Undoubtedly, God had many young Jewish virgins in Israel to consider, but He chose Mary above every one else. That fact in itself is a stunningly profound statement about Mary’s character and faith.
What was it about Mary that made her stand out to God above all others? What did God know about her that we need to honor and imitate? Perhaps who Mary was, and all she faced, is difficult to grasp because of her culture.
She was an Orthodox Jewish girl living in a religious community with strict regulations. Today, with God’s grace available to us, how could we possibly imagine ourselves, or our daughters, in Mary’s position?
She wasn’t part of a local youth group with a cool worship band. She wasn’t contemplating a college degree or a career in medicine. Mary’s lifestyle and the conduct expected of her, cannot be understood by most of us today. But it was holy and as commanded by God.
I ask each of you, just for a moment, to try to put yourself, or someone you love, in Mary's situation. What hazards did Mary face? What was the potential cost of her obedience?
So let's go back to that time in Israel's history and try to learn from the example set by Mary – or Miryam, as she was called in Hebrew.
Close Your Eyes And Imagine...
Mary was a young Jewish girl probably between the age of 12 and 14. She was a virgin saving herself for her marriage. She had long dark hair, olive skin, innocent brown eyes, and strong Mediterranean features.
Mary lived in Nazareth, a small sleepy village in the Galilee region of the Middle East. Nothing much ever happened there. Still everyone knew everything about everybody in Nazareth, especially if they were caught breaking God's moral code!
Life was difficult in Nazareth with harsh Roman rulers in the land, but Mary labored alongside her family to make it. They weren't wealthy, but they were rich in other ways. Mary was raised in a devout Jewish home and knew God's Laws. She loved Him with all of her heart.
Girls in Mary's world weren't taught to read or write, and they married young. A good match was counted on for family survival. So Mary's focus, besides serving God, was to marry a good Jewish man and be an honorable wife and mother. She'd been trained her whole life for marriage. She had learned to weave, clean, harvest, care for children, and to keep a kosher kitchen. She had been trained to prepare the very important Sabbath meal, and the more elaborate Holiday Feasts.
Mary was taught a woman's role in Jewish prayers and blessings, and like all Jewish people she was waiting for the promised Messiah to come and deliver their people from tyranny and bondage.
I'm sure Mary often thought, "Oh if the Messiah would only come rescue us soon!" How could she even imagine that as a poor, unmarried teenager she would play a central part in God's mysterious plan to bring the Messiah to earth?
Now as it happened, a godly man named Joseph asked Mary's father for her hand. Suddenly she was engaged -- a legal contract so binding in Jewish Law that only divorce could dissolve it. Mary and Joseph were not actually married or intimate yet, but they were betrothed and their fidelity was promised to each other.
During their betrothal if Mary was unfaithful to Joseph he could take her before the religious leaders and have her legally stoned to death for adultery. Mary had seen women stoned before and it was a long, slow, bloody death. But she wasn't worried. She was pure and had no desire to change that until her wedding night.
This was a very exciting and joyous time in Mary's life. A big wedding was being planned and all of her childhood dreams were about to come true. She especially wanted her mother and father to feel honored in Nazareth by her purity -- and by such a godly man seeking her hand. Mary was about to become a woman and finally take her place as a beloved wife in her village!
But God had something a bit different in mind.
A Sovereign Vessel
What Mary didn't know when she was betrothed to Joseph, was that she was to become a sovereign vessel of the Lord. Of course, sovereign vessels are chosen very carefully. Not just any devoted Jewish virgin would do when it came to conceiving and raising God's only Son -- the Savior of the whole world. God wanted a girl He could trust all the way to the end -- someone who'd already proven her character.
God needed the very best. And what made Mary the best? That question reminds me of a very old movie I saw years ago. This movie was an allegory and in one part God needed someone to do an important job on earth. He asked the angel Gabriel for advice on who to pick. Gabriel said to God, "Well, do you want the SMARTEST or the HOLIEST?" God firmly replied, "I want the HOLIEST! I can MAKE him SMART!" Of course it was a just a movie, but I loved the way it was put.
I think it’s safe to assume that God knew Mary was the very best Jewish maiden in all of Israel to become the mother of Jesus -- and to endure all that was to follow. He saw her sincere and holy devotion to Him… knowing those qualities would equip her to hear and obey, even when she didn't understand. That kind of trust in God would carry her through the turbulent and unexpected course of her own life, and the life of her firstborn son.
Now imagine this. Mary was all alone one night, perhaps praying or romantically dreaming about her upcoming marriage. Suddenly her room filled with a blazing light and the magnificent angel Gabriel appeared before her, with some very startling news, recounted below:
"God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth... 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.
"Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "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. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." (Luke 1:26-33)
This was a mind-boggling message for anyone to hear, especially a teenager! Surely Mary had felt the powerful presence of God many times before -- in her times of prayer and worship, and during the usual Jewish traditions practiced in her home and at her Synagogue. She knew the Lord intimately, and was familiar with His presence. And this was a fact God was counting on!
Still, Mary had a question for Gabriel. She knew God didn’t mind questions, and she needed clarity before she answered Gabriel. Her question was practical not one of doubt. Mary was thinking clearly during this profound angelic visitation and handling it in a wise and mature way. Mary asked Gabriel how she could "be with child and give birth to a son," since she was saving herself for marriage. She says it best:
"How will this be," Mary asked him, "since I am a virgin?" "The angel answered, "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." (Luke 1:34,35)
Then Gabriel kindly tossed in a bit more information. Perhaps he knew Mary might find it important to confirm his words. "Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God." (Luke 1:36,37)
You could probably hear a pin drop in that room. Mary had a moment to respond, but it must have felt like an eternity. In an instant I'm sure she tried to count the cost of being pregnant before her marriage -- her family's good name, her reputation, Joseph's love and respect. And possibly a horrible humiliating death by stoning if Joseph rejected her. And even if Joseph did not insist on her death, her supposed adultery would forever make her undesirable as a marriage partner.
Mary's options flashed through her mind. What she would tell Joseph, her friends and family? Maybe, she thought, "I'll just tell everyone the truth. An angel showed up and I'm pregnant... but I haven't been unfaithful." Or perhaps, "God put this baby in my womb. It's His Son Jesus and He is the Messiah of the world, the One our people are all waiting for..." Even to her it all sounded like a bunch of pretty lame lies. Could anyone possibly believe her?
One thing was for sure -- Mary needed to respond. She couldn't know the full cost, but she knew enough about trusting God to answer. Certainly she could feel the powerful presence of the Lord as she had many times before. But what would her response be? Yes or no?
Mary answered, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." (Luke 1:38) Without passing this initial test we wouldn't be reading about Mary in the Bible today. But I think God had a pretty good idea about the answer she'd give.
Mary Leaves Town
There was no turning back now. Mary's submission to God might put everyone she loved in the path of a horrendous scandal. I don't think she wanted to face anyone, especially Joseph, before she could gather her thoughts and composure. Gabriel had told her that Elizabeth was pregnant.
If I were Mary, I'd want go check that out for myself! If it was true, it would be totally reassuring! So Mary did what most of us would do. She made some excuse and immediately left town to visit Elizabeth!
"Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed:
"Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished." (Luke 1:39-45)
Immediately the truth of the matter was confirmed. Then from Mary's lips tumbled one of the most beautiful and humble prayers recorded in the Bible. Remember she is 12-14 years old and cannot read. Her spontaneous prayer gives us a window into her heart -- and an inkling of why God chose her above all others. No one, of any age, could have prayed this way without having a deep intimacy with God.
Mary declared, "My soul glorifies the Lord And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed For the Mighty One has done great things for me. Holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him. From generation to generation He has performed mighty deeds.
“With his arm He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel Remembering to be merciful To Abraham and his descendants forever. Even as he said to our fathers." (Luke 1:46-55)
From our lips, our heart speaks. Mary could finally rejoice! She was now 100% certain her visitation wasn't a dream. She wasn’t crazy! And seeing Elizabeth's husband, Zechariah, using frantic sign language was perhaps a humorous postscript. (When the angel Gabriel visited Zechariah, a well-read priest, to tell him his barren wife would conceive, unlike Mary, he doubted God. So as a sign, Gabriel left him unable to speak until their son was born and named.)
Home To Face The Music
Mary stayed with Elizabeth three months before she returned home. She'd had time to pray and was ready to face Joseph, her family and everyone else. It's unclear what Mary said, but when Joseph heard her seemingly crazy explanation he was sure she was lying -- and didn't want to marry her. He was a good man and didn't want her stoned to death, so he planned to divorce her quietly, and just slip out of the picture.
Joseph must have been shattered. The woman he loved and trusted totally betrayed him. He couldn't believe his beautiful Mary was pregnant! I'm sure Mary was devastated too. I imagine she cried out to God with a holy desperation. She had trusted God to work everything out and most likely begged Him with tears to intervene immediately -- and He did!
The Lord sent an angel to Joseph in a dream. The angel said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins." (Matt 1:20,21)
When he woke up he knew the dream confirmed Mary's explanation. Not a lot is known about Joseph, except he was also hand chosen by God to care for and protect Mary and Jesus -- and to hear and obey God the many times He would give him specific guidance during their lifetime. With this dream Joseph passed his first of many tests.
So Joseph took Mary as his wife, but all of Nazareth must have had some lingering questions. Did Mary ever tell anyone what happened? She clearly wasn't into protecting herself -- but she would protect the Holy seed of God she carried in her belly.
Pregnant, Married, On The Move
At this time the ruling Roman Empire called for a census, which required everyone to go to their place of birth and register. Since Joseph was born in Bethlehem he and Mary were forced to make the 80-mile desert journey from Nazareth -- when Mary was in her ninth month.
Imagine Mary's discomfort and concern. She'd never had a baby and was certainly counting on being with her mother and girlfriends to coach her along. Traveling over bumpy rocks and hills to Bethlehem must have been painful and frightening. What if she had her baby in the middle of the desert? Still, she followed her husband and trusted God.
When the couple arrived in Bethlehem, things got worse. Mary went into labor and there was no place for them to stay. You know the story. If Mary wanted to get really mad at God, this would have been the perfect time! Did He expect her to give birth on a street corner? What was God thinking? But there is no record of Mary complaining... only one of yielding and trusting.
Before the night was over God did provide a place - a stable. So there they were, Mary and Joseph, about to give birth to the Savior of the world, the King of Glory -- in a most inglorious place. Not to mention unclean, uncomfortable, cold and lonely. It must have smelled of urine, manure, rotting hay, and stinky animals.
But it was in this humble place that our Lord Jesus was born. He was wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough for a cradle. It marked the beginning of His journey on earth. It was also the beginning of Mary's joys and sorrows as His mother.
The only visitors that came were the ones God sent. Some shepherds from a nearby field arrived. They were the rough-necks of their day, but had heard angels singing in the night sky about Jesus’ birth and came to worship Him. And some Gentile astronomers also arrived. They were not part of Jewish life at all, but had read the heavens from afar and recognized the coming of a miraculous event! They started their journey towards the star over Bethlehem many months earlier and arrived just in time to worship Jesus, and bring Him gifts more meaningful than silver spoons and booties.
According to Jewish Law, eight days after birth, when pain tolerance is at it’s peak, Jesus was circumcised. About a month later they took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to be presented to the Lord. While there, a devout man named Simeon recognized Jesus as the Messiah. He also gave a frightening prophecy to His young mother.
Simeon told Mary, "A sword will pierce through your own soul also." (Luke 2:35) She must have wondered what that meant, but it was one more thing for Mary to hide in her heart. All she could do was continue trusting God to orchestrate the future.
Meanwhile, King Herod heard the Jewish Messiah had been born and jealously ordered the slaughter of every male child aged two or under living in or near Bethlehem. But God had given Joseph another angelic dream telling him to take Jesus and His mother to Egypt where they'd be safe from Herod’s sword. But they were now refugees and on the run.
After King Herod died the Lord sent Mary and Joseph back to Israel, then guided them home to Nazareth. Now among family and friends, Mary and Joseph, who was a carpenter, raised Jesus. Many years passed and perhaps for them it began to seem more like a normal life after so much drama in their early years together. The privilege of raising Jesus to manhood must have been phenomenal. What an incredible and awesome responsibility!
Many scholars believe Joseph died during Jesus' teenage years because the Bible simply stops mentioning him. So now Mary would endure the heartbreaking loneliness of being a widow, and a single mother too – either one being enough to crush a woman’s heart on it’s own. But she was also a mother with many treasured secrets hidden in her heart about her son Jesus.
As Jesus grew He continued to demonstrate the gifts that would eventually take Him away from His mother and Nazareth. I’m sure Mary must have felt it coming too as Jesus had begun gathering men to train and disciple in the ways of God. They all ended up at a wedding in Cana together and Mary must have had an urging from God when she insisted Jesus come to the rescue of the hosts who ran out of wine. Jesus reluctantly performed his first miracle, which led to the expansion of His earthly ministry. And further exposure of His calling.
As the fulfillment of Jesus' destiny drew closer, I’m sure Mary needed to give Him a greater release in her own heart. He'd lived at home for about 30 years. Now He would be thrust onto the center stage of human history -- and sent forth. Sadly, when Jesus returned to Nazareth with His message, He was poorly received. Mary must have had stabs of pain in her heart to see her son rejected by their friends and relatives.
We don't really know how much contact Jesus had with Mary once His ministry kicked into high gear. We know Mary sought Him out at least once while He was teaching in a home. Jesus didn't go outside to see her. Mary probably felt a strong sting of rejection, but perhaps the pangs of separation came in stages for the sake of building endurance for the coming sorrows.
I'm certain Mary kept track of Jesus, as any loving mother would. And that she kept talking to God about the things hidden in her heart. However their lives together as mother and son had shifted radically, forever.
As the pain of the ultimate sorrow was set in motion, Mary must have comforted herself by remembering God's promise that Jesus was the Messiah. How will this be, she must have asked, as she did at the beginning with the angel Gabriel. Perhaps like His followers she was waiting for Jesus to set up His government, but she also remembered Simeon's word about a sword piercing her soul. Was that what she’d been feeling or was something worse yet to come?
I think these might have been the most challenging times for Mary since her visit from Gabriel. It is where she would need every bit of character, wisdom, faith and self-control that God had woven into her heart for over four decades.
Then Jesus was betrayed and arrested. In Jerusalem when Jesus was scourged within an inch of His life and the crowd cried out for the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus how did she maintain? Did she see Him scourged? Did she follow helplessly by His side as He stumbled bleeding, down the Via Dolorosa? Mary was probably there to see almost everything because we know for sure that she was at her son’s crucifixion.
At The Cross
Mary was a powerful and courageous witness to her own child's execution. Did she know He would rise from the dead? The disciples certainly didn't understand. Mary must have watched in unbearable sorrow as long dirty nails were hammered into her Son's wrists and ankles. She must have gasped in horror as the wooden cross was raised high, then roughly dumped into a hole in the ground, causing the nails to tear at her son’s flesh.
Mary knew this inhumane, torturous Roman execution was reserved only for the most despicable criminals. Her son was nothing like that. How Mary bore this grief I cannot imagine. As Mary watched, perhaps all the promises she had believed -- the very things she'd based her whole life on -- were being nailed to that cross with Jesus.
The Romans hammered a sign on top of the cross saying, "King of the Jews." But where was His promised throne? Wasn't His Kingdom going to last forever? Did Mary's heart cry out, son, why won't you save yourself? But Jesus said and did nothing in His defense. Surely, the most broken of all hearts in the crowd that day had to be that of His mothers.
Have you ever wondered if it was Mary who lovingly wove Jesus His rare seamless tunic? The very tunic the Centurions who crucified Jesus were gambling for. Whether she did or not, to watch people throwing dice for your dying child's clothing would certainly bring unspeakable anguish. She showed great courage simply by being there. But there was no way she would abandon Him in His death. She had said YES to God over 30 years earlier and she wasn't going to change her mind now.
Perhaps only a mother who has unjustly lost a child to a violent death could come close to understanding her pain. Mary gave birth to a naked baby, while hidden in an obscure and dirty stable. And now she was with Him at His death while He hung naked on a dirty cross on a busy highway. His nakedness was not hidden this time. On this day crowds were gawking and mocking Him. And maybe worse, preoccupied travelers passed in total ignorance of what was actually taking place. Spiritual history in the making.
Enduring To The End
Mary did indeed endure to the end. At the foot of the cross her sister and Mary Magdalene and the young disciple John were together. They were the only ones close to Jesus who were mentioned. The Bible says, "When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home." (John 19:26,27) Having made sure He provided for His mother's care, and for John's devastated heart, Jesus died.
After Jesus was resurrected He walked the earth for 40 days appearing to His disciples and many others, which I'm sure, included His mother. We know Mary continued on as part of the Early Church. She is mentioned as being at a prayer meeting in the Upper Room where, "They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary, the mother of Jesus..." (Acts 1:13,14)
A Mother In Israel
Mary's turbulent life built within her a deep treasure of experience, wisdom and faith. Surely she used it to encourage the young believers around her. I can imagine them pressed close to Mary saying, "Please tell us again about Jesus as a child! And your visitation with Gabriel, and Elizabeth's baby, and the stable, and Joseph's dreams, and Simeon, and Egypt and..."
The persecution of the Early Church was intense. But Mary was again willing to be in the center of dangerous controversy. She again put her life on the line to follow God. She died to her reputation years before to endure gossip, hardship, and unfair judgments. She bravely watched her son and her Savior executed. Mary was continually willing to submit to God and pay the price to be on the cutting edge of God's desire for the ages.
Mary meant it when as a teenager she pledged, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." (Luke 1:38) She said yes back then and she never stopped saying yes to God.
Mary was favored among all women. But to whom much is given, much is required. Her personal sacrifice for that honor is something no other woman will ever have to make. For this and much more, Mary's faith and devotion to God is eternally worthy of our awe and imitation. Her life is an example of God's faithfulness to us when we follow Him with total abandon.
Mary's life of remaining faithful during suffering and adversity should always be an inspiration and challenge for all of us – young or old, male or female -- to be willing, steadfast, and faithful to walk in humility and trust even when we don’t understand. Mary was easily the most faithful and devoted woman of God in her generation – and perhaps of all time.
(painting of Mary by Ron DiCianni, used by permission)
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