I never know what to do with Mary. I'm in good company: The archives of history and the echoes of ancient sermons never quite knew what to make of her, either. She has been venerated in shrines, prayed to—worshipped, even. Botticelli, Cassatt, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Bellini, Caravaggio, Dalí, and thousands of artists have imagined her on canvas.
For some traditions, Mary is an afterthought: a means to an end. She is rarely discussed other than to occupy a figure in the set-up of the annual crèche, where she occupies her demure place in Biblical history.
The dominant understanding of Mary is as a young woman who played the noble role of giving birth to Jesus. She's most often represented as poised, quiet, and responsive. She does her duty alongside Joseph and then fades to the background.
If we pause the traditional narrative for a moment and sit with the context of her story, we discover that no one in all of human history has had the sort of divine interruption that Mary faced and experienced. To be sure, the pillars of Biblical faith like Abraham and Moses found their lives divinely interrupted. If we walk faithfully through the pages of Scripture, we find story after story of God's work in the lives of people. That work interrupts and startles almost every time. But none held the Son of the living God in the way Mary did.
Luke 1 tells us that Mary found favor with God.
(Read Luke 1:28-30.)
What does it mean to be "favored"? I have favorite snack foods and movies, favorite sweatshirts, favorite sports teams and seasons of the year. But that's not the same as having God's favor. Mary is about to become very "un-favored" in the eyes of her community. A betrothed teenager who was pregnant before her wedding date was not exactly a woman who found great favor in her community: same then as today. Whispers of scandal and disdain ensued. But the angel visits her and says not once, but twice, that she has found favor with God.
At first, the phrase creates anxiety. Mary is a devout Jewish woman; she likely knew the weight of the word "favor" and, as anyone humble enough might do, is wondering how in the world she falls into that category. The very people who deserve it are the least likely to assume it. I invited a friend to serve in ministry years ago, and her response was similar to Mary's. She said to me, "Why did you ask me to help? I'm nobody who should be talking about faith. I don't know much, and I've got so far to go in life. I don't deserve this chance." Which, I then told her, was exactly why she should be serving in ministry.
To have found favor is to have found grace with God. It is to gain approval, acceptance, or blessing. In the New Testament, the word "grace" shares the same root as "favor." Moses, Noah, Joseph, Samuel, and Jesus (at age 12) are said to have received the favor of God. We are told in Genesis that God looked upon Abel's offering with favor (Gen. 4:4). Later in the Gospel of Luke (4:19), when Jesus begins his public ministry, we read that he has come to "proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
God extends his favor to those who have lived generous, humble, God-honoring lives. To receive the favor of God means one is in a posture of worship and a position of humility and grace. Mary lived in this space.
Today I'd like to explore four moments that helped Mary live out God's risky calling on her life: Mary's fear, Mary's response, Mary's question, and Mary's song.
In Jewish culture at the time, Mary and Joseph were already legally bound. On the wedding day, they would seal the deal sexually—but other than that, they were married. In our culture, an engagement is not legally binding. You can break off an engagement without a legal scuffle. Not so at this time: They were legally connected. Mary was very young—the right age for an engagement at this time would have been 13 to 16 (late middle school to early high school today). Mary is from a dirty, nothing town in the sticks, called "Nazareth": an often-despised place of little note. No one really knew or cared about Nazareth. I imagine it a bit like the small towns that dot our interstates. Cars race by, stop for gas and a snack, then keep on going. It was a speck on the map, impoverished and insignificant.
The angel basically says to this young girl from nowhere, "Even though you are not married and still a virgin, you are going to give birth to the savior of the world. The Jewish Messiah that your people are all waiting for? Him. You, an unknown girl from an unknown place, will do this very thing, and it is going to interrupt your life and mess with your plans. It is going to wreck your peace and your sleep and your friendships, and every inch of your world is going to change but you, Mary. You are the one that is going to do this. His name is going to be Jesus, and one day he will sit on the throne of God and rule forever."
Jerusha Matsen Neal writes, "I know why Mary's afraid. It's not that the angel isn't coming. It's that he's already there … right here in this quiet space … waiting for an answer."
Mary nods her head in consent."I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May your word to me be fulfilled" (Luke 1:38).
When we consider Mary as the quiet sidebar to the story of Jesus, we miss the power of her response to God. Mary's "yes" was not muffled consent that led her to a joyful pregnancy, filled with adoring friends and sweet baby showers. Her life instantly became a cascade of gossip and drama—and her very decision to say "yes" was met with the threat of death. A woman pregnant before the wedding was assumed to be an adulteress. Scot McKnight points out that at this time, if a suspected adulteress maintained her innocence—as Mary would have done—she would be taken to a public place (perhaps the gate to the city), her clothing would be torn, and her hair let down (which was how prostitutes at that time wore their hair). She would be left there to be mocked and open to public humiliation. The cultural expectation was that passersby would mock and humiliate her to make a public example of her. In Deuteronomy 22, the penalty, if she was taken as an adulteress, could be death by stoning. Mary's "yes" to God came with great risk … as a "yes" to God often does.
Joseph backed down from these and other expected legal proceedings of the time. Joseph could have abandoned ship and left Mary poor, unwed, and with a child who (according to Deuteronomy 23) could be mocked and excluded from certain assemblies in their culture. Mary's "yes" forced Joseph to make some hard decisions as well.
What were the odds that her devout Jewish husband would abandon the custom of shaming a suspected adulteress? What were the odds that her community would forgive this? What were the odds that she would get any semblance of life after this? After all, it's not like the angel said to her, "All will be well after this goes down." Or, "Do this, and I will secure you a healthy retirement fund, a safe place to live, and a condo in Naples."
There was great power in her "yes."
Mary knew the story of her people, God's people, and the way God took care of his people—and in particular, the women who came before her. Women like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba.
While she knew her situation was dire, she also worshipped a God who cared for his people as they faced dire circumstances. God does not promise relief from trouble, but he promises his presence in times of trouble. Mary worshipped this God and could say "yes" with great confidence in that God.
Have you ever felt like God was nudging you toward something? A moment you cannot shake, a person you cannot erase from your mind, a situation you cannot skirt? There are stories that seem to haunt our dreams, turmoil and stress we cannot avoid, people we don't seek out who find us. In these moments, God is moving us, opening our eyes and our lives to people and places we never knew. God is trying to get our attention. God is trying to give us our moment.
When God suggests something hard for me, I balk. "Really, you have no idea how complicated this is going to be for me, God. How about we pray this through just a bit more? I need a bit more time to sort this out. Do you need an answer today, God?"
Really, God—do you want me to curb my angry, narcissistic tendencies and truly extend your love and grace to others?
Really, God—do you want my family to move from a comfortable, homogenous community to a struggling, diverse one so we can truly start to understand what justice and community mean?
Really, God—do you want me to end my relationships with certain people so I can pursue better, more honest ones with others? I like these folks; they validate my behaviors, and they don't ask hard questions.
Really, God—you have no idea how hard it would be to break my addictions. I cannot say "may it be so" to you because you really have no clue what it is like to live without my vices.
Really, God—if I say "yes" to your interruptions, my friends will mock me and maybe even cease to be my friends. My life will change, and you just have no idea what that would be like.
Really, God—you want me to speak truth and justice and risk reputation and posture?
Really, God—you want me to downsize rather than move up?
Phillip Yancey says that "often a work of God comes with two edges, great joy and great pain, and in that matter-of-fact response Mary embraced both. She was the first person to accept Jesus on his own terms, regardless of the personal cost."
After all this, after her fear and her "yes," she breaks into song (Luke 1:46-55). I'd be running for cover, calling my people, trying to prepare for the onslaught of life after a moment like this— but Mary? Mary breaks into song.
It's one of the most famous songs in history: a revolutionary cry, a song so controversial it was banned in Guatemala in the '80s because it was considered politically subversive. Young, scared, faithful Mary sang that subversive of a song? "My soul glorifies the Lord," she says (Luke 1:46). We call her song "the Magnificat." The first words of this song come from the Latin word for "magnify."
The Magnificat is a song of revolution and of power. It is a song of strength in the face of injustice. As if Mary was not in enough trouble, she bursts into a revolutionary cry. Mary bursts into song because not only has God interrupted her life, but God plans to interrupt darkness, injustice, and poverty. God plans to redeem all the broken shards of life that are scattered across this dark world. This God whose favor rests upon her, this God whose love empowers her, this God who chose to use her: This God is going to turn the entire planet upside down and shake it to his glory.
Anyone listening to her song at this time would have known her words were aimed at Herod. Herod, the ruler of that day, later hears that a baby king has been born and orders the slaughter of children under two years of age. At the mere whiff of a challenge to his authority, he responds with mass murder. What would he have done after hearing the words to Mary's song? In a culture where freedom of speech was not welcome, and death was the penalty for disagreeing with leadership, Mary's song was jarring. Scot McKnight says that for Mary's world, the Magnificat was what "We Shall Overcome" was to the African-American community in the '60s and '70s here in the United States.
Notice how Mary is so confident of God's promises to right the broken world she lived in that she put all the verbs in this song in past tense. God's interruption in Mary's life took her fear, favor, and her "yes." Through her, God brought his Son into this world. Through God's interruption, Mary brought God's change to the world.
What about us? What about you and I? How is God interrupting our lives?
God interrupted Mary's very life and her physical body.
God interrupted evil through Mary's song.
God interrupted the very world though Jesus.
Interruptions are frustrating, to say the least. We bristle when people interrupt our thoughts or our words. Parents shush children who interrupt them while they're on the phone. We struggle with the uninvited stranger who becomes a guest. We pace when our Internet, power, water, or cable service is interrupted. We can barely handle an interruption in our daily routines—so how, then, can we manage to say "yes" to a life of interruptions from God?
Whenever and however God is interrupting you, it helps to look at the example of Mary to find the strength to respond.
1. Find God's favor. Live your life in such a way that God actually chooses to use you to interrupt the brokenness of this world. Are you living a life of faith, humility, wisdom, and grace? Are you known for your patience and perseverance and love toward others? If not, put yourself in the presence of God. Study God's Word. Pray. Be a person who dwells with God and who knows God in such an intimate way that God will choose to do divine work through you. Live your life in a way that you find God's favor.
2. Admit your fear. Mary admitted her fear—there is no shame in admitting fear. Our dominant culture teaches us to shirk and avoid fear. We may have been taught that fear is a sign of weakness. But fear is honest. Fear is real. And fear needs to be admitted and dealt with and faced. Mary faced her fears and took stock of what was at risk when she said "yes" to the angel and later when she sang the Magnificat.
She also had a place to process her fear. In her enduring friendship with Elizabeth (Luke 1:56), she had a place to process her fear and face it. Find a community that can pray for you, process with you, and stand with you. Admit that the things of God are scary, because they mess with our routine, they mess with our lives, and they ask us to change—and change is scary. Admit and process your fear.
3. Say "yes." Ultimately, we have a decision to make. Do we say "yes" to what God is asking us to do with our lives, or do we ignore his interruptions and invitations? Christians stand in a long line of tradition in which people have said "yes" to God. The saints and the martyrs throughout history and the legacy of biblical characters give us tremendous confidence that our "yes" will not be wasted. Our "yes" will not be easy, and for some, it will lead to places of pain and challenge we never imagined existed. But we go there with God, and his peace and presence go before and after us. So let us say "yes."
4. Sing the song. Let us sing our own song of what God has done and will do. This means we must tell the story of our fear and our "yes." As Christians, we have the great blessing of telling the story of our lives and God's work in our lives. So when the hard moments come and the justice of God begins to roll down, let us tell the good story. Let us tell the gospel news. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior to all.
Learning to ski is an exhausting task. Beginners fall endlessly, and after just a few hours of trying to stay upright, they find themselves beyond tired.
Beginners are often told to use a tow rope to get up the bunny hill. The tow rope is a cruel joke. It's meant to pull beginners up the hill with ease, to help them avoid getting on and off the chair lift (another daunting task). But instead, the tow rope can be a source of even greater exhaustion and embarrassment. As you grab onto the rope, all you need to do is face forward and let the rope pull you up the hill. Seems like a fine idea—until you hit a bump or a groove and lose your balance.
Skiers on the tow rope bobble and waver; they try desperately to stay upright and then, eventually, they fall. Determined, they often refuse to let go. Arms outstretched, skis dragging behind, they hang on. Their gloves might rip, their skis might pop off. Onlookers often holler, "Just let go! Just let go!" With great fear in their eyes, they look over at the line of people watching them and they just hang on. Their faces collecting snow like a plow, they keep at it. It's rare to see the tenacity and commitment to a cause that you see on a beginner slope on a ski hill.
Our faith lives are like this. When God interrupts us, when we find the purpose we have been called to chase after, we hang on like this. We face the fear, the culture, the onlookers, the naysayers, and we hang tight. Annie Dillard once wrote, "I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you."
This is what it means to let God interrupt our lives. Like Mary's story, it means we will have to commit to the cause, to hang onto the rope of faith regardless of how it pulls and drags us. God asks us to grasp his true purpose for us and hold tight. "Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love" (1 Cor. 16:13-14).
Tracey Bianchi is the Worship & Teaching Pastor at Christ Church of Oak Brook, Illinois. She's also a freelance writer and speaker (traceybianchi.com).