As I write this, many are preoccupied with the preparations surrounding Christmas. There is a sense of anticipation, especially among children, of what gifts they may receive. Celebrations are being held, loosely connected to the birth of Jesus the Messiah King and the Son of God. It is also the time of year when I turn my attention to Mary herself and the role she played in God’s plan of salvation. In the light of the events which would follow the birth of her first-born, her responsibilities were great and her influence on her son, our Lord Jesus, profound.
The response by Mary to the angel’s announcement that, “The Holy Spirit will come on 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,” is simply amazing.
She replies, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:35, 38). She offers herself as a willing servant to God’s purpose. She demonstrates a quiet, but firm faith, that expresses itself in obedience to God’s bigger purpose which will provide the way by God to reconcile humanity to himself through the death of his Son.
Faith, in response to God’s calling, is a characteristic not just of Mary, but of all those who know God personally through Christ. It is a defining characteristic of the Christian’s walk with God (2 Cor 5:7; Hebrews ch 11). The same Holy Spirit who worked within Mary, is the same Person who works within us, producing the fruit of God’s works and his character in our lives – and also faith in God’s bigger plan for this world.
The faith of Mary and indeed every Christian, looks beyond the circumstances of the present time, but it is not ‘positive thinking’. It is to look to God, to recognise his power, his promises, and his desire to bring all people to know the Son he sent that we celebrate at this time of the year. Faith is to see what God’s plan and purposes are which lie beyond the current obstacles which preoccupy us. Jesus himself said, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.” (Mark 11:22-23).
The opposite of faith is not doubt though. It is fear. Doubt is an uncertainty, an unsettled state of mind, whereas fear denies God’s ability to fulfil in our lives and this world, the purpose he has, as God, for it. Fear occurs when we shift our attention away from God’s character (what he is like), and his promises, onto our desire to keep something that is holding us back from going further with him. We prefer the known, what is cherished, and what provides stability and peace in our lives.
Mary had every reason to fear what God was asking of her. For a start there was her reputation. She ran a real risk of being known as a woman with loose morals. How would she explain to Joseph the cause of her swelling body? Her cherished marriage would be unlikely – as indeed it was when he discovered her pregnancy and considered annulling their engagement (Matt 1:18-23). Where would she live? The course of events she was being invited to participate in would not necessarily provide the stability to raise a family. And there would be all the normal questions an expectant, young woman would want to know about the birth process that created uncertainty. Her sense of peace would be unsettled by the words of the angel. Everything in her world was about to turned upside down if she responded to what God was inviting her to participate in. Yet, she lays these fears and questions aside, and gives her assent to God’s bigger purpose, trusting in God for the outcome.
At Christmas time, we not only see the angel appearing to Mary, to shepherds watching over their flocks, to Joseph who is confused and wrestling with what he is to do with his pregnant betrothed, we hear the angel’s voice. Each time we hear God’s voice, inviting us to participate in his bigger plan, it creates faith. Our hearts are settled. Peace floods us. The impossible is possible. The obstructions can be overcome and the challenges broken down into their various parts and dealt with. Mary’s faith enabled her to look at the possibility, to re-imagine a future which we are still talking about today. The questions she might have had and possibly did have after the event, were dissolved.
I heard once, when I was still a boy, a conversation between my father and a former English Spitfire pilot of the Second World War. They shared in common an interest in building boats and crayfish. Cray fisherman were often in financial difficulties or in legal difficulties, appearing before the magistrate for drunk driving or disorderly behaviour at the pub. So knowing my father with his legal skills as a solicitor was to one’s advantage; a little bit of time nattering about the fishing season or the work on his boat was time well spent and would often result in a discount.
He had, like many of his generation, heard the call, not considered the cost and trained as a fighter pilot for the RAF. One thing he said about the pilots was that they preferred to select and train the young men – those in their late teens and early twenties because their reflexes, their reaction to responding to a dog fight in the air were quicker than an older man. Younger men were open to learning; they did not question everything. Once however they had been shot down, they were often given other duties because they became more hesitant, conservative in their decision making slower and unable to maintain a ‘gung ho’ attitude of ‘we can do it’. As we get older, we become slower, more conservative, less inclined to be a risk taker, less likely to expect God to do new things and more likely to be resistant to change. Young men are not. They ask ‘how’, not ‘why’. Mary, being young, was like those young Spitfire pilots in that she had a ‘we can do it’, attitude; she was willing to be risk taker for God’s plan to be accomplished.
Whatever our age, we need to allow the story of Mary’s encounter with the angel and her faith filled response of acceptance, to be one which renews our youthful willingness to be risk takers again, in faith, to live in anticipation that we are giving ourselves to God’s bigger purpose which began at Bethlehem and continues to all the nations.
The often quoted verse, “God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him, should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16), highlights God’s interest and love was not just for the sheep in the fold, like Israel, but those outside, beyond it – the nations. This is surely then, the meaning of the Christmas message and explains why the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is not just a celebration for us, but for others as well. They too have been given the opportunity to share in the blessings and privilege of a deep and meaningful relationship with God, through the birth of Jesus Christ our Lord.