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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mary and the Shame of the Manger

From the outside looking in, it would have been the mother of all unwanted pregnancies. You’re betrothed to a righteous man, you are pregnant with a baby that isn’t his, and your only story is that an angel told you that the baby would be conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:34-35). To the average person, Mary was not in an enviable position. The birth of this child under these circumstances would be a stigma that followed her until her dying breath. In fact, had it taken place today, many of those around her might have counseled her to terminate the pregnancy.

Imagine the difficulty of sharing the news with Joseph. Mary had just spent three months in the hill country at the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the expectant parents of John the Baptist. When Mary returned to Nazareth, she was at least three months along, possibly more. Whether she was showing or not, there would have to be a measure of disbelief in the heart of Joseph at the news that his bride-to-be was expecting.

Did she even try to explain? We don’t know. But we do know that whether she offered an explanation or not, Joseph purposed to divorce her.

Our society has become more and more accepting of young unwed mothers. It happens so frequently that many people don’t think a thing of it. It’s commonplace to see pregnant girls walking around our high schools. They may receive some poor treatment, but it won’t follow them for life, and they more than likely will get married to someone someday. But in 1st century Palestine, young female divorcees with illegitimate children were not considered marriage material. Joseph’s decision to put her away quietly mostly likely would mean that Mary would remain single for life. She would be considered a whore and her son would be considered illegitimate forever. That Joseph eventually changed his mind would have done little to mute whispers of her sin.

And all the shame and awful treatment was not even a result of her sin. Normally, when an unwed girl gets pregnant, she has something to regret. She goes through that experience knowing that the bottom line truth is that she is reaping the consequences for her actions. But Mary would be an object of widespread public scorn through no fault of her own.

But we find no evidence in Scripture that she was bothered by this at all. In fact, we find that she walked through the whole experience with great joy. I think there are two reasons for this.

First, Mary knew who she was. After Gabriel gave her the news that she would give birth to the Son of God, in spite of any misgivings about how society would regard her, she responded, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (1:38). Mary was the servant of the Lord. She understood that her life was not her own.

We westerners have such an intense sense of individuality that it is difficult for us to stomach enduring difficult things that we did not bring upon ourselves. We have an acute allergy to “unfairness”. There is the notion that our rights guarantee us a freedom from unjust suffering.
But the word translated “servant” in Luke 1:38 is translated elsewhere as “bondservant”. A bondservant was someone who had made a decision to relinquish his freedom and remain in the service of his master for life. His entire existence revolved around his master. Bondservants didn’t have rights. Whatever the master required of him, he did.

And Mary considered herself to be a bondservant of the Lord. Her identity was one of service to God. There was no question of fairness. There was only obedience. She knew who she was and because of that, she obeyed without looking back.

Second, Mary knew who the Child was. Gabriel made it clear: this Child would be the Son of God (1:35). Mary understood the significance of what He would do (1:31-33, 46-55). He was to be a Savior. She rejoiced in God, saying, “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for he who is mighty has done great things for me” (1:48-49). Any consideration of how she would be viewed by her immediate culture paled in comparison to how she would eventually be seen, as the chosen mother of the Christ, the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and his offspring (1:54-55).

And when He was born, she felt no shame. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart (2:19).

There are many in the church today who are reluctant to speak up and tell people what they really believe about Jesus Christ. They don’t want people to think that they are weird. To be blunt, they are ashamed of Him. The stigma attached to being a Christian today is nothing compared to what Mary faced, and yet she joyfully accepted it, while so many now refuse.

If any of us are among the ashamed, I have to wonder, do we know who we are and do we know who He is? Do we understand ourselves to be servants of Christ, that our very existence is for His glory and that we have been tasked with making Him known? Do we really understand who He is, that He is the difference between eternal life and eternal death for every soul around us? If we were convinced of those two things, I can’t help but think that we would be more like Mary, joyfully bearing the Son, unashamed of Him, treasuring Him enough to speak His name to one and all.

Christmas isn’t over yet. For most of us there will still be opportunities to engage people with the gospel. Don’t be content to exchange the normal Christmas pleasantries. You are his servant and He is a Savior. Tell people.

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