On Sunday I preached my first full-length sermon. In celebration of Advent, Community Mennonite Church asked me to speak about Mary the mother of Jesus. The texts were from Luke 1: 26-56 and Micah 5:2-5a.
In January 2001, I visited a doctor for a routine check-up, and she surprised me by offering a pregnancy test.
She said, “If this test were to come out positive, would that be good news for you or bad news?”
I was a senior in college and had been married for just five months.
I answered, “I suppose it would be mixed news.” While we hoped to have children eventually, Steven and I expected to wait a few more years so that we would have time to adjust to marriage, to travel, and to complete graduate school.
The doctor went out to complete the test, and when she returned a few minutes later, she proclaimed, “I have mixed news for you!” She estimated the due date in early September. She left me alone in the room, where I knelt on the white tile floor feeling like Mary must have felt the fateful day when that angel appeared to her with what had to have been mixed news.
I hope you can forgive me for over-identifying with the mother of God. I am named Anna Maria, after all—Maria, of course, the equivalent of Mary, and Anna is, according to tradition, Mary’s mother’s name. Anna Maria also happens to have been a family name from my paternal grandmother’s side.
But let’s return to the text. It is Jesus’ family history that we are interested in hearing today, not mine.
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. . . You will bear a son . . .”
We tend to picture a warm, glowing Nativity scene: a shiny angel with a tinsel crown smiles at Mary, and she responds happily, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me as you have said.” She smiles and holds hands with Joseph like they’re a young couple in love as they walk with their donkey to Bethlehem. Soon they kneel in a neatly swept, odor-free stable gazing down at their pink-skinned, blue-eyed baby—“the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”
But Mary’s irate parents? Joseph’s confusion about whether to divorce Mary? Those scenes don’t usually appear in our imaginations.
Let’s try for a moment to imagine how it really was: think of your teenage daughter, or sister, or mentee. She is smart, pretty, set to go to college on scholarship, find a nice Mennonite boy and settle down after a couple years of voluntary service. But then she finds out she’s pregnant, and claims it was by an angel. How does Dad respond? The church? Youth group? The neighbors? Her boyfriend?
An unplanned pregnancy was decidedly mixed news for an engaged virgin in first century Nazareth.
The bad news, which the angel discreetly left unsaid, was worse than that Mary’s plans for her life were now waylaid. Unmarried women who found themselves pregnant in first-century Judea were unlikely to find a good husband or respectable livelihood. What would her future now hold? At best, she might live out her days secluded in her father’s house, or maybe support her child by prostitution. At worst, she could be stoned to death.
If some of my relatives were chagrined that I got pregnant my last semester of college, even though I was married–what would Mary’s have said?
What do you imagine her dad’s reaction might have been?
“You are grounded for a year, young lady!” or maybe, “Come here and let me thrash you!” Might he have considered contacting the religious elite to take drastic action against his own daughter? The law permitted death by stoning. Did Joseph consider the death penalty for Mary? It was certainly a legal option at the time. The scripture states that she was “much perplexed,” and the angel specifically says, “Do not be afraid.” She had to have been terrified.
The Luke account is skimpy on details, so we must use our imaginations to fill in the feelings, fears, and motivations. But the NRSV mentions the word “haste.”
“She set out with haste” to her cousin Elizabeth’s house where she stayed for three months. Perhaps it was fear of her father’s wrath, or of being stoned that prompted Mary to move in with relatives?
Two thousand years later, we know that things eventually turned out alright for Mary: that Joseph would receive an angelic dream that helped him to believe Mary’s tale about being impregnated by the Holy Spirit, that he would take her as his wife, and raise the child as his own. Matthew’s gospel, in fact, would trace Jesus’s genealogy back through Joseph’s line—not Mary’s— to connect to King David. More about that in a minute.
But at this moment in the story, the fateful day that Gabriel came to Mary in Nazareth, no one yet knew what would happen. When Gabriel addressed Mary as “favored one,” Mary might not have felt that this was such a great favor! But she responded with trust and faith. Though alarmed, she responded, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” . . .
. . . and then fled for her life! She booked it over to Cousins Elizabeth and Zechariah in the countryside, who, in their great joy and surprise at finding themselves blessed with a child in old age, welcomed and sheltered Mary until things calmed down at home. It isn’t until Elizabeth welcomes Mary joyfully that Mary sings God’s praise in the beautiful passage known as the Magnificat (which we’ve just heard sung this morning—thank you, to Jay Hartzler, the singers, and string players). Seen in context, Mary’s expression of praise and gratitude for God’s salvation can be taken quite literally. God has not only chosen her to bear God’s son, but has also provided a safe house for her in the meantime. By pre-arranging Elizabeth’s oddly timed pregnancy (for Elizabeth was now an old woman), God prepared Elizabeth’s heart to welcome Mary, the pregnant unwed teenager. The beginning of Mary’s song could be paraphrased, “Whew! Thank God I made it out of Nazareth alive!”
I promised we’d get back to the story of Jesus’ connection, through Joseph’s line, to King David.
Interestingly, Matthew’s genealogy—twenty-eight generations of men begetting sons—includes four women.
Tamar. Rahab. Ruth. The wife of Uriah.
These four women star in familiar Bible stories, and they all have something in common: they are not the traditional, moral norm. Tamar became pregnant by her father-in-law, Judah. Rahab, who was a Gentile prostitute, hid Israelite spies and was invited into the Israelite community after the Israelites conquered her hometown. Ruth, another Gentile, joined the Israelite community in a complex tale that reads more like a contemporary novel than a Sunday school story. (Some of us in the congregation studied this story as part of the 5 + 5 series of Bible studies that pastoral team led this fall) And the wife of Uriah . . . that would be Bathsheba, who cheated with King David while Uriah was off fighting the king’s battle. Then David had to arrange for Uriah to be killed so that the King could keep Bathsheba.
What a family history! But doesn’t every family have a story or two like this hidden back in its history somewhere? I know mine has.
The biblical narrative has set us up perfectly for the unconventional birth of the God-man, Jesus.
Years later, Jesus would grow up and encounter a woman caught in adultery. The Jewish leaders had gathered around and were prepared to throw rocks at her until she died, but waited a moment longer for Jesus to give his opinion. When Jesus saw her, perhaps he was reminded of his mother, Mary. Surely by adulthood, Jesus had heard the small town gossip about Mary’s badly timed pregnancy. Perhaps his parents had told him the story of how Mary escaped to the countryside to live for a few months with Elizabeth while Joseph made up his mind about whether he would marry her, since she was pregnant by someone other than him. Maybe Joseph explained to Jesus how he chose to break with the letter of the Law, take Mary to be his wife, and raise Jesus as his own child. Faith, in this family’s story, took precedence over legal tradition. Somehow Mary and Joseph passed down to their son the value of compassion over legalism.
Family stories have a way of forming our personal ethics, and I suspect that Jesus was no exception. His personal experience and family narrative shaped his perceptions of right and wrong. Jesus, son of an unwed mother, descendant of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, responded to the adulterous woman with integrity, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Elsewhere in the gospels, we find that Jesus has a soft spot for other women of ill repute. He encounters the Samaritan woman, the woman at the well, and the woman who anointed his feet with perfume.
Mary, like all good Jewish mothers, transmitted to her son a heritage: a set of cultural assumptions, traditions and religious practices. If Mary’s song is any indication of what she taught her son, then she taught Jesus to respond to their Jewish heritage in two ways:
First, to study the scriptural story and continue the narrative of faith in God, accepting the role of being God’s chosen people,
second, every now and then, to up-end the conventional way of looking at ethics.
Rather than follow the letter of the Law, as the religious leaders of his day tended to do, Jesus pushed the Law further and turned it on its head. Jesus would say things like, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .” When Jesus quoted those sayings, he wasn’t talking about witty aphorisms or folk wisdom. He was actually quoting sacred scripture, and then re-interpreting it.
Where did Jesus get such far-out notions? The author of the Luke text suggests that Jesus got at least some of these ideas from his mother. Remember her song lyrics?
“[God’s] 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 powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
The Magnificat passage beautifully portrays God’s kingdom of subversion—“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Mary’s song rings harmoniously with the Sermon on the Mount, and with so many of Jesus’ parables.
Like mother, like son.
So what does this all mean to us in 2010 at Community Mennonite Church? We have our scriptures—Old Testament, New Testament, along with assorted saintly writings from the past two thousand years of Christian tradition. How should we then regard them?
For about seven years, I’ve been part of an online discussion group with friends who are philosophers, theologians, artists, writers, and moms and dads. It’s a forum to discuss ideas, politics, religion, digital media, evolution and anything else that we think about. Sometimes we talk about how to regard the Bible. Many of us were brought up to think of the Bible as normative: The Bible tells us what to do and the way things should be, then we are supposed to follow it. A list of commandments that we check off.
More recently, several of us have begun to see the Bible as formative rather than normative. When one looks at the Bible as formative, this means we look at it not as something set in stone, but as a story that shapes our community. It forms us. The philosopher in this group compared interpretation of scripture to the way in which our country’s legal tradition interprets the Constitution. The Constitution is a solid foundation, but over time, with careful thought, it has rightly been amended to expand rights for blacks and for women.
Jesus, however, seemed to regard scripture as formative—an evolving story that begins in Genesis, continues through the wilderness, kingdom, and captivity of the Israelite people, a story that began in a specific time and place, but grew and unfolded over time to encompass a broader world . . . a story that continues to unfold and expand, embracing people groups that were formerly marginalized and despised.
I invite you to consider . . .
What stories have shaped your sense of right and wrong? What family stories, traditions, and church or secular laws have been passed down to you?
In what ways do your life and your choices continue the narrative thread of your family history, or that of the community of faith?
Which traditions need to be turned on their heads? In your mind, fill in the blank: You have heard it said,” ____________,” but I say to you,” __________________.”
As families and as church community members, it’s our role to tell the next generation stories that will shape them, forming their sense of ethics. Parents, grandparents, mentors, Sunday school teachers, baby-sitters—you are the story-tellers. Through your stories, you transmit the values of the biblical narrative and of our faith community. What stories do you tell your children? What songs do you sing them?