I want us to think about significance and what makes a person significant.
And by significance, I just mean a person who you would say is blessed basically, someone who is important, someone who is an example to model your life after,someone who is worthy of respect.
The world definitely has ideas about who is worthy of all that and we grow up with those ideas being sort of forced upon us. It is strange when you grow up and you find yourself nervous about meeting someone or excited about someone or respecting someone and you step back and think why do I feel this way about this person and you realize it’s at least in part because you were taught to think that way about them.
Our cultures have different ideas about who is most worthy of respect and who are the kind of people you should model your life after, but usually across the board you are taught to think of significance in terms of money, power, status, education, family background, sometimes even skin color, reputation, what a person has done, what a person has accomplished.
I think that is pretty common.
You might think about some of the people you look to as important, who you would be overwhelmed to meet, who you really look up to, what do those people have in common?
I think that is an important question to ask yourself, to evaluate in yourself, for a couple reasons, one being that the way you answer that question does have an influence on the way you live.
Another being that the Bible, Christianity turns upside down the way we think about significance, or at least it should.
The church has a whole different way of defining significance than the world does. And I think there is hardly any better example of that than what we find here in the first couple of chapters of Luke. Because in these first couple of chapters of Luke, there’s a person, a follower of Christ, that stands out, clearly stands out as someone very significant and someone worthy of modeling yourself after.
This gospel is about Christ of course, there is no one who is in the same class as Him, but Luke also wants to give us an example of how to respond to Christ, remember he’s not just presenting history, he’s preaching history for a response, so as he lays out what happened with Jesus, He’s also pointing out how we should be responding to Jesus and the person he focuses on to show us how to respond, the example, is from a human perspective, the least likely person you would expect to be considered very significant.
I am talking of course about Mary.
When you look at Mary what you find is the absolute most significant thing about the way Luke describes her is her insignificance.
In terms of status, she didn’t have any.
For one thing she is a girl, a young one at that, as we have said before, maybe even only thirteen or fourteen. If she was much older than that, it would be strange because that was the normal time when girls in that day were pledged to be married. And being a girl in those days wasn’t something to be envied. Really, women didn’t have much power at all, girls, young unmarried girls much less. There’s a reason some of the religious leaders in that day would pray, God I thank you that I am not a woman; it’s because being a woman in that culture, was hard.
What’s more, Mary doesn’t seem to come from a family of great significance. She’s not just a girl. She’s just any other girl, really. She definitely doesn’t come from a very important town. She’s from Nazareth, which most people outside of Israel would not have even heard of, and may have been a town of as little as hundred people. A village.
It’s not right, but you think about the kind of person that people are going to listen to as a source of wisdom, look up to, think of as favored, significant, it’s probably not a teenage girl, even today, especially not a young one, not a twelve or thirteen year old; it’s not someone that comes from an insignificant family, and it’s definitely not someone who is from the village.
And so what I am saying is from pretty much whatever way you look at it, Mary measures low on the social status scale.
In fact, if you want to go through the first couple of chapters of Luke and just pick out almost anyone else who is specifically named you are going to find that other people would usually look on her as far below them in terms of importance or significance.
One of the interesting things about the way Luke writes these stories, when he describes the characters, he seems to go to lengths to establish the pedigree and respectability of all the other named characters.
When he talks about Zechariah, Zechariah is a priest, righteous and blameless.
Elizabeth, his wife was righteous too. She also was of the house of Aaron.
Joseph, who hardly plays a role in the way Luke tells Jesus’ story, twice we are told though, he is of David’s household.
Later we will meet Simeon, who is described specifically as righteous and devout.
And then Anna, who Luke points out is a prophetess, a daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher.
But Mary, nothing, except that she’s a virgin and betrothed to be married.
Her insignificance seems to be her primary significance, and yet out of all these other people, in all these stories, she is given the place of the highest blessing, even you might say, besides Jesus, she is given the place of highest status.
And by status, I basically mean that it’s really clear that in Luke’s gospel she’s someone we are supposed to respect and learn from.
As you look at what he writes, there’s a number of ways we see that.
There’s how much he talks about her. That stands out. Of all the other writers who told the story of Jesus, Luke talks about Mary the most. Even Matthew, who also tells the story of Jesus’ childhood, mostly tells it from Joseph’s perspective. Yet with Luke, it’s Mary who is prominent. When he talks about the shepherds coming to visit the baby, he says in 2:16, they found Mary and Joseph, he mentions Mary first. When Simeon blesses Jesus in Luke 2:34, he addresses Mary. In Luke 2:48, when Joseph and Mary go back and are surprised to find Jesus still in the temple, it’s Mary who speaks to Him. Luke mentions Mary something like sixteen times in this gospel. Then there’s the fact that when we meet her, right at the beginning, an angel describes her as favored by God, not once but twice. I have got this thing where I think if an angel calls someone favored by God, then it’s a pretty big deal. Her older relative, Elizabeth agrees, we are going to see that twice, she calls her blessed. And Mary herself says, from now on all generations will call me blessed, which is not a way of bragging about herself, but about God’s grace, man I have been treated in such a stunning way by God. One of the things you look for when you study the Bible is repetition, is there something that is said more than once, and there’s five times here that it is stressed that Mary is favored or blessed by God in a tremendous way.
And if that’s not enough, I think Luke tells a whole story in 1:39-45 to get us thinking a little bit about what it is that we can learn from Mary, what it is that makes her significant like this.
Because this story, really carries with it a little shock.
Now I have to admit, I didn’t see it that way at first. I kind of thought it was a little commonplace really and wasn’t sure what we would find in it, because it’s about these two ladies meeting each other and that didn’t seem all that exciting at first.
But then, I took a step back and tried to think about what was actually happening and I saw that this really is a surprise because what do you have here, really, what you have here at the most basic level is an unmarried pregnant teenage girl who is going to meet with her elderly relative, we can say auntie, and not just any auntie, but her auntie who is married to a priest.
And I wonder, if you think about the story like that, what’s happening here, in your culture, in most religious cultures, how you would imagine that story to go down.
I can tell you.
Nine times out of ten it’s not going to go down well.
What usually happens when unmarried pregnant teenage girls go to visit their religious elderly aunties?
We can play out how it’s usually going to take place in our heads. The young girl is going to go in fearfully. When the aunt finds out what’s happened, she’s going to launch into her, and at the end of the story, the young girl is going to walk away ashamed.
You can even imagine an auntie who was like Elizabeth saying, why can’t you have been like me? I was faithful all these years, and now look at the way God’s taken care of me.
But that’s not what happens at all.
Instead, Mary is wanting to get to Elizabeth, even though she knows it is going to be a hard trip. She’s not presented as fearful. But eager. They say Elizabeth was living something like a hundred miles from where Mary was. So this is a teenage girl going out into the hill country on her own to visit her aunt, and Luke tells us she did it with haste.
In other words, pretty much immediately after the angel made his announcement, she got up to go.
And when she finally gets there and greets Elizabeth, Elizabeth shouts out with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women!”, which is absolutely not what you would expect the older women to say about the younger one. You almost want to look back to the passage to make sure you read it right.
I thought it would be Mary blessing Elizabeth.
It’s even a little funny because Elizabeth is the one who really would have been showing at this point and not Mary.
Mary, if anything is barely in her beginnings of pregnancy and Elizabeth is at least six months along, and this is huge for Elizabeth, she’s been waiting forever for this, and you would expect her to say something like, can you believe Mary what’s happened to me, and you would expect her to focus on the amazing grace that God’s shown her, but as we read this, instead her entire focus is on Mary, she’s saying,“Blessed are you Mary” and “Blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
And then it gets even more intense, because it seems like the older woman is overwhelmed with the privilege of having this teenage girl visit her.
Listen to what she says next,
“And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
Now that’s surprising. That’s not just how you would expect it to work culturally, and what’s more, when you look down at the passage, it’s not just Elizabeth saying this, it is Elizabeth filled with the Holy Spirit, which means really she is prophesying here, this is ultimately God speaking through Elizabeth.
And it makes you ask, when you read that story, at least I think it should, what is it exactly that turns everything upside down like this? What is it that we can learn from Mary? What can we learn from her and from all this about significance and what’s really important in life?
What Luke is doing is holding Mary up as a model disciple.
Mary shows Theophilus and she shows us how we are supposed to respond to the message about Jesus that we are going to be studying in this gospel and I think as we look at Elizabeth’s testimony about Mary we see two things in particular that make her such a model for us as Christians, why she is so significant, and really we learn two lessons about the this gospel about Jesus turns upside down the way we as Christians think about significance, which we will look at tomorrow, but let me summarize simply for now.
When it comes to significance:
What matters is Jesus
What God wants is faith.
And while those two phrases might sounds a little like cliches, I think if we look a little more closely at them, they can completely turn upside down the way we pursue significance.