Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year B – Fourth Sunday of Advent
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – December 24, 2017
If the angel Gabriel had come to me instead of Mary, we’d be in a whole heap of trouble. But he didn’t and so, we’re good! Thanks be to God! Amen! But in all seriousness, I think we do Mary a gross disservice when we sanitize this story. When we skip straight to Mary’s answer to Gabriel and jump into the Christmas story. We miss that Mary’s story and her encounter with the angel Gabriel are instructive for us.
The angel Gabriel shows up out of the blue and proclaims, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” And instead of saying anything, Mary is perplexed and ponders what Gabriel’s words might mean for her. Gabriel conveys the good news of what is going to happen, but Mary is still taking it all in and asks, “how can this be since I have never known a man?” What I find wonderful is not only Gabriel’s answer, but the fact that Mary is able to ask questions. She’s able to wonder, to ponder, and to think about what this might mean for her and her life.
I ask so many questions. Even my ordination sermon was about my need to ask questions. I often overanalyze and think too much. I would have asked how, but also “why me?” “What’s my family going to think? What is Joseph going to think? What will the neighbors think and do? What might I have to give up in my life if I go in this direction and take this path? Will I be missing out on other things?” At that point, Gabriel might have just stared at me thinking, “This is too much for me to take! I wish Michael had this assignment…”
But I think it’s beautiful that Mary has the chance to converse with Gabriel about this life-changing proposal. It’s just like how the prophets and her ancestors spoke to God – personally in an intimate relationship. It is only after the reminder that “nothing will be impossible with God” that Mary chooses “yes.” This phrase literally says that God’s word will not be powerless or unable to do what it needs to do. It has the power to accomplish what it sets forth to do, just as God declared through Isaiah: “…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” God will be with her and God’s promises will be fulfilled. It is this reminder that enables Mary to say “yes” – to speak her own word in response to God’s living and active word in her life. “Let it be with me according to your word.”
In times of harsh Roman occupation, over taxation, and a great deal of poverty, Mary’s “yes” is really an act of love and hope in God and God’s promises – i.e. in God’s word. In spite of all the odds, she believes that God will give her a son who will be the “Son of the Most High,” that he will sit on the throne of his ancestor David, that he will rule over Jacob, and that his kingdom shall have no end. She takes to heart and believes that “‘nothing will be impossible with God.’” Not only about her pregnancy, but about who this son will be.
Mary’s whole life changed by saying, “yes” to God. Sometimes we forget, but I can imagine that she had hopes and dreams that she had to give up, or that were forever altered when she agreed to be a willing participant in God’s salvific plan. But in her declaration, “let it be with me according to you word” she chose to let go of her own expectations and her own plans and to instead to welcome God’s work. This is a beautiful act of self-emptying or kenosis. It’s an act of dying to the self in order to embrace God. It’s an act of obedience in response to the good news of what God wanted to do through her. As the Apostle Paul puts it, it’s the “obedience of faith” that comes from hearing the Gospel. Int this moment, Mary proclaims: “I believe you. I trust you. And now I’m going to live like it.”
Oh, that I could do that. Try as I might, my first inclination is not to let go. It is not to empty myself in order to be filled instead with the things of God. In the mystical tradition, it always comes down to letting go, to purgation, to detachment. We even see it in depictions of Mary, humbly kneeling with her arms crossed gracefully. Not uh. If it were me, I’d have my hands clenched, hanging on for dear life, fighting to hold on to what I thought was best.
Because that is the truth. God doesn’t just show up and choose Mary. God comes to us. In Christ, God has chosen each of us. But how many times do we miss what God is asking of us? How many times do we scoff at the promise that “nothing is impossible with God?” How often do we instead insist on doing things our own way?
For me, I know the answer. It’s all the time. God shows up and I miss it or ignore it. I’m oblivious or unwilling to see God’s grace flying in through the window announcing good news. In the words of our Prayer of the Day, I let my ego and my sin “obstruct God’s mercy” and grace. God shows up, in scripture, through bread and wine, in the waters of baptism, in others, and through prayer, and tells us time and time again, “Greetings, favored one. I am with you.” That’s heartbreaking to think that God is speaking that message to us all the time and we’re too busy to hear it and to let it grasp our hearts as Mary did.
But it’s also what we are reminded of so beautifully into this season. God keeps showing up, breaking into our lives. Telling us we are God’s beloved children and, even more so, that God wants to use us, as bumbling, imperfect, questioning and faithless as we may sometimes be, to share God’s love with the world. “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Just as Mary let go of all of her previous expectations to make space for God’s word in her life, Jesus, the Word of God, empties himself to take on flesh, to be born, to die, and to rise that we might have new life. In the Garden of Gethsemane we hear him struggling to live in holy obedience before going to the cross, as he prays honestly and speaks with God just as Mary did: “‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’” It is through him and his self-emptying and obedience that we are given forgiveness, reconciliation, and the gift of life abundant. In both Jesus and Mary, we see new life centered not on ourselves or our own selfish desires, but on God and others. New life that enables us to commit like Mary did, saying “yes” in love, hope, and joy to the things God is doing in us and in the world around us.
As I think about Advent and Christmas, about God coming into the world, I think about what God might be asking of us. What might happen if we paid more attention and listened deeply for God in not only the big things in our lives, but also in the small ones? Might we hear God awaiting our honest questions, but also a “yes” from us? To what is God waiting for your heart to respond, “let it be with me according to your word?”
The reading from 2 Samuel speaks of giving God a home. But the amazing thing about the encounter of Mary and Gabriel is that it tells us that it’s not only about building God a physical home. It’s about making a home in us for God. Saying “yes” and being open to God so that God can be at work in us and work through us for the sake of the world God loves. This encounter tells us that God chooses to make a home with us.
Susanne Guthrie says it in her poem, “Angelic Greeting:”
a Presence on the Threshold
‘You, (yes, you!) are blessed.’
the angels hold their breath
waiting to hear whether I might say,
‘Let it be done according to your Word.’”
Let it be done in us, O Lord. Let it be done in us. Amen.