(sermon note: 12-20 sermon note)
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘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. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 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.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed 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 the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about another angel who appeared to a man sitting at a table with his friends, enjoying his lunch, and said, “I’ll grant you one of three blessings that you choose from: wisdom, beauty, or ten million dollars.” Immediately, the man chose wisdom. There was a flash of lightning and the man was transformed. But strange…the man just sat there, staring down at the table. After a long pause, one of the man’s friends leaned in and whispered, “you have great wisdom now. So say something!” The man looked up and simply said, “I should have taken the money.”
Isn’t it funny how wisdom points out all our wrong decisions in life?! Oh sure, we’d all love to have it but preferably before important decisions, not after. Alas, life doesn’t work that way. Most of the time we have to make decisions to the best of our abilities with the most information we have available. And even then, the information we have may be wrong or not enough. So who’s to blame then? The person making the decision or the misinformation or lack of information? Some decisions need to be made with very little time as well. No amount of wisdom can help with those decisions. You simply have to take a leap of faith and pray that you’ll somehow land on your feet…that the decision will ultimately be the “right” decision.
Whenever I reflect on the encounter between Gabriel and Mary, I’m always amazed at the reaction Mary has to the news that Gabriel offers. Here’s this young girl going about her life, betrothed to a respectable young man in the community (perhaps a little too young by today’s standards!), and along comes a “man” that tells her she will conceive and bear the Son of God. Sounds reasonable enough except for one, small detail: the conception will occur without the necessary sexual relations. I say “necessary” because this encounter took place long before science conceived of work-arounds like in vitro fertilization. Yes, Mary lived in a time when sexual relations were the only way to conceive a child. Mary’s response to Gabriel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” A perfectly natural and fitting response to such an outlandish suggestion. To which Gabriel goes on to explain that nothing is impossible with God. God can create life in the womb without sexual relations! He can even create life in a womb that supposedly can’t support life as is this case with Elizabeth. Our God can do whatever He wants to do! He created all of this, He sure as heck can stretch the rules of logic and nature whenever He wants. Which is exactly what He does with Mary. He creates life without the necessary ingredients for life. Again, that’s all well and good but it is Mary’s response to Gabriel’s explanation that is truly amazing: “here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” No more demanding explanation, no semblance of resistance, just complete and utter submission to the will of God. Now let’s unpack why that’s such an amazing response…
Mary had no say in the decision to conceive and bear the Son of God. She was simply a vessel for God. I understand that we’re all simply vessels for God but we at least have the choice to reveal God’s glory within us. Mary didn’t have a choice. She didn’t choose to be the mother of God’s Son, the decision was made for her. Call me a man of the modern times but this encounter sure suggests some degree of bodily abuse. I suppose we can’t call it rape since God didn’t use violence but where’s Mary’s right to her own body? All people have the right to do with their bodies however they please. God gave us our bodies, they’re ours for a brief time in this world. And God seemed to take back that gift in the case of Mary. He used her body for his purposes, plain and simple, and for her to respond with absolutely no resistance and absolute submission?! Well, shocking to say the least! “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” we can’t help but ask, was she completely powerless in the whole situation?
On the one hand, we want to feel sorry for this poor, young girl who was used for a very important purpose and role but used nevertheless. She didn’t get to choose to be the mother of God’s Son. On the other hand, she did get to choose how to respond to her purpose and role. And she chose to respond faithfully and graciously. After all, it was a gift from God not only for Mary but for the whole world. Gifts aren’t meant to be mulled over, they’re meant to be received, plain and simple. And, oh what a gift God had given to Mary and to us! The world has forever changed because of Jesus. No other gift from God has radically altered our understanding of who God is and God’s work in this world than through Jesus. We can see just how powerful love and kindness and mercy can be in this world. They are powerful forces that guide ALL the forces of this world, even the forces of evil and darkness.
Besides, God’s ways are not our ways. We can’t consider his use of Mary as abuse. He gave her the gift of eternal life. God is a God of the impossible and his gifts are unlike any gifts. You heard me mention it last week but I always find it a little amusing how we treasure the gifts we exchange over the Christmas holiday. Yes, some gifts can be pretty extravagant. Some gifts can brighten our lives up and make us feel loved and appreciated. Some gifts can even restore lost hope from a hard year. I pray there will be a lot of those gifts this year after such a difficult year that we’ve had. But no matter how good the gifts are, they’ll likely be forgotten in 6 months or so. Yes, the true gift that will sustain throughout the whole year…throughout a whole lifetime…is the gift of Jesus. He is an endless source of joy and love, mercy and grace. You’ll never get tired of him in the year ahead! Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, “and my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (4:19) And in his letter to the Ephesians, “blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” (1:3) Jesus provides eternal life for those who are willing to receive him.
Mary’s response to her situation was a split-second response. No amount of wisdom could have helped her make that response. It was a response of faith and faith alone. Perhaps that’s why we give thanks for her role and witness in the story. She showed us how to respond to all the many blessings God bestows on us: with faith and gratitude, not doubt or suspicion. Be assured that God’s gifts are always good gifts. As we enter into a busy week of MINDFUL celebration, let us not forget the greatest gift. And let us sing with David from his 34th psalm, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed are those who take refuge in him.” Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.