Friday, December 25, 2020

Did Mary Have Any Idea of What Was Coming?

Devotional on Luke 1:26-55[1]

The original painting is by Jean Bull Seiwell (1919-2010), copyright 1960 Jean Risley.

The guest blog is by Rev. Dr. Jean Risley, a retired Presbyterian pastor who has had three different careers over a lifetime, one in technology, one in business management, and the final one in ministry.  She received the D. Min. and M. Div. from Andover Newton Theological School and served churches in solo and interim pastorates. She has written A Place Where Everybody Matters (why small churches provide a good place to live out one’s faith and grow in discipleship) and Recovering the Lost Legacy (what Jesus and Paul said about righteousness, law, and behavior and clarifies what life changes new non-Jewish Christians were expected to make).  Her current goal is to help people get to know Jesus better through her website at


Mary’s a person who has always interested me.  We usually see her through the experiences in her life that were the result of her being the mother of Jesus.  As a child, she had the potential to become a good mother, and God knew that she had the ability to grow into all the rest.  But I’m caught by the child that Mary was, before any of the miraculous events began to unfold.

I used to wonder sometimes what would have happened, if Mary had turned down the role of mother to the Son of God.  I had this picture of what life would be like for us if the chosen mother had not been up to the challenge and had said, “Sorry, I don’t think I can handle it.”  I don’t think I would have blamed her either.  I once said to a priest friend that we were lucky that Mary decided to take the job, and he answered, “What makes you think she was the first one to be asked?” 

 Oh, my.  Can you imagine being one of the women who might have turned this offer down?  What would it have been like to hear about the great teacher and know that he could have been your own child?  Can you imagine living with the knowledge that you turned down an angel from God, that you gave up the chance to have God’s Son as your own child?   Wouldn’t you feel sorry for someone who had to live with that lost opportunity? Fortunately for us, Mary was willing to take on the opportunity and the challenge.

Mary was quite young when the angel Gabriel approached her.  We know that she was engaged, and in our culture that might lead us to think that she was at least in her late teens or early twenties.  In fact, in her culture, most girls were engaged at the age of twelve.  Most marriages were arranged, and a girl might or might not even know the man she’d been promised to spend her life with.  Girls were usually married by age fourteen or fifteen, well before most of us were even out of school.  So, when we see a young girl playing Mary in a Christmas pageant, she might easily be the same age as Mary was herself at the time when Jesus was born.

Think of Mary as a girl in middle school, about to move on to high school.  She would have stayed home, of course, since girls of her time didn’t go to school.  She would have worked with her mother at taking care of the house and family.  She would have helped with cooking and cleaning, tended any smaller children, and run errands for her mother.  Her friends wouldn’t have called her Mary, though.  When she went to the well for water, her friends and neighbors would have called her by her Hebrew name, Miriam.  Miriam was a distinguished name even in Mary’s time.  It’s written in the book of Exodus, that “the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.  And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:20-21).[2] Mary, like her namesake Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, is about to be a joyful witness to the miraculous working of God in the world.

There’s nothing in the Scripture to indicate that Mary was anything more than an ordinary girl.  She wasn’t a princess or noblewoman, and she wasn’t a servant or a slave.  The life she could expect was one of an ordinary wife and mother, caring for her home, her husband, and her children. 

This was so much the normal expectation for a woman’s life in those days, that we most often hear about the times when that expectation was not fulfilled.  From the time of Hannah to the time of Elizabeth, the woman most to be pitied was the woman whose family was not complete with children.  For Mary, having children and spending her time caring for them, was both an expectation and a hope.  If she had any special wishes for her future, Mary’s dream was probably to be sure that the children would come.

When the angel first came and spoke to Mary, it was good news. The angel said to her, “you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Luke 1:30-31). It would have been a great blessing for Mary, to hear that she had found favor with God.  Hearing that God would make sure that she had a son would have been a source of relief as well as great joy.  A son would remove her biggest worry about her own future, since just having a son would provide security for his mother. 

Then the angel went on to say what kind of a man her son would be: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). This must have been exhilarating as well as frightening.  What mother wouldn’t want to hear that her son would be miraculously blessed?  What mother wouldn’t like to hear that her son will be prosperous and famous?  That he’ll become a king?  Mary’s willing to accept the angel’s promises. “Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’” (Luke 1:38).

Some people have said that it’s Mary’s instant obedience that draws God’s favor to her.  I think that her obedience and trust are wonderful, but I think there’s something more going on as well.  I think that Mary recognizes the opportunity included in the blessing that is offered to her.  She says to Elizabeth, “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Luke 1:46-49). 

Elizabeth, as Mary’s cousin and lifelong friend, is one of the few people Mary could talk to.  She too is going to have a son, but she had gone through the long years of hoping for what seemed like it was never going to come.  She knew the incredible joy of feeling a new life growing inside her, and she knew how wonderful Mary would feel as the promise came true.

When they come together, Elizabeth said, “as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:44). What a wonderful confirmation for Mary, of all that has been promised.

Mary’s thrilled that she’s been chosen for an extraordinary honor, that she’s been singled out for a unique opportunity.  That the opportunity will take all she has to give is beside the point.  She’s willing to be part of whatever God is doing, trusting God that whatever that comes next will be worth doing, and worth all that she can put into it.

Mary has taken a leap of faith, made a commitment to follow through as the mother of this child who will be king, without any calculation about what it might entail.  She hasn’t counted the cost—only decided that whatever the cost is, she’s willing to pay it if she can. 

This reminds me a lot of what happens to us when we decide to commit our lives to Christ.  We know that what he offers is a good thing—reconciliation with God in spite of our sin—and we know that we want it.  We know that it’s ours to accept as a free gift, as free a gift as Mary receives by God’s grace.  But we know that accepting the gift will have an impact on our lives, and often we have no idea of how far-reaching that impact will be. 

Have you ever thought about what it would take to raise the Son of God?  In the first place, I’d probably have been so nervous that I would mess things up just out of anxiety.  How would you like to try to do toilet training, knowing God was watching the way you taught his Son?  We know that too little discipline can be as bad as too much, but how would you like to decide when to be strict and when to be lenient, with God watching over your shoulder?  …with the future salvation of all the people of the earth depending on you?  not to undermine his trust, his compassion, and his love for others?  Raising this child is the big job that Mary agreed to do, and she worked hard to do it faithfully. 

Mary may only have thought of facing childbirth and raising a little boy, but she was in for much more than that.  We may only have thought of adding a little “niceness” to our lives, like watching our language or helping out once in a while, when we get involved with Jesus.  But then we find that with Jesus we’re in for some major changes.  There are times when I don’t think Mary had a clue about what she was letting herself in for.

In the first place, Mary might reasonably have expected that her son would become the king of an earthly territory—the ruler of a big piece of Palestinian real estate—with or without the approval of the Roman Empire.  After all, Herod and his relatives were kings in Israel, even with the Roman occupation.  The angel said, “God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. [and] He will reign over the house of Jacob” (Luke 1:32-33).

Mary might have expected to be the envy of all her friends, those whose sons had more modest ambitions.  What she got instead was a Son who is the ruler of a heavenly kingdom, a kingdom that will last longer than the earth itself.  Mary won’t have the kind of recognition from her friends that the mother of a worldly ruler would receive.

When we accept Jesus into our lives as our Lord, we might expect that, because we belong to him, everything else in our lives would fall into place.  We ought to be good and kind and successful in all that we do.  We forget that the world we live in is still a fallen world, and that the world as Jesus would have it is still to come. 

We may want to live forever and experience the success of all our personal plans, but this isn’t what we get.  Instead of prosperity and a long visit in this world, our promise is for God’s love and for eternal life in the kingdom of God.  Our future is more secure than anything this world can provide, but that future is definitely not something we can show off to our friends.

But this is all in the future.  Mary’s faced with a more immediate problem.  She is going to have a child to raise.  She knows that she’ll have to prepare him for his destiny as best she can, but there will be years full of more mundane work to do first.  She’ll be feeding him, dressing him, rocking him to sleep, and cleaning up his messes.  I’ll bet she smiled to herself when she thought of his wonderful future.

She’ll be watching him as he grows, encouraging his interests and teaching him how to get along with others.  She may think of herself as the one to do the teaching, but she’d have no idea of what she might learn from her special child.

In fact, Mary’s going to be led step by step to learn wisdom from her own child.  He grows to love and study the Scriptures, and he understands them so well that he’s able to argue with experts even before he comes of age.  Mary’s in the best position to see the development of his understanding, the way he comes to know about God, to understand human sinfulness, and to have compassion for all those who are suffering around him.  Mary will have the chance to learn wisdom from a most unexpected place, the child she thought she would be teaching.

Another advantage Mary might not have expected is that she had a front row seat to listen to his teaching.  Even before he began to travel with the disciples, the ideas and principles behind his message were growing in his mind.  Mary was there to listen to him, to ask questions, and to encourage him.  When the time came for him to begin his public ministry, Jesus already knew what he was called to say.  Mary was in a unique position to watch his growing understanding of his role, and the good news he had to share.  We can remember how impatient she was for him to start sharing all that he had to say.  She even tried to push him into that first miracle at a friend’s wedding.  She knew that what he had to say would be worth listening to.

When we bring Jesus into our lives, we find that it’s worth the time just to listen to him.  Sometimes Jesus talks about principles, as he does in the beatitudes with “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  Sometimes he gives directions, like when he says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”  Sometimes he uses metaphors, for example “I am the vine, you are the branches,” and sometimes he uses illustrations in the parables.  The more we listen to him, the greater the richness we find in the things he has to say.

But one thing I’m sure Mary never would have expected, was how much strength it would take to be with him through the end of his life on earth.  She would have known about his triumphant reception on Palm Sunday, but we know that she was there with him when he went to his death.  I don’t think she would ever have chosen to watch the son she loved so much suffering.  I think she would have given anything to keep him from suffering, even taken the suffering on herself.  Every insult and humiliation, every stroke of the whip hurt her as well.  I don’t think she could have imagined, when she agreed to the angel’s proposal, that it would lead to such deep grief and suffering.

We don’t know either, when we accept Jesus as our Lord, what we may be called to endure on his behalf.  We may expect that following him will call for unpopular actions, but we don’t really expect to be a lonely voice facing an angry crowd.  We may expect that we’ll be called to help the poor, but we don’t expect to get sunburned, dirty, and bug-bitten when we do it.  We may expect that we’ll have to love our neighbors, but we don’t expect to have to do it when they’re drunk, disreputable, or dumping trash on our yard.  We know that we’ll have to obey his commandments, of course, but we expect to do it in a way that’s not uncomfortable or inconvenient. 

I don’t think we have any idea of what’s going to come at us, when we commit to following Jesus.  I think we can depend on being stretched in every dimension.  We’ll be stretched in our ability to love those who aren’t particularly lovable.  We’ll be stretched in our willingness to reach out to those who don’t seem particularly deserving.  Once the Holy Spirit gets hold of us, we can expect to be living outside of our comfort zones pretty regularly. 

Are you an introvert?  Let me introduce you to lots of your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Are you quiet and shy?  When the Lord touches your life, you’ll need to be talking about it.  Do you hate to make mistakes?  The Holy Spirit will lead you out to take risks for others, some of which won’t turn out as well as you hoped, but which will demonstrate the kingdom of God anyway.  Once you put yourself in God’s hands and make yourself available to do his work, you can never tell what will happen next.

We all have a calling to serve the children we can touch, and based on Mary’s example, I hope we have the courage to do it carefully and with love.  We know that Jesus was interested in the Scriptures from an early age.  How could such an interest have developed, if his mother didn’t encourage it, or at least not discourage it?  How many opportunities do we have to share the Bible stories with our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, neighbors and friends?  This Christmas is a wonderful time to share the story of Jesus, not only about the angels and shepherds and wise men, but also about the message of God’s love and forgiveness that Jesus brought to all people.

I love to watch the influence that an adult can have on a child, simply by taking the child seriously.  Have you ever watched a sales person treat a child who has waited through a long line, with respect?  It’s wonderful.  By making eye contact, taking the time to make change, and speaking to the child as an honorable customer, a grownup can support a child’s growing confidence and self-respect.  Wherever we fit into a child’s life, whether as teacher, librarian, nurse, bus driver, crossing guard, chef, waiter, shoe tyer, book reader, or ball catcher, we have an opportunity to influence the way a child grows. 

It’s critically important that we accept and live out our calling as Christians, to live in the imitation of Christ.  We’re called to live as Christ, to be Christ in the lives of the children we know, so that when they come to understand the love that God has for them, they’ll already know what it feels like to be loved.  And as we explain why we do what we do, talking about the love of God will just fit in naturally.

Like Mary, we’re called to encourage the growth of goodness in others.  As we see God working in another’s life, we’re called to recognize it, honor it, and support it, regardless of how we feel about the person at the time.  Goodness is goodness, whether it’s our own or belongs to a friend or belongs to someone we think of as an enemy.  Goodness is of God, and if we belong to God, we are on the side of goodness in all others. 

As Paul says, we’re charged not to put out the Spirit’s fire, not to hinder or interfere with the work of God in the lives of others.  God gives many gifts to a greater variety of people than we can imagine, and we should honor and help out that work whenever we can. 

This may often mean that we will see the power of God working in the life of someone we don’t like, someone with whom we have nothing in common or someone with whom we have been in conflict.  This is a time when being on God’s side matters more than our own personal point of view.  As those called by God, we’re called to encourage the work of the Spirit wherever we find it, as Mary did.

Why do we accept this calling and do these things?  Because we, like Mary, are obedient in our faith.  Jesus commanded us to love one another.  Jesus commanded us to make disciples.  Jesus treated children with respect, as real people.  As his followers, we’re expected to do the same.  This time of year we get a special chance to practice our obedience with those who are closest to us.

Mary didn’t know exactly what was coming, but she did know that God was making it happen.  She said, “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50). She did understand that God would turn things upside down and reverse the expected order of things.  She said, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). 

And in her time, the Lord would make good on his promises to his people, fulfilling the covenant made long ago: “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:54-55). Can you imagine the joy of being there to witness the fulfillment of all that was promised, all that the people had been waiting for through so many centuries?

Mary didn’t know the details of what was coming, but she knew that the drama she lived in had one great origin, the Lord God.  All the twists and turns of the story unfolding around her were in God’s hands and at his direction.  Mary accepted the offer of the angel and responded in faith and trust, knowing the consequences were all in God’s hands. 

So how did Mary do with her assignment, to be the mother of the Son of God?  I think she did very well.  She didn’t get in the way of Jesus’ growing into the person he was destined to be.  She accepted all the risks of being rejected and abandoned.  She accepted the challenge of raising an unusual, spectacular child.  She watched, and she listened, and she did her best. 

There were probably days when she didn’t feel adequate or prepared, but that didn’t stop her.  There were probably days when she was overwhelmed with joy in loving her son.  I think she resolved to enjoy the ride, to enjoy every day of watching the character of her child as it unfolded.  She chose to obey in faith, and it turned out better than she ever could have imagined.  Thanks be to God.  Amen

Let’s pray:  Thank you for all you have done for us, through your servant Mary and her son Jesus.  Thank you for the joy of knowing and witnessing your work about to enter the world through them.  Help us to be faithful, as Mary was, to do our part to bring your Son into the dark parts of our world.  In his name, Amen.

Jean Risley

[1] Preached at Pilgrim Church, Beverly, MA, on December 13, 2020.


[2] All Bible quotations are from the NRSV.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Joining the Emmaus Walk: What Are the Old Testament Prophecies about Jesus’s Life?


Rembrandt google images

“Looking sad,” Cleopas and a companion “were going to a village called Emmaus,” outside Jerusalem, three days after Jesus died and the day he had just resurrected from the dead, discussing what had recently happened. Jesus joined them, listening, and finally “said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow to heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” When Jesus left them, “they said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:13-32 NRSV)

Wouldn’t we have loved to be along the road to Emmaus as Jesus disclosed to Cleopas and his companion “all the writings, the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27)? Jesus revealed to them where the Old Testament stated that the Messiah must suffer before entering into his glory (v. 26). But, since he interpreted all the writings about himself, very likely he included information on his birth and life. What might those passages have been?

Jesus’s ministry is foretold as early as Genesis 3:15, as the offspring of Eve who would “bruise” the “head” of the serpent, while the serpent’s seed would bruise his heel. This passage is hinted at in 1 Timothy 2:15: Eve “would be saved through the Child-bearing,” most likely the child born of Mary.[1] God’s sovereign care of humanity oversaw the covenant line for thousands of years in order to grant that humans could be reconciled and reunited with the Lord of the universe by means of Jesus’s birth, life, death, and resurrection.

Jesus in his pre-incarnate state was present with humanity as creator (Col 1:6-17) and provider (Exod 17:6; 1 Cor 10:4) and healer (Num 21:9; John 3:14-15).

Specifics about Jesus’s birth were prophesized in the Old Testament:

His young mother would be a virgin (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:22-23);

He would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2; Matt 2:6);

A star would appear (Num 24:17; Matt 2:2);

His family would travel to Egypt (Hos 11:1; Matt 2:5);

Innocent children would die after his birth (Jer 31:15; Matt 2:18);

He would minister from Capernaum (Isa 9:1-2; Matt 4:13-16);

His ministry would be heralded by a messenger (Mal 3:1; Matt 11:10);

He would teach in parables (Isa 6:9-10; Matt 13:14-15, 35);

He would have zeal for God’s temple (Ps 69:9; John 2:17).

Jesus would be a great prophet (Deut 18:15; Acts 3:19-23) and high priest (1 Sam 2:35; Heb 7:15-8:2) and mediator (Job 33:23-28; 1 Tim 2:5-6).

He would care for his disciples as a shepherd for his sheep (Isa 40:10-11; Ezek 34:33; Mic 5:4-5a; Zech 13:7; Mark 14:27),

He would be a light to the nations (Isa 49:6; Luke 2:32; John 1:9),

but he would die as punishment for human sin (Isa 53:5-6, 12; Dan 9:24; Luke 4:18-11; 22:37),

yet he would resurrect after three days (Hos 6:2; Jon 1:17; Isa 53:10-12; Matt 12:40; 16:4, 21; Luke 11:30).

Jesus would have authority and reign forever (Gen 49:10; Num 24:19; Isa 9:6-7; Luke 1:32-33).

What are we to make of all these prophecies?

Christmas and Easter are special times. The Christ who was born over 2000 years ago is the culmination of victory over the serpent:  

“a child born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6 NRSV).

Today we too are invited to come and hear and learn from Jesus our God who was born as a human, but who now lives as our mediator and teacher, healer and provider.


[1] Further, see Aida Besançon Spencer, 1 Timothy, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013), 73-76.