“Something About that Mary”

November 28, 2004--Advent

Texts: Luke 1:26-38 ;John 1:43-51; 2 Chron. 16:9 & Gen. 24:14-19, 24-31


            While our text for today is: 2 Chron. 16:9  "For the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His, we will begin Advent by looking at four personages: Rebekah, Philip, Nathanael and, finally, Mary.  The love story from Genesis is that of Isaac and Rebekah.  The servant in question is none other than Eleazar, the trusted manservant of Abraham.  But consider Rebekah, she is lovely, a virgin and the eye of the Lord has fixed itself upon her.  In this she greatly resembles Mary--there is something about Rebekah that greatly reminds and even prepares us for appreciating Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Christ.  Rebekah is to marry the son of promise and to give birth to the son of promise Jacob and not his twin, Essau--so it can‘t be in the DNA.  But there is more.  Rebekah’s heart, unlike that of her son Essau, is toward God, she is loyal to Him.  Therefore she is suitable as a wife for Isaac.[1]  Three  things to look for in Mary: her high favor with God, the abruptness of her call to serve, her immersion in the things of God. But, high above all these personal qualities, stands this: Christ in her, the hope of glory.  And the question for us is: Am I Christ-inhabited person?  Is my heart so loyal to God by grace through faith that He would choose to dwell therein?  You see, the uniqueness of Mary is only that she carried the Christ child in her womb--if she did not subsequently become a Christ-bearer, and that Christ crucified and risen in her heart it was all for nothing for her!  So what can I do to become a person for whom the Lord will show Himself strong is clear: kiss the Son. (Psa 2:12  Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way, For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!)  Beloved, because we are meant to be God’s Christmas present to the world, we must get ready--we must attend to the contents of that gift: the indwelling Christ, precious in Himself--we, ourselves are but the wrappings.


            Listen, the world as it is now will become completely new in Jesus Christ.  This will occur through gradual stages of revival and will culminate in complete transformation at His Second Coming  Therefore we are as much in need of Advent as we have ever been.  The question arises: How will God’s love come to penetrate all things, all social institutions, all nations and all families?  If you name the name of Jesus, then I have both great and troubling news for you--you are called to be one of those points of penetration.  We were created to be filled to overflowing with the love of God.  God is injecting us into this tired old world to unfreeze old joints, to resurrect relational deadness and to make all things old, new!  How weary, weary this old world is with strife, division and violence, weary and soul-sick with suspicion and distrust!  You may be the very one that God has ordained for such a time as this . . .His eye may be resting upon you to strongly encourage you.


            I know, but I know that God is still in the mode of calling people out, people like Eleazar, and Rebekah and Isaac--people like Philip, Nathanael and Mary and you and me.  He is doing today what He did in the days of the first Advent because He has prepared a people for this day--that would be you!  We are His people.  We are called to proclaim Jesus Christ, to declare the truth and to love this generation into its redeemed condition.  We will look first at Philip now, a man whose Jewish heritage is tarnished by the appropriation of a barbaric, or Gentile name.  He is from the fishing village of Bethsaida--a rough and ready town like the Bangor of log running yester-year.  Peter and Andrew also came from this town where the living was  hard, violent; it was according to Matt. 11:21 a wicked place.  And yet even in unsavory Bethsaida there was a remnant, among those brawny, brawling fishermen whose heavy drinking and fisticuffs were notorious.  The eye of the Lord fell upon Philip because of his prepared heart--he was one of those called out by Christ to become a fisher of men.  Poverty, hard knocks even little formal education are no hindrance to God’s program of redemption.  Furthermore, God sought out Philip when it isn’t even evident that Philip was searching for God.  We do not know, in his case, as we might surmise with Nathanael, that Philip was even looking for the Messiah.  No, what we know is that the Messiah came looking for him!


            For Philip, his personal world became new with the words “Follow Me.”  These words were uttered by the authority of Jesus, Creator of the heavens and the earth.  We know nothing of his spirituality, or of any religious interest in him.  However, we may infer that his heart was loyal to God.  The grace of God sought him out and that alone was sufficient to prevent him from becoming just like any other fisherman from Bethsaida.  Hear from this that God draws us out in various ways.  He’s not constrained to either this method, or to that.  Philip was called the day after Andrew and Peter were called in Bethabara, beyond the Jordan where John the Baptist was ministering.  Jesus had gone to him to be baptized and John recognized Jesus as the Lamb of God, and saw the Spirit descending and resting upon Him.  Jesus had gone into Galilee to find Philip.  So, Philip was converted at a word.  He became part of the divine revolution instantly--and that motivates him to find Nathanael--doing for Nathanael what Andrew did for his brother Simon Peter.  Here are some key words for Philip: rugged, simple, uneducated and, probably, unrefined.  We might build a case for some religious interest based upon his friendship with Nathanael, but it is just as likely that the association could be as loose as mere suggestion.  Oh, the Messiah, that would interest my friend, I bet.  Philip, the newest of converts approaches Nathanael--yet another method that God might use to reach from amongst the lost His Chosen, the Elect of God.

            Nathanael is presented most richly of the first four disciples.  He appears to have been sincerely religious and as a student of scripture--he appears to have been meditating upon the life of Jacob under that fig tree.  This religious interest is both a hindrance and a help.  It works for him (by promoting the religious interest, his aliveness to spiritual truth) and it works against him (by promoting certain educational biases, or prejudices within him).  When we get to Mary we will find some of the best qualities of Rebekah, Philip and Nathanael all combined in her.  She is pure and loyal.  She, too, is sought out by God and yet she is spiritually alive and Scripturally informed.  God’s work of preparation is  more apparent in Nathanael. He apparently held some very strong opinions--he’d fit right in here.  And, typically, what he did know had some adverse effects of preventing him from accepting Philip’s good news.  He answered, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  I am going to rephrase that response a little so that you might catch his meaning more accurately: “Can anything that good, as excellent as the Messiah come from such an obscure place as Nazareth?”  Nathanael was blunt and plain spoken, but not close-minded, not what we might describe as a bigot.  When I received my call to serve EWBC, I, being strongly opinionated myself, was not surprised to find the church full of other strongly opinionated leaders and the dynamics that followed have always proved interesting.  Sometimes unity has seemed illusive and we have experienced lots of transition in and out--however, we may be sure that God knows what He is doing.  He is always ready to meet the real needs of our congregation--however discomforting that may be to those who perceptions of real needs may differ--in which case God is perfectly capable of bringing us to our senses.  On a personal level, I received one of those wake-up calls through my recent heart attack.  Nothing’s been the same since.  And the same thing could be said of the call of Philip and of Nathanael.  Now that Christ was in their lives, He had indeed made all things new.

            We should appreciate that Nathanael’s response to Philip’s declaration was technically correct: Moses had written that the Messiah would come from Judah, not Nazareth--the later prophets specified Bethlehem.  It is possible that Philip set up some misunderstandings by referring to the Christ as Jesus from Nazareth, the son of Joseph.  However, we know that Jesus wasn’t from Nazareth originally and that He was the Son of God prior to any so-called biological relationship to Joseph or Mary--the most we can say is that He, the Holy One---“Thing” in the Greek-- within her womb, was conceived of the Holy Spirit.  Here’s what Nathanael couldn’t possibly know.  Our God, blessed be His Name, is sovereign over all the earth as well as every historical circumstance which means that God had arranged travel plans, courtesy of a pagan emperor, that caused Joseph and Mary to journey to Bethlehem in time for the Christ child to be born there in fulfillment of the Scriptures.  Bethlehem was the city of David, the royal ancestor of both Joseph and Mary.  Thus God orchestrated the whole thing towards the fulfillment of His purposes and both Joseph and Mary submitted themselves to those plans for our redemption!  He still does that today.


            Philip replies to Nathanael in kind, with plain speech: “Come and see.”  That is, come and see for yourself!  The anticipation is this: if Nathanael would come, he would discover that Jesus was indeed the Christ.  Demonstrations, or proofs do follow.  And, better yet, all theological difficulties dissolve in the wisdom of simply bringing Nathanael to Jesus--we should be encouraged to do the same!  What follows in the text is known in dramatic circles as  “:recognition scene”-- a mutual recognition scene.  As Jesus discloses to Nathanael who he is, the Lord is revealing Himself to Nathanael!  That is, Jesus demonstrates His divinity by expositing Nathanael’s character to himself without prior knowledge, or common familiarity.  Only God knows the heart of a man.  The dynamic unfolds in the course of the angel’s visit to Mary: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women.”  She is understandably troubled by this manner of salutation (what could it mean?) just as Nathanael was amazed at Jesus’ insight into his own soul (how does He know all this about me?).[2]  More than common modesty is at work in these encounters--we are all used to hiding, and we are not at all used to being known.  Indeed, we are very uncomfortable about being known (man of integrity, highly favor woman, man of valor) in spirit and in truth--on that level very few of us even know ourselves.  Our souls’ integrity, our spiritual union with God-- these are redemptive declarations, and they are immensely private things.  How so?  These are  things about ourselves that only God could know because only God can know the human heart that well.  As God meets us in this manner, we come to know Him and ourselves very well indeed.


            “Behold, an Israelite[3] indeed, one in whom is no deceit.” (v. 47)  What a splendid description that is!  That’s Nathanael’s greeting from the Lord.  What an affirmation of his deepest passion and most personal self-truth.  To be known by the Lord as genuine, as not a hypocrite.  It has been suggested that Nathanael was both a modest and a melancholy man, a good man who carried some deep doubts about himself and about his sincerity.  He was scrupulous about being honest, uneventful--he was careful not to spin the truth, to speak half-truths or to distort so as to discredit or mislead.  He was no slanderer.  He was careful and humble.  It is not hard to imagine this man stammering, “How. . .how do you. . .you know me?”  As for Jesus, he wasn’t simply declaring Nathanael’s character for all to hear, He was welcoming Nathanael as someone trustworthy.  It was as if Jesus’ first words meant: Now here is someone I can work with!  How wonderful and refreshing!  Beloved, can you hear this affirmation as being set over and redemptively set against Nathanael’s self-talk full as it was of doubt?  Even as it opposes Nathanael’s very own words: how can anything good come from Nazareth?  For now Nathanael sees that if not all good, at least the supreme good has indeed come, and is even now standing before him!!  And, even more than that, humanly speaking we need to hear that we, you and I, already have the acceptance of Christ despite our weaknesses and even as Nathanael and Mary, we are already recipients of divine mercy despite imperfections and fallibility.

            Even Nathanael’s position under the fig tree is significant.  First, we may note that it is a kindness of Jesus that He notices Nathanael there.  It appears likely, by inference from the text, that he was meditating upon Israel, as in Jacob--perhaps pondering the significance of Jacob’s life, or the dream of Jacob’s ladder (where Jacob discovers that God is in the least expected places--even to emerging from obscurity in Nazareth).  Micah 4:4 uses the fig tree in Messianic terms.  We may interpret this to mean that Jesus sees Nathanael as being in the Messianic age already which, of course, being with Jesus, he actually is!  This imagery is also found in Zechariah 3:10--the prophet most cited by Jesus; but both Micah and Zechariah share the vision of Isaiah as found in:

Therefore, picking up on these cues, we can understand Nathanael’s worshipful adoration in verse 49: John 1:49  Nathanael answered Him, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel."[4]

            Now, as we turn our attention towards Mary, we are stepping back in time some thirty years prior to the call of Philip and Nathanael, we arrive again at the question, “How is the love of God to penetrate all things?”.  How is God going to invade this weary world and root out hatred, end strife, violence and warfare?  He has to scan the whole world, all those who are captive to suspicion and distrust, rebellion and sin, to see if there is anyone whose heart is towards Him. . .so that He may greatly encourage and strengthen him.  God found Gideon, Philip and Nathanael. . .but He also found such a person in Mary.  Mary, of the heart prepared by God and for God.  Mary, the loyal, and pure and faithful.  We shall begin with this commendation of Mary. She is highly favored.


            She also bears this resemblance to Philip.  God sought her out.  Gabriel’s visitation has the element of surprise in it.  The angel’s “Hail, Mary” is parallel to Philip’s summons, “Follow Me.”  The same as Philip,, Mary was from a little, out-of-the-way place like Bethsaida--and that town like Nazareth have the dubious distinction of rejecting the Messiah even if they differ in their degrees of depravity.  But, as I stated before, human depravity is no discouragement to God.  It is a slight thing compared to His purposes, it is no hindrance for God’s remnant is everywhere!  God can call it forth any time, anywhere--and does so, just as it pleases Him.  What we might consider the most God-forsaken place on earth is not God-forsaken to God and we, just like Jacob, may simply be blinded to His Presence in that place.  But here, I must say, Mary’s resemblance to Philip rather abruptly ends. 


            For Mary, as it turns out is very conversant with the revealed purposes of God--her poetry and songs disclose that--in comparison to Philip, Mary is bright, articulate and even eloquent[5].  Mary has pondered the things of God--His purposes are not strange to her, they are familiar.


            Mary bears considerable likeness to Nathanael in this.  She is a true Israelite, a professor and a practitioner of her Jewish faith--indeed, like John the Baptist, she may well represent the best that the Old Testament dispensation had to offer.  How fortunate we are that that spiritual preparation was good enough.  People talk about Mary’s innocence carelessly.  I do not believe that she was without sin--not merely because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Rather I see that Scripture details her doubts about her Son, her second guessing of His mission and the means of her pregnancy and her disbelief in the Messiah right alongside her strengths of purity, virtue and submissiveness.  The point is that without being perfect, she was quite good enough to serve God’s purposes because her heart was loyal to God!  What made her even more suitable was her humility, her servant’s heart and her astounding trust in God’s goodness.  Mary was not naïve, but she was capable of simple trust.  She was willing to be a vessel in God’s service.  And God can use that.  Her openness shouldn’t be astounding, or exceptional BUT in her times it seems to have been rare--even Zacharias doubted Gabriel!  However, to balance this, we do have record of Simeon and Anna as persons of spiritual depth, prayer and good repute with God and man.  So having a heart towards God was rare, but not absent.  It never is.


            But the something about Mary that matters most is, again, her relationship to the Redeemer. That is the most important heart condition of all--and it is a standard by which we all stand or fall.  His blood atoned for her as surely for her as for us, or not at all.


            Like the Marines, God is looking for a few good men and women.  He is looking for willing servants, for loyalty.  He is looking for those who would be willing to embody His love for the lost, who would willingly embrace His redemptive purposes, leaving all the consequences in His hands.  God anoints and God appoints His saints to make flexible the stiff joints, to mend wounded hearts, to bring to life that which was dead, or merely dormant.  God makes all things new.  In place of strife, He desires to plant peace.  Instead of warfare, He desires reconciliation.  The question is always where will He find people willing to do this work--His work and none other.  Are you such a person?  Could you be as open as Philip, as encourage-able as Gideon, as guileless as Nathanael, and as expendable as Mary?  I believe so.  And I believe that if the desire of your heart is to be loyal to God, if you truly want to be His vessel of service, all you have to do is ask God--ask for that something special that made Mary, the ordinary, extraordinary!  If you are among those blessed to see God’s strong encouragement, maintain your devotion to Him.  Give Him credit and praise Him for His goodness and mercy.  Some of you may be needing encouragement due to anxiety in your life.  It helps to remember His love in past trials.  It helps to remember He is in control and that His promises deferred, or delayed are not promises broken.  Mary’s life was blessed, but it wasn’t trouble-free.  Your life may be troubled now, but put yourself in God’s hands and you will be blessed.  The cure for mistrust with God is more trust.  Faith answers all our fears.


            I believe that this is a season of great and expectant, extravagant hope.  Listen, can you hear it?, the kingdom of heaven is at hand . . .the heavens are heavy with light, full of choirs of angels.  Everything is tingly with expectation and excitement.  This could be your hour, the beginning of the best and greatest adventure of your entire life--yes, regardless of your age, or your expectations, your station, or resources--“the eyes of the Lord are moving to and fro throughout the earth.”  Yes, they are.


[1] Therefore she is, almost immediately, completely amenable to leaving her family behind, journeying to the West with Eleazar  to marry someone she has never met.  Why?  Because she perceived in these circumstances, due to the condition of her heart, that this was the will of God for her.  Now notice, please, those who are strongly encouraged: Eleazar, Rebekah, her mother and brother and finally Isaac himself. 

[2] Both episodes remind us of the experience of Gideon, that “mighty man of valor” called out as he was hiding from the Midianites!  Gideon didn’t know himself as well as the Lord did who called him out to be the judge of Israel

[3] The term Israelite is pregnant with meaning.  It means a descendant of Israel--which was the God-given name for Jacob once he had put his deceptive ways behind himself and reclaimed his legacy of spirituality which resided in his father’s blessing.  Jacob began his life as a deceiver and as a cheat, but he ended his life with a limp to remind him both of his past and of his tenacity with God.  Israel also played the role of a prophet, his final blessings over his twelve sons proved unerringly accurate.  Jacob was the plain, simple man who is contrasted with that man of cunning, Essau.  Israel is the honest Jacob, the professor of faith, the seed of promise--these all being other titles by which Israel is known in Scripture.  A true Israelite means one in whom there is “no guile”--there wasn’t a dishonest bone in his body--he was neither intentionally false, nor was he untrue to his faith in God.  Nathanael lived up to the profession of his faith and he really was as good as he appeared.  He was sincere in his repentance from sin and was a covenant keeper.Psa 32:2  How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no deceit!It is possible to be foolish, and to make mistakes, even to be forgetful overlooking details and skipping steps, and still not be false.  Nathanael was one of those.  How encouraging it is to live by the kind of grace that elevates what is noble in each other!  Jesus would commend Nathanael to us, we need to commend each other, too.  Learn to live like Jesus in this elevating what is good, and true and beautiful about each other.

[4]           You see, Nathanael misses none of the cues that I have pointed out to you.  Here he greatly resembles Mary--both their hearts are so prepared that worship is merely a breath away!  Before we leave this encounter, I want to draw our attention to the fact that Jesus again alludes to the Jacob story when he declares: "Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."  Note that Jesus has substituted Himself for that holy place of Jacob’ dream Bethel--formerly known as Luz which means “almond tree.”  The almond tree is a symbol for religious renewal, or revival--it signified the selection of Aaron from amongst the twelve tribes (Num. 17:8). 

[5] Here I pause to note this bridge.  Embedded in the angel’s greeting is the phrase “highly favored one.”  I remembered having heard it before in Scripture, but where? It occurs in Genesis 24 and are the words addressed to Eleazar, Abraham’s manservant by Laban, Rebekah’s brother and Jacob’s future father-in-law.  This Eleazar is the man who was sent on a mission to find Isaac his wife.  He came to the land of Haran, and to the very neighborhood of Bethuel under the guidance of the angel of the Lord.  This journey happens to be in the opposite direction of a subsequent journey, one undertaken by wise men looking upon the Star of Bethlehem--an event which astronomers believe actually occurred and can be dated accordingly.  Once there Eleazar “finds” Rebekah.  She performs the sign Eleazar proposed to God.  She is a beautiful, young virgin.  She has a heart prepared to serve God--by going with this man to the West and marrying Isaac.  She is purposed by God to marry the promised seed of Israel, to give birth to the promised seed of Israel in Jacob (not Essau), and to be the ever so great grandmother of the Messiah Himself!  Laban who appears in a positive sense here will re-emerge in the biblical narrative in not quite so positive a role--he proves to be a crafty and designing person.  Rebekah shares some of those traits, too.  It’s a relief to know that the saints aren’t necessarily perfect even though they are used by God!  Again, there’s that grace.