Click here to view the fill sermon for December 20th, entitled "How."
Every year, without fail, as we make our way through the season of Advent, I hear much consternation over the subject of Christmas carols, and their relative absence from our worship during this season in which we await the coming of the Lord. After all, we hear these songs everywhere else, when we can get out, and have endless access to them on the radio or the internet. Why not in church? That might, actually, be the best argument for their absence from church during this season. Setting Advent aside as a season apart from the noise of commercial seasonal programming, prepares us for the unique promise of God with us instead of the more general holiday cheer found in abundance everywhere else. Truth be told, as we witness this exchange between Gabriel, the messenger of God, and Mary, the unremarkable young teenager, the song that runs through my head doesn’t come from the church at all. It comes from the legendary songwriting duo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney: When I find myself in times of trouble/ Mother Mary comes to me/ speaking words of wisdom/ Let it be. And in my hour of darkness/ she is standing right in front of me/ speaking words of wisdom/ Let it be.
According to our reading, though, before she became wise “Mother” Mary, the young girl before us is perplexed. And with good cause. In order to fully appreciate what happens here, it might be helpful for us to divest Mary of all that’s been put on her since this moment. Because here she is not the queen of heaven. Here she is not a broken-hearted mother watching as her first-born adult son is executed by the state. Here she is still just an unsuspecting girl living the ordinary life of someone’s unmarried daughter in Roman-occupied Galilee; a nobody really. We know that her cousin, Elizabeth, is married to a temple priest, which is sort of a big deal, but there’s no extra detail offered about the family through which the two women are related. Nothing is said about Mary’s parents- particularly her father, who in that patriarchal culture would have given her whatever standing she might have had. We can only assume that he is of so little consequence that he doesn’t even rate a mention. Are you beginning to see why Mary might be perplexed when out of nowhere an angel appears to her, calling her, ‘favored one.’ As pick-up lines go, it’s more than a little suspect. Who are you calling favored? Me? The daughter of an unnamed family, living in an obscure town, in a forgotten corner of the mighty Roman Empire. Even when the genealogies get written for Jesus, his ancestry to David won’t come through Mary but through his adoptive father, Joseph. What is the source of this the favor, exactly? In the popular imagination Mary has been elevated to an idea of holiness that actually works against the spirit of what is going on here. It calls to mind the words of Joanne Rogers about her husband Fred, known to the world for his children’s television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. “Don’t call him a saint,” she would admonish, “because that makes what he does unattainable. We can all do it.” In our Reformed tradition we affirm that it isn’t anything about us that makes us saints, makes us holy, makes us favored. It is what God does. Holiness, favor, grace belong to God. So, when a messenger shows up and addresses someone like Mary as “favored” it has less to do with her and more to do with what God is about to do with and through her. Which is enough to give any of us pause. If we can put Mary on some kind of exalted pedestal, then this is simply a quaint story about the mother of God who is so much more full of grace than the rest of us. But if she is no different than you and me. If she is one of the millions upon millions of people who have known God’s favor and been put to work in the service of the God’s reign on earth as in heaven, then her story could very well be our story. She has no special credential. She needs no special credential. This is often how we make the excuse that we are not cut out for whatever it is that God is calling us to do. In that respect too, we are no different than Mary, or Jeremiah, or Moses, or anyone who has given God- when God comes calling- the litany of reasons why someone else might be better suited to the job. Moses doesn’t feel like he has the necessary public speaking skills to confront the Pharaoh. Samuel, David, Jeremiah are all far too young to be doing the Lord’s bidding, and yet God calls them anyway. Isaiah is profoundly aware of what he calls his unclean lips- ever heard anyone say they can’t serve God because they swear too much? None of the obstacles that people put up when God comes calling are any barrier to what it is that God would have them do.
I’m loath to criticize how anyone else does their work, particularly when they’re doing something that is well beyond my own skill set. Still, does it sound like Gabriel might need some remedial lessons in how to put people at ease? Or is it that he just hasn’t spent a whole lot of time with teenagers, particularly teenage girls? Because he tells poor Mary, who is understandably freaked out at this whole encounter and the declaration of her supposedly favored status with God, not to be afraid and then follows that assurance up with a plan that involves her conceiving a child. “Don’t be afraid, you’re going to get pregnant,” doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that would put any teenage girl at ease. And like every prophet before her- if you don’t think Mary is a prophet, take another look at the words of her song that we opened our worship service with- like every prophet before her, she finds a wrinkle in God’s plan. You see, Mary is simply not that kind of girl. Yes, she’s young, but she’s not that young. She knows how it works, and she has no experience with that sort of thing.
That’s the real question here, isn’t it? Not the specific question of Mary’s virginity, or the logistics of this particular conception, but the question of how. How is it exactly that anyone is supposed to bring Christ into the world when we have absolutely no experience with that sort of thing? This is the real quandary of Advent. We are told to wait for the one who is to come, to prepare the way of the Lord, only to discover that the coming of God-with-us begins with God within us; that our deliverance begins with or call to deliver, to bear Christ into the world. I don’t know if you happened to notice, but the angel Gabriel uses a couple of the same phrases that we heard in Isaiah’s announcement to the people of Israel last week upon their return from exile. Isaiah says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Gabriel says, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you.” Isaiah’s announces the year of God’s favor. Gabriel names Mary as the “favored one.” It is who she is called to be. It is also who we are called to be as God’s favored ones, God’s own saints. Even, and more importantly especially when it’s clear we don’t really know what we’re doing.
The truth is that we can get so pre-occupied with the logistics, so hung up on what we think we are and are not capable of that we miss what is most miraculous about the whole thing. Through everyday, ordinary, unexceptionable people just like Mary, just like you and me comes one who 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.” Maybe like Elizabeth, you thought yourself spiritually barren and had given up hope of ever being able to conceive of something like hope, or new life, or a future that promised to be better than the past. Or like Mary, you have yet to experience just what I means spiritually to unite your heart to God. Either way, nothing is impossible for God. Either way God is able to do far more than we could ever ask or imagine. In this moment, Mary’s wisdom comes in knowing that how this will happen isn’t nearly as important as the promise that it will happen. That is the answer to the question, to worry less about the how and remain open to the what- the coming of God not just with us, but through us. To simply let it be.
And when the night is cloudy,
there is still a light that shines on me.
Shine until tomorrow,
let it be.