Some people think of Lent as a dark time – to repent and journey to Christ’s crucifixion. It IS a time of introspection, a time to take a faith life accounting, a time to get honest with ourselves and with God. It IS a time of stripping away things that separate us from God and trying out new practices to build up our walk with Christ. At the beginning of Lent it is cold and dreary and drab. But by Easter, we have had some warm sunny days and the season of new life, the season of Spring, has begun. Lent is my favorite time of the year.
Lent is defined as the 40 days (not including Sundays) leading up to Easter. It developed from the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness leading up to his ministry. Like Jesus, we are to spend this wilderness time in prayer and fasting and charity.
Lent IS a time of repentance when we put to death those parts of ourselves that don’t conform to God’s will, when we unlearn attitudes and habits that put a barrier between us and God. Lent IS time set aside for us to be reborn in and through Christ, a time for intentional development of habits and virtues through which our minds are renewed, our bodies controlled, our selves transformed. Lent is a time for learning and practicing moderation, patience and generosity.
And this year for Lent we have a very special guide for our journey. Based on a book called Blessed Is She, Mary the mother of Jesus, will guide us toward being faithful disciples. We will look to Mary to see the perfect example of a faithful servant, a humble disciple and a devoted and loving mother. Scriptures about Mary are usually only read and studied during Advent and Christmas. So, we will blessed to look at her with new eyes and new hearts. There is much to learn from the mother of our Lord and so let’s open our Bibles now to the Gospel of Luke, chapter one.
As you all may remember, Mary is not a central figure in the Gospels, John does not even call her by name. And so I give thanks to Luke. With a focus on people who live on the margins of society, Luke found the young, engaged Mary to be an important person for us to know as we attempt to understand Christ. Luke’s gospel is not so much for the saints, the powerful, people who have it all together. Luke crafted his gospel for the sinners, for the broken, for people like me and perhaps like you. Luke’s audience was made up of people attracted to Jesus’ words and example, but conscious, at the same time, of their place on the periphery of organized religion, people who identified with the likes of shepherds, Roman officers, and pregnant teenagers.
Luke introduces Mary within Elizabeth and Zechariah’s story. They were not the first couple to have infertility problems in the Bible – we also remember Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Manoah and his wife, and Elkhannah and Hannah. Zechariah and Elizabeth join a line of infertile couples chosen by God to advance God’s plan through a son.
In his conversation with Zechariah, the Angel Gabriel described what the baby John would grow up to be like. He would be like Samson in some ways strong, eating bugs and such and like the prophet Elijah in other ways. The story as told Luke anticipates that a mighty act of God, similar to other mighty acts in the Old Testament, is about to happen. The opening verses of Luke are formatted like similar to the prophets like Jeremiah and Amos. Elizabeth’s words in verse 25 are Rachel’s words found in Genesis, “the Lord has taken away my disgrace.”Over and over through the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, Luke shows how God is still active – still creating – still performing miracles – just like the stories of old from the Scriptures.
And through Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary is introduced. The parallels in the two stories are powerful. Mary and Elizabeth should not be able to conceive. Zechariah and Mary were troubled by the angel’s appearance. The Angel Gabriel calls by them by name offering words of comfort. And the two birth announcements follow the same pattern: an unexpected birth was declared, the name was given, the future was foretold, and the role of Holy Spirit was described. Zechariah and Mary both questioned Gabriel’s words and received a sign. Mary’s story is woven into to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story and is therefore also connected to the greater stories of the Old Testament, and the great story of our faith in the One true God.
Elizabeth and Zechariah were blessed with a son in their old age and they deserved it. Zechariah was a priest who devoted his life to God. Elizabeth was a good priest’s wife who grew up in a priestly family. Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous people who had prayed for the blessing of a baby. And so it was good and well deserved that Elizabeth conceived in her old age.
Scripture has many stories of faithful people who received blessings they deserved. We think of Job, who after terrible suffering, received twice as many blessings than in his early days and lived a long, full life. We remember Esther who risked her own life to save the Hebrew people and who was rewarded with a good life and with the holiday Purim still celebrated by Jews today. We think of David who faithfully listened to God and was given power and great responsibility and quite a legacy. We remember Solomon who asked God for wisdom instead of riches and for his faithfulness received wisdom and riches and power. We remember Ruth who faithfully cared for her mother-in-law and was rewarded with a husband and a son. Righteous people should receive the blessings of God.
Mary’s story is introduced in the midst of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s story. And while Mary’s story has many similarities, it is set apart by the differences. Zechariah had been praying for a child, if Mary was praying for anything, it was NOT a child. Infertility has precedence in the Old Testament; Mary’s virgin conception is the first of its kind. John will be great in God’s sight, but Jesus’ greatness is not measureable. John was made holy by Nazirite vows, Jesus was holy through holy conception. John prepared the way of the Lord; Jesus was the Lord. Gabriel greets Zechariah by name but Mary is called “Favored One.”
Luke weaves the story of Mary into the old stories of the faith while at the same time setting her story apart as something beautifully and powerfully unique. Mary is the Favored One. The young unmarried girl becomes God’s Favored One. But God has a history of using unlikely women to build God’s kingdom. Rehab was a prostitute who became a spy for Jacob aiding in the conquering of Jericho. Sarah, too old to have a baby, gave birth to Isaac. Tamar, widowed twice, prostituted herself to her father-in-law Judah becoming pregnant with an ancestor to King David and therefore also to Jesus.
God has a history also of using unlikely men to build God’s kingdom. When God called Moses, he tried everything he could think of to get out of leading the Hebrew people from slavery. Jonah was such a cowherd; he jumped on a ship to get away from God. David was a small, young shepherd boy when God called him to be king of Israel.
God has a history of using unlikely people to build God’s kingdom. God has a history of choosing people who were not righteous, who were not faithful servants, who were not deserving of blessings. Mary was called Favored One. But what had she done to deserve such a title? Had she served God faithfully, sacrificing, giving, praying, fasting…? She was a young teenager. She had done nothing to be called God’s favored One. She had done nothing to deserve the blessing of being the mother of the Son of God. She was unlikely, she was undeserving and yet – God chose her. God chose Mary and called her Favored One.
This, my friends, is what is known as grace. God’s grace and it pours out on all of us. Like Mary, we do not deserve it – we have done nothing to earn it, did not even ask for it, and yet God also blesses us with special names and calls us to greatness through service.
And while Mary had not prayed to become the mother of God, had done nothing to deserve the new title; once chosen, Mary WAS faithful. She did not run away or make excuses. She answered God’s call and became a faithful disciple, a faithful servant, and a good example for us to follow. And faithfulness will surely bring blessings. Even if Mary was not righteous and faithful before she was visited by the angel, she was very faithful once she was called. Being the mother of the son of God must have come with many blessings and rewards – right; a life of ease, some comforts, some recognition and a lot of respect?
NO – she was not rewarded for her faithfulness, she was not given an easy life or comfort or ease. She would give birth in a barn, live as a refugee in Egypt so that her baby boy would not be killed, and then witness as the world questioned her son’s motives, rejected him, arrested him, beat him and nailed him to a cross to die. And the angel called her “Favored One.”
But that is how it is and we should not expect anything different. Look at Gandhi – peaceful and kind – faithful to God and he was killed. Martin Luther King Jr – devoted servant of God his whole life long – murdered. Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, as well as the saints in our own lives – kind, loving, peaceful, faithful to God with no reward for it.
Sometimes without realizing it, we examine our faith with our worldly eyes, with lens given to us by society and we think there is something we can do to earn God’s blessings –but there is not. And even worse, we think that when we are faithful, when we are righteous, when we do the right things and care for each other and are wholly and completely devoted to God – we will receive blessings – there will be rewards – we will have an easier time of it – a longer, nicer life.
But we find that is not the case. Life does not get easier when you follow Christ. You are not blessed in a special way. You do not get special treatment. What you do receive – what Christ does offer you – is community.
Mary’s story is woven into Elizabeth and Zechariah’s story which is woven into the greater stories of our faith. Jesus’ life begins in community and it ends in community. And that is where he calls us to be also. To struggle with each other through the hardships of life and to celebrate with each other in the happy times. He calls the community to bear our burdens as we bear their, to forgive our sins as we forgive others, to pray for us, with us and at times instead of us.