The extraordinary life of an ordinary woman

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to a town called Nazareth in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to a man named Joseph. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” Luke 1:26-28

It’s hard to imagine any Bible character whose experience is further removed from ours than Mary. What could be more utterly unique than to be chosen as the mother of the Son of God! We, surely, have nothing in common with her?

It might seem like that. And yet, if we survey the whole sweep of her life as the New Testament gives it to us, there are in fact a number of points where we can identify quite closely with her. With Mothers’ Day just round the corner, what better time to reflect on the extraordinary experience of this very ordinary woman?

The New Testament suggests five major landmarks…

First, Mary had a life-changing experience.

Just a young girl, she receives a visit from an angel. This person announces that, though still a virgin, she is to “conceive and give birth to a son”, who will be called “Jesus”.

I suspect you may know the rest of the story…

In the details, of course, we can’t remotely identify with Mary here. But isn’t it true of every Christian, nonetheless, that we too have had our lives changed for ever?

Do you remember the time of your conversion? It may have been a long time ago. It may have happened suddenly and dramatically; or if may have been quite a long, gentle process, such that you can’t put a date to it. But the fact is that you have never been the same since; by the grace of God you became a child of God. And… well, here you are today.

Is it time to give thanks again for that momentous event in your life? Is it time perhaps to refresh the vows you took when you got baptised?

Second, Mary grew through questioning and puzzling.

Fast-forward to the time when Jesus is a twelve-year-old boy (Luke 2:41-52). Mary and Joseph have gone up to Jerusalem with him to worship God with the Passover crowds. And – every parent’s worst nightmare – he goes missing.

It’s three days before they find him. And what is he doing? He is “in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” They share their anxiety with him, with an understandable hint of reproach: “Son, why have you treated us like this…?” To which he gives the puzzling – and I imagine very painful – reply, “Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” (The father he was referring to wasn’t Joseph…)

Luke then tells us that Mary “stored all these things in her heart” as the days and months went by.

You bet she did! Now a young woman rather than just a girl, with the memory of Jesus’ birth receding into the distance, she must have done a lot of thinking, praying and puzzling.

I mustn’t pretend to speak for you, of course. But when I first became a Christian (probably at much the same age as Mary, as it happens), I knew it all. Oh yes! Everything was totally clear, completely black and white. I’m afraid that back at school I must have been a complete pain in the neck, so complete was my conviction – and so tactless my evangelising.

But time changed that – plus the need to confront problems and questions, and to learn that there are shades of grey as well as blacks and whites.

No conversion experience, however dramatic and remarkable, lasts for ever – and it is folly to cling to it as if it does. As one wise writer once put it (quoting here from memory): “Ultimately what matters is not past conversion but present convertedness.” Worth thinking about, that.

No; like Mary we grow and mature by having to grapple with things which are hard to understand – and which are sometimes also hard to accept. You don’t “store things up in your heart” just to let them sit there doing nothing, like fruit going bad. I hope not, anyway. No; you pray and probe, you ponder and search. Things can look very different for us, as they did for Mary, with the passing of a few years.

Are you a thoughtful, reflective Christian? Has your prayer life deepened over the years? Is your faith today stronger but also more (what’s the word?) weathered, more seasoned, than in those heady early days? In our shallow and shabby world there is a great need for followers of Jesus who have a depth the world knows nothing of. Is that you? Is it me?

I said I wanted to highlight five landmarks in Mary’s life, but I’ve already run out of space. So rejoin me, please, as we revisit her next week.

In the meantime, I wish you, whatever your circumstances may be, a happy Mother’s Day.

Thank you, Lord, for Mary – her ordinariness, her humility, her obedience, her honesty. Help me to learn from her – and, in learning from her, to become even more like her Son. Amen.

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