A sermon Rev. Ronald F. Marshall
Text: Luke 1:48
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (+) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we come to this consecrated church to keep the Sabbath Day holy. And we do that by worshipping God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the holy Trinity. We thank him for his goodness and mercy and reach out to him for his wisdom through his holy Word. Today we learn from that word that we are to honor St. Mary, the Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ – the Blessed Virgin.
In Luke 1:48 we’re told that all generation are to call Mary blessed because of the good things God has done for her. And yet close to a quarter of the two billion Christians on the earth today refuse to do so. I know about that personally. When I grew up in a Lutheran church in Tacoma, WA, we worshiped across the street from a Roman Catholic parish – and we all but threw rocks at them for worshiping what we thought was an infallible pope and a divine virgin. But that was a poor witness. Those attacks weren’t constructive (1 Corinthians 8:1). Ironically, my first sermon honoring St. Mary was called “crap” in a letter by a life-long Lutheran attacking me (Myron Warren, August 27, 1980)! No, the most constructive way to proceed would simply be to follow Luke 1:48 on this score and call St. Mary blessed – and leave it at that.
But what is the best way to bless St. Mary? Knowing that we should bless her is one thing, but knowing exactly how to do that, in the right way, is an altogether different matter! The best way forward here, I think, is simply to find out what exactly God’s blessing was that he bestowed on the Blessed Virgin. What exactly was it that God did for her that was so wonderful, and inspiring of our celebration on this Feast of St. Mary, the Mother of Our Lord?
Most Christians would say it was her virginal conception and the birth of Jesus – the only Son of God. And that would be right to a degree, but it wouldn’t be the whole answer – strange as that may sound! For we wonder what could be greater than the towering miracle of the Virgin Birth!? Now Martin Luther (1483-1546), our “most eminent teacher” [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 577] helps explain just what that would be:
When the Virgin Mary conceived and bore Christ, Christ was certainly a real, physical, visible man and not only a spiritual being; yet she conceived and bore him spiritually also. How? In this way: She believed the word of the angel that she would conceive in her womb and bear a son. With the same belief in the angel’s word she conceived and bore Christ spiritually in her heart at the same time as she conceived and bore him physically in her womb. If she had not conceived Christ spiritually in her heart, she would never have conceived him physically.... Now what did she conceive in her heart? Nothing else than what the angel’s words declare.... Since she grasped the word and through faith became pregnant with it in her heart, she also became physically pregnant with that which the word in her heart said to her.... [Therefore] the physical conception would have been of no avail to her if it had taken place without the spiritual conception (Luther’s Works 37:89-90).
So Mary didn’t conceive by way of a divine, male impregnation, as in Greco-Roman mythology [Raymond E. Brown, The Virginal Conception (1973) p. 62]. It therefore would be wrong to call God Mary’s husband. If he were in fact her husband, she couldn’t then have been the mother of our Lord – as odd as that too may sound.
The Logic of Motherhood
This crucial point hinges on the very logic of what it means to be a mother. Again, it is Luther who helps us figure this out. He explains that God could have
made Christ’s body from her body in her sleep, without her knowing it, as he made Eve from Adam, but then she would not have been his mother, just as Adam was not Eve’s mother (LW 37:89).
Now this explanation establishes the superiority of the spiritual conception over the physical one, and moves the matter of what’s so glorious about St. Mary beyond biology onto the matter of faith. For it was her faith that made her pregnant – period. For when she heard that she was to bear the Savior of the world, she famously said, “Let it be” (Luke 1:38). In that acclamation was her great moment of faith – and also the greatest miracle of her life!
So Mary’s conception did not occur by a physical or sexual insemination of any kind whatsoever. No, it simply was the result of an odd, verbal insemination, if you will. Luther again explains:
How did... Mary become pregnant? Although it is a great miracle when a woman is made pregnant by a man, yet God reserved for him the privilege of being born of the Virgin. Now how does the Mother come to this?.... The angel Gabriel brings the word: “Behold, you will conceive... and bear a son, etc.” With these words Christ comes not only into her heart, but also into her womb, as she hears, grasps, and believes it.... The power comes through the Word [although] no one knows how it comes about (LW 36:341).
This verbal insemination assures that Mary remains a virgin, for even if the sexual, physical insemination were from God the Father himself, as the Muslims erroneously surmise it would have had to have been (Qur’ān 6:102; 72:3), her virginity would be lost because of the male involvement by God the Father. So the truth regarding the virgin birth of Jesus can have nothing to do with sexual insemination – even if it comes from God! Mary’s conception instead happens, as Luther further explains, at
that moment when Mary assented to the angel Gabriel’s announcement.... In that hour when she said, “Be it unto me according to your word,” she conceived and became the mother of God; and Christ, therewith, became true God and true man in one person [Luther’s House Postils, ed. E. Klug (1996) 3:290].
So the great miracle of the incarnation is not some mixed form of divine and human parthenogenesis – to exalt her against her “consent” (LW 51:213), but simply her faith. Therefore as Luther said, if we truly believe that Christ is our Savior and Lord – as Mary did – then we “shall not fail to love the mother Mary” (LW 51:216)!
A Sea of Bitterness
Mary’s faith is a great witness to us, because without it, she never would have been able to withstand the avalanche of scorn and misunderstanding that came her way from being chosen to be the mother of our Lord. No sooner did Joseph find out about her pregnancy, than he wants to divorce her (Matthew 1:19)! What choice did he have? He doesn’t know anything about a virginal conception – and if he did, he couldn’t understand it (LW 36:343). And so, as a rationalist, he regards her as a promiscuous fornicator – condemned under the law of God (Exodus 20:14; Ephesians 5:5).
This Marian trauma, if you will, is so heavy, that she cannot bear it without her faith in Christ (1 Peter 5:9). For Mary is “so poor and despised a mortal” (LW 21:322) that she can’t make it on her own. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) – that Danish admirer of Luther – elaborates upon Mary’s shame in his pseudonymous book, Fear & Trembling (1843), which is his classic text on the trial of Abraham in Genesis 22 (Kierkegaard’s Writings 6:64-65):
Who was as great... as that favored woman,... the Virgin Mary?....To be sure, Mary bore the child wondrously, but she nevertheless did it “after the manner of a woman,” and such a time is one of anxiety, distress, and paradox. The angel was... not a meddlesome spirit who went to the other young maidens in Israel and said: Do not scorn Mary, the extraordinary is happening to her. The angel went only to Mary, and no one could understand her. Has any woman been so infringed upon as was Mary, and is it not true here also that the one whom God blesses he curses in the same breath? [LW 2:5].... She is by no means a lady idling in her finery and playing with a divine child.
Luther therefore rightly notes that the name Mary means “a sea of bitterness,” which shows that
there is in her not merely a drop, nor a stream, but a whole sea of bitterness; a deluge of suffering inundates her, so that she is well named “Mary,” a “bitter sea” (LW 52:120).
God, however, doesn’t leave her high-n-dry in this most painful shame and distress. She suffers alright – but not by herself.
“This encourages us,” Luther notes, “to believe that henceforth He will not despise us poor lowly ones, but graciously regard us also” (LW 21:323):
[For] the exceeding riches of God joined in her with her utter poverty, the divine honor with her low estate, the divine glory with her shame, the divine greatness with her smallness, the divine goodness with her lack of merit, the divine grace with her unworthiness (LW 21:323).
Blessing St. Mary on this day then will mean entering into the fray with her – fighting the good fight of faith with her (1 Timothy 6:12). It’ll mean trusting in the Lord to carry us through the hard times (Matthew 11:28) – just as he helped St. Mary out.
Just One Saving Death
But how does Christ help us, strengthen and sustain us? Galatians 4:5 says he does this by redeeming us from the law. And Galatians 3:13 says this is crucial because the weight of the law is a curse. The way Jesus redeems us is not by changing the law so that it no longer threatens us. No, he redeems us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us himself. He does this by dying on the cross – whereby he “cancels the bond which stood against us with its legal demands” (Colossians 214). He is punished in our place that we might become righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21). For indeed,
God.... gives Himself to us, so that... we... may cast our weakness off on Christ. If I am a sinner, Christ is righteous; if I am poor, Christ is rich; if I am foolish, Christ is wise; if I am a captive, Christ is present to set me free; if I am forsaken, Christ takes me to Himself; if I am cast down, Christ consoles me; if I am weary, Christ refreshes me (LW 17:28).
No wonder then that Luther rejects the view that St. Mary is some sort of “divine being” (LW 21:324)! No, she instead directs us to Christ – that is her only “worthiness” (LW 21:327)! “She traces all to God, lays claim to no works, no honor, no fame” (LW 21:329).
For Jesus is the one redeemer, the one mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). No one else – nor we ourselves – can save us (Psalm 49:7-9; Acts 4:12) – for salvation “comes completely from the outside and is foreign” (LW 25:136). That’s because Christ alone sacrificed himself for our sins (Hebrews 9:26; 1 John 2:2) – performing his “mightiest work” on the cross (LW 21:340). “Mary.... did not redeem” us (LW 22:146). “Mary.... was not crucified... for us” (LW 69:262). Only Jesus delivers us from sin and death (Romans 7:24, 6:23). Even though his blood was partially intermingled with Mary's in utero, she never shed that blood on the cross for sinners. So Mary, weeping at the cross, didn’t somehow join “herself with [the] sacrifice [of Jesus] in her mother’s heart” – somehow mixing her tears with his blood for our salvation [contra the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition (1999) §964]. No, never!
Only Christ can carry us into the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:13). The law of God can point us in the right direction – like a hand signaling the way to go – but it can’t get us there. For that we will need “feet, a wagon to travel in, or horses to ride on” (LW 22:143). And Christ alone is that transportation for us – only he has the feet to carry us into God’s kingdom. For if it is true that
God became man,... yet without sin, it then follows that as far apart as God and man formerly were from each other,... they now belong closely together; therefore, no kinsman... is as closely related to me as is Christ, the Son of the everlasting Father [Luther’s House Postils, 3 vols, ed. E. Klug (1996) 3:211].
Rejoicing in this salvation through faith in Christ, we also struggle to live lives that are pleasing to God (Hebrews 11:6) – knowing that we are saved “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). These deeds will not save us – but we do them precisely because we have already been saved by faith in Christ:
Yes, clothed in Christ’s... righteousness, I can... begin to love God and my neighbor. Where I still lack and fail, I have a precious “umbrella” in Christ who shades me with his fulfillment.... Hitherto, I thought that it was up to me to keep the Law; now I realize that’s impossible for me.... Under Christ,...I am always covered; and so, I am as pure and innocent as the sun, but always on account of Christ in whom I believe [who] has paid my account (LHP, 1:186).
On this feast day, then, dedicated to St. Mary, the Mother of Our Lord, let us do these works in honor of our salvation in Christ.
First, Luther says that “nothing would please St. Mary” more than to turn from “all lofty things on which men set their hearts” and “gladly associate” with things of “low degree” (LW 21:323, 315; Romans 12:16). So hanging around with – or even wanting to be involved with – the rich, influential and powerful isn’t the Christian way – and that is in large part why God didn’t select Caiaphas’ daughter instead to be the mother of our Lord (LW 21: 314). We all know that we secretly hanker after the benefits these associations bring us – like fine food, fancy surroundings, and choice entertainment. But on this feast day – in thanksgiving for St. Mary and in honor of Christ – let us purge our hearts and minds of these thoughts and “put to death” all such longings (Colossians 3:5). In Luther’s treatise on The Magnificat (1521), he elaborates this point most helpfully. Ungrateful people, he explains,
despise the good gifts of God which are showered so abundantly upon them and which they overlook – such as life, body, reason, goods, honor, friends, the ministrations of the sun and all created things.... They act as they do because they look above them and not beneath them; if they looked beneath them, they would find many that have not half of what they have and yet are content in God and sing His praise. A bird pipes its lay and is happy in the gifts it has; nor does it murmur because it lacks the gift of speech. A dog frisks gaily about and is content, even though he is without the gift of reason. All animals live in contentment.... Only the evil, villainous eye of man is never satisfied.... It always wants the best place at the feast as the chief guest (Luke 14:8) (LW 21:320).
And secondly let us recite daily the Hail Mary, those venerable lines from Scripture about St. Mary – absent the last words about praying for us sinners now and in the hour of our death, since they go against the Scriptures [contra the Catholic Catechism, §2677]:
Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee; bless-ed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ [Luke 1:28, 42] (LW 43:39).
Luther argued that we should neither turn the Hail Mary into “a prayer nor an invocation,” but leave it as a mediation on the “grace God has given her” (LW 43:39-40). So even though “blessed Mary prays for the church,” we must not invoke her or trust in her to “appease Christ” for us (BC, pp. 232-233)! That’s because we “would necessarily be guilty of eternal death if Jesus Christ... did not still intercede and plead for us as a faithful, merciful Mediator, Savior, and the only Priest and Bishop of our Souls” (LW 37:362)!
Finally let us on this day do whatever we can to get the good news out about Christ to generations everywhere – either by going to the ends of the earth ourselves, or by praying for and financially supporting those who travel hither and yon (Isaiah 61:9; Matthew 28:19-20). And let our efforts in this regard find inspiration in Luther admonitions from his 1523 sermon on 1 Peter:
We live on earth only so that we should be a help to other people. Otherwise, it would be best if God would strangle us... as soon as we were baptized and had begun to believe. For this reason, however, he lets us live that we may bring other people also to faith as he has done for us [Luther Texts on Mission, ed. Volker Stolle (2003) p. 20].
May all three of these good deeds – associating with the lowly, reciting the Hail Mary, and promoting Christ among all generations – be a joyous part of our blessing of St. Mary today. Amen.
(Preached by the Rev. Ron F. Marshall on the Feast of St. Mary, Mother of Our Lord, August 17, 2008, at First Lutheran Church of West Seattle).