December 7, 2008

Waiting with Mary: Receiving
Luke 1:34-38

There are generally three ways that people respond when they are told that they are pregnant. Some, as you well know, resist the news. A recently married couple hoping to spend a few years together—just the two of them. They want to begin their careers, pay off school loans, and build up a bit of equity in a house. They can, of course, think of worse things than being pregnant, but they are far from overjoyed. A middle-aged couple, ready after raising several children to move into the next stage of life—the empty nest—falls into despair over the news. “Oh my word,” you can hear them say. “We’ll be in our 60’s when the baby graduates from high school!” A young girl on the rebound following a brief fling after a high school dance does not want to hear that she is pregnant, and neither does a rape victim. “Please don’t let it be true,” they say. “Anything but that.”

Other people dismiss the news. They don’t believe it. “He had had an operation,” the woman responds. “She was infertile,” the man reasons. They had practiced birth control religiously. They were both too old. “It couldn’t be,” they say. “We’ll wait and see if her waist-line expands!”

But still others embrace the news. They want children and are eager to welcome a new baby into the family. Some are even ecstatic. They’ve been trying to conceive for quite some time, and were perhaps even told by their doctor that the chances of their having a baby were slim, at best. For such people, the words, “You’re pregnant” have a special ring to them. They can hardly imagine better news. As we all know, different people respond to exactly the same news in vastly different ways.

Mary, an ordinary virgin from the otherwise nondescript village of Nazareth, has just been told that she will bear a son. She was, as I mentioned last Sunday, startled by God’s messenger—how often does a person see an angel face to face? She was perplexed by God’s favor—the God of all creation actually noticed and cared about her. And she was confused by God’s promise—he was going to do something earth-shattering in and through her. Given everything that is going on, how will she receive the news? Will she resist it? Dismiss it? Embrace it?

As we wait with Mary, we first hear her ask a simple question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” At first glance, the question seems strangely similar to the one asked a few months earlier by the aging Zechariah (v. 18), a question that got him into trouble. Zechariah, you might recall, had just been informed by the same messenger that his elderly wife, Elizabeth, would herself conceive and bear a son, a son who grows up to be John the Baptist. “How will I know that this is so?” Zechariah responded, hoping for a sign to corroborate the angel’s prediction. “My wife is no spring chicken, you know.” Zechariah sought, not for information, but for verification. He wanted, not to satisfy his curiosity, but to relieve his doubts. As a result of his disbelief, after granting his request, the angel rendered him mute until the baby actually arrived.

Mary’s question, by way of contrast, reveals no such doubts. She asks for no additional evidence, no litmus test of any kind. Indeed, her question implies a fair bit of excitement. With childlike curiosity, Mary seems intrigued at the thought that God plans to do something that she can’t understand or imagine. “Wow,” she seems to say. “That’s awesome. But how is God gonna pull this one off?” “I’ve never, after all, had sexual relations with Joseph, and I certainly am not planning to until after our wedding!! How will God ever manage this one?”

As a result of her faith, the angel graciously answers her question—without consequence. No loss of speech. No spiritual spanking. Instead, Mary is respectfully informed of God’s otherwise hidden intentions. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” Gabriel tells her, “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Then, without even being asked, the angel offers Mary the kind of sign that Zechariah craved for. “Give Elizabeth a call,” he suggests. “You know, your aging relative who gave up the hope of ever bearing a child about 30 years ago. Call her—she’s pregnant, too.” Finally, the messenger affirms what Mary clearly already believed deep down in her heart: “…nothing is impossible for God.”

Will Gabriel’s response suffice? How, we must ask again, will Mary receive the news? Will she resist it? Dismiss it? Embrace it? As I wait with Mary, my thoughts quickly flash back to other biblical characters who received news that God was going to birth something new in and through them. Jonah was called to birth God among the hated Ninevites, and he threw a fit. “Not a chance,” he said. “I’ll do anything but that.” The news that God wanted to bring life into such a dead and dastardly place as Nineveh was for Jonah a nightmare.

Moses, the great law-giver of Israel and a virtual icon in the minds of Mary and every other Jew throughout history, had an encounter of his own with God back in Exodus 3-4. “I’ve seen the people of Israel languishing in their Egyptian graveyard,” God announced, “and I’m planning to do something really big! Pack your bags and get on down there. I will deliver my people through you.” It was, you must admit, as startling a declaration as the one made by Gabriel to Mary. “Moses will conceive,” so to speak. “He will birth a new revelation of God in the very presence of Pharaoh.”

But Moses dismissed the news. He couldn’t believe it. “Who am I?” he asked. And God, like Gabriel speaking to Mary, graciously offered a respectful explanation. But the explanation fails to calm Moses’ nerves and squelch his doubts. “What will I say?” he continued, only to receive yet another and even more developed word of assurance. “What if they don’t listen to me?” he went on, still not satisfied. This time, God virtually drew him a map. “I can’t speak,” Moses concluded. “Please send someone else.” This is Moses trying to wiggle out of his call—Moses. “I can’t begin to do what you are asking. I don’t want to conceive and birth God in front of the Pharaoh.” Moses, the “books of Moses” Moses.

If Moses responded in such a way to the idea of God doing something unimaginable in and through him, what can we expect from an ordinary virgin from an otherwise nondescript village called Nazareth? Surely, she will run and hide. Sure she will cringe and argue that her dignity is at stake—her very standing in the community. Surely she will resist or, at best, dismiss the news. On the contrary. Mary offers no excuses. She does not dwell on her own humanity and her own limitations. She raises no immediate concerns about the way that people in the village will respond. She does not even contact Elizabeth to see if the news of her own pregnancy is in fact true. Instead, she opens her arms and hands God an overwhelming “Yes.”

Look more carefully at her words. She confirms, first of all, her availability. “Here I am,” she announces. “I’m not going anywhere.” I’m not running away from this new challenge and calling that God has given me. I’m standing right here with you, God.” Secondly, she acknowledges her role. “I’m the servant of the Lord,” she declares, “ready to do whatever my master desires.” Mary understands her place. She accepts her position. She’s comfortable following and more than willing to play second fiddle to God. And thirdly, Mary affirms the deepest desire of her heart. “Let it be with me according to your word.” No haggling. No negotiating. No compromising. Mary simply says “Yes.” And with that, the angel departed. There was nothing more for him to do. Mary was prepared to take over from there. Life is a lot smoother when people simply say “Yes” to God.

Is it any wonder that Mary has for many centuries served as a model of complete readiness and openness before God? Many of us in the Protestant tradition have often failed to appreciate this marvelous example of devotion because of the excessive veneration that we sometimes believe some Christians give to Mary. Today, can we at least give her her due? In a collection of sacred texts full of stories about people who fussed with God, dismissed his words, ignored his directives and sometimes even ran away, Mary received the news of her conception with remarkable eagerness. God wanted to do something mind-boggling in and through Mary, and Mary had the faith and courage to say “Yes.”

What about you? Advent is all about God coming, not just into the world, but into your heart and mine. Coming to bring life. Coming to do something fresh and new. Coming to shatter our limited categories and often self-centered dreams and do something beyond our expectations. Coming to birth Christ again in this modern, technological world of ours. How will you respond to the news? How will I? Will you resist it? “I don’t want Christ to live in me. I don’t want God to ask anything new of me? I don’t want him to interrupt my plans, shake up my world, or send me to some strange place.” Will you dismiss it? “I don’t believe stories about Christ coming into the world. As long as you are sincere, it doesn’t really matter what you believe. And anyway, God doesn’t really care about me.” Or, like Mary, will you open your arms, even in the face of lingering questions, and say “Yes” to God?

And how do you do that? What does saying “Yes” to God involve? I can’t improve on Mary’s response here in Luke 1:38. If you want to say “Yes” to God this morning, you’ll need to follow her example. First, be present to God. Stop your running. Stop drowning out his voice with endless noises and activities. Stop focusing on anything and everything but God and be present with him. “Here am I,” Mary said. Second, accept your position. You are not the creator of the world, and neither am I. You don’t always have to be in charge, calling the shots. There is a profound sense of safety and security in living under the leadership of someone strong and caring. “Here am I,” Mary said, “the servant of the Lord.” And finally, if you want to say “Yes” to God this morning, let his plans for you and promises to you become the deepest desires of your own heart. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” Mary said; “let it be with me according to your word.”