Summary: A sermon for those for whom it is not "their thing" about the biblical basis for Christian devotion to Mary
I want to talk to you about someone who is very important in the Christian story. Many Christians, not all Christians, but the majority of Christians world wide believe that when this faithful person came to the end of their earthly life, they did not die but were taken up bodily into heaven. Since then God has given certain Christians visions of this person that have helped them in their discipleship but above all pointed them more to Jesus. The intercessions, the prayers, of this person are powerful. This person has healed many people and performed many miracles. There are churches dedicated to this person. A relic, a Holy object associated with this person is alleged to have performed great miracles.
Who am I taking about?
[Take answer which will probably be Mary]
Well actually I am talking about the Prophet Elijah. All of these statements are true about Mary but they are also true of Elijah. He performed great miracles. At the end of his life Elisha saw him taken up bodily into heaven in a chariot. A relic, an item of clothing, his mantle was picked up by Elisha and used to part the waters of the river. (1) Three Christians, Peter, James and John had a vision on the mount of transfiguration in which they saw Elijah and Moses with Jesus. (2)
Many English people get their knickers in a twist about Mary. They say “That stuff about her is not in the Bible.” And I agree. Much of the stuff that the majority of Christians down the centuries believe about the Mother of God is not in the Bible. But it's not unbiblical. The book of Acts stops at Chapter 28. It does not tell us how Peter died or how Paul died. It doesn't tell us how Thomas planted the first churches in India. It does not tell us how the Ethiopian Eunuch took Christianity back to his own country. It doesn't tell how Christianity was first brought to Britain. It doesn't tell about all the miracles that have happened down the centuries, or about your prayer for your friend that got answered. The Holy Spirit didn't stop working when the Bible was finished. In one sense the bible history finishes with Acts 28. But in another sense it doesn't because we live in Acts Chapter 29. The things that God did in the life of Mary, of Peter, of Thomas, of Paul, as well as the things God does in the life of me, of you, of you and of you are all part of the Acts 29 story of the Holy Spirit’s continued work until Jesus comes again.
The story passed on by early Christians was that at the end of her life Mary was taken up bodily into heaven. It's not particularly important that you believe that or not, but it's certainly not unbiblical. The bible describes both Enoch and Elijah as having been taken up bodily into heaven. What is important is to recognise that Mary is an important part of the Christian Family. And as Father Denis Bradshaw puts it “If Jesus's mum hasn't got to heaven, what hope is there for the rest of us.”
England isn't a particularly hierarchical country but other countries are. When I visited South Africa, when people came to shake my hand they would often place their left hand just under their elbow like this [demonstrate]. Being a priest was seen as being high status, so they were showing respect. In the same way younger people would generally do that to older people because elders are to be respected.
Ancient Israel was a hierarchical place. When in Luke chapter 1:39-56 Mary rushes to share the good news with her cousin Elizabeth, how does Elizabeth respond?
Think of the situation. Elizabeth is an older woman past the menopause who has miraculously become pregnant with John the Baptist. Mary is just a teenager, and what is worse one who has become pregnant out of wedlock.
Mary should be doing this [The handshake thing] with Elizabeth. Yet what actually happens in Luke1:39-45? Elizabeth is the one who shows deference to Mary. “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry “ Blest are you among women and blest is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what would be spoken to her by the Lord”.
Imagine if on the first day at school the head teacher went up to a new pupil in year 7 and said this sort of thing. You would think there was something pretty special about the kid. In the same way, through Elizabeth’s upside down behaviour, the bible is telling us there is something pretty special about Mary..