A Homily from Luke 1:26-38
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
December 22, 2002 (4th Sunday of Advent)
A long time ago, in the small town of Nazareth in the distant state of Galilee, there lived a girl named Mary. You may have heard of her. These days people name churches and hospitals after her, and some people even pray to her. But this was before all of that, when she was just a young teenager recently promised in marriage to a man named Joseph.
Back then, perhaps the greatest unknown in a girl’s life was whom she would marry – but by the time we encounter Mary she knows the answer to that. We don’t know if she’s happy about her parents’ choice, but at the very least she has some idea what to expect for the next few years. Their engagement will probably last a year, and after their week long wedding she’ll join Joseph in his home and begin life as the wife of a carpenter. It’s a funny thing about those kinds of plans – just when we think we have everything all mapped out God steps in and mucks everything up.
Which is exactly what happened to young Mary. As she sat - perhaps indulging in a child’s daydreams of the coming wedding festivities or instead making a young woman’s plans for the household she would have to run – the angel Gabriel appeared to her. Gabriel said, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.”
All of the translations I checked used the word “favored” there, but there’s more to what Gabriel said. The root for the word that is translated “favored” is the Greek word for “grace.” So God’s messenger stands before a very startled young girl and says, “Hello. God is with you, and you have received the grace of God.” In this season of expectation as we look for the hope of the coming Christ and likewise wonder at the mystery of His first arrival as a small baby, the story begins with the grace of God. It could be said that all real hope, all worthy expectation, begins with God reaching out in an act of mercy and grace.
Mary’s initial response is hardly surprising: “Huh?” The text is a bit more formal, and says that she was “perplexed by his words” and “pondered his greeting.” In my experience, when a stranger comes up to you and says something kooky that you find “perplexing,” that amounts to “Huh?”
Gabriel senses her confusion, and gives the standard angelic response: “Do not be afraid.” Right then and there, Mary should have known to be afraid. I’m not trying to call the mighty messenger of God a liar, but whenever one of God’s angels show up delivering messages and telling people not to worry; it always seems that they have some sort of arduous adventure ahead of them. Admittedly, God stands with them through whatever travails await, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary.
Nevertheless, Gabriel tries to calm Mary’s fears. Perhaps her blood pressure dropped a point or two. If it did, then what Gabriel said next probably pushed it right back through the roof. “God is pleased with you Mary, so you’re going to have a baby!” Gabriel goes on to say a lot of other things, but my guess is that he had to repeat them, because when he’s done Mary is still hung up on the whole “have a baby” part – so we’ll pause there for a moment.
Just to review, Mary’s life was going along fine – or at least fairly normally. The angel of God appears and tells her that she is especially blessed by God – so she’s going to become an unwed mother in a culture that was not terribly uncomfortable with killing women for that sort of thing.
This is Advent, the season when we hope and pray for God’s miraculous blessing. Perhaps we should be careful what we ask for.
God is not concerned with earthly consequences or prejudices or dangers. God thinks big, and if we want to take part in the big things God wants to do; we have to accept that doing so might actually mean taking a harder road than we would ever have imagined.
That is certainly the case for Mary, for whom being the recipient of God’s grace will also mean being the recipient of her neighbors’ scornful whispers (and perhaps worse). As a friend of mine pointed out (Culpepper, New Interp. Bible) it means ultimately – if we flip ahead a few pages – watching as her first-born is brutally executed. In a matter of a few seconds, learning of the grace of God has changed Mary’s orderly world into a dangerous place where the vast and perilous unknown suddenly looms large before her.
As I said, though, there is more to the angel’s promise. The child will be named , in Greek ¡Ihsou». We’ve transliterated it “Jesus.” It means “God saves.” The angel goes on to tell Mary that her son will be a king, in fact the King, and that he will be known as the “Son of the Most High.” He will restore the throne of King David, and will reign for all eternity.
“How can this be?” Mary asks. Good question. How could the child of a laborer in Nazareth overthrow the Romans and restore David’s throne? How could he reign forever? What does “Son of the Most High” mean? These are all excellent question – but they are not the one she is asking. Theological musings are all well and good in retrospect, but this is her life we are talking about.
“How can I have a child if I’m a virgin?” Clearly Mary isn’t talking about your garden variety virgin – the boys and girls whose parents think they’re studying at the library and are genuinely shocked to find out that they are going to become grandparents. In the past, when a messenger of God has told someone that they will be having a child for whom God has a plan, it has always just been very, very unlikely that such would happen. One might go so far as to say inconceivable.
Mary is different, however. In her case, what the angel has described is absolutely impossible! How can this be?
The angel has an answer for her. The Holy Spirit will come and surround her, and a holy child, the Son of God will be born. How is it possible to go from being a working-class fiancée to the bearer of the salvation of humanity? By – and only by – the holy, miraculous work of God. The potential was already there – but it was impossible for it to blossom until it was touched by the grace of God.
What potential, then, still lies within us? Presumably we are here because we believe in and have received the grace of God – the meal at this table is a reminder of that. What’s next? What miracle will God awaken within us, if we give the Holy Spirit freedom to work?
Perhaps more distressingly, what will happen to us if we let God work such a miracle. Visionaries, dreamers and prophets often become martyrs. Those that don’t are often misfits who end up dedicating their lives to changes that they may never actually see fulfilled. Becoming an instrument for God is risky stuff – as Mary and her son will both gladly attest.
In case Mary has any doubts about what God can do if we’re willing, Gabriel informs her that God has already worked a miracle with her elderly relative Elizabeth – who is now expecting a child. At this point in the story it is important to pause and point out that Elizabeth’s miracle was a baby, and Mary’s miracle was a baby – and this pattern is also found in places in the Hebrew Bible as well. There are times when God clearly acts to miraculously place a baby with the right parents at the right times.
Some have tried to turn this into a theology of parenthood – claiming that those who have children have been blessed by God and that those who do not have them are somehow out of favor with our Creator. That is, of course, ludicrous. The real emphasis of these stories in regards to miracle and blessing is not that God gives you a baby if God likes you. Instead, these and many other biblical accounts of miracles would seem to indicate that most of the time God’s miraculous blessing is something we don’t expect, perhaps don’t want, and sometimes think we would be better off without. God can do the miraculous with all of us, and Mary’s miracle was a baby. That doesn’t mean everyone else’s is or should be.
Perhaps after being informed of Elizabeth’s likewise surprising miracle Mary still looked doubtful. That is when Gabriel laid down a trump card. He points out that “No deed will be impossible with God.”
There it is in a nutshell, the reason for our faith and the reason for our doubts. If nothing is impossible for God, then we are in the right place. On the other hand, if nothing is impossible for God, why are there mosquitoes? Couldn’t God have come up with something cute, furry, and toothless to do their job? If nothing is impossible for God, why is there sickness, pain, doubt?
When faced with the miraculous power of omnipotent God, Mary was set down a path where sickness, pain, and doubt were most assuredly what lay in wait for her. She could have chosen to accept that as proof that all things were not possible with God, or she could have chosen faith.
She chose faith. Echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah, Mary says, “Here am I, the slave of God – let it be with me according to your word.” She has moved from fear and doubt to obedience – absolute surrender to what was waiting to take place inside her. The “slave” of God.
That language makes me a little nervous. People go out and do strange things when they enter into unquestioned obedience to what they perceive as the will of God. Note that Mary’s obedience is not unquestioned, and that is verified by some pretty strong outside signs including accountability to her relative Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and Mary’s own absolutely miraculous pregnancy.
Nevertheless, once the will of God is made clear, Mary surrenders to it. In so doing, she becomes the first disciple of Jesus the Messiah – the very first person to believe in who He is and what He would do. It’s interesting that she’s given the opportunity after she receives the grace of God – not before.
That’s the thing about God’s grace, it does not come with strings attached [Romans 3: 21-26]. We don’t have to be perfect people to receive it – we just have to accept it. It is freely offered to every person here, every one of us who wants to admit that we need it. In that way, the good news that Mary received also contained the good news of God’s love and forgiveness, and recognizing that gift is part of our identity as a community of faith.
For Mary, and I believe for each of us, receiving the grace of God is only the first step. Somewhere the voice of Gabriel is whispering in the back of our minds that we too should not be afraid. That God can do the impossible with us. That God wants to do the impossible with us. That God will do the impossible with us – if we surrender to the will of God.
Unfortunately, we don’t get signs that are as clear as the one Mary got. We must act prayerfully and thoughtfully, with care, hope, and no small amount of fear. Yet this is the season of hope, the season of expectation. And so I say to you who are likewise the Children of God – expect something. Expect the miraculous. Expect to find that you, that we, are capable of becoming powerful tools for the will of a loving God; if we are willing to let God’s hands be the ones to guide us.
Don’t expect it to be easy. Don’t expect it to be simple. Don’t even expect it to make sense. The arrival of the Creator of the universe as a baby born to a virgin girl in the backwater of Israel doesn’t make sense. The real miracle isn’t even the conception itself – it’s that God cared enough to act and someone cared enough to ignore the risks and obey.
When Mary did, she who had been the recipient of the grace of God became literally the bearer of God’s grace to all of the world. She did it, facing a world of perilous uncertainties, with no resources but her mind and her heart. How can we, in our comfortable, sanitized world, do any less?
Christian tradition is to create a nativity scene and leave the manger empty until Christmas Eve when the newborn Jesus is placed in it. That empty space, shaped and prepared to accommodate an infant, and centered in a circle of expectant faces, is a fitting symbol for the close of the Advent season.
We await the coming of the infant Jesus. We await the return of the resurrected Messiah who redeemed us . Let us also eagerly look toward the transforming touch of the miraculous within ourselves – that we too who have been the recipients of the good news of grace and mercy might also become its bearers.