What would it be like to suddenly realize that the very thing you’ve been hoping for, the very thing you’ve been dreaming of for years is now happening – and it’s happening in you? That’s Mary’s story, and it’s amazing and special and unique. But we risk losing something if we overemphasize the uniqueness of Mary. What we risk is the recognition that Mary’s story is also our story. That what happened to Mary also happens to each one of us. That the God who acted in Mary’s life continues to act in our lives today. Now, it’s not like I’m expecting a rash of pregnancies to break out in this congregation. But I do believe that, like Mary, each one of us is made for a purpose, and that God has sent, is sending and will send messengers to each one of us to call us to that purpose. And when that happens, you and I will probably be just as disturbed and perplexed as Mary was.
This is a story of how God comes into our lives. It is a story of surprises, scandal, and shock. Our God is subversive. God reverses expectations, goes against the conventional wisdom. The people of Israel had been expecting God to send a Messiah for hundreds of years, someone of the house of David who would take over David’s royal throne. No one expected that the Messiah would come as a child born to an unmarried teenage girl, a young woman who lived in a town of 150 people so obscure that it isn’t even mentioned once in the Old Testament.
Mary’s story, the gospel we just heard, provides us with an example of what it looks like to hear and then respond to God’s surprising call. So let’s take a closer look. I want you to place yourself in Mary’s shoes. Actually, she was just as likely to be barefoot. Imagine yourself as a young woman, poor, living in a tiny rural village. Your parents have arranged for you to marry the young man who lives in your village, in a few years, when you’re old enough. You are living under military occupation, there’s a garrison of Roman soldiers stationed a few kilometers away. They are dangerous, you’ve been taught to avoid them, to keep your head down.
One day a male stranger approaches you. He’s not supposed to do that, and he’s certainly not supposed to speak to you. But to your surprise, he does, and his words are strange: “Greetings favoured one! The Lord is with you”
How do you react?
Fear? Suspicion? Do you look around for help? Get ready to run? What questions are whizzing through your mind? Who is this man? Why is he talking to me? Is he dangerous? Can I trust what he is saying? What have I done to earn God’s favour? Why would God even notice me?
Mary may have had all these thoughts and more, but she doesn’t say a word. She stays silent. She gives no voice to the questions and doubts and fears that are running through her head. She is perplexed, and afraid, and she ponders what sort of a greeting this might be.
And I suspect that’s how most of us respond when God sends his messengers to speak to us. Are you talking to me? Can I trust this? Is this really from God? The first time we get an inkling that God might be speaking to us, through a friend, a stranger, a parent, a teacher, a movie, a work of art, a persistent thought, whatever form an angel might take, our first reaction, often, is to be perplexed.
Truth be told, if you had an inkling that God was trying to tell you something, wouldn’t it kind of freak you out?
Mary was kind of freaked out. Perplexed. Or as another translation puts it, thoroughly shaken. But she chooses not to run. She stays engaged, she keeps listening. And the messenger keeps talking. He knows she’s terrified, he reassures her, “don’t be afraid, Mary”. He says again that she has found favour with God, maybe he senses that she’s having trouble believing that part. And then, he gives her the details.
“You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great!”
And as she listens, Mary changes in how she responds to the messenger. She had been silent, perplexed, shaken. Now she is questioning, objecting, poking holes in the messenger’s story. “How can this be, since I’ve never slept with a man?” Surely she has other objections too, objections that go unvoiced in the text: what will my parents say? What will Joseph think? Will the people in my village shun me? Will they stone me for adultery? How can this be?
If we stick with it, if we continue to listen and don’t run away from God’s call, maybe we too will move from being perplexed to questioning and objecting. In a curious way, that’s progress! God wants us to be committed, to be fully in to whatever purposes God is calling us to, and asking our questions and voicing our objections is part of that process. That’s what the prophets did. That’s what Mary does too: “How can this be?”
So the messenger continues. He offers something of an explanation of how things will play out, how it is that she will conceive. He offers her a sign of reassurance, the unexpected pregnancy of her older relative Elizabeth. But, in the end, he acknowledges to Mary that really it all comes down to whether or not she trusts God. For even though all this might look impossible, nothing will be impossible with God. Gabriel offers Mary a leap of faith. And she takes it.
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
There is a space between “How can this be?” and “Let it be”. A space of unknowing, a space of wondering, a space of questioning. I bet that some of you are in that space right now. Maybe that’s why Mary’s story resonates through the ages. It’s the story of what happens when God surprises us by showing up in our lives. When God sends God’s messengers to call us to the purposes for which we were created. When that happens, in all likelihood, we too will be confused and perplexed at first, but like Mary, if we stick with it, our response can move from being perplexed, to asking questions, to finally saying “Let it be.”
You know, many people will talk about how Mary’s story is miraculous. And I agree. But for me, what I find so miraculous about Mary’s story is that it all happens so darned fast. Mary is able to move from being perplexed and pondering, to asking “How can this be?” to affirming “Let it be”, all in a matter of 12 verses and one afternoon and one conversation. Maybe that’s what makes her so unique.
Because I know that for me, and I suspect for many of us, the journey of how we respond to God’s call, the movement from being perplexed to “How can this be?” to “Let it be” is a journey of many chapters, not just 12 verses. It’s a journey of many voices, not just one messenger. It’s a journey not of one afternoon, but of a lifetime. And there will be twists and turns along the way.
But at a certain point, like Mary, we find our voice. Mary has been called to bear a child, yes, but she has also been called to be a prophet, one who speaks the word of God, who proclaims a word of hope, who names the things that must change in our world and who points to God as the agent of that change, past, present and future. Once Gabriel has gone, Mary races to the home of her relative Elizabeth in a distant village. Perhaps she wants to check out what the messenger had told her; perhaps she is escaping the scandal that would surely erupt in her hometown when her pregnancy becomes known.
Whatever the reason, when she encounters Elizabeth, she finds her voice, and she sings the song that we read together this morning, the one we know as Mary’s Song, or the Magnificat. It is a radical song of protest. It is a song sung by an oppressed people in defiance of empire. It is a prophetic song. It is a song of faith, of trust in God.
It is a song best imagined on the lips of a teenaged girl living in poverty, one who is threatened by enemy soldiers, one who will flee for her life as a refugee to escape a violent ruler. It is a song of defiance and revolution, of trust and of hope.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour; *
for he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent empty away.
God sent his messenger to Mary to call her to the purposes for which she was intended. Mary, in her response moves from being perplexed, to questioning, to accepting, and in so doing she finds her voice and she changed the world.
May we too find our voice in response to God’s call.
Homily: Yr B Advent 4, Dec 24 2017, St. Albans
Readings: 2 Sam 7.1-11,16; Rom 16.25-27; Luke 1.26-38; Luke 1.46b-55
Image by Eric Parker, Creative Commons