Scripture: Luke 1:26-38 (NRSV)
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 for ever, 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.
Our theme for Advent comes from the words the messengers from God, the angels, be they Gabriel or a whole host, say when they appear to share the good news of Jesus' birth. Do not be afraid. Our world is a fearsome place, and we are fear-filled people, often for good reason. But the angels remind us that such fear can keep us from hearing and experiencing the good news that God is with us. Last week, we looked at the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist and cousin-in-law of Mary of Nazareth, Jesus' mother. His fear was so much a part of his identity he didn't believe the angel standing in front of him. This week, we are talking about Mary, and our fear that God has made a mistake and that nothing can ever change.
So as we delve into this story, let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for the words of your messengers, and ask that they sink into our hearts today as we worship you. Amen.
Aaron and I returned from vacation just over a week ago. We went on a big European adventure for our thirtieth birthdays, spending most of our time in France, though we also spent a few days in Italy and an afternoon in Switzerland. We drove, well, Aaron did anyway, to get from place to place because we figured we would see more that way. Anytime we saw a really cool old church or old castle, we could just stop on a whim. Except every town in France has an old church or castle. That may be a slight exaggeration, but not by much. I distinctly remember at one point Aaron pointing out the window and saying, “Oh look. Another castle.” Now castles sometimes cost money to go inside, so we didn't always go in those. But churches are free. So we visited a lot of churches. And most of them, being Catholic, seem to be named Notre Dame, or Our Lady, in deference to the Mary we read about in our scripture today.
We saw so many statues, icons, and paintings of her in these churches, particularly of the moment our scripture today describes. She's always calm and serene, regal, usually reading a Bible or some kind of devotional in the Annunciation. Even if she appears small and child-like in stature, there is a calmness to her in these images that makes her seem not just older but otherworldly. And though we Protestants may complain about this veneration of Mary of Nazareth sometimes, we too are guilty of relegating Mary to a pedestal of perfection. Because the more perfect we make her, the less we feel we can emulate her.
But when I read this scripture, I don't read this Mary as this meek, ethereal being. I think she's kind of snarky. Whereas Zechariah cowered in fear and clung to disbelief when faced with Gabriel, she raises an eyebrow and points out the flaw in God's plan. In fact, reading back over the scripture in preparation for this sermon, I had trouble figuring out where such a delightfully self-confident young woman was fearful. Notice the words: perplexed, not fearful: But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Zechariah is terrified when he meets the angel. The shepherds are as well. Mary is perplexed. She is confused and has no qualms about asking the angel to explain himself. That is a bit different than fear.
It is the angel himself who brings up fear. Writer and theologian, Frederick Buechner imagines the scene of Mary encountering the angel from the angel's point of view, and in so doing uncovers an interesting understanding of where that fear comes from. He writes:
She struck him as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child. But he had been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, 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 the great golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of Creation hung on the answer of a girl.1
Maybe the fear in this story is not Mary's fear at all. Maybe it's Gabriel's. From scripture, we do not know much about angels, what they think. We don't know that they experience emotions like fear. We only know that they share God's message with us. But I, like Buechner, wonder. Was anyone in heaven talking to God, throwing ideas about redemption back and forth. And did anyone think the whole incarnation thing was a good idea? As Buechner points out, “the whole future of creation hung on the answer of a girl.”
One of the beautiful images of Mary of Nazareth that we encountered in France was a Mary with an intricate and expensive crown on her head and royal bearing. This is not the Mary Gabriel encountered. Mary was just a young woman, girl really. She was nothing special in the conventional sense, certainly not someone who had proven herself responsible or worthy or anything else we might consider a requirement to bear God's own self into a world filled with violence, pain, and suffering. How could one young girl bring God into this kind of world?
So maybe the fear in this story is not just Gabriel's. Maybe it's ours. Fearing that God has made a mistake. A mistake to choose a young, poor, brown woman to bear God’s own self. A mistake for God to put on flesh and dwell among us at all. A mistake to keep loving us. A mistake to keep offering us opportunities to transform the world.
Most of us, though, would never admit that we thought God would make a mistake. But we act like we do. We throw up our hands and say, “I don't know what you're trying to do, God, seems a little off, and nothing we do is ever going to change anything anyway.” And so we don't. Even with angels before us, sharing God's plan, more often than not we don't say yes, as Mary did. More often than not, we have a list of reasons why God's plan wouldn't work. We want a total do-over, to wipe the slate clean. We've given up on the world as it is. We believe changing it is impossible.
But Mary didn't. She asked questions, of course. “How can this be?” she asked, eyebrow still arched in confusion. Almost like she's saying to the angel, “You know there's a pretty big problem with your plan, so how are you going to get around that?” But when the angel answered her, she was in. Because she believed the angel. Nothing is impossible with God. This mess that our world is in is not irredeemable. God uses us, maybe not to bear Jesus in the same way that Mary did, but God uses us to bear God's self, to bring light and love into a hurting world, and to work for the kingdom that will have no end.
Now, I should admit to you that I had a rough week. I found myself crying or clenching my teeth in rage whenever I turned on the news and heard something about politics. On Friday, I read a powerful letter about moral bankruptcy in our country and in the church that made me wonder if we should just shut everything down. And then I came back to this sermon. I came back to Mary of Nazareth and her unwillingness to let fear turn to disbelief and disbelief turn to apathy. When God said, “Will you do this with me?” She said, “Here I am. Let's go.”
And so, even though the news is filled with stories of morally bankrupt leaders, I began to think of other stories, stories like Mary's, of people who have not given into despair but instead transform the world by saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” I want to share one such story with you.
Tarana Burke is a name that has come up recently in the news.2 She is the founder of the Me Too campaign ten years ago, recently taken up on social media and exploded. An actress used this campaign, writing, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too.' as a status we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” The hashtag exploded everywhere and got people talking about the epidemic of sexual violence in the country, and even creating cultures in some places where that violence is no longer tolerated. Tarana said that the campaign evolved out of her own experience. She said the simple words, “Me too,” are so powerful because someone said that to her. She is a survivor, as well, and those two words helped her in her healing, and so she has been able to help others in their healing. We still have far to go, so far it may seem daunting and impossible. And in some ways it seems useless, as some senators are being forced to step down over allegations of harassment but others are possibly getting ready to be voted in regardless of similar acusations. How easy it would be to let our fear that nothing will ever change, our fear that we are powerless keep us from breaking the silence! But Tarana didn't let that fear keep her locked in shame. She spoke out, and through her campaign and survivors sharing with survivors, she shared God with a hurting world.
Now perhaps it's not exactly a fair comparison, to say that either Mary of Nazareth or Tarana Burke's stories are about a simple response of hope in the face of fear and despair. After all, Mary's “Here am I” launched her into a pregnancy outside of marriage and a motherhood that would lead to watching her son die on a cross. Tarana Burke's “me too” has deepened her organizing work with hurting people in hurting places. You can't say, “me too” and go back to life as usual. But so often we think that if it isn't something big, it isn't going to make a difference, so why even bother? Mary's and Tarana's stories show that even simple words can be transforming in big, though difficult, ways.
Do you know of other Mary of Nazareth stories? Of people who refuse to let the fear that nothing will ever change and God's plans are crazy keep them from working with God anyway? Perhaps you may know one from history, like Harriet Tubman, or maybe from watching television and hearing of peacemakers like Malala Yousafzai, or maybe you know someone from church or school or work who has in some way brought God into the world. Find those people. Become those people. Yes, our God might seem pretty crazy at times. But, as the angel Gabriel said to Mary, nothing is impossible with God. Let's jump into the possibility together.
1Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, as quotes in Maria LaSala, “Mary's Choice: What the Annunciation Story Tells Us About Moral Agency,” 19 December 2011, https://rewire.news/article/2011/12/19/marys-choice/.