A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Advent 4 ~ Luke 1:26-38
I’m going to resist the temptation. Kinda.
Texts like the one we’re looking at today are a huge source of contention both within and without the church, and it’s almost irresistibly tempting to weigh in on the debate.
You know, that whole thing about the English word virgin having certain connotations of sexual purity that neither the Hebrew word almah nor the Greek word parthenos have (both basically meaning ‘young woman ready for marriage’ – which insinuates virginity but does not require it) – and the debate about whether this is an immaculate conception or not (it could be, but the text does not require it) – and the debate about whether if they knew that conception required a contribution from the female too (which they didn’t yet know) that the story would’ve been told differently (possibly, but who knows). But I’m not going to get into any of that! [lol]
I’m not going to get into any of that because ultimately, for me and my understanding of the big message that we as people of faith are supposed to take away from this, ultimately all that is a secondary concern – a rabbit hole – a diversion away from something truly important. If you get caught up in the insemination paradox you’ll miss something really, really special.
Generally, we tend to lift Mary’s story onto such a high pedestal and describe it all in a once-in-the-history-of-the-universe kind of way that convinces us that Mary’s story could never happen again.
Instead, I’d like you to consider this mind-boggling alternative: Mary’s story always happens!
Or at least it could always happen, depending on the “Mary”.
If you step back from the particulars of Mary’s pregnancy and look at the story you might see what scholars identify as a classic call narrative. It’s a pattern found especially in the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) that features a greeting from a manifestation of God’s presence (often an angel), a startled reaction, an exhortation to “fear not!”, a divine commissioning (God wants you to do such and such), an objection (the classic “Yeah, but…” or “Who me?”), a reassurance (“yes you!”), and the offer of a confirming sign that you’re not just dreaming this whole thing.
That’s a call narrative
That’s exactly what happened to Mary in this annunciation story – and you can find similar stories about Moses, and Samuel, and Isaiah, and Jonah, and others.
Here’s a curious thought.
If you were hearing this story when it was first being told, back in the first century of the Common Era when the church was just starting and these texts were being written, the thing that would surprise and shock you in this story probably wouldn’t be the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy but that it was Mary who was being called.
That would’ve shocked earlier audiences because she was a nobody.
The conventional wisdom was that God’s Presence hangs out with and commissions important people, not nobodies, right?
Put another way, the surprising thing about this is that Mary could’ve been anybody.
She could’ve been you.
And that’s the power of this story for us.
Mary IS you! You ARE Mary.
You are constantly being greeted by the Presence of God because we are constantly immersed in that Presence every moment of our lives – we just don’t notice. And when we do notice it startles us and we’re befuddled and distressed and confused because coming to awareness of Something so awesome is perplexing!
The Spirit reminds us not to be afraid, and we get a sense or a nudge that God wants us to live in harmony with God’s loving Presence (that’s our commissioning). Our initial reaction is usually “who me?”, and then we take a deep breath and realize “of course me – who else?” – and then we start to see the world differently, more holy, more hopeful, more loving. That’s about as great a sign as you could imagine!
Every one of us is Mary. Every day.
Right at this very moment we are in the midst of a wondrous sacred call narrative. You and you and you and you and me are all being visited by God’s Presence right now.
The question is – and it’s a hard one – will we respond like Mary did?
How did she respond? Like this: Luke 1:38
Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
“Here I am – not running away – fully present to your Presence, O God – I’m ready.”
I’m not exactly sure what being a servant of the Lord means, but for me in my situation as a minister I understand it as being like me saying, “I serve at the pleasure of the church.”
And she says, “Let it be with me” – let it be. Anyone else hearing the Beatles song in their heads?
Think about those song lyrics and tell me this story wasn’t subconsciously working on Paul when he wrote it (McCartney, not ‘of Tarsus’).
Mary is the ultimate disciple here.
She is all in – ready to follow – ready to give her all – surrendering her will to God’s will.
Let it be with me according to your word!
What’s more important – Mary being a mother or Mary being a disciple?
Let’s ask Jesus! Luke 11:27-28
While Jesus was talking, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!”
But Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”
That’s our challenge too.
Can we be like Mary?
Can we be a disciple like she was?
Can we find the faith and courage and strength to say, “Let it be!”?
And while you’re pondering that, ponder this. This might really bake your brain.
Could Mary have said “no”?
Could she have got to the end of the call narrative and chosen not to acquiesce?
Of course she could have!
God does not coerce! God never forces.
God only beckons, and invites.
God draws us, not pushes us. God can only do one thing – love.
And love never demands – love only and always loves.
Let’s talk about that for a minute, because love is the big theme for Advent 4. And while the word love is not used even once in this text you could make a strong argument that the whole passage is entirely about love.
What does love mean? If you’ve been hanging around here for a while you’ll probably remember that in English we use one word to encompass many different meanings of love but in Greek they have separate words for different aspects of love. The one we’re likely focussing on today is agape which is holy and spiritual love. But really, all aspects of love share some common traits.
When you love someone how do you see them? What do you desire for them?
Well, you want the best for them.
You want them to flourish.
You want them to be blessed.
You want to express in word and action that you care deeply.
You sacrificially place their needs above your own.
There is all kinds of love in this text.
There is God’s love for Mary – calls her favoured and blessed, fills her with Presence and Spirit and she becomes a willing vessel of that Presence which will grow in her until she is ready to birth it into the world.
(And yes, you are free to interpret that literally or metaphorically as you wish!)
There is Mary’s love for God – the greatest indication is her willingness to say yes, to let it be.
There is a mother’s love that will surround and enfold a special, holy child.
There is God’s love for all of us as we’re reminded that even nobodies like us are visited and called – that even unlikely and imperfect weirdos like us are tapped for bearing and birthing God’s Presence into the world.
Can you imagine yourself saying yes to God’s offer of love?
Because that offer is definitely on the table!
Maybe you think you’re too flawed, or too ordinary, or too whatever to be given such an offer? But remember – so was Mary.
Maybe it seems impossible that God would bother with the likes of you, or impossible that you have the capacity to enact anything special or important in the world? But remember – it would’ve felt that way to Mary too!
It would’ve all seemed beyond her at the time. Impossible! Not just the pregnancy part – all of it.
And so the Presence of God tells us a couple of things that are really, really great.
First, God’s Presence says, “Greetings, favoured one! I am with you.”
And then, into our disbelief and doubt God’s Presence assures us that we aren’t just dreaming or imagining it, we really are the one being called, and offers us this encouragement: “For nothing will be impossible with God!”
Even something really impossible like us saying “Let it be!” and following through.
This is the last Sunday we get to look at our Advent concept of waiting.
This year we’ve been pondering the idea that instead of us waiting for Jesus to come, or waiting for God to move and change the world, that maybe what’s going on is that God is the one waiting for us?
If God really is all around us, everywhere and always, then we are already surrounded by and immersed in love.
And that love is awaiting our awareness.
Love has visited us, and is visiting us right now.
Love is inviting us to receive the love, embody the love, and let the love grow within us, like Mary.
Love is longing to be loved in return.
Love is waiting.
Love is asking us a question.
Will you let love grow you into a loving reflection of love, embodying and enacting love wherever you go and with whomsoever you interact?
Will you let love grow that in you?
And love is yearning to hear your answer: “Let it be!”