November 30, 2008

Waiting With Mary: Conceiving
Luke 1:26-33

I certainly remember the first time that my wife said to me, “I’m pregnant.” My heart was racing, to say the least. “Will the baby be a boy or girl?” “Who will she look like?” Deb, I hoped! “How might we share the news with our family and friends?” “What name should we choose?” When Deb first informed me that she was pregnant, I was beyond excited. But we were married at the time.

Learning that my wife was pregnant was, of course, the beginning of a journey for both of us. I remember walking together through the process leading up to the actual arrival of the baby. Morning sickness. Childbirth classes. Magazine articles and books describing the developmental stages of the fetus during pregnancy. Doctor appointments. Birth announcements. In truth, nine months is not all that long a period of time. To an expectant couple, however, the wait can seem like an eternity. It did for us, and it probably did for many of you, too. Those nine months were quite an adventure. But Deb and I were married at the time.

Mary wasn’t. She was engaged to Joseph, of course, but they weren’t married yet. They were just a good Jewish couple following protocol. What was the news like for her? What did the journey involve for them? Mary, blessed to be the earthly mother of Jesus. Mary, left to face not only the issues that normally go along with childbearing, but also the questions and concerns, not to mention the rumors, that her unique situation produced. What must have gone through her mind as the scene unfolds here in Luke 1:26-33?

Mary, I suspect, was startled by God’s messenger. It is not every day, after all, that a person encounters an angelic being face to face. It is true that in 1st century Palestine Jewish people tended to think more often about angels than did their ancestors a few centuries before. Although angels or divine messengers appeared from time to time in the Old Testament, they never quite caught on until later. By Mary’s time, however, the Pharisees taught that angels functioned as mediators between God and human beings. The apostle Paul, likewise, referred to angels from time to time, although not always with deep admiration or appreciation (Romans 8:38-39; Gal. 3:19-20; Col. 2:18-19). And Luke himself, the writer of today’s text, mentions angels on several occasions, in fact more than any of the other gospel writers. Throughout Luke, we find angels speaking, teaching, directing and protecting (1:11, 26; 2:8-15; Acts 8:26; 12:7). Apparently, the average Jew of Mary’s day believed that angels were spiritual beings who either aided or hindered the work of God in the world.

That does not mean, however, that run-ins with angels were commonplace. This is the gospel of Luke, after all, not a Frank Peretti novel. I’m sure that Mary would have expected to receive news of her pregnancy at some point in her life, further down the road, but not in this way. Nausea, a wise and experienced midwife, a craving for bagels and cream cheese—those are more likely possibilities. But an angel? Mary was startled by God’s messenger.

Mary, furthermore, was perplexed by God’s awareness. Mary, like most of us, believed that God kept his hands on the pulse of our world and was present within it. She had no doubt listened intently as the great texts of the Bible were chanted out loud in temple worship. She’d even joined in herself from time to time in reciting the Psalms, including 139:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast….
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb….
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substances.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
Mary, the good Jewish girl that she was, had been taught since she was a young child about God’s great love and everlasting mercy. It was part of her theology!

Hearing over and over again the wonderful news of God’s love and favor, however, is one thing. Believing that this same God actually knows about and cares for a single, isolated individual is quite another, particularly if you happen to be a poor, non-descript virgin from a hole-in-the-wall town like Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip asked Nathanael just a short time later. Mary apparently wonders the same thing. She is perplexed at the thought that God really cares about her.

And finally, Mary was confused, as verse 34 makes clear, by God’s promise. Mary and Joseph, like most young couples these days, had no doubt planned out their engagement period and were anticipating their wedding day. They were following the rules, biding their time and giggling together over what they hoped the future would hold. I’m sure they even talked about having children some day—after the wedding! “What names do you like?” they asked each other as couples typically do. Mordecai? Yehezkel? Naomi? “How many children would you like to have?” “What do you hope our kids will grow up to be? Shepherds? Farmers? Carpenters? Olive press operators?” Surely, Mary and Joseph, in their own sort of middle eastern way, had made at least tentative plans for their lives together.

But who in their wildest imaginations would ever come up with anything even remotely similar to the pronouncement that Mary receives here in vv. 31-33? Gabriel, to begin with, not only informs Mary that the child will be a boy, but tells her what to name him! Then, in but a few short phrases, he suggests that this anticipated child will in fact fulfill all of the hopes of Israel. “Forget the olive press operator idea,” he insinuates. “You are setting your sights far too low. God has bigger things in mind for you and your baby.”

Notice the multiple strands of sacred tradition that find expression here. The child will be great. Unlike the rather inept group of kings and other leaders who dot the pages of Old Testament and Jewish history, Jesus will be strong and faithful to God. The child will be called “the Son of the Most High,” a clear reference to the tender words of God to David in 2 Samuel 7:14: “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom…. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.” Finally, the child’s kingdom will have no end, conjuring up images of God’s further promise to David that his offspring would reign over Jerusalem forever and ever (2 Sam. 7:13). Whoa! Many of us would be happy to know ahead of time that our son or daughter would grow up to be an Eagle Scout or win a Rotary Scholarship. Mary, this otherwise ordinary young woman from who-knows-where—Nazareth?—discovers that her anticipated son will literally change the world. No wonder that she is confused.

Startled. Perplexed. Confused. Unmarried. Mary will soon conceive and bear a son. And she will name him Jesus, and he will literally change the world. What a thought. It’s a lot for a young virgin from Nazareth to wrap her heart and mind around, isn’t it? Sit with her for just a minute. What do you want to say to her? What counsel might you provide?

It’s funny, but as I sit and wait with Mary, I can begin to feel these same emotions swelling up inside of me. Here, in the waiting room, it strikes me that the very meaning of Advent is startling, perplexing and confusing. Advent is startling, first of all, because it reminds us that messengers sent from God continue to bring his good news to people in our own day and age. As in 1st century Palestine, God rarely comes, I guess, in the form of an angel. I don’t know for sure. He does come, however, and speaks to people like you and me in varied and at time mysterious ways: a stranger on the street, a paragraph in a book, an anthem sung by the choir, a prayer spoken by a friend or pastor, a group of women knitting in the parlor, a note in the mailbox, a passage of Scripture, a sudden illness, a newborn baby. Advent is all about a God who continues to this day to come and speak to people all around the world.

Advent, furthermore, calls once again to our attention the remarkable fact that even ordinary people from nondescript towns like Grantham, Dillsburg and Mechanicsburg can find favor in the sight of almighty God. The love and grace of God are far more than theological concepts to be examined or Greek words to be analyzed. The love and grace of God are more than ideas filling the lines of our songs and choruses, more than themes flowing through our services. God doesn’t simply care about the world, although he does very deeply. He cares about you and me—individually. In the same way that Gabriel looked Mary straight in the eyes and said, “You have found favor in the eyes of God,” so too does the good Lord come to us, whoever we are, and announce, “You are of infinite value to me.”

And finally, the promise to Mary, as strange as it might at first sound, sparks an exciting response within my own heart and soul. We, like Mary, make our plans and hopefully try to play by the rules. We think our ordinary thoughts and live our everyday lives—one day after another. We, like the people all around us, often set our sights on finishing the work week, putting food on the table, advancing our careers and paying the bills. We think of Christmas bonuses, extravagant meals, endless cards and increasingly costly presents. Could it be, Mary makes me wonder, that God wants to shatter our categories and elevate our sights, too? Could it be that God wants to do something greater in us and through us than we could ever imagine? Could it be that God wants to birth something new and life-changing in our wombs, too? What a striking thought. In the same way that God placed Jesus within the womb of this ordinary virgin, so too does he long for Christ to take up residence in the hearts and minds of all of us who live and breathe today. We, like Mary, can conceive. We, like Mary, can birth Christ again in this needy world of ours.

What, then, are we to do as we wait with Mary throughout this coming week? First, keep your eyes open for what may be surprising God-sightings. He might very well show up in unexpected places. Second, rest in the knowledge that the same God who holds the entire world in his hands is intimately aware of and madly in love with you. And third, let God birth something new within you, something fresh, something that is greater than you can even begin to imagine. If you are here this morning and are struggling with faith itself—you don’t know what you believe about God or even if you believe in God at all. Let God birth something new in you. Open yourself and ask him to draw you to himself. Perhaps you are making major decisions about your life—you’re young and searching for a career, you’re in mid-life and wondering if you really want to continue doing what you are now doing, or you’re retiring and trying to figure out what comes next. Let God birth something new in you. Open yourself and ask him to give you, not a job, but a dream, not a paycheck but a passion. Or maybe your marriage is in trouble, family relationships are stressed, and life in general has lost its meaning. Let God birth something new in you. Whether you are young or old, open your heart, your mind, your womb, and invite Jesus Christ to shatter the ordinary and do within you more than you could ever ask or think. Let me say it one more time. Like Mary, we can conceive. Like Mary, we can birth Christ again in this needy world of ours.