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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko


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4th Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:26-38

The Best Supporting Character


THE CHRISTMAS PLAY

With the advent of Christmas, the church reenacts the greatest drama ever played on the stage of history. There is only one star but it is not a one-person show. The cast of characters, includes many outstanding men and women as well as, ....a few real characters. Some play major roles-Herod, Zechariah and Elizabeth and the angels. Others just have bit parts-the shepherds and wise men. All perform brilliantly according to the script. They all deserve special recognition. Yet, which one would you single out and nominate for the best supporting character. If we listened to our hearts, we would have to choose Mary, the mother of Jesus and the physician Luke would endorse our vote. The mother of our Lord has a special place in Luke's account of the redemptive story. This is consistent with his entire gospel.

Luke devotes more attention to the role of women than the other three writers do. He presents their faith and their character. Next week we will read about how God revealed his plans to both Simeon and Anna.. From Luke we learn that wealthy widows provided financial support to Jesus throughout his ministry. From his account, we gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the inclusive dimension of God's love. A love that is so vast, so incredible, so attractive that it was offered to anyone and everyone, male and female. But Mary has a special place in the heart of the physician and also in the life of the church.

The early church fathers claimed within a generation after her death that she had remained a virgin all her life. They argued that the references in the gospel accounts to the brothers and sisters of Jesus were really his cousins or Joseph's children from a previous marriage. In the Protestant church the claim of her virginity is defended only till the birth of Jesus after which she bore James, Joses, Judas, Simon and unnamed daughters.

Her importance in Christian doctrine grew slowly. She was not given the title theotokos, "God bearer" or took on the role as a compassionate intercessor to whom believers could pray until the fourth century. Yet, today she is the most venerated woman in history. While we may be reluctant to say our prayers to her, and genuflect before her statue, we can learn a great deal about the life of faith from her example.1

JUST AN ORDINARY GIRL

The gospel story opens with Zechariah and Elizabeth but the reader's attention quickly shifts to Mary in Act I Scene II. It is six months after the angel appeared to Zechariah with the announcement that his wife would bear a son in her old age. Although Elizabeth is pregnant Mary has probably not yet been told. Unaware of the events that were unfolding around her and not cognizant of the pending tidal wave the angel comes to Mary unexpectedly.

We do not know the day, the hour or the occasion. Nor do we know what Mary was doing at the time of the angelic appearance. She may have been awake or asleep. She may have been doing her normal duties. She may have been walking alone down an isolated path in the early morning before the break of day. Those elements of the story are not important. Their absence reminds us that mystical encounters with the divine can not be earned, duplicated, or imitated. They are not normal occurrences, nor merit badges for the super spiritual nor rewards for the devoted. Unfortunately most children's storybooks prefer to present a different image. I remember reading in one book the narrative actually saying that the reason Mary was selected was because she was the most righteous woman in all of Nazareth. She may have been but neither the angel nor Luke provides us with any evidence to support that notion. Mary's own response even rejects that suggestion. Luke records that she was "deeply troubled" by the angels words because she did not believe that she was worthy to receive the honor of an angelic vision. She was only one girl among many but God chose her. There was once a day when Mary was just an ordinary girl living an ordinary life in a very ordinary town. Yet God called her to fulfill a very extraordinary role with an extraordinary vision.

THE SUPERNATURAL GOSPEL

Dreams, visions, healing and mystical experiences are prominently recorded in both the gospel of Luke and its sequel, Acts. This is quite striking when we consider Luke's occupation. Once there was no place in Luke's worldview for the supernatural. As a physician, he had been trained to rely on his senses, to only put his trust in wisdom and the material world. But at some point in time, Luke had an encounter with the Living God that transformed him. The God that was once distant invaded the life of the doctor through the supernatural presence of the Spirit. Luke witnessed the dynamic force of God in the lives of believers to transform lives, heal the sick and even raise the dead. Luke also discovered the God that was once mute spoke to believers through dreams, visions and revelation. The rational physician became a mystic.

This revelation was so life changing for Luke that he made it a distinguishing feature of his gospel. He includes more accounts of dreams, visions and supernatural healings than any other writer does. He wants to open our eyes to the supernatural dimension of the spiritual world. He wants the reader to know that God still speaks. Mary's vision is not just a past event of history. God continues to lead and guide his people through mystical experiences. We do not earn them, nor can we replicate them but Luke may have recorded Mary's encounter to encourage us to expect God's supernatural revelations.

After appearing the angel must have sensed her initial fear because he offers additional words of reassurance.

Do not be afraid!

These are the same words Gabriel spoke to the priest Zechariah several months earlier. Fear is a common response to divine presence. Supernatural revelations by definition are neither common nor ordinary. They are stunning mind boggling events that can not be explained, understand or duplicated. However, Mary had no cause to fear. God was gracious and intended no harm. Yet, God was calling her to fulfill a very unique and important role in redemptive history. She was to become the mother of God.

INQUISITIVE BUT NEVER DOUBTFUL

Mary's initial response is a study in contrast to Zechariah the priest. When Gabriel appeared before Zechariah the old priest asked, "How can I be sure?" Those are the words of unbelief. News of the birth of a son was so incredible that he questioned whether the event was even possible. He insisted on a sign, some tangible proof that God was going to fulfill his promise. Mary asks how not out of a doubtful spirit but from an inquisitive nature.

She does not waver in her belief that God can accomplish his purposes, she simply wants to know the how he intends to do it. She begins from a position of faith not skepticism and readily accepts the angel's answer. Her faith has an interesting twist of irony when compared to our age.

Conception without the involvement of a partner was beyond the realm of possibility in Mary's day. Yet, she believed. In recent years, scientist have worked diligently to perfect artificial insemination, cloning and other obstetrical procedures to ensure the healthy development of the fetus outside of the womb. Yet, modern man struggles to believe in the possibility of an immaculate conception and virgin birth. Why do we praise the ingenuity of the scientist and stumble over the divine creativity? Surely the Creator is greater than the creation.

From Mary's inquisitive spirit we learn more about one of the deepest mysterious of the faith.

GOD NEVER ASKED HER PERMISSION

Throughout Biblical history one common theme is repeated whenever God calls someone for a special ministry-submission. God never asks for our permission. Somewhere between vocational interest surveys, temperament type indicators and career assessment profiles we have lost both the sense of divine calling and humble submission. Vocational planning has adapted to the social scientific mindset that minimizes mystical experiences and promotes freedom of choices. Young people select their career options by matching their personality inventories to the potential financial rewards of a given career. At the dawn of the second millennium God appears to reveal his calling more often through a paycheck than an angelic revelation.

This attitude influences our decisions each and every day. We pray on Sunday morning "thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" but than fanatically strive to make our dreams and plans realized. We set our yearly goals and then asked God to bless our self appointed plans. Mary stands as a prophetic witness reminding us that God has a plan for our lives. He does not ask our permission and he does expect our submission.
In an age of individual autonomy and self-expression this is an uncomfortable message. "Obedience does not square with the ideal of liberation..."2 This generation pursues self-fulfillment with an insatiable thirst. We are told to assert ourselves, to seize our rights. Mary's response is viewed with scorn, as a denial of self that causes her to sacrifice her own unique identity. St Augustine offered a rebuttal "All strength is in humility, because all pride is fragile. The humble are like a rock, the rock seems to lie downwards, but nevertheless it is firm." Mary found her strength in humbling accepting her ordained role as the mother of God and discovered her infinite worth through submissive self-denial.

We may claim our rights on our job by insisting that people follow our plans. We have a right to expect conformity to our rules from our children. And in our church have the right to demand certain things in worship. We have a right to expect and argue for all these things but in our insistence how many arguments does it create? How many people get hurt? How much work really gets done or not done?

Events happen without our approval. Crises overwhelm us without for which we are not responsible. We can become entangled in a web of turmoil that is not our doing. God does not expect us to conqueror each situation. Nor does he expect us to skillful make our plans to avoid them. He only asks that we walk with in humble submission to his calling.

CONCLUSION

Mary deserves a special place in redemptive history. We may not idolize her or say our prayers to her but her inquisitive spirit exemplifies a life of faith and her submissive humility foreshadows a life of discipleship. Those two qualities truly make her most honored among all women.



1.  Stephen Miller, "Select Circle: What do we know about those closet to Jesus"  Church History, Christianity Today,  Summer 1998, Vol.XVII, No. 3, Page 32

2.  Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, "The Evolution of Mary," Books and Culture, May/June 1997, Vol. 3, No. 3, p. 3.

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