Old Testament Reading 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16
Epistle Reading Romans 16:25-27
First Gospel Reading: Luke 1:26-55
Sermon: “Amazing Message, Amazing Mary”
I’m sure that, just like me, you’ve had the pleasure of watching a good number of Christmas plays. There are all sorts of Parts to cast – there are often Stars and Angels – Shepherds and Sheep – sometimes stable animals – perhaps the donkey that brought Mary to Bethlehem and the camels that brought the wise men and of course Mary and Joseph. Interestingly, the part of Mary is normally played by a young girl who has no speaking parts and passively accepts her role as she receives the news from the angel and then travels to Bethlehem.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love the nativity plays – but this morning I want to draw our attention to the Mary that scripture actually describes. She is accepting – yes, but far from passive and she has some wonderful words to deliver. Words of curiosity, and wonder, words of amazing faith and even words of prophesy. Protestants are sometimes a little nervous concerning all the attention and adoration that Mary gets in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, but it seems we often make the opposite mistake and practically ignore her. This Sunday at least, we’ll try to correct some of that.
Lets look carefully at the account of that day in Nazareth when an unassuming young girl – likely about 13-14 years old was visited by none other than God’s foremost messenger – the archangel Gabriel. We don’t know much about her really other than that her name was Mary, and that she was apparently from a poor family and was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, who was a distant descendant of the great King David of ages past. Gabriel’s sudden appearance and words of greeting obviously surprised and frightened her: “Greetings, You who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Gabriel continues “ Do not be afraid Mary; you have found favor with God You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the son of the most High. The Lord will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over over Jacobs descendants forever; his kingdom will have no end.”
Now the first part of that message might remind us of several such messages from God to a number of important folks in the Old Testament, Some through angels, some through other Godly People: People like Abraham and Sara before the birth of Issac – He was the one through whom the covenant God made with Abraham was to be fulfilled. Later such a message also came to the wife of Manoah before the birth of Samson and again to Hannah before the birth of Samuel through the Priest Eli. Gabriel himself had appeared to Zechariah the husband of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth to tell him of the coming of Joh the Baptist. God has frequently reached into human history in the form of a special child and a critical time – Sometimes by wondrously unexpected and even miraculous births. That alone would have been quite a lot to absorb for Mary, but the rest of Gabriel’s message indicated that this child was to be no ordinary child at all. This birth will exceed any of those others. This birth will fulfill ancient promises in a new and most unexpected way.
Mary, after she gets over her initial shock is at first simply practical and honestly asks how could this be since she was still a virgin. The angel’s answer must have really surprised her – no the child would not be her’s with Joseph, but by the Holy Spirit. Jesus was to be the Son of God. Gabriel did give her a bit more to go on as he went on to explain that her elderly relative Elizabeth was also to have a son – and was already 6 months pregnant! Gabriel concludes his message with the truth that “no word of God will ever fail”. If God said it, it would most certainly happen. Nothing is impossible with God. For us modern skeptics, I would only remind us that a simple set of chromosomes seems a small thing for the creator of the heavens and the earth now doesn’t it. The truly remarkable thing is not how it was done, but rather that God chose to come to us in this way! Taking on Human flesh – Emmanuel – God with us.
We simply don’t know how long Mary took to process that enormous news, but her reply is one that speaks of enormous faith and trust: “May your word to me be fulfilled” she said. And that was that. Mary had been called to the most unique vocation ever, either before of since – She was to be the mother of God in Human flesh. Through her body and years more of her love and care, the anointed one to fulfill God’s promise to David, to the Nation of Israel and to the whole world was to come. Brothers and sister’s – that’s not a passive job at all.
We are also not told why Mary was the one God selected. She was certainly not prominent or important in any humanly recognizable way. She had no status or position to leverage. But she was the one that God called as his partner and agent to come into the world. Here is an important lesson for us: We dare not think that leading an out of the way, unassuming life in any way precludes God using us in extraordinary ways. She wholeheartedly accepted her calling. Even though it meant painful misunderstandings with her parents, with her friends and most particularly with Joseph, though God will help with that one at least.
If you go to Nazareth today, you will find two churches of the Annunciation. The larger, more dramatic one, run by the Roman Catholic Church is built over the traditional site of Mary’s home, assuming that she was there when Gabriel came. The other is nearby, it is a more modest Greek Orthodox Church built over an ancient spring. Their tradition says that Mary was out and about working – getting water for the household when Gabriel appeared. Somehow, I preferred the second one. It speaks of an ordinary, busy life, suddenly touched by the grace of God.
Catholic tradition holds that God had been at work in Mary’s life since her birth – preparing her for this moment – perhaps, but the Gospel writers tell us nothing about that. Our reformed tradition rather emphasizes the grace of God making new life possible where none could be otherwise – salvation in miniature as it were. Mary had no ability to conceive, being a virgin until the Spirit of God moved. It important to realize however that Mary’s choice to accept is also critical. Her act of self offering was essential and unforced.
The parallels for us are obvious I hope. God has graciously called each and every one of us to be his children and ambassadors of the very kingdom of Heaven. But God will never force anyone. God’s grace supplies the lack in our abilities and capacity, God supplies the opportunities, the abilities and the direction – we call this vocation – our calling in other words. Our job is to listen to the messengers and obediently say along with Mary – may God’s word be fulfilled in us as well! This is the time of year when we have a congregational nominating committee at work. One one the challenges is that although particular members may feel flattered at the trust expressed by their fellow congregants at being nominated to serve in leadership offices, they often express insecurity, whispering things like “why was I chosen?” “How can I possibly live up to the expectations”, “how can this be?” Sometimes God’s call is expressed by heavenly messengers, other times by more common ones. His promises are just as trustworthy either way.
I’ve one more point to make for this amazing young girl Mary. As she learns that she is indeed pregnant, she goes to spend some time with Elizabeth who is now in her third trimester. Perhaps she goes to escape the notoriety of being pregnant and unwed, or perhaps just to share some time with perhaps the only other human on the planet that might really understand what was going on. As they meet, Elizabeth’s child leap’s inside her and Elizabeth seems to indeed know exactly what is going on. Mary’s song of praise is a truly magnificent statement that reveals just how much she really did understand what the extraordinary child she carried would mean.
First, she marvels at her selection and understands what it means to birth the Son of God. But she goes on to sing of the significance of Jesus coming in this way – similarly to the way Hannah sang of God’s grace and favor to her through the gift of Samuel.
Mary sings of the future as if it had already happened – so sure is her faith and prophetic sense. She tells of the upside-down-ness of God’s plan – how the Proud were humbled and the Humble exalted – how the hungry were filled and the rich and powerful sent away empty. Years later, Jesus would teach similarly that the greatest disciples would be those who humbly served God and man. He taught that true wealth was to be found in the things of God and not in earthly riches. Mary somehow understood at least some of this even before he was born. She truly was an amazing young woman. Not silent and passive, but active, curious and keenly sensitive to the things of God. She is a model for our Christian lives still today. We do indeed call her blessed.