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Choosing the Joy of ObedienceA Study on Mary
By Judith Couchman
Zondervan Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2002 Judith Couchman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChoosing God's Way
Obedience begins with a decision.
Mary whisked the broom around the room one last time, opened the front door, and shoved out the housebound particles to fly with the wind. For a few moments she gazed into the street. Joseph is out there somewhere, she thought. I wonder what he's doing. I wonder if he's thinking about me like I'm thinking about him.
Stepping outside, Mary turned toward the morning sun and announced to nobody in particular, "I can't wait to get married!"
An old woman trudging by shook her head. "Mary, you're naive," clucked the woman. "Just you wait. You won't always feel this way. Marriage is hard."
Mary frowned and stepped back into the house.
"It doesn't have to be hard," she mumbled to herself, tapping the broom's handle on the floor. "Not with Joseph. I have heard he is kind and devout and loving." A smile returned to her face. "I can't imagine anything difficult about being married to him."
"Mary, is that you?" called a voice from the back room. "What's that tapping sound?"
"Oh, it's just me, Mother."
"I'm going to the market now and taking the young ones withme. You can start the meal preparation. All right?"
"Yes, Mama. I'll get started."
Mary watched her mother and siblings as they headed into the sunlight and then shut the door behind them. As she walked through the tiny home and picked up a pot, her thoughts turned to Joseph again. How fortunate she was to be engaged to a man like him. Several families had been interested in pledging her for marriage, but their sons didn't interest her. Though there was still much she didn't know about him, there was something special about Joseph.
Just then Mary heard a rustle and the warmth of a bright light on her back, as if the day's sunlight had invaded the house. She turned in surprise and the pot shattered on the floor. Never had she felt so suddenly and utterly frightened ...
Setting the Stage
A DEFINING MOMENT
Through the centuries people have commented about spiritual obedience, based on their experience. In your reflective time before the first session, read the following statements. Circle the ones that most resemble how, at this point, you feel about obedience to God. In the space after the circled statement, jot down why you agree with it.
Obedience is the tomb of the will.-John Climacus
Obedience is a little dog that leads the blind.-Joseph of Copertino
It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey. -Soren Kierkegaard
Any obedience is better than none.-John Henry Newman
There are various paths to obedience to God.-Paul Oestreicher
Obedience is the key of knowledge.-Christina Rossetti
Now take a moment to define obedience yourself. Begin with "Obedience to God is ..." and write a sentence that describes your candid feelings.
Why do you feel this way about obeying God? Consider your current circumstances, past experience, and what you've been taught about God and following him. How might these factors have influenced your opinion about obedience?
Discussing Mary's Story
AN UNEXPECTED OBEDIENCE
When the angel approached Mary, can you imagine her surprise? She certainly wasn't expecting the visit, or the mission that God bestowed on her. But though Mary was "troubled," she puzzled through the message and decided to humbly obey. God's chosen woman had a spiritually pliable heart.
Before you begin the discussion, read the Bible text, Luke 1:26-38.
1. After the angel greeted Mary in verse 28, he claimed, "You are highly favored!" What might he have meant by these words? Why would he make this statement first?
2. Though the angel also told Mary, "The Lord is with you" (verse 28), what were her responses in verses 29 and 34? What might these responses indicate about her?
3. In verses 34-36, read about Mary's concern and how the angel answered it. Then read the Behind the Scenes section, "The Virgin Birth," on page 23 Why was it important that Mary be a virgin? Explore more than one reason.
4. The angel concluded by announcing, "For nothing is impossible with God" (verse 37). The Greek translation of this sentence means, "No word spoken by God is without power." What significance would this statement have for Mary?
5. Instead of accepting God's path for her, what might Mary have said or done?
6. For Mary to submit to this remarkable mission, she risked losing everything important to her. Pregnant and unmarried, she would become an outcast, losing her engagement, reputation, and possibly friends and family. Why do you think she still chose to obey?
Sharing Your Story
GETTING TO YES
For most of us learning to obey God is a process of "getting to yes." We learn by making mistakes, growing in our relationship with the Lord and desire to please him, and profiting from experience. We begin to recognize that loving God is obeying him. With the psalmist, we delight to do God's will (Psalm 27:11), and like Mary, we humbly accept it.
However, getting to yes begins with understanding the nature of obedience, our initial feelings about it, and why following God's will is important to spiritual progress.
1. When the angel appeared to Mary, she said yes to God's mission after working through her feelings and questions. Recall a time when God asked you to do something. Which of Mary's actions were you prone to respond with first: (a) her troubled feelings about the words and the messenger (verse 29); (b) her questions about the practicalities (verse 34); or (c) her willing obedience (verse 38)? Share your experience with the group.
2. Mary has been lauded and honored for her obedience to God's will for her. But for many of us, the word obedience can conjure up uneasy feelings. How do you feel about this word, especially as it relates to following God? Why? You may want to share your answers from the earlier Setting the Stage section, "A Defining Moment."
3. Have four different women read aloud the following verses: Deuteronomy 11:26-27; 1 Samuel 15:22; Jeremiah 7:22-23; and John 14:15, 24. According to these verses, what does the Lord say about obedience? Why would God value obedience so highly?
4. If your feelings about obedience have been negative, how could you change this opinion? To help you begin, on a whiteboard or easel pad, write out synonyms and alternate phrases for the word obedience that shed a positive light on this act. For example, obedience is "the gate to freedom." (In other words, when we obey God we can break free from sin that binds us.) Use the Bible verses in question three as a springboard for your exploration.
5. As with Mary, obedience begins with a choice. We decide whether or not we'll do what God asks of us. On a sheet of paper, describe a situation in which God asks someone to obey. Drop these sheets into a hat or small basket and give them to the group leader, who will draw out one submission and read it to the group. Discuss what could motivate a person to choose to obey in this situation. Discuss two or three of the submissions.
"Obedience is the most infallible evidence of sincere and supreme love to him," wrote Nathanael Emmons. As you learn more about obedience in the next weeks, ask God to open your heart to joyfully loving him by humbly obeying him.
TEACH US, LORD
End today's session by asking God to teach you how to obey him. Read aloud together the following prayer by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), who chose to forsake a courtly and wanton life to follow Christ. Then follow his words with spontaneous one-sentence prayers that begin with, "Lord, teach us ..." Each woman can complete the sentence with something to learn about obedience. Ask one woman to close the session with a brief prayer.
Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest; To give, and not count the cost, To fight, and not heed the wounds, To toil, and not seek for rest, To labour, and not to ask for any reward Save that of knowing that we do thy will. Amen.
Behind the Scenes
THE VIRGIN BIRTH
Matthew cited the pregnancy of Mary and the birth of Jesus as a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. When King Ahaz of Judah refused to ask a sign of God, God gave him a sign: "A virgin in the womb shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name Immanuel."
The virgin birth of Mary's child early became an important aspect of Christian doctrine because it insured that Jesus was indeed the "holy, Son of God" (Luke 1:35). Having had a human mother, Jesus was fully human. Having had the Holy Spirit cause conception, Jesus was fully God. Therefore Jesus could be the perfect intermediary between, and representative for, God and humanity (Hebrews 2:17; 4:15; 7:26-28).
The New Testament does not present the virgin birth of Jesus as some outlandish event but as simply the fulfillment of a promise by Almighty God made to a poor but devout Hebrew woman. Even as the shekinah glory filled the tabernacle and as an eagle shelters its young under his wings (Exodus 40:35; 19:4; Psalm 91:4), God's Spirit "overshadowed" (episkiadzo) and filled Mary (Luke 1:35). Although a Jew would consider for God to "change into a human" or "a human into God" the "most grievous impiety" (Philo, Embassy to Gaius XVI), Mary believed (even if she may not have fully understood) because she agreed that "no promise is impossible with God." -Aida Besancon Spencer, Holman Concise Bible Commentary
Excerpted from Choosing the Joy of Obedience by Judith Couchman Copyright © 2002 by Judith Couchman. Excerpted by permission.
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