December 24, 2017 – Advent 4 A
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He 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. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The 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. 36And 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. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then 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.
It’s easy to jump to the end of the story when you’ve heard the story a lot of times, isn’t it? I grew up with Disney movies, like many of us, and outgrew them. When I had kids, I began watching them again and, of course, I knew the ending of the movie already. I knew that the princess would be rescued. I knew that the evil queen would be defeated. I knew there’d be a catchy song or inspired swell of the orchestra as the hero and the princess locked eyes. But my kids didn’t know that. They experienced each moment as though it were completely new and they were not concerned with the fact that the ending was the same every time they watched it. I began to envy their cinematic experience – each and every moment they saw was fresh, new, and they weren’t worried about how it would resolve. They were only worried about what was happening right now.
I wonder what this story of Mary would do to us if we could listen to it the same way a child watches a movie they’ve seen a hundred times. I wonder what would happen if, instead of skipping to the end, we’d simply experience this story in the present. This is, I suppose, the deep challenge of Advent. You see, even though today is Christmas Eve, we’re still in Advent. Christmas starts tomorrow. So, instead of jumping to the end, instead of celebrating the birth of Jesus, Christ, Emmanuel, let’s settle in with Mary. For us, it will be about 12 hours. For her, it was 9 months.
We miss things when we skip ahead. We miss the details that make the ending so important. Despite what we may think of Mary, despite all that we know about her, at this point in the gospel we don’t know her. Mary is just an ordinary person, she’s a young woman, engaged, and that’s about all we know about her. The angel doesn’t come forth proclaiming that she is sinless. Gabriel doesn’t say she fits the profile of a bearer of the Messiah. All we know is what she is told – “Greetings”, “the Lord is with you”, “do not be afraid”, “you have found favor with God.” She wasn’t a well-connected socialite with a great PR manager. She wasn’t royal. She wasn’t rich. Yet, she was chosen. She was chosen as the one who would bear God in her womb. She was chosen as the one who would nurse, swaddle, tickle, cuddle, and change the diapers of God incarnate in the world.
But, again, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m jumping ahead. Let’s jump back, instead. Mary would likely have been given her name as an homage to Miriam, the sister of Moses, the first worship leader of Israel. She traveled with Moses across the Red Sea, through the wilderness, and I can’t help but wonder if Mary would have felt a little like this receiving this news. This was certainly a wilderness to the young woman. She was a girl from Nazareth, a poor town in Galilee, and was expecting the normal life of a woman at that time – raising children, cooking, cleaning, and depending on her husband to protect her. But now we hear that she we will give birth to a son who will be called the Son of God, holy, and his name will be Jesus, which means “he will save.” Pretty sure this was not covered in whatever the ancient Middle Eastern version of “What to Expect when You’re Expecting” was. This is new, and yet this wilderness, this journey, will mean the salvation of the world.
And, while we have a pretty high vision of Mary, it’s good for us to consider this: Mary did nothing to have this baby (of course, she had to do a lot to deliver this baby, to carry this baby, but she did nothing to earn that baby). Mary did not earn the honor of being the bearer of the Messiah into the world. Mary was not good enough to earn it, pious enough to deserve it, or rich enough to pay for it. She was, like us, a person receiving grace. She was the recipient of God’s favor and she, like you, was not being given a wage, but a gift.
I wonder what happens to our Christmas story when we consider this. Instead of making Mary a secondary character to Joseph or Jesus by bringing him in right away, what if we let Mary be for us an example of God’s abundant grace. What if we were patient, waiting with Mary for the child to be born, preparing for the entrance of a Messiah into the world? What if, instead of jumping to the end, we simply sat here for a while with a woman who just found out about an unplanned pregnancy?
We can jump ahead in this story. We can jump ahead to answer all of the anxieties and doubts Mary might be having. We can recognize that God works through ways that we cannot predict or control. But we cannot make a pregnancy go faster and we cannot take away the all of the unanswered questions. Instead, we can recognize that God’s action, God’s creation, and God’s grace don’t often come at times or forms we expect.
I hope we can gain some compassion in this story. There are people in our midst everyday who are reeling with news they did not expect and we often try to ease their anxiety and suffering by skipping ahead. But sometimes you can’t skip ahead. So, instead, let us learn to sit in the present. Let us sit with Mary in her news, even though we know what is coming next. Here’s what we know – a baby will be born to a young woman. She’s ordinary, from what we can tell, but she has been given the unearned grace of God in the form of a baby. She’ll dream about his life. She’ll receive guests from pastures and faraway lands. She’ll watch as he travels, heals, preaches, and is killed. But this is all to come.
I hope, when you have anxieties and news, that you can have Mary’s courage. Without knowing what is coming, I pray that we could say “let it be” with her. And I hope you recognize that God’s grace is infinite, God’s ways are mysterious, and God’s forgiveness, mercy, and love are unconditional. Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God. So wait. Wait courageously. Wait generously. Wait expectantly. Please. Wait. A baby will be born soon. Very soon. Amen.