A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Advent 4 ~ Luke 1:26-38
If you were here two weeks ago you’ve already heard me go into great detail exploring the questions around how being engaged or betrothed back in Joseph and Mary’s time meant you were legally bound but not yet living together, and how the word virgin simply means a young woman capable of becoming pregnant but who has not yet become pregnant, and how while a classic reading of a miraculous conception is possible, a plain reading of the texts show that Mary’s pregnancy could also have simply been done the usual biological way, and that the angel’s role was about blessing the whole thing. If you want to hear more about that I’d encourage you to go to our website and look up that sermon.
Today I’m not going to go any further 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 stuff 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 biblical 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 – or maybe a burning bush), 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!”), the offer of a confirming sign that you’re not just dreaming this whole thing, and an, “Ok, I’ll do it!”
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. I hope you noticed that all the other examples I could think of were men.
So what shall we make of Mary, not just a nobody but a female nobody, getting a call story just like the men? I think, that in an era of such strong patriarchy and subjugation of women that Mary having a call narrative is a monumental theological point.
She’s not just some girl.
She is truly being honoured and favoured.
She is being called by God in a manner that is usually reserved for great prophets.
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. What would’ve shocked them was her ordinariness, her nobody-ness. 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! When we’re open enough for truly deep experiences of the Presence of God it throws us off balance, and our knees turn to Jell-O, and we are awestruck.
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). I don’t know about you but while I’ve certainly had powerful experiences of God’s Presence I’ve never actually had any dialogue happen. It’s all been nudge and inkling. But there is a sense that a way forward is clearer – a decision is ready to be made – a choice is better in focus. That’s what commissioning feels like.
If it was an easy or obvious thing for us to be doing we probably wouldn’t have needed a spiritual encounter to move us along, so when you feel spiritually inspired to risk doing something it’s pretty common to have a sense of “who me?” along with it. “Pick someone else, God!” And then, in time, we take a deep breath and realize “of course me – who else?” And then, reassured and convicted, we start to see the world differently – more holy, more hopeful, more loving. That’s about as great a sign as you could imagine!
So yeah, 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.
If only we’d notice.
And upon noticing the question is – and it’s a hard one – will we respond to God’s calling 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.”
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!
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.
So, could Mary have said no? Yes.
But let’s be clear on what she’d be saying “No” to. Y’all know where I stand on the whole biology and paternity thing, so for me it wouldn’t be her saying “No” to the pregnancy, but her saying “No” to what the angel was actually offering her in this experience.
The offer was for her to rethink her pregnancy and understand it as a blessing.
She was being called to bear a child, not in shame and disgrace but in love, and honour, and blessedness – because every child is indeed a sacred blessing.
The gift she was offered was one of perception – to see her circumstance as enfolded in God’s light and love.
What a challenge for all of us – to take another look at our own circumstances and look for God’s blessing and love in the midst of them.
The big theme for Advent 4 is love.
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.
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 – which in this case takes the shape of trusting in God’s blessing.
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.
Yes, Mary could’ve said no to God’s offer of love.
People say no to God all the time.
Her yes was a great act of love!
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, given your particular circumstances? 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.
As we wrestle with stories like Mary’s it’s really important for us to remember that the bible is less of a text book and more of a song book. It’s a highly biased theological story, in this case written down 85 years after the events, by people with agendas.
So however you may view Mary’s story theologically, one way or another she ended up pregnant before she ought to have according to their culture.
The difference, and it makes all the difference, is how she thought about it – how she viewed it.
It could have been disastrous, but she was inspired by God to perceive it differently.
She viewed it as blessing, as gift. She viewed it as an expression of God’s Presence, God’s light, God’s love – that was now hers to bless the world with.
How will you receive God’s gifts of light and love? And how will you respond?