We Protestants don’t always know what to do with Mary.  We like her—don’t get me wrong—but sometimes we don’t get all the fuss that our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters make over her.  It sometimes makes us uncomfortable.

About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
December 20, 2020—Fourth Sunday in Advent
Luke 1:26-28

In planning these worship services, I like to look at the entirety of the Christian tradition for inspiration for the liturgy and prayers. I’m a huge admirer of the Orthodox tradition, but it seems like whenever I find a nice prayer, there’s invariably a line in it that says something like, “Commemorating our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary…” And I think, There’s no way a bunch of Methodists is going for that. Plus, given that the scriptures say that Joseph “had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son” (Matthew 1:25 NRSV), I’m not so sure myself about the “ever-virgin” part.

We not as accustomed to making as much fuss over Mary as the Catholics and Orthodox do.

To be fair, we don’t even make as much fuss as the Muslims do, who have an entire book of the Qur’an devoted to Mary. We don’t get the concept of praying to her.  We’re a little uncomfortable about the title “Mother of God”.  And then there are those of us who wonder about the practicability of a role model who is both the perfect mother and a virgin. We might be inclined to think that all the devotion to Mary is a consequence of the overly male-dominated view of God that we have elsewhere and that devotion to Mary is a way of recapturing the “sacred feminine” in Christian tradition. 

But perhaps we have given Mary short shrift and should take another look.


The story of Mary begins with a remarkable contrast: the angel Gabriel—God’s Holy Messenger comes to a town out in the sticks.  The Galilee was then, as it is now, predominantly rural.  There were a couple of major towns in the Galilee—Sepphoris and Capernaum—but Nazareth wasn’t one of them.  And so, for Gabriel to come to Nazareth, of all places, is surprising.

That he should come to a young woman and tell her that she will bear a child, is also surprising.  All the more so because she is a virgin.  When she protests at the impossibility of this, he assures her that God’s power can accomplish it and as a sign tells her that her barren cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant. That, too, is surprising.

But perhaps the most surprising is her willingness to go along with this.  For Gabriel does not tell her that she is pregnant, he tells her that she will conceive. She is the one who responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

world cloud for sermon text Bearing God
Image courtesy wordle.net

When you consider what she is taking upon herself with that statement, it is a remarkable thing. First of all, she’s going to have to explain this pregnancy to her fiancé and trust that he will accept her. What’s more, she is willing to put an effective end to her youth or young adulthood by taking on the responsibility of raising a child.  A child of special destiny, to be sure, but a child nonetheless.  The discomfort of pregnancy and pain of childbirth. Sleepless nights, anxiety over illness and injury, the moments of pride and fear—all these things and more are coming her way.  The dawning realization that what her son  has come into the world to do may not always yield a happy result, and the fear that comes with that.  Mary is willing to take upon herself all these things.

What’s more, she is taking upon herself the grief of a mother who will outlive her child.  A mother like the countless millions who watch their child suffer and die: from hunger, from famine, war, disease, or violence. She will see her son suffer and die at the hands of power and violence and will know a grief that only a parent can know.

Reflecting on that, her statement, “Here am I; the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” is astounding.

Whatever else we might think about Mary, her story is a compelling one and given the realities that she would have to face, it’s downright inspirational.

But does it warrant the kind of adoration that we see elsewhere in the Christian churches?  Does her self-sacrificial willingness to do as God has asked make her worthy of such praise?  At least any more praise than any other mother who is willing to take on all the risks, pains, and joys of bringing a child into the world?


Maybe the problem is how we talk about Mary.

Sometimes, we get hung up on language.  And as hard as it is to believe, the Bible wasn’t actually written in English, a fact that is often forgotten by the fundamentalists, and that often obscures some of the important theological truths of the scriptures.

Icon of Mary, the Theotokos, the God Bearer for sermon Bearing God
Icon of Mary as Theotokos

In English, Mary is often referred to as the “Mother of God”. This is the result of direct translation from the Latin Mater Dei, found in the Ave Maria/Hail Mary prayer.  But “Mother of God” is something of a paraphrase and a confusing one at that; especially from a Protestant perspective. It’s the phrase that causes us the most discomfort.

But the Greek text from the oldest formulations refers to Mary as the θεοτοκος theotókos, which means “God-bearer” or as one scholar put it: “The one who gives birth to the one who is God.” 1Jaroslav Pelikan, quoted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_of_God  What perhaps gives most Protestant Christians pause—the idea that Mary somehow is the one who brings God into existence as a mother does with a human child—is not at all what the term implies.  It is merely referring to Mary as the one who gives birth to the one who is God in the world.  She brings forth God in the world.

I was once asked by a Catholic why Protestants do not venerate Mary in the same way that Catholics do.  He quoted a nun of his acquaintance who said that “If Mary is not venerated as mother of part of the Godhead, what does that make Christ, if his mother is ‘only’ an unimportant woman?” My thinking was that even if his mother were “only” an unimportant woman that would be precisely the point.  In fact, that makes the Gospel point all the more clearly—that it is with the meek, lowly, and unremarkable that God chooses to dwell.

He continued further and asked “What about the importance of God’s choice of her, of all women, to carry his Son into the world?”

That’s an interesting question, because it raises the whole history of what we call God’s “election”—God’s choice of some individuals for salvation or sacred task. God elects all kinds of people for particular tasks, and it’s almost always clear that they don’t necessarily deserve it. Abraham, Isaac—the second-born, Jacob—the second born and supplanter of his twin brother, Moses—who had murdered an Egyptian, David—who would take the wife of another man and kill the man to cover his crime, and on and on. The prophets, when called, always point out the reasons they should not be called to God’s service: impurity of lips and heart, youth, lack of readiness. God’s particular selection of Mary doesn’t in and of itself convince us that she’s worthy of special consideration.

But perhaps we Protestants, out of our historical biases, are too quick to dismiss Mary as part of our spirituality.  And even when we are inclined to talk about her, we do so as a role model of either faithfulness in response (as Abraham) or as a model of purity, by focusing on her virginity.

But Mary clearly represents something more. Her importance to us is actually neither as role model nor as pure virgin.  It’s as theotókos, as God-bearer.

IV. The God-Bearer

The Annunciation to Mary
Illustration by Kathleen Kimball

Mary’s faithful willingness to bear Jesus and to raise him is wonderful.  So, likewise is that of Joseph, who took him into his home, who worked to provide shelter, food, and clothing for him.  These are indeed wonderful.  But her example is not meant to be the only one.  The Biblical text is not extolling her solely as a remarkable woman, but as a woman who teaches us something. That’s because we, the entire church, are also chosen to carry God’s son into the world.  And when the Church is living up to its mission, it is doing precisely that.  And there are many who bore Christ into the world at great cost.

The early Christians bore Christ into the middle of the Roman Empire, resisting the lure of Imperialism and remaining faithful to justice, mercy, and love.  Augustine bore Christ into the middle of socio-political turmoil as the Empire crumbled all around and proclaiming the eternal City of God that never failed.  Francis bore Christ into the middle of a world overrun by material possessions and inter-religious strife, and lived out a life of simplicity and charity.  Wesley bore Christ to the coal miners and the working classes of England, long neglected by the Church and its worldliness, and sparked a movement that proclaimed God’s grace with power.

Bonhöffer bore Christ into the middle of the Nazi regime, and ultimately into Dachau.  King bore Christ into the middle of Jim Crow and centuries of racial oppression. Romero bore Christ into the middle of the El Salvadoran Civil War.  Countless millions have borne Christ into situations of despair and hopelessness.


Perhaps our real discomfort with Mary should be if it should turn out that she was in fact the only one bearing Christ into the world.  For she does not seek to bear God into the world alone.  Mary is an exemplar, to be sure, and exemplars are meant to be imitated.

Now, it is not likely that any of us will get the same offer from the Archangel Gabriel to bear a child the way that Mary did.  But we are all given the offer to bear Christ to the world every day of our lives.

We are on the final Sunday in Advent, days away from Christmas, when we commemorate Christ’s coming into the world, born by his mother, Mary.

This is not a story that does not involve us.  For this is a season in which we are invited once again to bear God in the world.  And there are so many ways in which that can be done.

When we share kindness in the midst of a busy, hectic, and aggravating season, we bear Christ into the world.

When we witness to mercy greater than material goods, we bear Christ into the world.

When we commit ourselves to justice for the marginalized and oppressed, we bear Christ into the world.

When we create communities of welcome and hospitality for all people and share the all-inclusive love of God, we bear Christ into the world.

When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the prisoners, we bear Christ into the world.

When we resist the lure of power and the idols of influence, and turn instead to service in humility, we bear Christ into the world.

When we turn away from narrow self-interest and consider the impact our lives have on others, we bear Christ into the world.

When we center our lives around love and openness instead of the fear and desire for control our world usually revolves around, we bear Christ into the world.

Mary is a remarkable woman and her story is inspiring.  But it is not a story we receive passively. It is a narrative in which we are invited to take part.  It is a call to us to be bearer of God in a broken and hurting world.  It is a summons to us, that the next time we hear the archangel’s call to bear God into the world, we respond: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

The Text

Luke 1:26-38 • In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

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