[A sermon based on Luke 1:26-38, delivered at the Community of the Savior in Rochester NY, the fourth Sunday of Advent, Dec. 24, 2017.]
What a weighty conversation. Has a conversation ever had more at stake than this one? There has never been a conversation in the Bible, or in all human history, so filled with hope and so fraught with the possibility of failure. What if she said, No?
If God had used a typical congregational nominating committee to call Mary, think how they might have approached her. The meeting is called to order with prayer. “Sally, have you found anyone to say yes to that short-term assignment?” “No.” “Let’s think this through. I went through the church directory three times, and I keep wondering about this young woman on page 3, someone named Mary. Why not call her? Team, let’s help Sally. What might she say when she calls Mary?” Here are some lines she might pursue:
–“It’s not that hard a job, Mary. Really. Come on, you can do it.”
–“It’s just a nine-month assignment, then you’re done. You can handle that.”
–“We’ve gone through the church roster three times. You are alive and an official member. We see your picture here in the directory. No one else has volunteered. We’ll help you. Please say yes.”
–We want our youth represented in our leadership. You could represent our youth group.”
“Gabriel, you did such a good job with Zechariah six months ago. I love how you took his voice away for nine months. Way to go. Now I am sending you to a town named Nazareth.” “Where is that, anywhere near Jerusalem or Rome?” “You’ll find it. There you will find a virgin.” “Really?” This makes Clarence’s assignment with George Bailey seem pretty tame.
There has never been a conversation in the Bible, or in all human history, so filled with hope and so fraught with the possibility of failure.
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” What does that mean? Sounds innocent enough, but there must be something behind it, something more. “But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” And Mary begins pondering. I love the word pondering. With our busyness and electronic toys, we moderns do not do enough pondering. Pondering demands quiet. To ponder is to think deeply about something, usually before making a decision. It is to turn a thought over and over, seeking to plumb its depths. “She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that.” (The Message)
“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.” “Oh, that’s all. I am going to have a baby.”
Mary breaks her silence; an original silence breaker. “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’” I’m not sure sex education was taught in schools back then (even if it were, girls would not be included), or even talked about much at home, but Mary knew that this isn’t how it works.
There are a number of reports in the Bible of women having unexpected babies. But this is different. The others were older women who were barren, who previously could not have babies, which for married women back then was something like public disgrace. Those women desperately wanted babies and prayed fervently. Her cousin Elizabeth was too old; Mary is too young. Sarah, Hannah, Manoah’s wife in Judges, Elizabeth: they wanted babies and asked God to intervene. Mary certainly didn’t want a baby yet and just as certainly wasn’t asking God for one. She still had a wedding to plan. And she and Joseph, her intended, were dirt poor. “Someday, God, but not now. Not in these circumstances. Not now!”
“I’m sorry, Gabriel, but there has been some mistake. You’ve got the wrong one. You’ve given me a scare. I have a wedding to plan. Now go back and get your orders straight.”
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.”
A prayer used frequently in the Roman Catholic tradition begins: “Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee….” I would make it, “Hail Mary full of grit….” Protestant Christians and Roman Catholic Christians have had a long disagreement about Mary’s place in our faith. If we Protestants think Roman Catholics sometimes overvalued Mary, then we have undervalued Mary. We can do better than fight about Mary; we can unite in calling her blessed, as she said we would (later in Luke 1). We can unite is honoring her as a model for tenacious faith and gracious submission to the unexpected will of God.
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary knew her scriptures. “Here am I.” That is how Abraham. That is how Moses responded. That is how Samuel responded. That is how Isaiah responded. Now add a poor, unmarried, teenaged virgin to that august list: “Here am I.”
In Shaw’s play “St. Joan,” Joan of Arc keeps hearing God’s voice. In her trial, the king asks why he never hears God’s voice. She replies that God is speaking, but the king is not listening.
This begins life changes for Mary. There will be stretch marks on her soul, not just her belly. To do her part in this story will mean some adjustments. God calls us to adjust our lives to his ways and callings. Mary understands. Her life will never be the same. There will be a wedding. She and Joseph will make a home. But everything has changed and it will never be as it once was.
I was with a friend last weekend in DC. He is retired from the State Department, but he gets called once a week or so on short notice to go the state department and cover a shift, monitoring global events. He said, “It’s not so much my ability anymore, but my availability. When they call me, I go.” In a world in which the foreigner, the alien, the stranger, the other are so often not welcomed, Mary said Yes. There is room. In a prayer in the Episcopal tradition often called “You Are God,” we find these poetic words: “You, Christ, are the king of glory, the eternal Son of the Father. When you became man to set us free you did not shun the Virgin’s womb.” If the innkeeper found no room for Mary and Joseph, Mary had room in her womb for Jesus. She made room in the midst of unexpected and unimaginable circumstances. If Christ did not shun the virgin’s womb, the virgin made room in her womb for Jesus.
Frederick Buechner in his wonderful little book about Bible people, “Peculiar Treasures,” writes about this conversation from Gabriel’s perspective: “She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”
There has never been a conversation in the Bible, or in all human history, so filled with hope and so fraught with the possibility of failure. Everything hinged on the response of a poor, unmarried, teen-aged virgin named Mary. I wonder if God had a plan B.