Finding strength we didn’t know we had

Published 11:59 pm Sunday, December 18, 2022

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Curious thing we do with biblical characters. In our love for God, and our love for scripture, so many of us tend to elevate the biblical figures automatically. Without noticing, we might lift them up onto pedestals. That much is understandable. 

Problem is, in doing so we also rob their stories of the full chance to teach us. We can be shaped and formed by people we allow ourselves to relate to. But if we have already so venerated someone in the Bible, we may accept their actions as heroic and other-worldly. If we do, we read without wondering, for instance, what we would do in the same shoes. 

Take Mary, mother of Jesus. Let me acknowledge that we protestants tend to read her story differently than some portions of Christianity might. Luke 1: 26-37 shows Mary absorbing the news of Jesus’ promise. The angel Gabriel visits and speaks to her on God’s behalf. 

If this woman is only viewed as a hero, then her reaction to that news is nice. Her words are almost predictable, since biblical heroes have understandings and capabilities we never could. 

Tilting the story at a slightly different angle, instead it becomes an Advent inspiration. An informative and inspiring lesson of a human finding strength she didn’t know she had. If our best understandings hold, Mary was probably just a teenager. Yes, if we skip to the relative end, then she took the assignment given her and took her place in the gospel’s bedrock story

What if, instead, we notice her hesitance. It is portrayed, although only briefly, in a few details. Luke tells us that she was “perplexed and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” 

But, if we’ve already lifted Mary up we hardly notice those compelling words. Besides, we don’t like our biblical heroes to be hesitant. We like to color them brave and bold. In our minds, we almost picture Mary instead waiting on Gabriel and already slightly in the loop. “I’ve been waiting on you,” we might imagine Mary saying. 

Easy to ignore, or at least downplay, might also be that Gabriel needed to counsel her as he did. “Do not be afraid,” is lost on us if we don’t imagine that she would be afraid. Then after the news finally did unfold to her, Mary asked an understandable question. “How can this be?”

“How can this be?” is a question you’ve asked dozens of times. Life drops that question at our doorstep frequently. So, why couldn’t Mary have also been perplexed at the news she received?

Finally, we can take Gabriel’s explanation to her through the filters of our familiarity. We’ve heard the story so many times that a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, rather than by conventional means, seems like a non-story. Instead, if we allow Mary to be merely human, it causes even the reader to inhale sharply. 

So, what if this year we allowed Mary to be more like you or like me? What if we didn’t hold her at the arms-length of heroism. Instead, what if we allowed her to teach us some things. What if we allowed her to be, okay I’m going to use the word, “normal”? 

First of all, her surprise should inform us. When God comes near, it is no casual experience. Next, life will surprise us on a regular basis. News we had no expectation of sometimes arrives in the form of something beautiful. But occasionally, great challenge comes with surprise. 

If you’ve struggled under the weight of the diagnosis of nightmare proportions, your overwhelm and sorrow was real. If the job you thought you would hold for the rest of your career suddenly evaporated, you probably didn’t immediately utter praise to God. You had to survive the crisis because it was real. 

If you have labored under multiple life challenges that didn’t spread themselves out too nicely, you probably related more to Job than to young Mary at the moment. If the relationship that breaks, or the situation that won’t resolve, seem hard to carry then Mary just might have something to teach you. 

Mary lived into her resolve. Her place in Jesus’ lineage was real and it was vital. But my informed hunch is that she spent a lifetime in service to God discovering strength she didn’t know she had. She lived into the news the angel gave her one season of life, one overwhelming chapter, at a time. Just like you or I do.

Dr. Charles Qualls is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.