Simple, quiet, unquestioning obedience
Mary Copping, 14 August 2022
Isaiah 61: 10–11; Galatians 4: 4–7; Luke 1: 46–55
Occasionally I visit a beautiful Roman Catholic church in Kent with a friend, and as we kneel in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary the friend recites the Hail Mary:
‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.’
As we kneel it feels very moving to think of asking Mary, the mother of Jesus, to pray for us. However, everything that I have learned in the past as a Christian speaks against this. You mustn’t pray to Mary, just go straight to Jesus; and for me, that is true. Yet it’s quite a thought to think of Mary in heaven, speaking to her Son: ‘Jesus, do listen to my friend Mary. Please help her.’ Of course I pray to Jesus/God, but what a wonderful thought that Mary might be putting in a good word for me with her blessed Son – who knows?
Our gospel reading comes after the angel Gabriel has visited Mary and announced that she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit of God with the Son of the Most High. Mary is the one chosen to bear God’s only Son, and her simple response is, ‘I am the Lord’s servant, be it unto me as thou hast said’.
Our gospel for today describes the pregnant Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, with the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaping at Mary’s approach. And Mary gives her wonderful song of praise to God, echoing the song of praise in Isaiah given by the servant of the Lord. Mary speaks with wonder at God choosing her; she rejoices that God has done great things for her and feels blessed. But this is not blessedness as on Facebook posts, accompanied by lots of happy smiling people – ‘I’m feeling so blessed, I’m living my best life’ – Mary’s blessing is from God, because God has chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah.
Yet it did not look a blessed path for her. She was not from a rich family, but was a simple girl from a small village. She was disgraced in the eyes of her friends and neighbours because she was unmarried and pregnant. And later she learned from Simeon in the Temple, ‘A sword will pierce your own soul too’. And yet Mary praised God for honouring her and choosing her to bear his Son, and felt truly blessed.
As we know, the Roman Catholic Church venerates Mary, giving her a special place in its worship described by the Latin word hyperdulia (hyper meaning ‘extra’ and dulia meaning ‘veneration of saints and angels’). This veneration is closely associated with, but subordinated to, that of her Son Jesus.
I don’t venerate the Virgin Mary in this way but I have huge admiration for a young, simple girl agreeing to be the bearer of God’s Son – in her words, ‘Be it unto me as thou hast said’. And Mary continued in her quiet obedience to God. She heard God’s voice through the angel Gabriel and she obeyed.
In our reading from Galatians, ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman, to redeem us’, God did not choose someone great or famous or even in a good position to bear his Son, to bring our Saviour into the world. He chose someone who would be willing to bear him and obedient enough to do so, regardless of all that she would have to go through.
God spoke to many in the Bible, calling them to a path of obedience, as in Genesis 12, the calling of Abraham. The Lord said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you’. So Abram left, as the Lord had told him. Simple obedience.
God spoke to Noah and asked him to build an ark, and even though there was no water around him and people would question his judgement and think he was a bit crazy, he built the ark. He had unquestioning obedience to God.
We are told in Matthew chapter 4 of Jesus speaking to the fisherman by the lake and saying, ‘Come with me, and I will teach you to catch people’. At once they left their nets and went with him. At once they followed him – no questions, no turning back.
Two things arise throughout these passages. God spoke clearly to Mary and to many others – either through an angel or directly to them – so there was no question about what he was asking each to do.
However God speaks to us or calls us, there is then the need for an act of obedience. Perhaps we’re imagining it? Well, sometimes God won’t leave us alone until we have responded.
I wonder if we think that God speaks today and, if so, how he speaks to us. Usually not as clearly as that. Many would say he speaks through situations – when something doesn’t work out, perhaps it wasn’t God’s will for us after all. It may be promptings of the Holy Spirit – when we think that we should phone someone, and that won’t go away. Either we try to ignore this, or we make that phone call and the person at the other end was in dire need of someone to talk to. Perhaps it is in church, when the words of a song or a Bible reading speak to us. Some have had a prompting that God has more for them to do, or may feel a calling to do something – like house a Ukrainian family, or do a preaching course or help out at the prison or stay at home and pray. However God speaks to us or calls us, there is then the need for an act of obedience. Perhaps we feel we heard him wrong – well, try it and see what happens. Perhaps we’re imagining it? Well, sometimes God won’t leave us alone until we have responded.
I wonder – has God been speaking to you but you don’t recognise it as his voice? Or has he been calling you in some way to do something but you have been trying to ignore it? As the verse in the book of Job says, ‘For God does speak — now one way, now another — though man may not perceive it’.
Let us ask God that we be more like Mary, to hear him speak to us and then respond in humble obedience. And whatever God asks us to do, he will be with us, as he was with Mary.