Sermon: Mary, Did You Know?: The Most Unheard Of Thing, You’ve Ever Heard Of
Scripture: John 19: 16-18, 25
Date: February 22, 2015
Usually the season of Lent begins with Jesus on His way to Jerusalem after the time of transfiguration on top of the mountain and leads us through a six week consideration of that journey until we come to Palm Sunday and Holy Week and finally Good Friday and the crucifixion. But this year, I want to reverse that progression. We are going to begin Lent today on Good Friday, with Jesus on the Cross, and His mother Mary at the foot of the cross, watching helplessly while her Son dies. Most of you know that my mother just passed away a few weeks ago. She went into the hospital with pneumonia on a Friday morning and she passed away a week later without really ever waking up again. And in those last days, I spent many hours sitting next to her bed, first in the hospital and then back in her room at Wesley Village, knowing that it was just a matter of time – watching helplessly while she inched closer and closer to death. It was a bittersweet time. Bitter because I knew that there was nothing I could do for her. I know that some of you have experienced those same kind of moments. But it was also a sweet time because those hours gave me a chance to remember the important moments in my relationship with my mom. And God gifted me with many wonderful memories. I think that God gives the gift of memories in those times to comfort us in our pain and to somehow make sense of all that is happening. And so it must have been for Mary, standing under the cross of Jesus, watching him die. What was she thinking? What memories were flooding her mind at that moment? Did she really know what this had all been about? How had they come in just 33 years from that silent night of joy in Bethlehem and a baby in a manger to this Cross on a hill outside Jerusalem? In distance a journey of about 12 miles but truly the journey of a lifetime. From shouts of Hallelujah to Crucify Him. How had it all gone so wrong? Mary, did you know?
In our effort to comprehend who Jesus was, humanity has come up with a lot of names to call Him. Isaiah, in perhaps the best known of all prophetic utterances, calls Him the “Wonderful Counselor”, “Mighty God”, “Everlasting Father”, “Prince of Peace”. Handel made those names the centerpiece of The Messiah, which is, of course, another one of the names we call Jesus. And in the songs that we sing around Christmas, writers have continued to try and name Him. And so we sing that He is: The Lord’s Anointed, great David’s greater Son, Emmanuel, The Key of David, Dayspring, Root of Jesse’s tree, the incarnate deity, the Sun of Righteousness. And that’s just a few of the names we give to Jesus and, of course, all of these are meant to highlight some aspect of Jesus’ nature. But I can’t help but wonder, what do they communicate to us now, in 2015. How do we tell those who come to church seeking a relationship with Him, just who He was? So many names. It makes me wonder, do we really know who Jesus was?
One writer puts his finger on the problem when he says:
In recent years there has been much talk about the limits of our knowledge of speech about God. All metaphors are inadequate. They point toward something, but do not fully describe it. Thus theologians speak of the positive qualities. We who have caught a glimpse of God in various ways, “see through a glass darkly” so far as God is concerned. It is an age of divine absence rather than presence.
In other words, the numerous names have always reflected humanities’ struggle to know Jesus and so we call Him names that only reflect the glimpses that we have had of His great glory. And though volumes have been written about each of the names that we have assigned to Him, we still struggle to really know Him.
It reminds me of a story that we used to share in Theology classes in Seminary, just to help us survive, about Jesus gathering before Him the great leaders and theologians of the church and asking them as He did Peter, Who do men say that I am? And the theologians say You are the Christ, the Messiah. And Jesus looks at them and says, Who do you say that I am? And one by one the theologians step forward and share one of the names of Jesus. And Jesus says, No that’s not it. And then finally one steps forward, obviously sure that he has the answer that’s going to please Jesus and says, You are the ground of all being, the Alpha and Omega, the very God, the great “I Am”, the incarnate word, the infinite one, the transcendent Lord. And Jesus looks at him and says: “Huh?”
I suspect that our struggle to name Jesus reflects the fact that most often we want to “know of” Jesus, rather than know him. We celebrate the simplicity, the humbleness, the humanness of his birth, but yet from the very beginning we try to ascribe divine characteristics to Him through the names we give Him.
But there was one who truly knew Him. And she didn’t call Him by fancy theological names and refer to Him in complex ways. She simply gave Him life. She fed Him when He cried. Held him tightly when strangers came to see Him. Bathed Him. Bandaged His wounds. Scolded Him when He misbehaved. And she didn’t think about the theological implications of all that. Mary called Him, “Son”. And I suspect that of all the names that Jesus is called, there is none more profound and yet simplistic than that. And sometimes, I think, we lose sight of that in all the names, all the ways that we have tried to describe His characteristics and attributes, perhaps because we are more concerned about “knowing of” or “knowing about” Jesus. And in the end, all that we see are glimpses of Him. But Mary called Him Son. And perhaps Jesus was born into this world, perhaps His incarnation (fancy theological term to describe His coming into the world) happened as it did, became Mary’s Son, just as we became the son and daughter of our parents, so that more than just knowing about Him, we could really know Him. But instead we try to clean up the manger. And we turn Bethlehem into a quaint little village (How still we see thee lie)., and we venerate Pagan kings, and make the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem seem like an easy ride on the back of a donkey. And we glorify Mary. We make her nearly divine. And in doing so we run the risk of making the whole thing nearly incomprehensible. But first and foremost He was Mary’s son, and though she remembered the joy of that, she also remembered the hardship. The feeling of being ostracized. The fear of being an unwed mother. The labor pains. The panic of not being able to find a place to stay and give birth. And now standing at the foot of the cross watching Him die. We call Him the Son of God. Mary just called Him Son. Just like God intended. And sometimes all the names, the references to the divine, hide the simplicity of it all. The humanity of a mother and a son. As Mary stood at the foot of the Cross I wonder if she was thinking “How could they do this to the Son of God?” Or was she thinking “How could they do this to MY Son?”
There is great power in the names that we give to people. The story is toId about Senator Joe McCarthy, who chaired the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in the 1950’s, trying to weed out what he considered to be Communists in all aspects of American life. If you were labeled as a Communist by his committee, then your life was essentially ruined. And one day, as he emerged from the hearing room after a day of contentious testimony, McCarthy was asked by a reporter to comment on the testimony they had heard that day, and McCarthy commented, “That’s the most unheard of thing, I’ve ever heard of”. Sometimes I fear that the story of Jesus is like that. Max Lucado writes that Mary was caught between what God says and what makes sense. And I suspect that’s true for a lot of us as we think about Jesus. God came to Mary, not because she was a worker of miracles, but because she was one like you and I, caught up in the wonder and sometimes tragedy of everyday life. There were dozens of Marys in the small towns of Judea. And though it was not as common as it is today, and the consequences were much harsher then they are today, Mary was probably not the only one who was with child without a husband. And yet the birth and life and even the death of Jesus was the “most unheard of thing, we’ve ever heard of.” In fact in the histories of the day, the birth and life and death of Jesus was little more than a footnote. It is estimated that only about 1% of the population of the Roman Empire had ever heard of Jesus when He died. We say that God came into the world and things were never the same again, and for Mary that was true. Yet isn’t that true of every woman who gives birth to a child. But most lives were not changed. Only Mary and two or three others standing at the foot of the Cross had really been changed because they knew Jesus. In fact, perhaps even John, was not truly changed, did not truly know Jesus until he knew what it meant to be Mary’s son. Remember from the cross Jesus said to Mary, “Behold your son” and to John, “Behold your mother.” To us is born a savior. Mary’s little baby boy. Her son. It’s the most unheard of thing, we’ve ever heard of. And if we get that, then we’ll never be the same again.
Mary was changed forever not because God spoke to her, but because she heard His voice. And I think there is a big difference between the two. I believe that God speaks to us all. In so many ways. Some have heard the voice of God. Some have received messengers like Mary did in the beginning. For some it’s more of a language of the heart. But, however, He chooses to speak, He speaks to all of us. Calling us to Him. But most do not hear because they do not listen. But Mary listened with a mother’s ears. James Moore writes:
A few years ago, our family gathered for a family reunion. A month or so before our gathering, my sister Susie had given birth to her third child, a beautiful baby girl named Julie. Most of us were seeing Julie for the first time, and there was a lot of excitement about this new addition to our family. Toward evening, we put the baby in a bassinet in the back bedroom of the house. The travel and excitement had worn her out She fell asleep immediately. Then everyone got involved in a variety of activities. Some were talking and visiting. Some were playing games. Still others were watching a game on television. There was a lot of noise and confusion. In the midst of all the chaos, I watched as my sister quietly slipped out of the room. She was going to check on the baby. She had heard the baby cry out. In all that commotion, no one else heard. But she did, because she was tuned in to hear the baby. She was listening for her baby with a mother’s ears. That was her number one priority.
Most did not truly hear Jesus because they were not listening with human ears. They tried to listen through the voices of the prophets, or the words of the priests, rather than with their hearts. And even today, most of us do not truly hear God because when it gets right down to it, we are listening to other voices than His. That’s what the multitude of names are all about. And so we fail to hear what faith, what life is all about, because we are tuned in to other things. The Gospels record the words that Jesus spoke from the cross. Profound words. Straight from the heart of God. But in all of the noise and confusion, the tauntings of the misguided, how many really heard what He said. But Mary heard. She heard every word because she listened with a mother’s heart. You see, the question for us this morning, as we begin this Lenten season, is not whether God is still speaking but whether we can hear Him above the noise and confusion of our lives. Or are we trying to hear Him through other voices. “Who do others say I am, Peter?” “Some say you are John the Baptist come back to life. Others say you are one of the prophets.” “But Peter what do you say? What have you heard?” “I heard that You are the Son of God.” “You are blessed Peter because you did not hear this from men, you heard it from God.” Mary was changed forever because she heard God.
And then Mary was changed forever not just because she heard, but because she obeyed. The word that we translate faith in the New Testament is the Greek word pistis, which literally means “believing obedience.” It is belief accompanied by commitment. It is not enough to just believe in Jesus. For Jesus to come into our lives, we must be committed to Him. It is the difference between knowing of Jesus and truly knowing Him. Many do not know what Jesus is all about because they are not willing to commit their whole lives to Him. We may commit part of our lives to the parts of Jesus we understand. Take your pick among the many names. Savior. Lord. Messiah. Son of God. Son of Man. Wonderful Counselor. Everlasting. Prince of Peace. Jesus was all of those and so much more, but too many of us fail to embrace all of Him. We fall short. We are almost Followers. Almost Disciples. Almost Christians.
In one of the Peanuts comic strips, Linus, who keeps the statistics for the baseball team, comes to Charlie Brown with the final report of the season. “I’ve compiled the statistics on our baseball team for this last season” he says. “In twelve games we almost scored a run. In nine games, the other team almost didn’t score a run before the first out. In right field, Lucy almost made the right play. Charlie Brown, we led the league in “almosts”.
Is that where we are in our faith? William Barclay was one of the greatest theologians of the last century. After his death, found among his personal effects was a well worn piece of paper that had yellowed with age and was labeled “An Act Of Commitment”. Barclay had written it when he was sixteen years of age. The last words on the paper were these:
To Thee, 0 Lord, I leave the management of all events and say without reserve. . . not my will but Thine be done.
And Barclay had signed the paper on every birthday from the age of sixteen to his last at the age of 85. Surely that was the faith of Mary. Even though what the Angel told her when she was just a young girl was “the most unheard of thing, she had ever heard of”, she was willing to place her life in God’s hands. She had given her life to her Son. Mary, did you know when you did that, when you heard and obeyed, that you would someday end up standing under a cross watching Him die?
And Mary was changed forever, not just because she heard and obeyed, but because she trusted God. Mary, did you know that the life that God was calling you to was going to be a hard one? Beginning with the ridicule and rejection of her own people and culminating with watching her son die on a cross, her life was filled with much pain. But she bore it all because she trusted God. One day at a time. One moment at a time.
A man who had been captain on a river boat who had piloted the river for more than thirty five years was once asked, “After all these years of navigating the river, I guess you know where all the rocks and sandbars are.” To which the captain replied, “No, but I know where the deep water is.”
Mary had that kind of deep water faith. When she said yes to God, she didn’t know where the rocks would be. But she trusted God to keep her in the deep. When I start to wonder what faith is all about, what the Cross is all about, who Jesus really is, it’s because I’ve gotten myself tangled up in the rocks and run ashore. And I start to think, what do I know about Jesus that’s going to get me through this mess and back on course. Mary’s faith was a mother’s faith, unconditional, not dependent on the the rocks, a deep water faith.
Terry Anderson was one of those who was taken hostage in Beirut, Lebanon on March 16, 1985. He remained a captive for nearly seven years. And yet at the end of the ordeal he came through with great strength. And a reporter asked him if in those seven years whether he had ever lost hope. And Anderson admitted that he had some moments of despair but he said that somehow a Bible had come in to his possession and he spent a lot of time reading it and discovered that its central message was one of hope and trust. It constantly reminded him, he said, to do the best he could with each day and to trust God for tomorrow.
That was surely how Mary had lived her life with Jesus. She was not concerned with who others hoped he would become. She only knew who He was, her son. She would do the best she could by Him with each day and trust God to do the rest.
I suspect that’s how we need to approach the Cross this year. You see, God sent Him to us in a very human way. He had tried to approach us through laws and the prophets, but that had not worked. We had not listened. And so he decided to speak to us through the cries of a baby. But almost from the moment of His birth, we have tried to exercise the humanity from Him and replace it with the Divine. But I don’t know that we can truly understand the Cross, through a Divine lens. It seems to me that the Cross is all about human beings. It’s all about hate and evil and sin. And those aren’t divine characteristics. Those are exclusively human. A man died that day on the Cross. He had gotten caught up in a whirlwind of inhumanity and was put there by men. And though we somehow expected His divinity to save Him, “Can’t He call on an army of Angels to come and rescue Him?”, still He suffered intensely and died a very human death. But, you see, it had to be that way. Or else the deaths of Stephen, and Peter and Paul and all the millions that have suffered and died in His name through 2000 years of history would not have made sense. He had to suffer and die, or else there would have been no comfort and strength for those 21 Egyptian Christians that were paraded in front of the world and killed because of their faith. And He had to die like that, or there would be no comfort for you and I when loved ones suffer and die, or when we face our own times of suffering and death. Because we do not suffer as Messiahs or Kings or Wonderful Counselors. We suffer as men and women, human beings, who are sometimes caught up in a whirlwind of inhumanity. Just as Mary’s Son did.
As Mary stood there at the foot of the Cross watching her Son die, did she know (do we know) that we can’t have back days that have gone by, nor can we know what tomorrow or next year will be like? Mary did you know, that after all this, He would rise again? And if she had known, would it have made it any easier for her to watch Him suffer and die? At that moment, He wasn’t divine. He was not like the Angel that had started all of this in the first place. He was her Son, whom she had loved, and did love with everything she was, her whole being, through the good times and through the bad times. God has always tried to tell us that. The Angel pronounced it. “Mary, you’re going to give birth to a Son.” On the banks of the Jordan when Jesus came up from the waters of Baptism. “This is my Son, with whom I am so pleased.” On the mountain of transfiguration – “This is my Son. Listen to Him.” And in the garden on the night of His arrest: “The Son is delivered into the hands of sinners.” After all the other names fade away, all that’s left is a mother and her son. And that’s how we will truly know Him.
In his book, Salvation On Sand Mountain, Dennis Covington describes our relationship with God in relating the memories he had of playing with friends on summer evenings.
“And when darkness would start to fall, each boy’s mother would call him home in a different way. Most would simply lean out the back door and yell their names. Some had bells they would ring. But Covington recalled that his mother wouldn’t just stand on the porch and yell out his name to come home. She would come to the vacant lot, wherever they were playing, and softly call His name. And then mother and son would walk home together. Covington writes: She always came to the place I was, before she called my name.” That’s what God did for Mary, and that’s what He does for you. That’s what makes us Sons and Daughters. Isn’t that the most unheard of thing, you’ve ever heard of?