“Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”

by Shelby Hawkins

As I was thinking about who I should talk about in chapel, I noticed there were no women presented. So, I chose a woman who has been a pivotal figure in the Christian church and someone I wanted to know more about. She, in a much greater sense, was an outsider too. She was the person least likely to be a central figure in the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Savior of the world; this is Mary, the mother of Jesus.

If you are anything like me, you might not know what to do with Mary. In some traditions, she is venerated and worshiped while in others she is somewhat overlooked and rushed past in order to get to the good stuff of the Gospels. As I became a Christian and became familiar with Mary’s story, I imagined her as a quiet, demure woman who bore a child in a very unlucky situation. Nothing much else to see here. In my mind, she sat idly in the corner maybe with a soft smile as her time in the spotlight came to a close after the nativity. She has been portrayed by a multitude of artists and actors as they sought to bring life to the words in the beginning of the Gospel stories. Some of these you may be familiar with.

Who is Mary? What is so interesting about her story? Does her story matter to us? The story of Mary and Joseph and the manger with the sheep and shepherds, we’ve heard it. A lot. Am I right? I mean I do get excited around Christmas to hear these treasured stories but come on. The manger? Again? But what if there is still more to be wrung out of the story? What is there is more goodness to be gleaned from the life and faith of Mary?

Let’s think about Mary for a moment. She is from Nazareth. It’s actually similar to my own hometown, Pink Hill, NC. Trust me, no one is taking a much-needed vacation to good ole’ Pink Hill. They are not heading to Nazareth in this time either. It is a dirty, kinda back in the sticks, insignificant, small town. It is within this town a young, teenage girl receives an epic calling.

We read in Luke 1:26-38 an angel comes to visit Mary. Here is how it goes down: In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, aof the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

The angel tells Mary- you have found favor in the eyes of the Lord. Simply put, to be favored is to: gain approval, acceptance or blessing. What’s interesting about this favor is that Mary is about to become wildly unfavored in her own town. She’s about to enter a massive scandal. She is a pregnant, young teenager betrothed to a man in a small town where you can bet gossip is rampant.

To understand Mary, we have to understand her culture. She was around 13 to 16 years old though many scholars believe her to be closer to 13 or 14. The rules of her culture were vastly different from ours. When her story picks up in the Gospel of Luke, we find she is a betrothed woman which was a little different than the engagements of today. In this time, a betrothal was a legally binding arrangement. There were legal ramifications if it were broken. Mary is in a culture with a fiery legal system regarding pregnancy outside of marriages and unfaithfulness.

In her culture, a woman who has been unfaithful to her betrothed would be mocked and ridiculed. Deuteronomy 22 states the penalty if she was convicted as adulteress is to be taken into public and stoned to death. Joseph knew he had these choices, with a word from God, thankfully he believed her and stayed with her. This calling could cost her her life.

Mary, as we will see, knows Scripture well. It is written on her heart. So when she hears the language used by the angel, though she might not know exactly how all of this will take place, she understands what is being asked of her. She knows the promises for a Messiah who will come to overthrow injustice placed on her community by political powers. And her response is graceful and beautiful on. It serves as a call for all of us today when our life plans get interrupted by God. Mary replies with,  I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. Then what happened? The angel left her. Wow. I’m sorry to say, I would not have been this graceful or accepting or faithful or courageous. I would have had about 2390 more questions for the angel and for God, Himself. But Mary is certain God is going to come through for her, though she does not know all she is signing up for. What she does know is God is a faithful one who has protected her people. Put yourself here for a moment.  It’s almost impossible for us to understand what this cost would be. What would this have been like to say yes? Deeper still, the cost for Mary did not end with the birth of Jesus. No, she would watch her first born son live a life of love and die a gruesome death before her very eyes.

Willa Cather writes, “Only a woman, divine, could know all that a woman could suffer.” And Mary was about to enter into immense suffering.

Mary knew her yes to this calling meant she would be outcasted, impoverished, and probably disowned by her family. She also didn’t have full and complete answers about how this was all going to go down. What were the odds she would survive this? It was a mightily gutsy decision to say “let it be to me.” This yes will interrupt and change her life forever. Just like Mary, when we say yes to the nudgings of the Spirit it can be uncomfortable, dangerous, and counter-cultural.

Interruptions like really God, You want me to Stand up for what is right when all of my friends are pressuring me to do something I know I shouldn’t? It would make me look like a goody or a snitch. Really God, You want me to  Befriend the weird girl at church no one wants to talk to? It would make me look foolish and I don’t really like her. Really God, You want to Take my work seriously and put in the effort? It would take too long. It’s too hard. It doesn’t matter. And it prevents me from doing what brings me pleasure. Really God, You want me to Stop doing the things I know hurt me and others like gossiping, watching things I shouldn’t on the internet, and waiting for someone to make a mistake so I can laugh? But, that’s all I know, I don’t even think I can change.

Saying yes to God is rarely comfortable. In fact, it is often the most challenging thing that comes into our lives. Just think about Mary.

Philip Yancey writes, “Often a work of God comes with two edges: great joy and great pain, and in her matter-of-fact response, Mary embraced both. She was the first person to accept Jesus on His own terms, regardless of personal cost.”

Mary allowed God to interrupt her life so that goodness and beauty could be born out of her hard decision to say yes. What made her do this? I wish there was more written in the Gospels about Mary. I wish we could see into her life with more details.

Ok, so what happens after the angel leaves? Mary visits someone she trusts and burst forth into one of my favorite passages in Scripture. This song is filled with expectant joy and is full of the imagery of revolution.The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina- whose children all disappeared during the Dirty War from 1976-1983 placed these words on posters throughout the capital plaza as an act of rebellion.

Here they are for you in all their glory. Imagine Mary in her situation in a culture where the poor are further marginalized and the Jewish people lie in wait for the promised Messiah. Her is Mary’s Song, the Magnificat. Luke 1:46-55 “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his 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 mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

She sounds less like a scared 13-year-old and more like a revolutionary. She says “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” and “He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich, he has sent away empty.” Wow!

Let’s look briefly at what she says in her praise to God. I see three distinct sections in the Magnificat. First, there is Mary’s expression of what she feels in her heart, namely, joy. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”

Second, she mentions what God has done specifically for her as an individual: “he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” In our culture #blessed has become a meme, and “feeling blessed” makes regular appearances in Instagram posts. “Blessed” has come to mean living a life of privilege and comfort. Using the term has become a way of celebrating those moments when everything is going well and all seems right with the world — or at least one’s own little corner of it.

Third, Mary spends most of the passage describing the ways of God in general. This general character of God accounts for why he has treated her with favor in her lowliness and thus leads her to rejoice and magnify the Lord.

Mary sings about God who saves not just souls but physically embodied people. The God she celebrates is not content merely to point people toward heaven; God’s redemptive work begins here on earth. God fills the hungry not only with hope but with food. Rather than being satisfied with comforting the lowly, Mary’s Lord lifts them up, granting them dignity and honor, a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation. At the same time, God shows strength by disrupting the world’s power structures, dethroning rulers, and humbling the mighty.

Clearly, such saving acts are good news for the poor and outcasted, but what does Mary’s song mean for the wealthy and the powerful? We have to be honest with ourselves as we sit in a room with stained glass windows, and blazers. We might not be the poor and lowly. We, ACA, might be the powerful.  What does Mary’s song mean for the wealthy and the powerful? Is there nothing but judgment for them? Though judgment and salvation may seem like opposites, they go hand in hand. Those who stand in awe only of themselves and their own power will be judged. Yet if the wealthy and powerful can only see it, by bringing them down — by emptying and humbling them — God is saving them. When they turn their gaze from themselves and their own accomplishments, when their awe is directed to God — then there is mercy for them, too.

Mary’s song magnifies the Savior who loves the whole world with a love that makes creation whole. God’s saving judgment is for all of us, bringing us down from the pride that fills us with ourselves until we can’t see either God or neighbor. It brings us up from the shame that distorts our worldview and convinces us that no one — not even God — could love us. The mother of the Messiah has experienced God’s blessing. She is not #blessed. Her blessing, like ours, is a cross-shaped blessing, in the words of T.S Elliot  “a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.”

What can we learn from Mary?  First and foremost, we, like Mary, are all sinners.  Because we are sinners, we need a Savior. That is the reason the Lord Jesus came to earth.  He was born, the sinless Son of God, lived a perfect life and then died on the Cross of Calvary as our Sin Bearer.  He rose from the dead three days later to demonstrate sin had been paid for, death had been conquered.

Second, when we realize what God has done for us, we magnify Him by our lives and by our lips. Our worship should lead us to witness to a lost and dying world around us.  In essence, this song that Mary composed is her verbal testimony to her family and friends as to what God has done for her and her people.

Third, like Mary, we need to know the attributes of God. He takes special consideration for the lowly, the poor, the outcasted. Not the pridefully outcasted, but the ones whose cultures deem unworthy of care. Mary falls into this category. She represents the reversal she sang in her song. The outsider just might be a powerful insider in the eyes of God.

Here are some questions to ponder about what you have heard of Mary. Use these questions in your own devotional time.

  • Who are the people you consider outsiders? Who are the people you could not believe would be a part of the Kingdom of God. Maybe a poor, unmarried teen? Remember, who we deem are in and out might not be true in the eyes of God.
  • Is there a place in your life God is trying to interrupt? What might it look like to say yes?
  • And finally, what areas of your life need to be judged as prideful? Where in your own life have you elevated yourself above neighbor, and maybe even God?

Mary raises powerful questions. Is she simply sweet, docile, quiet Mary? No, the woman God chose to birth the Savior of the world was a strong, humble, faithful, and courageous servant of Yahweh who offers lessons for believers even today. Thank you!