George Booker
To Us A Child Is Born

(2) Mary: “Blessed Among Women” (Luke 1:26-38)

The old rabbis had a saying:

People marry for four reasons: for passion, for wealth, for honor, or for the glory of God. lf they marry for passion, their children will be given over to their own passions, and will grow up stubborn and rebellious. If they marry for wealth, their children will learn to be greedy. If they marry for honor, their children will one day become proud, ambitious, and ruthless. But if they marry for the glory of God, then their children will be righteous, and they will preserve Israel.

Our story begins in Nazareth, a little town of no special consequence in the hills of Galilee. It was a village like many others — simple people going forth to labor in their shops or work in their fields. The men would pause to discuss the weather, or perhaps the news of the latest Roman outrage. Women drew water from the well at the town square, stopping a while to chat with their friends, to learn perhaps who was ill or who had had a baby. Children played in the dusty streets, sometimes ignoring their mothers’ calls and the approaching darkness.

But when the sabbath came, all activity ceased, and families dressed in their best clothes and gathered at the old stone synagogue. There the grandfatherly rabbi read, with carefully measured phrasing, from the Holy Scriptures, and offered his simple exhortation for the week. He was not an eloquent speaker. Nor was he a subtle expounder of legal details, like the teachers from Jerusalem who passed through occasionally on their way to some place more important. But he was well-respected, even loved, for his honesty and kindness. He was faithful and diligent in teaching the boys of Nazareth, preparing them to assume their positions as men in the congregation of Israel.

A special announcement

This particular sabbath he had a special announcement, a little something extra to enliven the proceedings. It was not a total surprise to his listeners, but then, in a village like Nazareth, very few things were secret:

“Joseph, son of Jacob the carpenter, having brought a satisfactory dowry, desires the hand of Mary, daughter of Heli, both being of the house of David. May God bless their union.”

The following week was a time of joyful celebration. It was a time for older folks to relive their youth, and for the very young to dream of the future. The old songs of love and marriage were sung again. That most romantic of the scrolls, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s”, would be remembered and read, and listeners would thrill to the rich exotic poetry of love — love which was sensual and yet spiritual, truly a mystery. The loving eyes of family and friends would see Joseph in the young shepherd, and Mary in the beautiful Shullamite:

“How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful!... Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon; your mouth is lovely... there is no flaw in you... You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much more pleasing is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your perfume than any spice!” (Song 4:1,3,7,9,10).

“No flaw in you”

In those days, and for those people, marriage was a sacred covenant, and a token of God’s love for Israel His bride. It was an enacted parable teaching the necessity of purity in the bride, of faithful devotion to one Master alone: “There is no flaw in you... a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain” (vv. 7,12).

Betrothal was a quite formal and binding engagement. It was a legal contract sealed, before witnesses, by a dowry or purchase price. It was, in fact, a marriage under law; the young woman was now a bride and a wife, although a “suitable interval” (as much as a year) must elapse before the marriage could be consummated. But if her betrothed were to die during this period she would be, under law, a widow with guaranteed property rights. And if she were unfaithful, the law would have no mercy. Single women who sinned might have their shame mitigated with payments or dowries and hasty marriages; but she would be an adulteress, and the sentence would be death by stoning.

There were yet months and months until the marriage could be finalized, but Mary could close her eyes and see it all: the procession as the bridegroom comes to the house of the bride, to carry her away to his own home; the virgins or “bride’s maids” with their lamps to light the way. Then would come the joyous marriage feast, the special wedding garments, the wine of joy. It would all come true for her and her beloved. God had indeed richIy blessed them.

But first must come the months of waiting, preparation, and anticipation before the young virgin-bride would become truly the wife of Joseph. In the meantime, ever present as a reminder, was the memory of that pledge of purity already taken: to have and to hold, to forsake all others, to cleave only to her husband, to be “a garden locked up, a sealed fountain” (v. 12).

How much of our lives is a waiting, an anticipation of something better, something different? And how often has it happened that “fate” or “chance” has intervened, and that which we hoped for, which we had reason to expect (a new job, an award, a marriage proposal, a “windfall” profit), was snatched away ... and we received instead something else altogether different? This is what happened to Mary.

An unexpected visitor

“God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you’ ” (Luke 1:26-28).

No greater honor had ever been bestowed upon a woman than was soon to be the lot of Mary. But it was an honor that carried an awesome responsibility. And it would mean the shattering of other cherished dreams and desires. Her life would never be as simple and pleasant as she had reason to expect it would be only a short while before.

When she saw the angel, Mary began to “wonder” or “consider” (v. 29, RSV) in her mind what sort of greeting this was. It was of course a trifle disconcerting, even frightening, to be visited by an angel between morning and midday. But Mary’s fear was overridden by her curiosity and quiet reflection.

No matter what happened to Mary, she paused to consider, to ponder, to reflect. She is one of the great “spectators” in the Bible. We thank God for Mary and her examples. When she stops to consider, then we are compelled to do the same. When she stands still to see the salvation of the Lord, we too halt in our headlong rush through overcrowded lives, and pause for a moment with her. We catch a little of the infinite wonder in the calm, clear eyes of this young woman, an attitude molded by careful Bible study and frequent prayer. Like her, we learn to treasure in our hearts the sayings we hear (Luke 2:51). Like her, we “ponder” them (2:19) in the stillness of the night so that, when the storms of life beat upon us, like her we will be strong in faith.

“The son of the Most High”

“Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” (Luke 1:30, 31).

To find favor implies a request answered, and we could draw the conclusion that this young, pure Jewish woman may have been praying, though never really expecting a favorable answer: “May I be the mother of the Messiah.” This would be in keeping with one traditional Jewish view of Isaiah 7:14: that a virgin would marry and then conceive (by natural means) a son who would become the Messiah, but not literally the Son of God. Since Mary and Joseph were both of the house of David, perhaps such thoughts had come to her. And since up to this point the Holy Spirit had not been mentioned, Mary might reasonably have concluded that this child would be the son of Joseph.

Even as she pondered these words, Gabriel continued: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” The Son of God! Even great king David was never so called. Would her son be somehow greater than even David? Perhaps the thought staggered Mary so that she scarcely heard the rest of the great promise: “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David”; son of David, of course (2 Sam. 7:12-14,16; Psa. 89:29,36), and heir to his fallen throne. But also the “Son of the Most High”! What can this mean?

“How will this be?” Could this great thing happen to Mary even without her “knowing” Joseph (v. 34)? Now Gabriel speaks plainly:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God... For nothing is impossible with God” (vv. 35,37).

The language of Gabriel calls to mind that of Genesis; the Spirit of God “overshadowing”, or moving upon the face of the waters to bring forth life, as a mother hen brooding over her eggs and then her chicks. It is a picture of vast creative power, coupled with the sweetest tenderness and love. It is a picture of a God who sustains all things by His omnipotence, who acts as and when He chooses, and no man can understand, much less question, His prerogative. But also it is a picture of a God who is a Father, who pities His children, who lavishes mercies unnumbered upon those who can never hope to repay Him. “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed on us...”

This view of the Messiah’s conception, which we as Christians take for granted today, was by no means as certain to the faithful Jews of Mary’s day. But the message she received would also give additional weight to Isaiah 9:6,7, the companion passage to Isaiah 7:14 — which, in light of Gabriel’s announcement, might now read:

“To us a child is born; to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called... ‘Wonderful in counsel is the Mighty God, who is the everlasting Father of the Prince of Peace.’ Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.”

“The maidservant of the Lord”

Mary responded to this great message without hesitation. She revealed an extraordinary grasp of the Scriptures for such a young girl: “I am the Lord's servant... May it be to me as you have said” (v. 38). Mary knew the passages in the psalms in which the Messiah is called the son of God’s maidservant (86:16; 116:16). Immediately she made the connection, and gave her consent to become the mother of His Son, a consent which was essential to His purpose.

A veil is now modestly drawn over the scene. Of the actual conception Luke tells us nothing, and we must conclude that such knowledge is too sacred for mortals. How was this miracle accomplished? In the jargon of modern science, what was the “genetic code” begotten of such a union? Prudence, and some sense of the Divine majesty, counsels us to explore no further along these lines than Scripture expressly warrants. But perhaps Psalm 139 gives us an insight into this greatest of all mysteries — God manifest in the flesh:

“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!” (vv. 13-17)

Blessed among women?

The veil is lifted, and we see Mary again, but in some sense a new person now, touched by the Almighty, never to regain the naivete and innocence of her youth. Her faith had been great, but now she could feel the great change that had come upon her, a change that could not be hidden for long — even if she wanted to hide it. What doubts must have come upon her! How would she explain her condition? Whom should she tell, if anyone? Who would believe her? Would even her beloved Joseph believe? And those words of the marriage song, once so fitting, would they now mock her? “No flaw in you... a garden locked up... a sealed fountain...”

The calling of the Lord is seldom an unmixed pleasure. Mary was uniquely “blessed” among women. But blessings are not always enjoyable. Sometimes they can be downright unpleasant.

“Oh, to do some great work for God!” Haven’t we all said that? But the great works of Scripture often included imprisonment, slavery, torture, or — as with Mary — scandal and gossip, which she was destined to experience to a degree which we can scarcely appreciate, living as we do in such libertine times. Do we really want to be blessed by God, like Joseph was “blessed” in a foreign prison, or like Jeremiah was “blessed” in a foul pit, or like Mary was “blessed” to be shunned as an “unwed mother” and an “adulteress”?

Such naive, short-sighted people we are! We want the cheers, but not the tears. We love the spotlight, but not the shadows. We want to wear the crown without carrying the cross. We want to sit with Christ on the mountain while the crowds listen worshipfully, but we do not want to venture into the dark garden where men weep and wrestle with the serpent of self.

All these things have a place in God’s plan. It is written that we must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). Even this might not be so difficult if we could choose the time and place of our trials. But that, too, is in the hand of God. Each believer must be prepared for a Gethsemane of God’s own choosing, suited to him or her alone. Whenever and wherever that might be, there can be only one response, which we have just heard from Mary’s lips: “May it be to me as you have said.”

Her life was lived for the glory of God, and her children were righteous. Her eldest son learned much from his mother. In the hour of his trial, his prayer was an echo of hers: “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

And he preserved Israel...

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