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 forever, 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.
Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.
In the sixth month, that is to say in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (from the scripture last week), the angel Gabriel was sent to another Israelite. Just as he had come to bring good news to Zechariah, Gabriel was now on a mission to find a young woman. And so it came to pass that 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.
This is a new episode in the gospel of Christ according to Luke, yet it is very clear how closely this story parallels the story of Zechariah in the Temple. Both interactions with the divine messenger are stories of God’s grace and power. Grace in that what is soon to take place will illumine God’s favor toward the world, and power in that God can work through the unable — an old childless couple, and an unmarried virgin. Both Elizabeth and Mary will become mothers because God is able, and they will have sons for our sake because God is righteous and gracious.
Gabriel said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But Mary was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel continued, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
Do you remember the story from last week? Do you remember how Zechariah was struck with fear when confronted by the angel in the most obvious of places, the innermost holy place of the Temple? Do you remember how his unbelief regarding the good news from Gabriel resulted in his becoming mute until the birth of John the baptist?
Instead of a priest, one who should have been most familiar with the ways of God in the world and the stories from the past, Gabriel appears to a young unmarried virgin named Mary who does not respond in the same way.
Zechariah was overwhelmed with doubt and fear whereas Mary responded with awe and perplexity. Zechariah wanted to see a sign, wanted proof of the tidings brought by the angel, wanted to have his unbelief changed. Mary responds with curiosity. The messages from God speak into one’s insufficiencies, and brings good news of heavenly grace that must be trusted before its ways are known. There is great power in this story between the way Zechariah reacted, and the way Mary responded.
“And now Mary, 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 forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
This is good news. This is the kind of message that everyone had been waiting for. A new gift from God was going to come into the world through a young woman to be called the Son of the Most High. A new gracious leader is coming to take back the throne of David. The kingdom that God had always wanted for us is coming! And nothing will be able to stop God in all his majesty because this new kingdom will have no end!
“How can this be, since I am still a virgin?” Mary wondered. There is a difference here between doubt and curiosity. She believes the words from Gabriel, she understands that she will be bringing a child into the world. She is already preparing herself for God’s will in her life, but her curiosity regarding the fundamentals of God’s purposes come forth.
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power from the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And even 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!”
After explaining the elements of her coming conception, Gabriel ends his description with a final word of assurance. Gabriel recalls for Mary, and all of us, the creed behind all creeds, the very words spoken to Abraham and Sarah when they doubted the word that they were going to have a child in their old age: For with God nothing will be impossible.
And with perfect clarity, with willing submissiveness to God’s plans in the world, and with hope and joy, Mary responds to the calling of God: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. And then Gabriel departed from her.
How many times have you heard this story? Even for the so-called “unchurched” most people have heard, even just a sampling, of this story. The amount of art, Christmas decorations, and portrayals of Mary’s meeting with Gabriel are far and wide. This story is the source of great hope, frightening church schisms, and definitive reality shifts. Just as the prophet Isaiah told the Israelites, “Behold a virgin shall conceive a son and he will be called Immanuel,” the virgin Mary was met in the middle of the night by an angel to discover that she was to be the vessel of the Lord.
However, like the story of Zechariah in the temple, Mary’s midnight meeting has been told so many times that it is often difficult to discover something new and fresh when we approach the story. This week as I made my way through the first chapters of Luke, engaged in numerous conversations, and pondered over the heart of Advent, I began to wonder: Why Mary?
Why Mary? If God wanted to come into the world in a big way, with pomp and circumstance; If God wanted to come in the form of flesh to dwell among us as a king with power, he certainly could’ve picked a better mother. Why on earth did he choose her?
I’ve always had a hard time understanding what it is about Mary that made her highly favored in the eyes of the Lord. Remember Gabriel’s first words: “Greetings, favored one!” Really? How could she possibly be favored? Immediately following this episode she would presently go on a long and difficult journey to small town, not because she wanted to, but because the foreign rulers of her homeland forced her to go. She would be ridiculed, and judged, and even threatened for carrying a child conceived outside of normal circumstances, particularly before being married. She would give birth to this “son of the Most High” in one of the lowliest places, a stable. And after Bethlehem? Long years of obscurity and poverty with the world continually churning with its disapproval of the Jews, with the power from on high weighing down the life of the people. Her baby from Bethlehem would go on to become one of the most hated men in all of Israel and his life would increase in danger until the very end. The humble, marginalized, poor, and weak loved him, while the powerful and wealthy regarded him with hatred. Mary’s baby boy would be murdered on a cross, betrayed by the very people he came to serve. She would come to cradle her lifeless son’s body in her arms just as she did that first night in the manger. That was the favor of God?
Why Mary? Why an unwed, impoverished, and teenage girl?
Throughout the gospels Mary is portrayed as thoughtful, obedient, believing, worshipful and devoted to Jewish law. To us, and to all who knew her, she is the ideal Christian. However, none of these qualities are offered as reasons for God choosing her, God’s reasoning is tucked away from our view. We can guess, and we can come to our own conclusions, but the truth of God’s choice is known only to God in his eternal plan.
If Mary had wanted a perfect life on unbroken happiness, ease and pleasure in all things, then she certainly didn’t get it. If she had tried to measure up the favor of the Lord by the expectations of the world, then it would seem that the promise and salutation of the angel was only an illusion.
But the truth, and I mean real truth, is always deeper than it appears on the surface.
The world would tell us, that God’s favor is to be found in ease, pleasure, and prosperity. God’s favor can be seen in a Christmas tree covered in perfect ornamentation with a plethora or present piled underneath. How many televangelists and “christian” writers make their millions and claim that God’s favor is with them, that God wanted them to be wealthy and powerful? Their messages always contain some sort of theologically problematic promise: If only you pray more, if you only read your bible more, if you only put more money in the offering plate, then God will make you healthy, happy, holy, and wealthy.
That is not the gospel.
It is a terrifying paradox, but, it is the lives which have been given something great to do and to bear, even though they may have been bruised and battered in the process, which have truly known the favor of God.
If God had wanted our discipleship to be easy then he would not have come into the world through the difficult situation of an unwed virgin. If God had wanted our faith to be easy then we would have no need for church, repentance, and forgiveness.
With Mary, and frankly with every single one of us, it comes down to obedience. Purely and humbly Mary put herself into the hands of God. She sacrificed so that God’s will could be done in the world. “Let it be with me according to your word.”
As the story continues, Mary meets with her relative Elizabeth, and when John leapt in his mother’s womb while in the presence of Jesus in Mary’s, she responds by praising God. She praises God even though the child in her womb will certainly make her life more difficult. And when we read the Magnificat it seems like Mary is continuing to praise God for the wrong reasons. Rather than celebrating God’s gifts to the proud, the powerful, and the rich, she offers joy that God has turned such values upside down.
I believe that we, myself included, are so often caught up with what the world defines as greatness, what the world defines as favor, that we lose sight of God’s kingdom right in front of us. We would all do well to join in with Mary’s song and magnify the Lord who lifts up the lowly and vulnerable in love. We would do well to open our eyes and ears to what God is doing in the world, what God wants to do through us, and respond with a resonating, “Here I am, let it be with me according to your word.”
So, how is it with your soul? Where have you felt God tugging you in your life? Is there a pull or a nudge that has happened, perhaps you don’t know why, but you know that something is there? Have you seen a place in your life that you want to change but you’re unsure of whether or not you really can? Is God calling you to do something in your life and you, like Mary, are perplexed at how it would even be possible?
My guess is, we all have something. Whether large or small, grand or simple, God is always calling us to something new. To fix a broken relationship, to reach out to those marginalized in our own community, to shine a great light when it feels like the darkness is taking over.
As we prepare to make our way to Christ’s table let us all remember that with God nothing is impossible. An old childless couple can be given new life, a virgin can bear a child who came to save us, we can all be forgiven for the wrongs we have committed, death can be defeated, life after life after death is available through the grace of God, lives can be transformed, love can be discovered, and faith can be rekindled. Nothing will be impossible with God.