Sermon audio unavailable; please enjoy sermon text.
In spite of it all, she said, ‘yes.’
But before Mary, we meet the angel. Luke’s readers would know Gabriel from a couple of mentions in the book of Daniel (8:15-17, 9:21-23). Earlier in this same chapter he comes to Zechariah, soon to be the father of John the Baptist, dramatically announcing: "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and bring this good news!"
This same angel is sent to speak news to Mary. While with Zechariah Gabriel sounds so confident, I love what beloved author Frederick Buechner does. In his book, Peculiar Treasures, Buechner imagines Gabriel’s visit to Mary this way:
She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her.
‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath his great, golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl."1
Luke introduces us to this girl, a virgin, engaged to Joseph, of the house of David. Her name is Mary. We are told nothing of the circumstances, only God interrupts: "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." She was perplexed, Luke says, in what seems like a tremendous understatement. Confused. Troubled. And she stood there. Waiting.
Gabriel kept going: "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God." I don’t know whether that was something that calmed Mary down, or something that made things worse. It’s kind of like when a doctor tells you to ‘manage your stress better,’ or when you are worked up and someone says, ‘You should really calm down.’ But also, I firmly believe, in that moment Mary began to sense her place in a line of faithful women and men to whom God had spoken those same words… do not be afraid, from Abram and Sarai to Hagar in the wilderness, from Moses to Ruth to Elijah. Words, in Matthew’s gospel, that Gabriel speaks to Joseph and shepherds on the hillside, that Jesus himself says to disciples and lepers and little children, that an angel also offered to a handful of women who came to an empty tomb around 33 years later.2 Do not be afraid. And Mary was invited to play an essential role in God’s story with humanity by bearing this child. His name is to be Jesus, Gabriel says, "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."
But Mary wasn’t going to just ‘sign on.’ This thing was so big, but she also wondered about the logistics, how can this be? The angel shoots right back: God. The answer is God. The Spirit will come upon you; God’s power will do this thing. If you need an example, your relative Elizabeth who was once barren, even at her age has conceived a son. And then, with a twinkle in his eye, the Gabriel smiled and said, "For nothing will be impossible with God."
We don’t know how much time passed between when the angel finished speaking and when Mary answered – from the end of verse 37 to the beginning of verse 38. My guess is that it took some time. Then the questions – what does this mean for me, for my life, for my family? I bet she knew that not only was she risking the end of her engagement to Joseph – is there any way he would believe that she was pregnant by ‘the spirit of God?’- but that she was risking public disgrace. I bet she knew that women who had been unfaithful – because that’s what everyone would say – were too often cast aside, that Deuteronomy, right there in the law, said that she could be put to death.3 The risk was huge.
In this way Mary comes to us as the archetype, the model, a person who, in a season of great uncertainty, STILL said ‘yes’ to God. God’s patterns are complex in this regard. It seems that God tends to choose people, unlikely people, people who might not seem, to be honest, the best choice. And God asks so much, more than we want, more than we can imagine. The seeds are planted in the small stuff – but stuff that still seems hard with as busy as we are – to listen a bit longer, to take more time with a neighbor, to walk more slowly in these harried days. THEN, with all that is going on, God asks even more of us, more to do, make an additional commitment, go do something else for someone in need, make an additional gift. And that’s the small scale stuff. We’d better be careful. Gabriel wasn’t inviting Mary into a few tweaks, some slight improvements in the way she lived already. Gabriel, God, was calling Mary to change the entire course of her life, but to do so knowing that she would have a chance to play a role, the role, in bearing God’s love into a world of brokenness and poverty and violence and so much, so much, hurt. She was asked to give all of herself to God.
They looked at each other, Mary and Gabriel did, for some time. But in that waiting, Mary remembered the One who created her and claimed her, those same claims we remembered around this font with Oliver a moment ago. She remembers who she is, and says it: Here am I, the servant of the Lord. She says, ‘yes. She realized that, no matter what else is going on, no matter how busy she is, no matter how pained the world seems, that God might want to use her. That God has plans for her, that God needs her to play a part in the drama of salvation.
Because before Elizabeth and Zechariah, before the angel, before Mary’s extraordinary faithfulness, comes God. The God who loved us enough to be born into a world filled with vulnerability and violence, so that ALL might experience this love in a live, flesh and blood kind of way. And that we might open our clenched hearts and fists to receive that love – that we might, in our own way, be given the strength to say to God this season: Here am I, God. Use me. Let it be with me, with my life, according to your word.
All praise be to this One, Jesus the Christ, who comes in love. Amen.
1. I was first pointed toward this note by the Rev. Heather Shortlidge’s paper on the text at The Well, 2008, Kansas City
2. You can look up the rest, but the last one comes from Matthew 28:5.
3. Deuteronomy 22:13-30.