Your life in his hands - Midweek Message 16th December 2020
‘Christian faith is not a negotiation it is a surrender. It means to take your hands off your life’
We quoted these words Sunday past in our last sermon from Habakkuk. I read them firstly on a Tim Keller tweet to discover subsequently that they came from his book, ‘Hidden Christmas’ in a chapter entitled Mary’s Faith. There, he reflects on Mary’s response to the astonishing news from the angel Gabriel that she was to be the virgin mother of God’s own Son, Jesus. They sum up how her trust in God expressed itself as she concluded her conversation with Gabriel with those memorable words: "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." (Luke 1.38 ESV) She had taken her hands off her life, placed that life into the hands of her God and said, ‘Your will be done’. Had she any idea at the time what that would mean for her? Do any of us when we respond in similar fashion to the call of God through Jesus?
This last couple of days as we have read Luke 2.1-7 alongside Tom Parsons ‘The Radiant Dawn’, I’ve found myself reflecting on what it came to mean for Mary. Consider these lines from Mary’s point of view:
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem …. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-7)
The time came for the baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. I have little knowledge of the normal circumstances for the birth of a child in 1st century Israel, but I think we can safely say this was not it - certainly not from Mary’s (teenage?)perspective. I’m sure she would have dreamed of becoming a mother, but that dream would never have included travelling 90 or so miles (a 3- or 4-day journey on foot) from Nazareth to Bethlehem, heavily pregnant. If she had dreamed of one day having her own child, I’m sure in her mind the baby would have been born in her own community with her mother and perhaps other supportive family members beside her but here she’s far from home with only Joseph present and in a lonely, alien environment, an overcrowded Bethlehem. Furthermore, all the indications are that Mary and Joseph came from relatively poor backgrounds so in her dream there would have been no expensive or unrealistic expectations but surely, she could never have anticipated laying her firstborn in an animal’s feeding trough! And all this happens, not ultimately because of a decree from Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man on the planet, but because of a decree from the highest authority of all, God himself that His Messiah, His Son, be born in Bethlehem, in fulfillment of the words of His prophets. It is therefore all a direct consequence of Mary saying in faith to God the Father in relation to Jesus: ‘Your will be done.’
In all of this we have said nothing of the tongues that must have wagged and the brows that must have frowned in disapproval on the streets of Nazareth and the surrounding community, once news of Mary’s pregnancy outside of wedlock broke. The scandal, as well as the squalor, associated with Jesus’ birth also comes as a direct result of her taking her hands off her life and placing it in her Maker’s. Mary is quickly learning that faith comes with a cost, that Christian discipleship really does involve denying yourself and taking up your cross. Mary is sharing in the humiliation of the Son of God. She is where she is, in that stable, in that outwardly scandalous situation, enduring what she does, all for Jesus sake. In order to come to earth as Saviour, Jesus exchanges heavenly glory and riches for earthly shame and poverty. He exchanges life in heaven where he is at the centre, for life and death on earth where he finds himself on the outside. And Mary is tasting something of that as she seeks to be faithful to him and to his Father. In fact, as we read on to the end of chapter 2 we see Simeon taking the infant Jesus in his arms and speaking of the painful opposition and rejection he was to provoke and then tenderly warning of the sword that would pierce Mary’s soul. (2.34-35) How deep that sword of suffering and sorrow would pierce both son and mother at the Cross!
You think on all that and you want to ask Mary: Is it worth it? Is Jesus worth it? Is faith wise? Is the Christian life worth it? Is it wise to take your hands off your life, allow God to place his hands on you and say to Him, ‘Your will be done’?
After the birth narratives we don’t read a great deal about Mary. She features on one or two occasions and it would seem at times she struggled, as of course did Jesus disciples, to come to terms with what God the Father had called him to be and to do (see for example Luke 2.48; Mark 3.20-21; John 2.3-4) However, there are for me at least 3 biblical indications, two explicit and one implicit, that, however costly, Mary never regretted saying to Gabriel, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."
The first direct one comes just after Jesus has initially rebuked her for bringing to his attention the matter of the wine running out at the family wedding at Cana. Mary humbly accepts her son’s rebuke and says to the servants present: Do whatever he tells you. Clearly, she had learnt that the very wisest course of action when it came to Jesus was to pay close attention to his words and put them into practice - whatever that might involve.
Secondly, it is surely significant that when Luke opens his second book, Acts, with an account of Jesus ascension and then describes the subsequent gathering of Jesus disciples, he names the 11 apostles and then he says: They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers (Acts 1.14). Mary is there with Jesus disciples. She too is a disciple. She has seen her son through the trauma of the cross and she has witnessed his resurrection as her Lord. She knows that however painful the path of following the plan and purpose of God, it ends ultimately in triumph and glory. She knows it is worth it. She knows He is worth it.
And the third indirect indication is the very existence of these accounts in Luke of the birth of Jesus. It was surely Mary who was Luke’s source for these. She wanted to tell the story. It was one way of recording and affirming that even though faith had come at a cost, the gains were so much greater. She would still gladly sing: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour… he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. (Luke 1:46-47, 49)
Therefore, if having taken your hands off your life, said to God, ‘Your will be done’ and trusted and followed Jesus, you find yourself today in a painful place, a lonely place, a puzzling place, a place you would never have chosen for yourself, Mary I’m sure would be able to identify and empathise with you but I’m sure she would then say to you: Do whatever he tells you or give you every encouragement she could to say to Him: I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word
Yours in Christ,