Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. The year was A.D. 431 and there was a strong disagreement within the church regarding the Virgin Mary. There were essentially two positions in this disagreement: those who sided with Cyril of Alexandria, and those who sided with Nestorius. Cyril and the Alexandrians had a long tradition of referring to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, or the “God-Bearer.” Nestorius, on the other hand, insisted that the Virgin Mary should not be called “God-Bearer”, but rather “Christ-Bearer”, or Christotokos. Nestorius was on record saying, Never will I call a two or three year old child “God” and that is all I will have to do with you, Cyril. And so, Cyril, wanting nothing to do with this heretical position, proceeded to arrange for a church-wide council—the Third Ecumenical Council—to meet in Ephesus. And so, on June 7th—Pentecost—the council was called to order. It was a fairly miserable council…partially because of the attitudes of the bishops present who were dead set on excommunicating one another (because that’s how their conflict resolution process worked in the early church!), but it was a miserable council also because of the weather—Ephesus is a hot, humid place in summertime.
But Cyril selected Ephesus as the location for this council because of the Cathedral Church of the Virgin Mary located there. And the Christians of Ephesus would defend the “God-Bearer” status of Mary at all costs because, as Church tradition tells us, Ephesus was the location where Mary, along with the Apostle John, resettled after Jesus’ Ascension into the heavens. And so, ever since the Council of Ephesus in 431, the church has publicly and unashamedly believed that Mary was indeed Theotokos, the God-Bearer. Now, if called Mary, the “God-Bearer” makes you a bit uncomfortable, that’s completely understandable—this is a title that many of our brothers and sisters have over-emphasized historically to exalt Mary as a quasi-deity. But this is a gross misrepresentation of what it means to call the Blessed Virgin Mary “God-Bearer.” In fact, as our Gospel Reading for this morning makes clear, Mary’s status as “God-Bearer” is a title that she bore with the utmost humility.
2. In our Gospel Reading for today, we see that the Lord send his messenger, the angel Gabriel, to an unsuspecting, humble young woman named Mary. And our sermon hymn this morning, “The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came”, paints a quite vivid picture of the scene: The angel Gabriel from heaven came, With wings as drifted snow, with eyes as flame. Now, to be fair, this is an artistic picture of what the angel might have looked like—painting him as a fierce warrior who would strike fear into the heart of anyone who saw him. But, interestingly, Mary doesn’t seem to be bothered by Gabriel’s appearance. It’s actually the content of Gabriel’s greeting which troubles Mary the most. Once again, Gabriel’s greeting to Mary was, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Now, if you can put yourself in Mary’s shoes for a minute, there are basically two questions that are disturbing about this greeting, which she must have been pondering. First, “Why is he calling me favored one?” Second, “What does it mean that “The Lord is with me?” Somehow, for some reason, the Lord has found favor with Mary—not because of any special merit that she had on her own, but because the Lord granted her grace and favor. And what Mary would soon realize is that the Lord was with her in a much greater way than she could have ever imagined. And so, the angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus (Luke 1:30-31). And after a simple, honest question, Mary sets aside any fears that she might have been feeling, and responded in humble, confident faith. As stanza three of our sermon hymn puts it: Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head; “To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said. “My soul shall laud and magnify God’s holy name.” In Mary, we Christians see a model for how we ought to respond to God’s Word: in humble, confident faith.
3. Now here’s where this gets interesting, because all of this has some major implications for you and me today. While I am certainly advocating for a certain level of respect for Mary among modern Christians, Mary shouldn’t be your main takeaway from this message. Her example does, however, serve as a helpful mirror through which to see our own lives more clearly. The question is, how do you respond when the word of the Lord convicts you of something? When the Lord convicts you that you need to give up a certain habit, do you respond in humble, confident faith, or do you respond in fear? When the Lord puts a friend or family member in front of you who needs difficult, honest truth spoken into their life in love, do you respond in humble, confident faith, or do you respond in fear? If we’re keeping track of our batting average here, we might have a couple of hits here and there, but more often than not we tend to respond to God’s Word in fear rather than humble, confident faith.
4. But this is why the birth of Jesus is such good news. He didn’t come to this earth to stay a baby. He came so that by his life, death, and resurrection, he might prepare the way for you to receive his Spirit. In Holy Baptism, you have been given God’s Spirit to forgive and guide you. And so, in a very real way, the Lord has made you a “God-Bearer” as well by his Spirit. The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you. The same Spirit who came upon Mary so that she might be “God-Bearer” has also made you a “God-Bearer”—that is, a bearer of God’s Spirit. And this isn’t just some interesting theological talk—it’s a real reality. You bear God’s Spirit to everyone whom you come into contact with. It’s a humbling reality, but it’s one that we should accept confidently as we trust that God’s Spirit is indeed with us in everything that we do.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.