Luke 1: 26-38
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.
Well, it’s the second Sunday of Advent and I am in the middle of my annual reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
This year something came to mind that never occurred to me before.
Scrooges story is much like the story of the Gabriel and Mary in Luke.
Scrooge is going about his normal business, which includes refusing any nod to Christmas.
Then something unexpected.
Scrooge is skeptical.
“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.
“I don’t.” said Scrooge.
“What evidence would you have of my reality, beyond that of your senses?”
“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.
“Why do you doubt your senses?”
“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
Then Scrooge gets three more visits in short order and slowly comes around to believing.
The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge how he became lost in the material world.
The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge how people who have little in worldly treasures can have much joy regardless.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge the emptiness of the life he chose.
Then Scrooge submits:
`I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.’
It takes Scrooge a while.
He needs a lot of proof.
But he finally gets it.
And is transformed.
Which brings us to our scripture reading today.
Here we are in week two of the unexpected visitors that populate the Biblical Advent stories.
Last week we read about the visit from an angel who told Joseph that he was called to do a hard thing.
To feed, shelter and raise the messiah.
Today we read about Mary, whose job was considerably harder … at least that’s what my wife tells me.
Mary has to bear and give birth to the child.
Talk about being called to do something unexpected!
But we get ahead of ourselves.
We need to slow down a bit.
It is hard to listen to a story for the umpteenth time without trying to cut to the chase.
It’s like when Uncle Bob starts telling the same old story at the Christmas dinner about the squirrel hiding in the Christmas tree he cut down, a story he has told innumerable times.
As soon as he starts the story, we all want to interrupt him with, “We know, Uncle Bob, ‘and then the squirrel jumps out of the tree and knocks over Grandma’s egg nog!’”
The trouble is that when we do that we miss important details of the story that make it worth hearing umpteen times.
That give it new meaning as we grow from child to adolescent to adult to senior citizen.
We lose the humanity of the story and its deep meaning.
It’s kind of like that with A Christmas Carol!
We hear “Scrooge” and we immediately go from Marley to Ghosts of past, to present to future to redemption to Tiny Tim saying God bless us everyone.
Which by the way does not happen at the end.
What we miss is some tremendous historical and cultural background and some really good prose.
I point that out because that is what we do with this story of Gabriel and Mary!
We have heard it over and over and over.
For as long as any of us have been able to comprehend this story, the focus has been centered on the one line that follows Gabriel’s announcement that Mary is going to have a child:
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
And Gabriel’s response:
“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.
For most of us, that is the message.
The virgin birth.
And when we hear the story read to us, as soon as it starts, our minds jump to that point and we don’t hear the rest.
But there is something more going on here that we can learn from.
So, let’s listen to the story with fresh attention.
This story is our introduction to Mary.
Who is she?
Again, we burdened by historical hindsight.
One author describes our preconceived notions about Mary this way:
[W]e’ve buried her under so many layers of theology, piety, and politics, she’s nearly impossible to excavate. Some of us pray to her. Others ignore her on principle. Some call her a victim of divine coercion. Others, “Theotokos,” the Mother of God. For some, she represents a troubling model of pious femininity — ever sinless, ever virgin, ever mother. For still others, she is child prophet extraordinaire — a young girl who fearlessly announced the arrival of God’s kingdom to earth.
But we are not told any of that here by Luke.
We need to notice something else.
We have before us a brief ordered, factual narrative.
A synopsis of a historical event.
In Biblical times, the stories were orally transmitted and there was, no doubt, a fair amount of emotion in the tellers and the listeners.
Good stories generate that when told well.
If we really want to get the full picture of the event, we need a bit of what my theater major son would call “staging”.
Think of it as a one act play where the actors provide information on the plot with their actions as well as their words.
When the story opens, we are given background by the narrator.
Mary is a teenaged girl of marriage age who lives in Nazareth.
Nothing good comes from Nazareth, right?
Her father has arranged for her to be married to a carpenter from Bethlehem named Joseph.
The marriage will be consummated when she moves in with Joseph.
That has not happened yet.
Now the action begins.
Mary is occupied in her normal life.
Then enter Gabriel!
You know who he is.
He’s one of God’s Archangels.
Her reaction to this unexpected guest evolves over the course of the encounter.
At first Mary is afraid.
It is the rare exception in the Bible that on finding oneself in the presence of an angel one is not absolutely terrified!
I have an image that she is cowering behind whatever she can find to cower behind with wide eyes and gaping mouth.
And we know Mary was afraid because the angel tells her not to be.
Why does this angel (Gabriel is it?) call me favored?
That the Lord is with me?
What the heck does that mean?
One writer describes her response this way:
Me? Who am I? Why am I favored? How can the Lord be with me? She knows her place. She knows who she is. And this should not be happening. She’s a she, a teenager, and from the wrong side of the tracks.
Why does Mary get a visit from Gabriel?
Does God even know she exists?
I have an image of her dropping her chin to her chest, shaking her head – No, no, no …
“I think you have the wrong person, Gabriel.”
Then the big reveal!
She’s going to have a son.
Can you imagine her incredulity?
Wait … what!?
How is that going to happen?
Wait … what?
This is going to be God’s doing?
Wait … what?
This baby will be what?
The Son of the Most High?
He will sit in the throne of his ancestor David?
He will reign over the house of Jacob forever?
His kingdom will have no end?
He will be holy?
He will be called Son of God?
You’re saying I will be the mother of the Messiah!
How can this be?
How can any of this be?
Wait … what?
Well, if Elizabeth can be pregnant, nothing is impossible with God.
Then, after all this, the fear, the confusion, the incredulity, and the no doubt much teenage angst, she seems to shrug her shoulders and say:
“Whatever you say!”
And Mary is all in.
She says the right words, but then does something interesting.
She runs off to see Elizabeth.
Why would she do that?
Maybe to see if Gabriel was telling the truth?
Is Elizabeth really pregnant?
Mary’s trip to see Elizabeth suggests a certain skepticism and pause before Mary’s final decision to be all in.
So, considering that Mary might be frightened, mystified, confused and skeptical, what might have been the interaction between Mary and Gabriel before her acquiescence?
How do we stage Mary’s reaction to all this?
If you want to get an image of what Mary’s reaction might look like, take a look at some annunciation artwork.
Depictions of what people thought it might have been like.
Particularly Sandro Botticelli’s painting, “The Cestello Annunciation”.
In it, Botticelli portrays Mary as withdrawing from Gabriel.
Creating distance between them as if she might flee.
Her hand is out in a “keep your distance from me” gesture.
Mary is looking down, averting her eyes.
Mary’s expression is not particularly joyful.
Is Mary telling Gabriel, “I need to think about his.”
Gabriel is on his knee, looking up into Mary’s face, as if trying to get her to look at him.
Is he afraid Mary is about to say no?
Is he begging her to say yes?
How long does this all go on?
Gabriel must be relieved when Mary utters her famous phrase:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
And Mary runs to see Elizabeth.
It is only then that Mary is clearly all in as she sings her famous song:
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
More to this story than you thought?
Maybe Dickens saw all that, too.
It raises issues and questions folks have been talking, and painting, about for centuries.
What do we make of all this?
What does the story of Gabriel and Mary teach us?
Something Like this, I think.
Mary was the human being through whom God became incarnate.
She brought the Son into the world.
It was unexpected.
It was inconvenient.
It was untimely.
It was hard to believe.
But she thought about it, and investigated it.
And ultimately, Mary agreed to do it.
And that is the lesson for us.
We, as members of the Body of Christ, are the human beings through whom God acts in the world.
We bring the Holy Spirit into the world.
We too can give birth to the holy!
It was unexpected.
It was inconvenient.
It was untimely.
It was hard to believe.
But we thought about it, and investigated it.
And ultimately, we agreed to do it.
But we have to agree!
Are we willing to let God intrude into our lives and, despite the cost and discomfort, emulate Mary’s “yes” to God with our own “yes”?
Can we as a church respond like Mary?
It might take us a bit to get over the fear, puzzlement, confusion, and doubt.
But, like Mary, we need to agree.
So here is my image of what that might look like:
Me: “Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and intends to do great things through you.”
Congregation: “How can this be? We are ordinary, everyday people.”
Me: “Yet you have found favor through God, and the Holy Spirit will come upon you, guide you, and work through you to care for this world and people God loves so much. For nothing is impossible with God.
Congregation: “Here we are, servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your word.”
So may it be.