(sermon 12/20/20 – Fourth Sunday of Advent)
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.
Have you ever played around with Google Earth on your computer? If you haven’t, you should try it; it’s kind of fun. You start out with a view of the entire Earth as seen from space, and you can type in pretty much any address on the planet, or enter a latitude and longitude, and you’ll start to zoom in to that exact location on the globe. First, the Earth will get larger, and closer, then the continents are easily visible as the globe turns toward your location, and as you zoom further in you can see topography, mountains, rivers, lakes, then cities, then individual buildings, highways, until finally you end up pretty much directly overtop of the address you’d entered.
In a similar way, long before Google, Luke did this the same dramatic sort of thing in a literary way as he started the story we heard in today’s gospel text. He moves us through space, starting with Gabriel in the otherworld, in God’s presence, then moving to the region of Galilee, then drawing down on the city of Nazareth, then to a virgin who’s engaged to be married to some man named Joseph, and finally, arriving at this particular young woman named Mary.
We’ve arrived at this space, and we’ve already been told the time – six months after Mary’s older, barren relative Elizabeth became pregnant with John the Baptizer. Now, with the time and space settled, we can focus on the actual events unfolding. Gabriel appears to Mary, following a recurring pattern for angelic visitations seen in both the Old and New Testaments – the angel appears; greets the person by name; tells them that they are favored and blessed by God; that a child is going to be born; what the child’s name is to be; and what they will do in their lives. Also somewhere within this recurring pattern, the angel reassures the person to not be afraid.
In this instance, we know that Mary was afraid – that she was “greatly perplexed” or “deeply troubled,” and I suspect that was putting things mildly. In addition to just imagining how I would feel if this kind of thing happened to me, I suspect it because Mary undoubtedly knew the Jewish folk story about Tobit, which shows up in what we Protestants call the Apocrypha, the Books of that are part of the Catholic canon, the Catholic Bible, but not the version we Protestants us. Among other things, the story tells about a jealous angel who appeared at a woman’s wedding night every time she got married and killed her bridegroom. As the story goes, Tobit fell in love with the woman, too. He was the seventh man to marry her and was, as Frederick Buechner put it, “the only man who married her and lived to tell about it.” And now, here’s Mary, about to marry Joseph, and she’s being visited by this otherworldly visitor. Did she wonder at first if this was an evil spirit, like the one in Tobit’s story, and that his visit was going to wreck her impending marriage? If she did, her fears were well founded, since we know that it almost did. So, facing that cautious reception from Mary, Gabriel continued, reassuring her that she didn’t have anything to be afraid of, that he actually came with good news, and that she was blessed by God.
One of my favorite paintings portrays this exact scene. “The Annunciation,” by the great American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, was painted in 1898, and I think it captures Mary’s emotions in this moment beautifully.
In it, you can see Mary, sitting quietly trying to take in what she’s being told, weighing it all in her mind. Look a little closer at her.
Look at the emotions visible in Mary’s face. She seems wise beyond her years. Even at her young age, she’s wary of what she’s being told. Even at her young age, she already knows the way the world works and it isn’t like this. And she’s wise enough to know how God’s blessings can work, too. Beyond understanding the biological impossibility involved in what she’s being told, she already knows that being blessed by God, favored by God, has nothing to do, then or now, with enjoying the things that most people would consider a good life – wealth, health, comfort, good fortune, good relationships, being held in high esteem by other people. The history of her people showed, and Mary was undoubtedly well aware, that if anything, the opposite was true – that being chosen, blessed by God, would typically lead to none of those things, and could often even prevent those things. We often think about the good things we enjoy in life and because of them, say we’re blessed; but in all honesty, if the scriptural record is any indication, prosperity, comfort, and social acceptability have almost never been the essence, or evidence of, God’s blessing. In the moment captured in this gospel text, Mary didn’t know – she couldn’t have known – the details of what her blessing would include – almost losing her marriage, having a child out of wedlock and facing public gossip and shame, that her family would have to flee for their lives to another country and live as refugees, or that this promised child would eventually be executed as a criminal. But still, I think that she could at least see the general contours of what might be coming – I think that she knew that this great blessing was also going to bring great difficulty.
Another thing that Mary, like many women in the scriptures understood and that she would later express herself, is that we worship a scandalous God – repeatedly, almost exclusively, choosing the lowly, the common people, rather than the wealthy and powerful, to fulfill God’s plans. Mary certainly embodies the reality of that scandalous nature of God. And she also embodies the truth that when a person is blessed by God, that obedience needs to flow outward from it. That God’s blessing is inextricably connected to the relationship that we have with God.
Knowing these things, even though she may have cast a wary eye on it as Tanner painted her, Mary was, in fact, obedient. She showed faith, and trust, and more courage than most of us could muster, and she said yes – “let it be with me according to your word.”
Maybe the defining moment in Mary’s thoughts in this moment was Gabriel’s reminder to her that as impossible as it all seemed, “nothing is impossible with God.”
Mary’s wordly-wise, eyes-wide-open assessment and acceptance of the risks and potential consequences of obeying and following God’s will is an example, a model, for all of us. I suspect that at various times in our own lives, we’ve been presented with a situation where God has presented us with a situation to step out in faith – to trust in God and to have the courage to hear, and obey, and follow, in some way that’s outside our normal lives and expectations. To trust and obey God regarding something that challenges our assumptions, our comfort, our way of seeing the world. Something that, make no mistake, we know is consistent with God’s will, but that has a real potential to have real consequences in our lives. It may pose risks to our financial situation, or our comfort, or our standing in the community, or in our relationships with family members or friends. It can be hard to hear God, and say yes to God, in those situations, I know that myself, and like anyone else, I haven’t always made the right choice, the courageous choice, either. Still, across the ages, I think about the face, and the emotions, of that Jewish Palestinian teenager, and her wisdom, and faith, and courage are an inspiration that we can all draw on, when we see her as something more than a porcelain-skinned image in a Renaissance painting or a marble sculpture, but rather, as a real, living, breathing, laughing, crying, playing, working, sweating, bleeding, person just like us, with all the same fears and worries and doubts – and all the loves and hopes and dreams, too – and even with all of her questions and fears and misgivings, she said yes to God, because even though she knew all of that, she also knew of God’s love and faithfulness and goodness. She trusted, she had courage, because she knew.
Mary’s courage – and Gabriel’s reminder that nothing is impossible with God – gives me, and hopefully all of us, courage, too, when we encounter difficult decisions and situations as we try to be faithful, and obedient, and courageous, in our relationship with God. Truly, nothing – nothing – is impossible with God, precisely because we do believe in a scandalous God. A God who blesses and works through the common, the average, the lowly. A God who blesses us without our even asking to be blessed. A God who knows all our flaws – our violence, our selfishness, our corruption, our pettiness and vindictiveness, all of that and more – and who still, in spite of all that, chooses enter into this same human existence in order to be one of us, to be with us, to show solidarity with us, to show a new way, a better way, and eternal way, of life. Most importantly of all, to give us, hope – the same hope that Mary knew, the hope of all the Google Earth and beyond, the hope that was made flesh in the Bethlehem manger.