own. Like the servant we read about in Psalm 123, she was saying to God, "As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God...."

In those days servants didn't just go by verbal commands. Good servants so fixed their attention on their master that the slightest gesture would tell them what to do. A slave does not lead; a slave responds. A slave does not advance herself; she advances her master. Mary, the servant, was receptive. Mary, the humble, was first Mary, the slave. Even though she would not have planned any of this for herself, she had received from God the awesome task of bearing in her body his own Son, and she would do it obediently. If you and I are to receive the life of God in our lives, we must obey, even though it may seem the worst thing possible.

Everett Koop, former surgeon general of the United States and a vocal opponent of abortion on demand, tells of a family whose severely handicapped child he delivered and helped to keep alive after birth. He writes, "I asked the child's mother, 'What's the worst thing that ever happened to you?' "

"She said, 'Having our son Paul born with defects that required 37 operations to correct.'

"Then I asked, 'What's the best thing that ever happened to you?'

"She said, 'Having our son Paul born with defects that required 37 operations to correct.' "

Koop goes on to explain: "I know what she means. It's been terribly hard on them, but, through the experience, they've grown enormously as a family. They've had a remarkable spiritual reawakening. One of their sons is now in law school planning to defend the rights of the handicapped. Paul has now had 55 operations, with one more scheduled. Despite the hardships, it's been an overwhelmingly positive experience for them."

I refer to their story not to fire a broadside on the practice of abortion in this society, even though it's deserved. Rather, I'm presenting a paradigm of the kind of servant Mary was when she said to Gabriel, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said."

To receive God's gift of new life may very well mean for you and for me to accept from his hand, as a servant does a task from his master, something that at first may seem unthinkable. The worst thing we could imagine may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to us.

Are you facing a difficulty now — in your marriage, your career, your health? Can you see it as the opportunity to obey God and serve him in a way you never before dreamed? That's the hope that is held out to us in the example of Mary. Because she knows that her future and her body and her reputation are not her own but her Master's, she is free to let go and let God do his miracle in her life.

The most frequently asked question I get as a pastor is, "How do I know the will of God?" There are a lot of ways to answer that question. The best response I can give any of you is to say simply, "Don't worry about God telling you what he wants you to do. God wants us to know his will better than we want to know it. Don't worry about God getting through. Worry instead about whether you will do it when he shows it."

It's our readiness to do as we're told that will make it possible for us to see what it is God wants us to do. It was the servant in Mary that set her apart in the eyes of God and made it possible for him to speak to her as he did. It's the servant in each one of us that will be able to hear the voice of God.

Mary, the receptive. Mary, the humble. Mary, the servant. Like mother, like Son. Or, better: like Son, like mother. Mary is the prototypical disciple. All those who come after her must leam to follow Christ as she did even at the point of his conception. She exemplifies the mystery that God chooses to accomplish his work — his purposes in history — through people. And the paradox of it all is that she can do nothing without God. Without her, God has chosen to do very little himself.

The course of all human history was determined by the choice, the decision, the answer Mary gave. Frederick Buechner's little book of character sketches of people from the Bible has this to say about the angel Gabriel as he encounters Mary: "She struck him as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child. But he had been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. 'You mustn't be afraid, Mary,' he said. As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn't notice that beneath the great golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of Creation hung on the answer of a girl."

In the book, there's a sketch of Gabriel above that brief description. He's viewed from the rear. His hands are behind his back, and his fingers are crossed.

Jesus said that the angels of heaven rejoice when a sinner comes to repentance. That suggests the inhabitants in heaven are keeping a close watch on us, the inhabitants of earth. We are a race under surveillance. All of heaven is standing on its tiptoes to see what you and I will say in response to the call of God on our lives.

The whole future of the world may not hinge on our answers, but who knows?

Certainly our own futures hinge on them. I don't know what God is asking you to do right now, but you know, brothers and sisters. I know you do. May you have the grace to say, "I am the servant of the Lord. May it be to me as you have said."

Ben Patterson is pastor of New Providence Presbyterian Church in New Providence, New Jersey. He holds degrees from LaVerne College and American Baptist Seminary of the West, and his books include: Grand Essentials and Waiting.

Ben Patterson

Preaching Today Tape # 87


A resource of Christianity Today International

K I capitalized this because w/o the caps it was underlined in green; however, in the CTI style book this term was not listed as one to capitalize under the capitalization section; what is your opinion?

Ben Patterson is campus pastor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, and author of God's Prayer Book: Praying the Psalms (Tyndale House).

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Sermon Outline:


Mary did not resist the news that she would birth Jesus; as God?s servant, she was solely concerned with doing what he wished.

I. What was God doing here?

II. Why did God choose Mary? Because of her receptivity.

III. Why did God choose Mary? Because of her humility.

IV. Why did God choose Mary? Because she was a servant.


The course of all human history relied on the answer that Mary gave and the decision she made, just as the future of the world may rely on our answers to the call of God on our lives.