Sermon 11-27-16: “Mary, Servant of the Lord”

December 9, 2016


There’s a popular expression in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Expectation is a planned resentment.” Has you seen how this is true in your own experience? What God asks of Mary is beyond any expectations that she had. Yet she’s able to say “yes” to God, not because unafraid or unsure, but because she trusts that God is ultimately in control.

Please note: No video this week.

Sermon Text: Luke 1:26-38

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Last September, there was a marathon near Philadelphia. This marathon is an important qualifying race for the Boston Marathon, so many of the runners who ran it were attempting to do just that—and this race was their last chance. A part of the race course crossed railroad tracks, and wouldn’t you know it? Despite assurances from Norfolk Southern that no train would interfere with the race, about a hundred runners got stopped by a very slow-moving train. For ten minutes. One runner quoted in the article I read missed qualifying for the Boston Marathon by eight minutes—so he would have made it if not for the train!

Can you imagine: Standing there, waiting for a slow train to pass, knowing that every passing second puts you further and further from your goal?

Heartbreaking! I mean, it’s one thing to pull a hamstring, or tear an MCL, or sprain an ankle, or—as I know from experience—suffer plantar fasciitis. These are all runners’ injuries—and runners accept these risks when they run. But to miss out on your dream of running in the Boston Marathon on account of a train, of all things? Who expects that to happen?

No one expects that!

Just like Mary would never have expected this angel to come to her and tell her about the role that she would play in bringing salvation to the world—this awesome privilege and responsibility that she would have have in giving birth to God’s Son Jesus and raising him as her son. Mary has often been called the “first Christian,” and when we consider her faithful response to God, we probably imagine that she’s a much better Christian than we are. She’s up on this pedestal and we’re way down here. We have trouble identifying with her. But in this sermon I want us to see how much we have in common with her.

After all, when the angel Gabriel comes to her, and tells her what’s about to happen, what does Mary do? Does she say, “This sounds great! This is a dream come true! I am totally on board with this plan! I can’t wait to get started!”

I mean, we can infer from this passage that this 13-year-old girl is scared, confused, nervous, uncertain. I’m not saying she isn’t also nervously excited and hopeful, but what does verse 29 say? She was “greatly troubled” by Gabriel’s first words, trying to “discern”—to reason through—what the angel meant. And when Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid”—he says those words because she was, well… terrified. Who wouldn’t be?

Plus, Mary knows the facts of life as well as any modern person: women don’t get pregnant without men. Ancient people knew that as well as we do—even if they lacked the more detailed biological information that we now possess.

I like the way English Bible scholar Tom Wright puts it: “The ancient world didn’t know about X chromosomes and Y chromosomes, but they knew as well as we do that babies were the result of sexual intercourse—and that people who claimed to be pregnant by other means might well be covering up a moral and social offense.”[1] What would people think if Mary, who was engaged but not yet married, said she was pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, that she was still a virgin, and there was no human father? They would think she’s lying to save herself from embarrassment or shame. And this is what Joseph himself thinks is happening when Mary breaks the news to him, as we’ll see when we look at the Christmas story in Matthew’s gospel.

But let’s not be hard on Joseph. Like I said, Mary herself has a hard time believing it, too. Like everyone else, she knew the facts of life. So she asks the angel: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

Notice: Mary isn’t doubting that God will do what he says; she just doesn’t understand how he’ll do it. She wants more information. Mary is saying, “I trust that what you’re telling me is true, Lord, even though it doesn’t make perfect sense to me—or I can’t figure out why you’re telling me this, or why you’re doing this in my life, or why you’re letting this happen. I believe you, Lord, even though I don’t understand it.”

What if we could be more like Mary when it comes to our attitude toward God’s word? What if we just trusted that God knows what’s best for us, whether we like it or not? After all, most of what the Bible says is pretty clear. It’s usually clear what God is telling us to do in his word. Our problem is that when we don’t like what God is telling us, we get very creative about trying to find wiggle room: Here’s why I don’t have to do what God is telling me. Here’s why these words don’t apply to me.

What if we believed—really believed—that our Lord knows what’s best for us?

Because if we did, we would do what we see Mary doing here: we would surrender. Being a Christian—as Mary shows us—means surrendering our lives to Jesus Christ our Lord and king. Surrendering to his will. It means saying, along with Mary, some of the most powerful words in all of scripture: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according your word”—in other words, let your word, God, be fulfilled in me. Not my will but thine be done.

Keep in mind: surrendering our lives the way Mary does is not easy. In the introduction to this sermon, I said that no runner expects to miss out on their dreams because of a slow-moving freight train.

What dreams is Mary missing out on because of this very unexpected event? She dreamed of having a “normal” life with her future husband—like all of her other friends. She’d have a beautiful wedding—like everyone else. She’d settle down in her hometown—like everyone else. She’d have kids—like everyone else. Everything would go according to plan, according to tradition, according to custom—just like it did for her mother, and her mother’s mother, and every other woman she knew. That’s what Mary was hoping for. That’s what she was counting on. That’s what she was expecting.

And then it was as if God sent a proverbial freight train through the center of her hopes and dreams and plans. For one thing, as great a blessing as it was for her to bring God’s Son Jesus into the world, there was no way her family and her fellow townspeople wouldn’t talk. She gets pregnant right away—maybe at this very moment. Assuming Joseph believes her story and doesn’t break the engagement and call off the wedding—and who could blame him if he did—the wedding is still many months away. No one’ going to believe her story about miraculously conceiving without a human father—so she may as well not bother telling anyone! And assuming she’s not showing by her wedding day, people will be able to do the math: “Let’s see… She got married on this date, and had a baby this many months later. It doesn’t add up.” People will know either that she cheated on Joseph or she fornicated with Joseph. Either way, she would be the object of shame, ridicule, and gossip. She could hardly live it down.

So at the very least, she knows she’s facing all that. And oh my goodness… Think of the difficult conversation she’s going to have to have with Joseph! Will he be upset? Will he believe her?

These are the difficult challenges that she knows she’ll have to face, right away. Beyond that, she can’t imagine the difficulties that lay in her future: that King Herod will try to kill her baby, and because of that, she and her family will become refugees in Egypt. She can’t imagine the controversy that will envelop her son and his ministry. She can’t imagine the cross—and watching her son die the most painful, agonizing death on it.

All of this trouble will come to her, sooner or later, because she has the courage to surrender—to say, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according your word.”

But we’re not so different from her… Doesn’t trouble have a way of coming to us? Don’t proverbial freight trains have a way of rolling through our lives and radically altering our own hopes and dreams? Maybe the only difference between us and Mary is the way we respond.

I read this week about a popular saying in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Expectation is a planned resentment.” Expectation is a planned resentment. Is that true?

One Christian thinker puts it like this:

We expect to get the promotion at work, and when we don’t, we are resentful. We expect our fellow motorists to follow traffic laws (and common sense), and when they cut us off, we are resentful. We expect our spouse to meet all our needs, and when they don’t, we are resentful. We expect the church to be a functional, loving institution, and when it isn’t, we are resentful. Yet resentment is useless, like a weapon aimed at a target that always, somehow, boomerangs back at the shooter. And over time, resentment can turn into bitterness, or worse, hate.[2]

When I consider my own life, I can now see that I’ve been, at times, a seething cauldron of resentment—whose culprit was an unmet expectation, a sense that life wasn’t going the way it ought to go; that life wasn’t going according my plans; that it wasn’t fair; that I wasn’t getting what I “deserved.” Worse, I felt as if other people were getting something I wanted, which they didn’t deserve.

When I think about it, I was a lot like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. I mean—before George gets the visit from Clarence the angel. Remember when Mr. Potter offers George Bailey, his business rival—his archenemy—a job? A well-paying job, with lots of perks including trips to Europe—and George always did want to see the world. But “seeing the world” was just one of many dreams that George had to sacrifice when his father died and he got stuck running his father’s Savings and Loan. He gave up his dream of going to college, his dream of being an architect, of building things. Of being a successful entrepreneur.

So when Potter offers George the job, Potter’s message to George is this: You deserve better than you’ve gotten. You’re the one who should have achieved the material success that your classmate achieved. You’re the one who should be the hero that your brother became. Every time you were this close to achieving your dream, George, it’s like a proverbial freight train came through town and kept you from reaching the finish line.

And you’re miserable on account of it.

But brothers and sisters, please consider this: What if God sent the freight train? What if he had some reason we don’t know about—which makes sense because, well, we’re finite and he’s infinite; he knows literally everything and we know very little; he knows the future and we don’t.

Can we trust that God sent the freight train?

And when God sends these unexpected freight trains, and they cross our path—threatening our dreams, our plans, our expectations—can we learn to say: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according your word.” Can we learn to surrender?

1. N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 9-10.

2. David Zahl, “November 22” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 388.

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