About three years ago, I stood on a street in Jerusalem on the road that some people think Jesus took to the cross. As we passed by a wall, our guide pointed out an indent in the wall that about the size of an adult male hand. The guide proceeded to explain that as Jesus carried the cross along the street, he briefly paused at that exact spot in order to gain his breath for a second. The indent in that stone, he explained, was there to show us that Jesus had once rested and placed his hand there. I was amazed as a hush fell over the group and as several people went to that wall to place their hands and to feel the place where Jesus himself had walked.
We're in this series called "Christmas for Real People." Part of the reason why we're in this series is because it's easy to let myths and legends cloud our understanding of what actually took place just over two thousand years ago. There's a part of us that wants to believe that the stories in the Bible happened to people who were very different than us. Part of us wants to believe that stone melted like wax when Jesus touched it. If you've seen as many Christmas cards and sung as many Christmas carols and watched as many Christmas shows as I have, it's easy to begin having a distorted picture of what actually did take place two thousand years ago. We think that Jesus was born on a serene, peaceful night in irenic conditions, and that Mary had a halo around her head, and the baby awoke but no crying he made. But in believing this we start to lose the impact of the real Christmas story.
Here's the message of the Bible: that when God decided to send his one and only Son to earth, God chose very real people in a very real place to be participants in the drama. I hope that if you've been with us so far in this series, you've seen that the Christmas story included people that we can relate to. The Christmas story happened to people who were just like you and just like me.
In Luke 1, we're introduced to one of the main Christmas characters. Her name was Mary, and we all know her as the mother of Jesus. Luke 1:26-27 says, "In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David." I want to take a moment and look at these verses to see what we can learn about Mary, and what this has to teach us for today. Out of the entire Bible, these two verses give us the most information about what we know of Mary, so let's take a look to see if we can understand exactly who Mary was.
FACTS ABOUT MARY
The Bible says, "God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary." The first fact that we learn about Mary is that Mary was from Nazareth. We don't know a lot about Nazareth, but we do know that it was a city much of a relatively small size in a relatively out-of-the-way place. Nazareth was not exactly a happening place at that time. In fact, one person said of Nazareth in John 1:46: "Nazareth...Can anything good come from there?" We don't know if that was the common impression of Nazareth at that time, but at least one person thought it. It wasn't a memorable place. It would be as impressive as saying that you're from Hamilton or from Sudbury. That's the first fact about Mary that we learn. MARY WAS FROM AN OUT-OF-THE-WAY PLACE.
Luke 1:27 continues, "She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David." That's the second fact that we learn about Mary: MARY WAS UNMARRIED BUT ENGAGED OR BETROTHED. You need to understand that the marriage system was very different back then. Mary was in the worst of both worlds. She had lost all the benefits of singleness without gaining any of the benefits of married life. Mary had entered an agreement to be married to Joseph - an agreement that was legally binding. There were only two ways to get out of a betrothal: death and divorce. If the betrothal ended because of death, then the girl would be considered a widow, even though she had not yet been married. So, Mary was in this state of being legally bound to be married to someone, and yet not yet married.
The fact that Mary was engaged points us to a third fact that we can conclude about Mary: MARY WAS PROBABLY VERY YOUNG - MAYBE IN HER EARLY TEENS. In those days, the engagement or betrothal would take place very soon after puberty. It's possible that Mary was only 12 or 13 years old. Mary was an incredibly young person by today's standards to be getting married and to be having children.
To put these facts together, Mary was an early teenage girl from an out-of-the-way place who was likely poor and uneducated.
As we come up on Christmas, have you ever asked, "Why out of all the women in the world, God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus?" She was a little peasant girl, yet she became the mother of the Savior of the world. God could have chosen any way for Jesus to enter the world, yet he chose the same way that all of us arrived here: Jesus was born as a baby. Not only that, but Mary was a very ordinary mother. God chose the most ordinary way for the most extraordinary event to take place. Why? I believe that God's trying to teach us a lesson.
You and I have a hard time believing that God can use something ordinary. In fact, if we were to be truthful, a lot of us would have a hard time believing that God could use us. But you'd be dead wrong if you believe that. Because of nothing else, the story of Mary teaches us one thing: that...
GOD USES ORDINARY PEOPLE...
You may feel completely ordinary, completely average. You may feel like you fit right into the middle of the bell curve. You may feel like you've got average finances, average looks, an average car, and average-size pants. But Mary teaches us that God loves to use ordinary people. God loves to use people just like you and just like me.
Over the years, people have developed a lot of weird theories about Mary. In fact, there's a whole phenomenon called Mariology that refers to the theories that people have developed. Some believe that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life. Others started to call Mary the Mother of God - a statement that never appears in the Bible. Others took a story in the Bible, in which people approached Mary at a wedding to speak to her son, as an argument that we can pray to Mary to try to get her Son to do us favors. They've almost made her a special intercessor. It's the reasoning that if you can't get Jesus to do something, maybe his mother can. Some have even gone so far as to venerate Mary. Some have even asserted that Mary was born completely sinless and lived a sinless life. I don't want to guess as to why all these theories developed, but I wonder if part of the reason is because we have a hard time believing that God can use an ordinary person. We have a hard time believing that God can use a person just like you, and just like me.
In the past couple of months, I've run into some pretty extraordinary people a couple of times. They're pretty famous. They're also pretty rich. They live in a nice part of town. They own their own house, and to create a bit more space for themselves, they also purchased the two houses next to them and knocked them down to give themselves a bigger backyard. When Nelson Mandela was in town the other week, the party in his honor was held at their house. It was by invitation only and it cost $5,000 each.
One of them owns a takeover firm that's grown from a net worth of two million dollars - a huge sum to me - to owning assets worth almost twenty billion dollars. The other one is CEO of Canada's largest bookstore chain. To top it off, they're incredibly youthful looking and also very decent people.
Twice in the past few months, I've attended the same event as them. At the last event, Charlene and I were touring the new theatre that opened at Islington and the Queensway when we almost b umped right into them. I don't know if you've ever met people like this. Wonderful people, talented people, but by no means ordinary. You would have a hard time believing that they're ordinary in any way.
Part of me wants to believe that when God acts, God uses people like that. It seems hard to believe that God could use ordinary people from ordinary places with ordinary abilities. But that's exactly the kind of person that God loves to use. 1 Corinthians 1:28-29 says, "God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important, so that no one can ever boast in the presence of God."
How was Mary ordinary? Mary was young and came from an out-of-the-way place. Mary also had NORMAL REACTIONS. When the angel Gabriel appeared to her, Luke 1:29 says that Mary was "confused and disturbed." The Greek for "confused and disturbed" is petrified, scared to death. Mary reacted the exact same way that you and I would have reacted. Mary was scared to death when the angel responded. Mary had normal reactions.
Mary also had NORMAL DOUBTS. There are times in the Bible that you get the idea that Mary didn't completely grasp what was taking place. That's okay - I wouldn't be either! When an old man recognized who was Jesus in the Temple, Luke 2:33 says, "Joseph and Mary were amazed at what was being said about Jesus." You get the impression that even though Joseph and Mary knew who Jesus was, they were struggling to absorb all the details. Later, when Jesus was twelve, he stayed behind at the Temple and they lost track of him. Luke 2:48 says, "His parents didn't know what to think. 'Son!' his mother said to him. 'Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere.'" These are words that every parent can relate to. Mary sometimes was bewildered and didn't know what to think. One time she even tried to interrupt his public ministry (Mark 3:31). Mary had normal doubts, just like you and I would.
If we can read in between the lines a little, it's likely that Mary also had NORMAL PROBLEMS, just like you and I would. The last time that you read about Mary's husband, Joseph, is when Jesus was twelve. You never read about him after that. When Jesus died, Jesus entrusted the care of his mother to his best friend, John. It seems that Joseph may have died sometime between when Jesus turned twelve and when he began his public ministry. Those of you who have lost a spouse can relate to what Mary must have gone through. Mary went through problems, just like you and I would.
You may feel like you can't do anything for God because you're so ordinary. God specializes in using ordinary people. When God was looking for a spokesperson, he chose someone who stuttered. When God was looking for a giant-slayer, he chose the only kid in the family who wasn't a soldier. When God was looking for someone to be the mother of his only Son, he looked for a single, poor, uneducated peasant teen. God loves to use ordinary people. God loves to use people like you, people like me.
But the message doesn't stop there. God loves to use ordinary people. Because in one sense, Mary was completely ordinary. There was nothing extraordinary about her. But the question becomes, "Why did God choose her? Why, out of all the women in the world, did God choose Mary? The reason is that there's a particular type of ordinary person that God loves to use. Mary teaches us this:
GOD USES ORDINARY PEOPLE WHO COMPLETELY SURRENDER TO HIM.
Although Mary was completely ordinary, Mary possessed one quality that enabled her to be used by God. It's this: Mary surrendered to God. After the angel appeared to Mary and told her the news of what was going to happen, Mary asked only one question: "But how can I have a baby? I am a virgin" (Luke 1:34). She didn't express doubt. She didn't ask for a sign. She just wanted an explanation. And after Gabriel answered her question, having given her news that was going to shake her world, Mary responded with these words: "I am the Lord's servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true" (Luke 1:38).
Think about it. Mary is about to have a baby out of wedlock. She's going to have to explain it to her parents and to everyone else. Her explanation? The Holy Spirit came upon her. She's going to tell her fiancé, "I'm pregnant, and you're not the father, but it's God." Right. Would you buy a story like that? That's like saying, "I had a date with Elvis last week," or, "I had an interaction with a UFO." Mary knew that she was about be misunderstood and ridiculed, possibly by those closest to her. Read her response again: "I am the Lord's servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true" (Luke 1:38).
If you were to do one thing that would make it easy for God to use you, it would be to come to the point of complete surrender to God. It would be to say to God, "I'm willing to accept whatever you want, no matter how it affects me." God does amazing things through people who are completely surrendered to him.
Three attitudes that Mary possessed, that are common to people who are completely surrendered to God:
MARY HUMBLED HERSELF BEFORE GOD. Do you think that there might have been some temptation to get proud as the mother of Jesus? Mary never did this. Mary never let her pride get in the way of being used by God. She didn't have false pride - she didn't act all "gee, shucks" and deny that she was being used in a unique way. But she refused to take the glory. She gave all the glory to God. Mary said, "Oh, how I praise the Lord. How I rejoice in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and now generation after generation will call me blessed" (Luke 1:46-48). Mary gave all the praise to God.
One of the greatest indications of Mary's humility is how few times she's mentioned in the Gospels. I told you before that Jesus' best friend, John, adopted her after Jesus died. John was also the writer of one of the Gospels. John's Gospel mentions Mary only twice. Both times that John mentions Mary, it's in the context of Mary taking a backseat to her son Jesus Christ. If Mary was proud, she probably would have been muscled her way into that Gospel. But Mary was humble. She served her role as Jesus' mother and moved out of the way. In fact, the last time you see Mary in the Bible, she's simply with other believers praying (Acts 1:14). Mary humbled herself before God.
James 4:6 says, "God sets himself against the proud, but he shows favor to the humble." If you're going to be used by God, if you're going to be surrendered, you're also going to be humble. You're going to have to let God get the glory. You're going to have to surrender your pride to him.
MARY BELIEVED GOD'S PROMISES. It takes courage to be used by God. God uses people who trust his promises. The angel told Mary, "Nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). Mary surrendered to God because she trusted God to keep his promises. She believed that he would do what he had said.
A little after Mary received the news from the angel, Mary penned a song that's recorded in Luke 1:46-55. Many people call this song the Magnificat. This song is remarkable for a number of things, but one of its features is that it's full of Scripture. Mary was a person who had spent time getting to know God through his Word. Mary knew God's promises. Mary was a person who had spent time in the Word of God, and her mind had been steeped in his promises. One of the most practical steps that we can take is to get to know the Word of God - to find a version that we can understand, and to begin reading it to learn more about God and what he says to us. If you need help on where you should start and how you can understand what you read, we'd love to help you. Mary believed God's promises. This is important if you're going to be surrendered to God.
MARY ALSO RECEIVED GOD'S GRACE. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he said these words: "Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!" (Luke 1:28) Mary was highly favored because she was the recipient of God's grace. Ultimately, there was nothing that Mary did to deserve to be used by God. She was used because of God's grace. It was a gift to her. Whenever God uses somebody, it's not because they deserve to be used. It's ultimately because God chooses to favor us by letting us be used by him.
There's one other time in the Bible that similar words appear to the greeting that was given to Mary. The greeting, again, was this: "Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!" In Ephesians 1:6, a similar combination of words takes place. Ephesians 1:6 says, "So we praise God for the wonderful kindness he has poured out on us [the same word as highly favored us] because we belong to his dearly loved Son." Just as God highly favored Mary, God wishes to highly favor each of us. God wants to pour out his wonderful kindness upon us. How? Ephesians 1:7 says, "He is so rich in kindness that he purchased our freedom through the blood of his Son, and our sins are forgiven." The very reason that Jesus came is so that you and I could be highly favored. Jesus came to purchase our freedom from the sins we had committed by shedding his blood, so that we could be forgiven. There's nothing that we do to earn this from God. It's a free gift. All we have to do is to receive it.
Ephesians 2:8 says, "God saved you by his special favor when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God." One of the best steps that you can take this Christmas is to receive the gift that Jesus came to give each of us. You can choose to be used by God by giving your life to him, by being forgiven, by receiving the gift of eternal life. You can receive the special favor from God that's poured out freely upon us - not because we deserve it, but because we're highly favored by God.
I'm so glad that Mary was an ordinary person. I'm glad that God loves to use ordinary people like me, like you. We don't have to be extraordinarily gifted or extraordinarily placed. We can be used by God, just as we are. All we have to do is to surrender to him, to say as Mary did, "I am the Lord's servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true."
Two questions for you: Have you taken the step of coming to Jesus and becoming an ordinary person who's been extraordinarily forgiven? There's no catch. You don't have to do anything. You just have to receive what's being offered to you freely. You just need to receive the gift of eternal life by responding in faith, by beginning to follow him. That can happen today. That's question one: have you taken that step?
But here's question two. In the busyness of life, in the middle of doubts that you could ever be used by God in your circumstances, with your abilities, with your limitations - have you ever taken the step of saying what Mary did? Would you be willing to offer yourself to be used by God today - obviously in a different way - but to be used as he sees fit? Would you be willing to say what Mary did - "I am the Lord's servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants." Are you at the point of absolute surrender to God?
Father, thank you that you use ordinary people. We don't have to have extraordinary gifts or extraordinary abilities. We do need to surrender. It's like one person said: "The world has yet to see what God can do in and through and for the person who is totally committed to Christ."
Father, I want to be that person. I want to be an ordinary person who's completely surrendered to you. Use me, I pray, in the name of the one who came into an ordinary woman's womb and was born to live a perfect life, to die in my place, and to rise again to give me new life. In his name I pray, Amen.