Sermon from August 23: Mary the Mother of Jesus

Mary, the Mother of Jesus
Pentecost XII (O. T. 21); August 23, 2020
Mark 3:31-35 (with Luke 1:46-55)

Mary. I once was scolded by a Presbyterian church member for preaching a sermon about Mary. Well, one of you asked me to, and so I’m going to do it again. I wonder what approach you would take if you were asked to talk about Mary. Some of you might talk about motherhood, and the joy and pain it was to be the Mother of Jesus. You have good scriptural basis for that, as Simeon in the Temple said to Mary both that her child would be great – that he was destined for the rising and falling of many – and that a sword would pierce her soul (Luke 2:34-35). Our images at Christmas portray Mary as the contented Mother, happy to have given birth to a baby boy, and our images at Good Friday show her at the foot of his Cross, leaning on the Apostle John for support. You know that Mary.

Perhaps you would like to be theological, and talk about Mary as the one who is the locus for the coming together of Heaven and earth. Mary becomes almost a symbol, more than a person, when she is identified as the Mother of God. A very early conversation in the Church was over the human and divine nature of Jesus, and it was expressed in the question of whether it was proper to refer to Mary in that way, as Mother of God (for those of you who like technical terms, the word is “theotokos”). If you said Yes, then you believed Jesus was truly divine; if you said No, then you didn’t.

I personally am interested in both those approaches, and so I mentioned them. There are probably others we could take. What I propose to do today, though, is look at some snapshots of Mary, some moments in her life that connect with your life and mine.

Mary was a young woman when the archangel Gabriel appeared to her and gave her God’s proposal: that she bear the unique Son of God, who was to be named Jesus. Mary was puzzled; she asked, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) And the angel gave her an answer, of sorts. It was probably the best he could do; after all, matters related to the work of God can be fiendishly difficult to explain.

But that doesn’t mean we should not ask. I had to look, of course, in John Calvin’s work for something that he had to say about Mary, and he set me on this track. When he was writing about the struggle to understand the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, he wrote this, “But, following the holy virgin’s example, we do not regard it as unlawful for ourselves in a difficult matter to inquire how it can take place.”[1] Perhaps when you have asked a question to try understand something difficult, you were rebuffed. One of you told me the story of a classmate being violently removed from a class by the pastor for asking a question that the pastor thought should not have been asked. This event deeply disturbs me; I love it when people ask me questions about God and I fear that when they don’t, it’s because they are no longer interested in trying to understand.

When I lived in Cincinnati, one of my volunteer activities was for the Friends of the Cincinnati Orchestra. I would go into second-grade classrooms in area public schools and use a curriculum to help the kids know something about and appreciate classical music. And once a year we would go to a concert. I remember once riding on the school bus with second-graders to a concert in Music Hall, and the children found out I was a pastor. They asked me questions about God and the Bible the whole way downtown. I was a little uncomfortable – after all, I was there to help them appreciate music and it was a public school outing – but I simply responded to their questions. I remember that fondly because they had questions and they asked them. As John Calvin said, when we have questions about things that are difficult to understand, we should never be afraid to ask them. Mary wasn’t. She was talking with an Archangel, and she wasn’t afraid to ask!

A second image is from the first chapter of the book of Acts. The Apostles were all gathered in the place where they were meeting after Jesus was taken from them into Heaven, and Luke mentions that also present with them were “Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:14). This is an answer to the story I read you from the Gospel of Mark. While Jesus was going about preaching, teaching, and healing, his family was not particularly happy about it. When Mary and his brothers came to see him, Jesus was downright rude. He seemed to reject them, asking, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And he added, “Those who do the will of God are my brother and sister and mother.”

I wonder what it took to bring Mary and his brothers around. The next time Mary appears in the story is at the Crucifixion, when Jesus tells the disciple whom he loved – presumably the Apostle John – to take care of her. What about his brothers? Why aren’t they taking care of her? But John does it, takes her into his household, and tradition tells us that when he went to Ephesus to spread the Gospel she accompanied him. Something brought her around, so that she became not only Jesus’ Mother but also his disciple, one of those who did, as he said, the will of God. And Luke says that his brothers did too; in fact, one of his brothers – James – became so devoted to Jesus that he became the leader of the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13, Galatians 1:19). Mary became Jesus’ Mother by his own definition, the one he thought mattered: she was devoted to doing the will of God. It’s a good reminder that you and I are part of the family of God not because we are born into it; “I’ve been a member of this Church since I was born” is of no importance. What is important is that we are devoted to doing the will of God.

A third picture is represented by the poem that Jean read to you, commonly called by its first word in Latin, “Magnificat.” Sometimes you see in fiction a moment that is of far greater significance than the character realizes. When Bilbo Baggins finds a ring and picks it up; “What’s this?” When Tess of the D’Urbervilles slips the note under the door and it accidentally is hidden under the carpet. You may point to a moment in your life that turned out to have meant more than you knew at the time.

Mary looked at what was happening to her, what appeared simply to be a pregnancy, albeit an unusual one, and she saw enormous social significance. She saw it as a turning point in history, when the lowly would be of greater importance than the powerful, when so-called “losers” are favored over those called “winners.” She saw that what God was doing with her was an example of what God was doing for the world. Somehow, in her mind, it wasn’t about her, but about the amazing work of God.

So, we have Mary the questioner, Mary the follower, and Mary the theologian. She wanted to understand; she wanted to do the will of God; she wanted to see the work of God in her life and beyond her life. One more and I’ll stop: Mary the ponderer. Is that a word? When shepherds told Mary and Joseph and anyone else who would listen what the angel had said to them, Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). She kept that pattern going when she and Joseph encountered Simeon and Anna in the Temple a few weeks later, and then again twelve years later when they took Jesus with them for the Passover and he went missing for a few days. Mary thought about things, she remembered things and pondered them.

Where did Luke get his information for his Gospel? Did he go to Ephesus and talk to Mary in her later years? She probably didn’t keep a diary; she thought back over all that had happened and remembered not only the events but what they meant, the conclusions she came to all those years later. I’m speculating, of course, but I’m in good company.

I think of the many times I have come home from visiting someone: when I meet them for the first time as their new pastor, or when they invite me to call on them, or when I see them in a retirement or nursing home. And I feel such joy at having a soul touch mine, someone who has lived a lot and has shared something of it with me in that brief time. When they tell me what they have treasured, what they have pondered in their heart, and I feel the honor of being invited into the sacred chamber of another’s life. That must have been how Luke felt after talking with Mary, this remarkable woman: questioner, follower, theologian, and one who pondered.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Institutes of the Christian Religion IV, xvii, 25