Sermon 12-20-2020: “Mary, Most Likely to Succeed”

December 21, 2020

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38

In last night’s SEC Championship game, Florida was down by six with seconds remaining on the clock. On this last possession, they had one goal: to advance the ball to midfield—so that Kyle Trask, Florida’s quarterback, could then heave the ball as far as he could throw it toward the end zone. If he were able to do that, many Florida receivers and many Alabama defenders would be gathered at or near the goal line. Florida’s receivers would try to catch the ball, score a touchdown and extra point, and win 53-52; Alabama’s defenders, meanwhile, would simply try to bat the ball down and hold on for a victory.

Florida wasn’t able to run that play, of course. Because time ran out before they reached midfield.

But I do want to talk about this play for a moment. Even if Florida had gotten to midfield, the odds of this play being successful were pretty slim. It doesn’t work very often—sometimes, but not often. It’s considered a desperation play—something you’d attempt only when you have no other options to win the game. 

And the name of this play actually originates from today’s scripture: I’m talking, of course, about the Hail Mary pass. Catholics pray the “Hail Mary” prayer, which we Protestants do not believe in praying—there’s no biblical warrant for doing so. But you’ve likely heard the prayer; I’ve at least heard soldiers pray it in war movies: the first part is “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” And those words come from verse 28: As the King James puts it, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured”—and “highly favored” could also be translated “full of grace”—because to be “highly favored by God” is literally to be “filled with God’s grace.” Our Protestant objection is not with the way Catholics translate those words… only with how they interpret them.

Still, the Hail Mary pass has become associated with at least a couple of high profile Catholic quarterbacks over the years. For example, Roger Staubach famously threw a Hail Mary pass to Drew Pearson to win a playoff game against the Vikings in 1975. And even I remember Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary in 1984 to lead Boston College—a Catholic university!—to an improbable victory over the mighty Miami Hurricanes. Flutie won a Heisman Trophy in part because of that play!

But in a way, it makes sense that this highly unlikely to succeed play has become associated with Mary in today’s scripture… Because no one in their right mind would imagine that God would choose this young woman to fulfill God’s plan of salvation in quite this way.

Mary herself could hardly have imagined that she would play such an important and necessary role in bringing salvation into the world!

To an outside observer, Mary didn’t have a lot going for her; she was “unlikely to succeed”!

After all, the very first thing Luke tells us about Mary in verse 26 is that she’s from a backwater town in a backwater region of a backwater country, and that town was called Nazareth. In all the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, do you know what the prophets had to say about Nazareth. Nothing… Not a thingalmost. At least no one living in or around Israel in the first century interpreted the prophets to be saying anything about Nazareth.

We see the general disdain for the town of Nazareth in John’s gospel when Philip tells Nathanael that he’s just met Jesus of Nazareth, and that Jesus is the Messiah. Nathanael doesn’t say, “Oh, great! The prophecies are fulfilled! Because of course the Messiah is supposed to come from Nazareth!” No, that’s not how he responds. Instead, he says, “Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth!” 

The fact that Jesus was from Nazareth would later be a stumbling block for people believing in him as the Messiah. In John chapter 7, for instance, we overhear religious authorities in Jerusalem arguing about whether Jesus is the messiah. Verse 41: Some of them were saying, “This is the Christ.” And others were saying, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee?” Nazareth was in Galilee… In verse 51, when the Pharisee Nicodemus stands up to defend Jesus, these same authorities ask him, “Are you from Galilee too? Search [the scriptures] and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”

But I said earlier that there’s almost nothing in the Old Testament about the Messiah being from Nazareth. Almost… You see, there is a messianic prophecy in Isaiah 11:1, that compares Israel to a tree stump, and it says, “a branch from its roots shall bear fruit.” That branch was understood to be the Messiah. And the Hebrew word for branch is nēser [nay-sir], which is at the root of the name Nazareth. So Jesus’ hometown is a way of signaling that he is the branch of Isaiah 11:1.

Even more, when Nathanael asked if “anything good” can come from Nazareth, he’s also expressing a popular belief about Nazarenes. They are a byword; they’re viewed with contempt; they’re despised in the eyes of the world. Which reminds us of another messianic prophecy, the suffering servant in Isaiah 53: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men.”

Matthew, in fact, picks up on these ideas when he says, in Matthew 1:23, that the prophets say that Jesus would be called a Nazarene. But the vast majority of Jews living in the first century hadn’t put these prophecies together yet, so they weren’t expecting the Messiah to come from Nazareth.

So Mary’s hometown was one strike against her. And here’s another strike: she was from a poor or working-class family. We infer this, for instance, from Luke 2, when Joseph and Mary present Jesus in the temple forty days after he was born. They have to offer a sacrifice for their first-born son, according to Old Testament law. If financially possible, they’re required to offer a lamb. If they’re poor, however, the Law allows couples to offer two turtledoves—literally pigeons. And that’s what Joseph and Mary do. So Mary was poor. 

What kind of Messiah grows up poor—and not from a prosperous, well-to-do, prominent family? No one would expect that!

And here’s a third strike: She was young! I mean probably 13, 14, 15… That was just the culture! That was the age around which Jewish young women got engaged and married! Joseph was probably only a couple of years older! Yet we would call Mary a child today… She wouldn’t be able to drive a car legally or vote or purchase alcohol if she were American, yet God is calling her to shoulder the heaviest, most important responsibility imaginable: to be the mother of the Son of God!

Well, that’s strike three, but I’ve run out of strikes because I haven’t even gotten to the number one reason that no one would expect Mary to succeed in her mission: And it’s a problem that Luke draws attention to twice in verse 27, not to mention Mary herself in verse 34: She is a virgin. She is engaged to be married, but she hasn’t had intimate relations with Joseph—and she’s not going to until they get married, which would be many months from now!

Yet she rightly interprets Gabriel to be telling her that this pregnancy is going to happen right away!

And if that’s the case, then there’s more than one miracle required for God’s plan for Mary to work out: Not just the fact that Mary, a virgin, will conceive a child and give birth, but that her fiancé will agree to stay with her and marry her, even after he finds out she’s pregnant! Right? Because it’s clear from scripture that Mary and Joseph both know the facts of life. While it’s true that we modern people know a lot about biology than ancient people—we know, for example, about X- and Y-chromosomes and DNA. Mary and Joseph, like everyone else in the ancient world, knew as well as we modern people know today that a woman doesn’t get pregnant without the active assistance of a man!

This is an important point because you will often hear skeptics say that Luke and Matthew “invented” the Virgin Birth because they wanted to say something special about Jesus. So why not give him a miraculous origin story. That assumes, of course, that ancient people were naive and gullible. And they weren’t! Mary’s not. That’s why she wonders how God is going to pull this off! And look at Matthew chapter 1: Joseph’s not gullible either, which is why he plans on breaking off the engagement: Because he knows that women don’t get pregnant without men—and Mary’s pregnant! Which means, from his point of view, Mary cheated on him… Which means someone else is the father.

My point is, Matthew and Luke wouldn’t have “invented” the Virgin Birth because it wouldn’t help their cause! They knew their readers, like Joseph himself, would have a hard time believing in it. They knew that—which means they included accounts of the Virgin Birth for one inconvenient reason: It also happened to be true!

But let’s get back to Mary in today’s scripture: She has a difficult conversation in front of her: “Joseph, I’m pregnant… But let me explain!” Even if Joseph believes her story, people would think one of two things happened: They slept together before marriage or Mary cheated. In either case, people would talk… people would gossip. And Mary would have to live with that shame. Yet somehow, in spite of all that, Mary is being called by God to be the mother of the Messiah, the Son of Most High God, the savior of the world!

You’ve got to admit… It all seems unlikely. Mary seems unlikely to succeed.

On the other hand, isn’t it just like God to do this sort of thing? 

After all, when God first put his saving plan for the world into action, he made a covenant with the least likely person: A 75 year old man named Abraham. God chose this man to start a family that would become God’s covenant people, whose descendants, God promised, would be as numerous as the stars. Never mind that Abraham and his wife were unable to have children back when they were young and of childbearing age. Never mind that they were way too old to be starting a family now. Never mind that another 25 years would pass before Abraham and Sarah would have their promised son. 

No worries! As Gabriel told Mary in verse 37, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” 

Later, when God wanted his people Israel to go and inhabit the Promised Land, there was only one problem: God’s people were slaves in Egypt! No worries! “Nothing will be impossible with God.” 

And when God called Moses to be their spokesman and confront Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world, there was only one problem: Moses had a speech impediment, likely a stutter. And… and… the last time he was in Egypt he wanted for murder. No worries! “Nothing will be impossible with God.” 

Still later, when God needed a brave military leader to conquer the mighty Midianite army, whom does God call? A man named Gideon, who at that very moment was literally hiding in fear from the Midianites down in a winepress—a man who by his own admission was the weakest member of his family! No worries! “Nothing will be impossible with God.” 

And you all remember David, the shepherd boy. Probably 13 or 14 years old… whom God calls to stand up to the mighty Goliath. He’s not even big enough to put on a soldier’s armor. Yet this mere child is supposed to do what the rest of the Israelite army was afraid to do? To fight and somehow defeat the mightiest and largest warrior? No worries! “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Or in the New Testament, how about Paul? Great writer, huh? But listen to what his critics said about him, according to Paul’s own words in 2 Corinthians 10:10: “His letters are weighty and powerful, but his physical presence is weak and his public speaking amounts to nothing.!” Yet this is the same person whom God called to take the gospel to the Gentiles and start churches throughout the known world? No worries! “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

As Paul told the believers at Corinth, “few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. 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 in a way, I guess it makes perfect sense that God chose this very unlikely girl from this very unlikely place to do the unlikeliest thing of all: to bring God’s Son Jesus—God from God, light from light, true God from true God—into the world, to be his mother, to raise him, to prepare him for his future ministry. 

Remember the “senior superlatives” in your class yearbook? “Most popular,” “Most congenial,” “Most intelligent,” “Best Dressed,” “Most athletic,” “Most likely to succeed”? If high school existed back in Mary’s day, literally no one would have voted Mary the young woman “most likely to be the mother of God’s Son.”

And yet… Look what she did! She is remarkable. And not to pick on Catholics, but this is where they often go wrong… They think that Mary’s being “highly favored by God” and “full of grace” means that she is some kind of superhero of the faith… some kind of super-saint… that she is extra extra extra ordinary… that she is especially holy… So we think, “I could never be like her!” Especially when you consider the fact that when she conceived Jesus in her womb, there was literally no human being in history up to that point who had ever been closer to God than her! Think about it! She had God literally living inside her! Growing inside her! God was connected to her! Because remember: Jesus is both fully human and at the same time fully God.

So by all means, none of us will ever do what she did… accomplish what she accomplished… perform what she performed… She had a unique mission that only one person in history will ever be called to fulfill. And she fulfilled that mission beautifully…

But please consider this: If you are in Christ, you literally have God living inside you! What does the Bible say in 1 Corinthians 6? Your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God! If you’re in Christ, the Spirit lives inside you! In fact, if you are in Christ, the Bible says that you too are now “highly favored by God.” Paul uses the identical Greek word for all of us Christians that Gabriel uses for Mary in Ephesians 1:6.

Remember, also, the angels’ message to the shepherds abiding in the field in Luke chapter 2, verse 14: They say, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” And God’s favor rests on us who are in Christ. 

If you’re a Christian, that means you enjoy God’s favor.

Isn’t there a lesson here for us? Maybe you were never voted “most likely,” “most popular,” “best looking.” “funniest…” But look out! That only means you are exactly the kind of person God can use to accomplish great things for his kingdom and for his glory in this world. God isn’t looking for great people! He’s looking for normal people, average people, badly flawed people, broken people, sinful people, people who’ve reached the end of their rope. He’s looking for losers and failures and has-beens… He’s looking for the least likely… People who are unqualified in every way except one… People who, in spite of their lack of qualifications are nevertheless willing to say yes to God when he calls.

Pastor Tim Keller described a Christian conference he attended in college, not long after he became a Christian… One of the speakers at the conference was talking about the meaning of Hebrews 1:3, which says that Jesus Christ “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” She told this group of college students the following:

If the distance between the Earth and the sun—ninety-three million miles—was no more than the thickness of a sheet of paper, then the distance from the Earth to the nearest star would be a stack of papers seventy feet high; the diameter of the Milky Way would be a stack of paper over three hundred miles high. Keep in mind that there are more galaxies in the universe than we can number. There are more, it seems, than dust specks in the air or grains of sand on the seashores. Now, if Jesus Christ holds all this together with just a word of his power (Hebrews 1:3)—is he the kind person you ask into your life to be your assistant?”

Do you ask Jesus to be your consultant? Do you ask him to help you out every once in a while… with this little problem or that little problem? Is he the kind of person who will be there when you need him, but mostly you’re just going to do leave him alone and do things on your own… because mostly you don’t need him. Is Jesus that kind of person?

No! He is the Supreme Lord of the universe… at whose feet you fall down and to whom you surrender your life.

Indeed, he is the One to whom you say, along with Mary in verse 38, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Are you willing to do that this morning? Because, among other things, when you say, “Let it be to me according to your word,” that means that you recognize that God has given you about 750 thousand words to live by—which means you’re willing to devote your life to this book whose very words have been breathed out by God… Which means you’re willing to say, along with John Wesley, “Here I am: I and my Bible. I will not, I dare not, vary from this book, either in great things or small. I have no power to dispense with one jot or tittle what is contained therein. I am determined to be a Bible Christian, not almost, but altogether. Who will meet me on this ground? Join me on this, or not at all.”

Before April came on board as the associate pastor, I had opportunity to talk with her and other candidates for the job of associate pastor here. And one person I talked to was proud to tell me that he was a “big-tent Methodist.” I had to ask clarifying questions before realizing that a “big-tent Methodist” meant that it doesn’t matter so much how you behave and what you believe, just so long as you call yourself a Methodist. 

Needless to say, no one will accuse me of being a “big-tent Methodist”: I aspire to be a John Wesley Methodist… Which means that like him I aspire to be a Bible Christian, a “Bible moth,” a “man of one book”… Which means that like Mary I’m willing by God’s grace to say, “I am a servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”

God let me say it, but even more, God, let me live it!

And if, like me, you aspire to live that way, will you pray with me this prayer that John Wesley gave us…

[Conclude with Wesleyan Covenant Prayer]

I am no longer my own, but thine.

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,

exalted for thee or brought low for thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things

to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,

let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

2 Responses to “Sermon 12-20-2020: “Mary, Most Likely to Succeed””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Great sermon! One particular point of interest to me was your explanation of Matthew’s saying the scripture was fulfilled which says, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Since I never noticed any Old Testament scripture specifically saying that, I have been puzzled. It sounds like to me that you are saying this was a “slang” which was a type of fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy of how we would look at Jesus–despised just like people from Nazareth are. Right? Very interesting.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Tom, one commentator I read points out the significance of the word “prophets” (plural) as a way of showing that it was in keeping with the spirit of messianic prophecy, even if it isn’t any one particular prophecy.


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