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Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross: Mary of Nazareth

February 28, 2010
Sermon:  Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross:  Mary of Nazareth
Text:  John 2:1-11


The toughest job in the whole world is being a young mother, except for the job of being the mother of a hard-headed teenager or being the mother of a strong-willed young adult.  The truth is that from start to finish, motherhood is very hard work.  It is a tough job.  While the landscape and the job description certainly change, the degree of difficulty only increases. 

Today as we continue our series Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross, we consider Jesus’ own relationship to his mother, Mary.  The lives of Mary and Jesus have a number of points of intersection, as you would expect.  The writers of the New Testament see Mary as relatively unimportant.  The Gospel accounts use her life as a backdrop for the gospel of Jesus Christ.  She is one of the few women in the ancient world about whom we have much information.  I am going to ask you to have your Bible close at hand.  I want to refer to a number of passages from the Gospel accounts that reveal essential information about Mary’s impact on the life of Jesus. 


All of us have different images of Mary.  We initially see Mary as a peasant-girl from Nazareth and then as the protypical mother who loved her family and worked hard at a range of tasks.  Many people in the world venerate this woman, believing that she was without sin.  That is not a part of Baptist doctrine, though we certainly acknowledge that she was a very fine woman, a woman to be admired and respected. 

Years ago, I worked in a town known as Vincennes, Indiana, for the summer.  I came to know very well a Roman Catholic priest whose name was Father Ray Strange.  Sometimes I read from the Bible in his church, but he never asked me to preach.  That would not have been appropriate, at least not in that day and time.  We enjoyed being together, and he told me a story that I was reluctant to share with you.  Clare said, “You have to tell it.  It is too good not to share.”  This is his story:

Jesus was making his way through the city of Jerusalem when he encountered a mob.  Holding rocks in their hands, the group was ready to stone to death a woman who had been caught in adultery. 

Jesus intervened and said, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” 

After a pause, a huge rock thrown from the crowd landed right at the feet of this woman.  Jesus turned around toward the mob and said, “Mother!”

That story is better told by a Roman Catholic priest, I know.  My wife thinks that story is hilarious.  She thought I ought to tell it.

During Mary’s lifetime, Nazareth only had about 400 people.  The city is bigger than that now, but still a small place.  The most common name used in Jesus’ day and time was Mary.  To say that Mary was from Nazareth reminds us of the question that Nathaniel asked Jesus:  “Can anything good come from out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).  His question is like asking, “Can anything good come out of Pauline?” or “Can anything good come out of Chesnee?” or “Can anything good come out of Lyman or Duncan or Drayton or Whitney or Beaumont?”  Using the phrase “Mary of Nazareth” is like using the phrase “Mary of Pacolet.”  Can anything good come out of a place that small?  The answer, of course, is a resounding yes.  The point is that Nazareth was not a very important town.  It was a small, out-of-the-way place.  Archeologists cannot determine why a town was located there at all.  It is near no body of water, no major trade route, and no prominent highway.  It is just sitting out in the middle of Galilee. 

Mark Twain, who traveled to the Holy Land, recorded his experiences in the book entitled Innocents Abroad.  He said that Mary could not have been a very attractive woman.  His companions, a group of Episcopalians, might have had something to do with his perspective.  Twain said that because he did not see one attractive woman in the whole place, Mary must have been a very homely person.  Maybe so.  I know that all the Renaissance painters, though, depict her as being beautiful.  Beauty is only skin-deep.  In the stories about Mary in the Gospels, you see that she had an inner beauty that is to be admired, an inner beauty that reminds us of Proverbs 31:30:  “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is vain; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”

Luke 1 records the story called the Annunciation.  Verse 26 offers our first glance of Mary when the angel Gabriel appears and tells her that she is “highly favored of the Lord.”  What does that mean?  In Mary’s case, it means that she becomes pregnant out of wedlock.  Some favor!  Gabriel assures her that she has been especially chosen for this pregnancy, one in which a child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Mary knows that she is to give birth to a special child, but her question is “How can this be?  I have not been with a man.”  After the angel explains to her that this pregnancy is a miraculous occurrence, she humbles herself and accepts this responsibility, saying, “Let it be to me as you have said.”  Then she sings a beautiful song called The Magnificat.  Just from Mary’s short encounter with Gabriel, we see that she knows well the Scriptures.  I doubt Mary could read, but she had memorized Scripture.  She is certainly familiar with the stories of the Bible.  Scripture and Bible stories are part of her spiritual life and part of the training of her children.

Mary is in a pickle; she is pregnant out of wedlock in a small town where everyone knows her.  She travels to the hill country to spend some time with her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant.  Mary and Elizabeth both realize that their pregnancies are miraculous.  Mary has conceived a child through the Holy Spirit.  Elizabeth, an old woman, has conceived past the age of childbearing.  They understand that the sons they are carrying are to play a special part in the plan of God, a plan that will be revealed in time.  During one of their conversations, Elizabeth tells Mary that she is “blessed among women” (Luke 1:42).  What an affirmation, one that Mary might not have gotten from any other person. 

Luke 2 records details about the birth of Mary’s son.  You know how that story goes.  An order was given that a census be taken.  People are to be counted like cattle.  The Bible says that Mary is “great with child” as she and Joseph travel a long distance over rough roads.  Mary probably rides on a donkey to Bethlehem, where they find no suitable place to stay.  I happen to believe that the innkeeper is a very kind man.  He provides the only private place he has, a stable out back.  There, Mary, probably a teenage mother, gives birth to her child.  No another woman is with her, neither her mother nor a midwife.  Joseph assists in the delivery, but he is a carpenter who, like Prissy in Gone with the Wind “didn’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies.”  Can you imagine a carpenter trying to deliver a baby?  After Jesus is born, this very young mother cradles her child.  The Bible says that she “kept these things and pondered them in her heart.”  Mary’s pondering heart is a consistent theme throughout the Gospel of Luke.  I imagine she ponders many things as the years unfold.

Mary and Joseph, at the appropriate time, take Jesus to the temple to be circumcised.  Luke, the physician, includes that detail as if to say, “Yes, Jesus was fully human.”  Jesus must obey Jewish law, just as Mary must.  After giving birth, Mary must take part in a rite of purification, a post-partum cleansing.  Mary and Joseph are not wealthy people.  They cannot afford a lamb as a sacrifice, so they offer two doves as a substitute. 

While in the temple, two senior adults – Anna and Simeon – speak to this couple.  The two reveal that they have been waiting for the Messiah.  Both give affirmation that this child is the Messiah.  Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and speaks words of blessing.  Then he turns and makes a most improbable comment to this very young mother:  “A sword will pierce your heart” (Luke 2:35).  Simeon is not being literal.  He is simply saying, “You are going to get your feelings hurt.  You are going to have a lot of heartache.”  His comment applies to almost every young mother.  We see later that his prophecy turns out to be true. 

A heart-rending account in Matthew 2 provides information about the family trek to Egypt.  The very cruel King Herod orders the killing of infant boys under the age of two in the town of Bethlehem.  He wants to be sure that this new king, whoever it might be, is exterminated.  Joseph, warned in a dream about this mass murder, escapes with his family, leaving ahead of the soldiers’ arrival.  Matthew is careful to provide the detail that they journey south to Egypt.  He wants to be sure that we see the parallel between Joseph and other patriarchs in Israel.  We are reminded of Joseph in the book of Genesis, who was carried off to Egypt as a slave.  This family’s journey also reminds us of Moses in the book of Exodus when he traveled into Egypt to proclaim liberty for those in bondage.

Joseph and Mary remain in Egypt with Jesus until they learn of Herod’s death.  We pick up the story in Luke, Chapter 2.  There, we see the family living in Nazareth.  I can imagine Jesus going out on the hills of Galilee and kicking around a goatskin ball very much the way kids play soccer today.  I can imagine him flying a kite or playing with the blocks that fall from Joseph’s carpenter bench.  Jesus, who probably works alongside Joseph, certainly knows about sawdust, as evident in one of his questions:  “Why do you pick out a speck of sawdust in another person’s eye if you have a two-by-four sticking out of your own eye?” (Luke 6:41; Matthew 7:3).  That expression, as well as others, comes right out of his father’s carpenter shop. 

Mary teaches Jesus throughout his childhood.  She teaches him to speak the Aramaic language and tells him stories from Hebrew literature.  Mary helps him memorize the Psalms and takes him to the synagogue every Sabbath.  Then when Jesus is twelve, the family and others make the long journey to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover.  I suppose that we can see in this event something similar to a bar mitzvah.  Jesus is a son of the law, just like every other Jewish boy. 

Following the Feast, the group leaves the town of Jerusalem to return home.  The men and women travel separately, and it is not until three days later that Mary and Joseph miss Jesus.  Because of his age – the time between childhood and adulthood – Jesus could very well be with the women or the men.  Mary knows that Jesus is not with her and assumes he is with his father.  Young teenage boys often traveled with the men.  Joseph knows Jesus is not with him and assumes Jesus is with his mother.  He assumes that at the young age of twelve, Jesus was with the women and children.  Put yourself in the shoes of Mary and Joseph.  Suppose your twelve-year-old son was missing for three days.  How would you respond?  A missing child is enough to drive you crazy.  A missing child is reason for an Amber Alert, reason for a child’s picture to appear on the side of a milk carton. 

Once back in Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph are astonished to find Jesus in the temple, talking to the elders.  They scold him, “Didn’t you know that we would be worried?”  Jesus answers them, “Didn’t you know I would be about my Father’s business?”  We do not expect this comeback from a twelve-year-old child.  Yes, I know Jesus is the Son of God, but his reply sounds pretty smart-alecky if I listen with my left ear.  If I listen with my right ear, I hear a declaration of the Son of God. 

Then we see one of the greatest lines in the Bible for parents:  “They did not understand.”  I bet these parents of this young teenager did not understand.  Clare and I have been in that same situation.  What about you?  Do you know what that is like?  We are talking about the holy family.  If the holy family is not exempt from the problem of understanding an adolescent, what makes you think you will be exempt?  You are not.  It is part and parcel of this process of rearing children. 

The Scriptures say that Jesus goes home with his parents and obeys them.  Scripture also tells us that he grows in wisdom, in stature, in favor with God, and in favor with other people (Luke 2:51-52).  We know nothing else about the next eighteen years.  Not one other mumbling word about the adolescence of Jesus is provided.  Here we have a mother with that pondering heart and a surrogate father trying to deal with a teenage son, a job that is not easy.  Some people would prefer to deal with adolescence by saying, “Let’s just skip it.”  It seems as if Scripture has handled this period of years in the same way. 

Mark Twain quipped that when a boy turns fourteen, parents ought to put him in a barrel and feed him through the knothole.  He added that when he turns sixteen, parents ought to plug up the knothole. 

I am not sure what happened in those intervening eighteen years, but it is likely that Joseph died and Mary became a single parent.  It is certainly likely that she had to rear her other children, the younger brothers and sisters, without the benefit of Joseph. 

We turn to the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 3, for references to Mary during Jesus’ years as a young adult.  Mark was written first, but the gospels of Matthew and Luke also include these two episodes.  Mark 3:31-35 tells us of a time Jesus is teaching in a public place.  The people in Jesus’ hometown think he is crazy.  In that day and time, people would say that an insane person was “possessed.”  Sometimes that term is still used today.  The townspeople claim that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebub, the prince of demons.  Mary, clearly the leader of her family, and Jesus’ brothers are embarrassed by these accusations.  Concerned about his welfare, they plan to take Jesus home.  

Mark shows us something remarkable here.  The crowd says to Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are outside waiting for you.”  Rather than going outside to see his family, Jesus turns to the crowd and asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?  My mother, my brothers, and my sisters are those who do the will of my Father.”  In this response, Jesus redefines family, not as his family of origin but as the family of faith.  Jesus asserts that the family of faith has priority over the family of origin.  Can you imagine how Mary feels when she goes home without her son?

In Chapter 6, Verses 4-5 of Mark’s Gospel, we see Jesus again teaching in his hometown of Nazareth.  The people there do not want to listen to him because they think they know all about him.  They know him as Mary’s son and as the carpenter’s son but do not believe he is the Messiah.  Because he is a hometown boy, this itinerate rabbi can do no miracle in Nazareth.  This prompts Jesus to say that no one can be a prophet in their own country. 

Now I want us to look at two references in the Gospel of John.  Chapter 2 speaks of the wedding at the Cana, a city not very far from Nazareth.  We know that Mary, Jesus, and his disciples have been invited to participate in the celebration.  When the host runs out of wine, Mary goes to Jesus and tells him, “The host has no more wine for the guests.”  Some of the harsher translations word Jesus’ response as, “Woman, what have you to do with me?”  Can you imagine a son being that terse with his mother? 

Mary could have criticized him, asking, “What about when I cradled you in my arms and took care of you in Bethlehem?  What about the time when you were lost and I searched high and low until I finally found you in the temple?  What about all those meals I fixed for you?  What about all the times I comforted you when you skinned your knee?  You ask me what I have to do with you?”  Mary does not answer Jesus in that manner, but I imagine she must have thought of similar questions somewhere in that pondering heart. 

Jesus’ response to his mother, “Woman, what do you have to do with me?” is a benchmark.  It is one of those points in which Jesus makes it very clear, as every young adult does, that she is no longer calling the shots.  He makes it clear that he is in control, that he is now in charge of making decisions.  Did you notice, though, that Jesus does exactly what his mother has suggested?  He turns the water to wine. 

We see Mary one final time in the Gospel of John.  Chapter 19, Verse 25 states, “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother.”  Take yourself to that point in time.  Imagine this dear mother standing there, watching her son suffering in pain.  It is so hard to imagine her agony as she watches him dying on the cross.  Like any mother, she would have taken his place if possible.  Do you think a sword has pierced her heart, as Simeon had predicted years earlier?  Mary’s pain is probably worse than that.  From the very beginning, she knew that this child had a special mission, a special purpose.  Somewhere long ago in that pondering heart, she had committed her son to God. 

One of the most beautiful pieces of art in this world is a work called the Pieta, a sculpture that shows Mary holding the body of her dead son.  When I look at that sculpture, I think, “That is a mother for you.”  More recently, I have seen the same scene in news clips from the devastated country of Haiti.   We have all seen similar clips after the devastation caused from the earthquake in Chile and from earlier events like Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and the tsunami in Southeast Asia.  Late last week, a young soldier came home to Spartanburg County in a coffin.  The funeral service was held in the northern part of our county at Buck Creek Baptist Church.  I can imagine how difficult the funeral was for the soldier’s mother. 

This task of motherhood is hard work.  It is harder than being a father.  From start to finish, parenting never gets easy.  We have joys all along the way, but we must constantly commit and recommit our children to God, just as Mary did. 

Two points from the encounters between Mary and Joseph are apparent.  First, we must do everything possible to help the mothers of every age in this church do the very best job they can.  We need to encourage them and pray for them.  Second, we must recognize the difference between the family of origin and the family of faith.  We learned in the Gospel of John that even the brothers of Jesus did not believe in him.  Now, in Acts 1:13, we read, “They (the disciples except Judas Iscariot who is dead) all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” 

Though many people do not have a good mother and many do not have a good father, we all have a heavenly Father who loves us and cares for us.  We are all members of the family of faith.  Of course, our hope and prayer is that our family of origin and our family of faith will merge into one.  Our hope and prayer is that the people we love and care for, the people who are our own flesh and blood, will be a part of the family of faith.  Perhaps the greatest lesson we learn from the lifelong encounters Jesus had with his mother is that the family of faith and the family of flesh became one and the same.    

Have you accepted Christ Jesus as your Savior?  Have you acknowledged him as the Lord of your life?  If not, we want to invite you to make the decision to be a part of the family of faith. 

Kirk H. Neely
© 2010

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