Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Fierce Mary

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Luke 1:26-56


This is one of those few Sundays when Protestants pay attention to Mary.   The Rev. Peter Gomes was a Baptist minister and professor at Harvard until his death in 2011.  He says that we Protestants aren’t sure what to do with her because we think she must be a Catholic. Gomes tells the story about the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, , but we might substitute any well-known Protestant pastor or theologian.   He dies and goes to heaven. As he enters the pearly gates, Jesus comes down from the right hand of God to greet him and says, “Welcome to heaven, Dean. I know you’ve met my father, but I don’t believe you know my mother.”[1]


To avoid that awkwardness at the pearly gates ourselves, let us see what we might learn about Mary and, more importantly, from her.


This story is so familiar to us.  Perhaps the only more familiar Bible story is the story of Jesus’ birth which we will read again on Christmas Eve.   Like many other familiar things associated with this time of year, we cherish this story.  And yet, perhaps that familiarity and that affection for it make it hard for us to really take it in.   It is also hard for some of us to focus, I know, because we have many other things on our minds.  But let us try to enter into this story as if we have never heard it.


There is a young woman.  We think she is young because she is betrothed, but not yet married.  We don’t know anything about her life until this point.  Perhaps it has been uneventful, kind of the ordinary life of a peasant girl in ancient Israel.  Or perhaps she has known tragedy or loss or great joy.  We don’t know.  If it has been uneventful, that changes suddenly when an angel, an angel, appears to her.  That alone would be extraordinary.  But then the angel tells her that she is going to have a baby.  This is not how one generally learns that one is pregnant, even before home pregnancy tests, even in ancient Israel. 


This is a lot to take in.  If it had been me, I might have said, “Could you let me think it over for a while?”  But Luke doesn’t report that.   It seems there’s just a short conversation between Mary and Gabriel and within a few minutes, Mary is saying “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.” 


It is hard for us to take in – this is a huge decision, made in a few moments.  Many people would say that her son is the most important individual in all of human history.  What if she had said No? 


The Presbyterian writer Frederick Buechner imagined that Mary “struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child . . . he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”[2]


Mary might have said No, but instead she said Yes, and Gabriel departed.  The way Luke tells it, it seems that Gabriel barely got his wings clear of the door, before Mary set off to see her relative, Elizabeth.  Luke says, “she went with haste.”  Some scholars think that her haste indicates joy and wonder, but I think not.  This is where the story gets real for me.


Mary is betrothed, which is a legal relationship like marriage. If she is pregnant by someone other than Joseph, she is guilty of adultery.  The penalty for adultery is death by stoning.   You and I happen to have Matthew’s gospel to tell us about Joseph, but in Luke’s version, we don’t.  In Luke’s version, no angel comes to tell Joseph anything and Mary is alone.


“Mary faces death.  So she makes haste and flees to Judea some one hundred miles away if you bypass Samaria, which Mary undoubtedly did, to meet with Elizabeth.  Samaritans and Israelites didn’t like each other and one could be killed traveling through the other’s territory.  The journey was dangerous, especially for a teenage girl traveling alone.  She could be assaulted, mauled by wild animals, or overcome by the elements.  No young girl would have attempted the journey except in extraordinary circumstances.  Mary was running for her life.”[3]


Some of you may know the name of Reynolds Price.  He was an American poet and novelist.  He was professor of English at Duke for decades.  He had a lifelong interest in the Bible.  In 1999, Time magazine commissioned him to write his own version of Jesus’ story based on the Bible and archeology.  Much of his version obviously comes from his imagination, but perhaps it will help us.


This is how he tells the story of Mary – whom he calls Miriam, which is the Hebrew form of her name:


“In the slit-eyed world of a country village, the boy’s mother Miriam conceived him mysteriously. Promised in marriage to Yosef the builder, she found herself pregnant without explanation—she had known no man, not intimately. Steeped in the malice of small-town talk, she knew not to tell the story she believed—God’s archangel Gabriel had visited her at the village well one early-spring morning as she lifted her jar to climb back home.


He had looked very much like an actual man . . . his voice plainly said, ‘I’m Gabriel, from God, to ask if you’ll agree to let him make on you his only son.’


When she hesitated, assuming that this was some evil joke, the voice spoke again: ‘You’re free to refuse, and I’m free to tell you that should you accept, your life will last much longer than most, and long years of it will feel like no pain other humans know . . .’


But before he finished that, she looked well past him—the rim of the skyline back of his shoulders—and there was an odd cloud forming itself in the shape of a dark bird rushing toward her. She met the angel’s eyes again, gave an awkward nod and said, ‘I’m Miriam. Let me be God’s slave.’


So the boy grew up—she called him Yeshu from his full name, Yeshua—in the same narrow town: one narrow lane, two rows of rock houses, sealed with mud and roofed with branches daubed with mud, and each house full of the mouths he could hear saying ‘Bastard, Miriam’s bastard boy, God’s big baby!’


His mother’s story had leaked out somehow, likely through Yosef, who claimed that he had dreamed it but nonetheless married her, took in Yeshu and made other sons and daughters on her body.


By the time Yeshu grew to full manhood—the blacksmith in Yosef’s building concern and the best smith in Galilee—he was still called bastard in Nazareth whispers. He had never heard Yosef deny the charge, nor even his mother, who told him only, ‘They’re not completely right.’”[4]


Perhaps Mary imagines a future like Price portrays.  Perhaps she can’t imagine any future, because all she can think of is humiliation and disgrace.  If Joseph divorces her, she will be destitute.  And of course, he might decide to have her executed.


So she runs to Elizabeth.  Elizabeth is also unexpectedly pregnant, but for her it is joyful, not scandalous.  Elizabeth’s pregnancy is 3 months further along, so yes, she can tell Mary what to expect, but there is more to it that that. 


Elizabeth was the wife of a priest, a descendant of Aaron, and the matriarch of her clan.  She was distantly related to Mary . . .  Mary fled to see a distant cousin who she hoped would save her life. Had Elizabeth not blessed Mary’s pregnancy, and had the religious authorities condemned her as an adulterer, Mary might be put to death.”[5]


One scholar suggests that if Zechariah had been able to speak, he would have condemned Mary.  He was known for following the Law (Luke 1:6) and the Law demanded death.


Luke gives no indication that Elizabeth has been told about Mary’s pregnancy ahead of time.  The strong implication is that that knowledge comes from the Holy Spirit.   


We cannot begin to fathom what those words from Elizabeth must have meant to Mary.  What had she been thinking on her journey to Judea?   How had she planned to explain the situation?  If she told them about Gabriel, would anyone really believe her?  And now, without Mary needing to say anything, Elizabeth understands and blesses her. 


In that moment, everything changes.  On the verge of humiliation, Mary is welcomed and honored. Instead of being cast out, she is cherished and valued.   In that moment, she bursts into powerful, revolutionary song.  “The proud will be scattered, the powerful will be pulled from their thrones and the weak and poor will be lifted up.”   And so it begins, the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, which turns upside down the world’s value systems.  Mary sings of the great reversals which will be, and are, part of God’s work to redeem the world.   Her song is one of the most important prophetic words in Scripture.


This is an absurd story.   If it weren’t so familiar and so loved, we might see that more readily.  “The coming of the Messiah, the one who will redeem Israel and the world, is anticipated not by high priests or emperors or kings or even ordained preachers.  Rather, two marginalized, pregnant women meet in the hill country.  A baby leaps in the womb.  Blessings are shared. Astonishment is expressed.  Songs are sung.  By two pregnant women.”[6]


This is how we should prepare for Jesus’ birth -- with subversive laughter, astonishment and song.  Mary’s song inspired something called “The Feast of Fools” which was a way that Christmas was celebrated for centuries in medieval Europe.  It was a literal acting out of the Magnificat as a witness to the God “whose inclination is to topple human power structures and to raise the downtrodden to positions of honor and feasting.” And so, during the Feast of Fools, the choirboy played the role of bishop and serious citizens got to mock the pretensions of church and society.  “In 1685, in the Franciscan church of Antibes, lay brothers and sisters ‘put on the vestments inside out, held the books upside down . . . wore spectacles with round of orange peel instead of glasses . . . blew ashes from the censers on each other’s face and hands, and instead of the proper liturgy chanted confused and inarticulate gibberish.”[7]  As you might expect, the authorities eventually decided they did not appreciate being mocked, that it undermined law and order,  and the Feast of Fools was condemned under threat of serious penalty.


This is Mary, the mother of our Lord.  She is desperate and courageous, vulnerable and fierce, ordinary and extraordinary.  She willingly participates in the work of God. For that participation, she will suffer greatly. And yet, all generations call her blessed. 


Some of you will remember Sara Miles who preached at the FOCUS Worship service last February.  After a lifetime as an atheist, she became a Christian at age 46, much to her own surprise.  Let me close with some of her words:


At the heart of Christianity is a power that continues to speak to and transform us.

As I found to my surprise and alarm,

it could speak even to me:

not in the sappy, Jesus-and-cookies tone

of mild-mannered liberal Christianity,

or the blustering, blaming hellfire

of the religious right.


What I heard, and continue to hear,

is a voice that can crack

religious and political convictions open,

that advocates for the least qualified,

least official, least likely;

that upsets the established order

and makes a joke of certainty.

It proclaims against reason

that the hungry will be fed,

that those cast down will be raised up,

and that all things,

including my own failures,

are being made new.

It offers food without exception

to the worthy and unworthy,

the screwed-up and pious,

and then commands everyone to do the same.[8]


Sisters and brothers, our faith story is absurd and embodied and earthy.  Let us embrace it and the God who authored it, walking into this week with subversive laughter, astonishment, and singing.  Thanks be to God.




[1] Peter J. Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, (New York:  HarperCollins, 1998) p. 11.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures:  A Biblical Who’s Who (New York:  HarperCollins, 1979), p. 44. 

[3] http://modernlectionaries.blogspot.com/2012/12/escape-to-judea-and-great-reversal.html

[4] Ryenolds Price in the December 6, 1999 issue of Time magazine as quoted by the Rev. John Buchanan in his sermon “Mary’s Yes” http://fourthchurch.org/sermons/1999/121299.html

[5] http://modernlectionaries.blogspot.com/2012/12/escape-to-judea-and-great-reversal.html

[6] Charles Campbell in Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 1, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors,  (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009),  p. 95.

[7] Charles Campbell in Feasting on the Word, p.  97.

[8] Excepted from Sara Miles in “A Hunger Beyond Food”  posted on the Seed Publishers website http://www.seedspublishers.org/