It would be all too easy for Protestants to overreact against the excessive devotion given to Mary by many and either ignore her completely or treat her like any other woman. That would be a great mistake, for she was, in Elizabeth’s words, “blessed among women”. We mustn’t elevate her to a position God never intended her for – which she herself would have been appalled by – but at the same time she has much to teach us. There are at least four ways she is a model to us in her response to the visit of the angel Gabriel in Luke 1.26-38.
1. A Model of Grace
Humanly speaking Mary was a nobody from Nowheresville. She lived in a small rural backwater so obscure that Luke has to add a word of explanation to identify it! ‘…a town in Galilee.’ (Lk 1.26). Nazareth wasn’t famous for anything; it’s never mentioned in the Old Testament; it didn’t have a great reputation among those who had heard of it, as Nathanael famously spluttered in Jn 1.46: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” It wasn’t the most obvious place to look for the mother of the Saviour of world!
Nor was Mary the kind of person you might expect to be the mother of the Son of God. She’s not a princess or the daughter of a scribe or a priest, but a poor village girl engaged to the local carpenter. We’re not told her age, but it’s possible she was as young as thirteen, the normal age for Jewish girls to be betrothed.
Mary of Nazareth isn’t quite the lowest of the low on the social pecking order, but she’s not far from it! And yet she’s the one God chooses out of all the women who have ever lived to be mother of Jesus Christ! And his choice reminds us of something fundamental in God’s way of working in salvation. He didn’t choose Mary because of any merit in Mary herself. Gabriel explains in Lk 1.30: …you have found grace with God. Grace is always undeserved, freely given – a gift that can’t be earned.
Salvation is all of grace. God saves helpless, weak people. It’s not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. As Paul wrote in 1Cor 1.27-29, ‘God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no-one may boast before him.’
2. A Model of Humility
Mary was ‘greatly troubled’ when Gabriel appeared to her, just like anyone would be—even Zechariah the priest had been earlier in the chapter, although the word that’s used of Mary’s fear is even more emphatic. But the mere appearance of an angel doesn’t seem to have been the main reason for Mary’s distress. Luke tells us in v29 that she was troubled ‘at his words.’ She was flummoxed by ‘his greeting.’ What did Gabriel say? “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” Why should this cause her so much angst?
Surely the explanation is Mary’s humility. If Mary was some kind of sinless super-saint then there was no need for her to be bothered by Gabriel’s greeting in the slightest—it would have been an entirely appropriate way to speak to her. But she is painfully aware of weaknesses, youth and lowliness and so is utterly confused and embarrassed by Gabriel’s words. You can imagine her blushing and saying, ‘I’m sorry, there must be some mistake. I’m just Mary! Perhaps it’s my mother you want?’
Mary’s humility is truly remarkable, in the light of all that happens here:
· She is visited personally by an angel from heaven with the news that she has been singled out from all the women of the human race to bear the holy Son of God! It turns out she—Mary of Nazareth—is the woman of Gen 3.15 who will bear the son who will crush the serpent’s head and undo the curse on the human race, bringing salvation, peace and harmony to the whole universe. For more than three thousand years women had given birth hoping their son would fulfil that great promise. Now Mary learns that she is the chosen one!
· Her son will be the fulfilment of a millennium of Jewish hopes. God had promised that a descendant of David would come and establish his kingdom on the earth—that he would conquer his people’s enemies and rule forever. Mary’s child will do all this: ‘The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.’ (Lk 1.32-33)
· This baby’s conception will be supernatural—the Holy Spirit of God will create life in Mary’s womb!
And yet none of his goes to Mary’s head! Just think how this could easily have swollen the head of a young teen—how insufferably arrogant she might have become. But there isn’t a hint of this in Mary. She gives all the praise and glory to God. Lk 1.48-49: ‘From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.’
How easily our heads are turned! How full we are of a sense of our own importance! Mary received the greatest honour any human being has ever been given and she received it humbly. God gives you and me a tiny fraction of her privilege and we strut around as proud as peacocks looking down on others. We should pray that God would make us much more like Mary.
3. A Model of Faith
Luke is presenting us with two birth announcements (‘annunciations’) in Luke 1: to Zechariah and to Mary. We’re meant to compare and contrast them. Both Zechariah and Mary ask a question of Gabriel, but Zechariah’s question reveals his lack of faith (Lk 1.18). Mary also asks a question of Gabriel, but there isn’t a trace of doubt or unbelief in her words: ‘“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”’ She believes it will happen—she is just puzzled about how.
Isn’t that remarkable? This young teenage girl has just been told something that is way beyond her capacity to understand—something miraculous and extraordinary—but her faith doesn’t waver. She quietly accepts what God says, like the psalmist in Ps 131: ‘My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.’ Significantly, Elizabeth highlights Mary’s faith in Lk 1.45: ‘Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!’ For six months Zechariah hadn’t been able to speak or hear because he hadn’t believed.
Would that we had just a little of the strength of Mary’s faith to accept God at his word and not doubt. Strong faith doesn’t mean we can’t ask questions, but our questions must be underpinned by the attitude that says, “Even if I don’t understand everything right now, I still believe what you have said and trust that you will do all things well.” You find strong faith in some very unusual places. Who would you have expected to have stronger faith? A priest serving in the temple or a slip of a peasant girl?
4. A Model of Obedience
Mary’s final response to all Gabriel tells her is one of breathtaking acceptance and obedience: “Behold the servant of the Lord.” That’s how Mary sees herself—the Lord’s servant—it doesn’t enter her mind to complain or argue. Her place is to obey.
Because Mary accepts God’s will so calmly here, it would be easy to miss the magnitude of what she is submitting to with these words. This teenage girl who is not yet married is going to become pregnant, in a culture where that was not remotely acceptable. We know whole story—we have heard Gabriel explaining whole situation. We know there was nothing shameful in Mary’s behaviour—far, far from it. But no-one else knew that.
Imagine how difficult it must have been for Mary—to know she had done nothing wrong (in fact that she had been singled out for unprecedented honour by God) and yet to have the neighbours whispering and pointing as she walked down the street. Worst of all, Joseph didn’t believe her. Matthew tells us that ‘Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.’ (Mt 1.19)
Joseph would have felt like any decent man—hurt, grieved, angry, disgusted, disappointed, offended, jealous. How must Mary have felt hearing his words of recrimination and seeing the hurt on his face when she told him. He thought she had committed adultery and then concocted a ridiculous, blasphemous lie to try to cover her shame.
She accepts all of this, on top of the emotional and psychological demands not just of carrying any baby, but knowing her baby is the Son of God! Yet there isn’t a murmur of complaint. “I am the servant of the Lord.” Mary’s words are a challenging expression of tough, resolute commitment to obey God’s word, no matter how demanding it may be.
How willingly do we accept God’s providence in our lives? How submissive are we to his will? How obedient are we to his word? God may ask us to do hard things for him—unpleasant, frightening, painful things. He may call us to do things that seem far beyond our strength and well outside our comfort zone. But if we’re willing, God can use us.
Yet in it all what a great privilege Mary enjoyed. I’m sure she didn’t think of what she endured as a sacrifice. What a blessing, to be the mother of Jesus Christ! Whenever we serve God, no matter what the cost, we never lose out.