We shift our focus to Mary on this Fourth and final Sunday of Advent. You may not have noticed, but other than in the Gospel of Luke Mary is scarcely mentioned. In Mark, her most significant moment is when she assumes Jesus has lost his mind and attempts to take home. Matthew records she goes to the empty tomb. Although Mary appears at various points, John never mentions her by name and Paul never mentions her at all.
Only Luke gives us insight into Mary’s Immaculate Conception. More than exalting her as the theotokos – the God-bearer – and more than presenting her as an ideal model of motherhood and womanhood, Luke presents Mary as the model for Christian discipleship. Her response to Gabriel’s startling and surely demanding announcement is “Let it be to me according your word”. Hers is a humble and obedient acceptance of God’s will.
Gabriel’s proclamation Jesus will be called the Son of the Most High, will be given the throne of David, and will reign over a kingdom having no end, fits into the pattern of older biblical stories where the birth of an important figure is foretold. We see it with the births of Ishmael and Isaac in the Book of Genesis as well as the birth of Samson in the Book of Judges. Similarities between these stories and the one we read today suggest the focus of this passage should be on the child who is to be born.
But many scholars also note Luke’s story follows the form of an Old Testament “call” narrative, where a specific individual is approached by a heavenly being and commissioned for a specific task. These accounts have a particular pattern and typically contain the following elements:
· a greeting
· a startled reaction
· an exhortation not to fear
· a divine commission
· an objection
· a reassurance
· the offer of a confirming sign
Mary’s response, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord”, echoes the words of the Samuel when he accepts his commission to be a prophet. For Luke, Mary is blessed not because she will give birth to God’s child, but because she believes God’s word and accepts God’s will – the hallmark of discipleship.
Jesus will point to this several times during his public ministry. In Luke 8:21, Jesus teaches, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” In Luke 11:28-29, a person in the crowd shouts out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you.” In a culture where the worth of a mother is determined by the importance of her male children, the comment suggests Mary’s value rests on the greatness of her son. Jesus’ response, like most of his teaching, is counter-cultural, “Blessed rather are those who hear God’s word and obey it!” Jesus believes his mother is blessed because she is a faithful disciple.
Perhaps you are getting the idea Luke presents Mary as a person for us to emulate. Each one of us has received a call and commission through baptism into the Christian faith and life. Some of us have had this call fine-tuned and focused. All of us try to live out our faith through the work we do and the relationships we foster. As Mary will find, at times discipleship is difficult and demanding. Still, our response of “let it be to me according to God’s word” is the only path to a life made rich with God’s blessing.
Greg Manalli, a former insurance agent and the founder of the Fellowship of Life Church in England, says, “The dullness that overshadows a passive person is increased by the mounting number of times one doesn’t respond to the promptings of God.” In other words, if you put your life on cruise control most likely you will end up restless and bored out of your mind. But if you accept God’s call to follow, to obey, and to act, you are in for a thrill ride beyond imagining. The Presbyterian minister John Ortberg says, “The decision to grow always involves a choice between risk and comfort. This means that to be a follower of Jesus you must renounce comfort as the ultimate value of your life.”
We see both of these truths at work in Mary. Her life becomes rich, full, and at times downright uncomfortable. Through her acceptance of God’s word, she becomes the first disciple of the Christian era. And she continues to inspire and inform disciples today.