4th Sunday in Advent
December 21, 2015
It’s hard not to read today’s Gospel lesson and wonder, “Who was Mary?” Almost nothing is told about her in terms of background information — “a virgin who was engaged to a man name Joseph” — is about all we get.
As is so often the case in scripture, we would like more, but we don’t get it. And apparently that’s as it should be. Though Mary is a part of this wonderful story, what we really need to know here has to do with God, not Mary.
When Mary is introduced, there is no suggestion that there is anything about her that has merited the tremendous honor and blessing that is bestowed on her by God. There is no mention of a rich spiritual life, deep devotion to God, or outstanding acts of righteousness on her part. Everything we hear about Mary (as well as what we don’t hear) indicates that she was just an ordinary girl from an insignificant village that lay in a far-off and forgotten corner of a vast world empire.
Today’s Gospel lesson about the angel’s announcement to Mary emphasizes that this great thing which is going to take place is God’s action alone — there is no human initiative involved. Mary realized this herself. Though she seemed to move through confusion, fear, and skepticism at the angel’s announcement, in the end she stated: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She realized that the creative power of God was on the move and the most she could do was stand by as its servant.
As we approach the miracle of Christmas, we remember that everything we receive there is from God. In the Christmas story, Mary appears as the child of grace, not the mother.
In Genesis, we read that in the beginning, the spirit of God moved across the face of the waters and the wondrous miracle of creation began. It was creation… far beyond the human sphere of participation. The only role humans play in that story was as subjects and recipients of God’s creative work.
Now, the spirit of God overshadows Mary and another miracle of creation and grace begins to unfold. It is a moment which human beings couldn’t stop, help or affect in any way. God is taking matters fully in his hands. He is acting alone to shape the future of heaven and earth and all that is in them. Here again, human beings have a part… they are involved, but simply subjects and recipients of God’s work.
It is important for us to spend time contemplating this event in human history — the miracle of the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of God. Like Mary, we need to ponder it, so that it might affect us, that it might change us… make us ready to receive what it delivers. For when we deeply ponder the strange wonder of this story, it teaches us what grace is. It reveals to us the beautiful heart of God.
The Good news first prophesied by the prophets, now announced by the angel, eventually proclaimed by John in the wilderness and finally, made flesh in Jesus Christ is that God, in his surpassing power, is not drawn to the mighty and righteous of the world… those who can boast of their riches and achievements. Rather, he comes to the lowly and insignificant… like Mary.
It is important that we spend some time thinking about the peculiar way in which God comes into the world. Sometimes the whole story seems so familiar that we just don’t appreciate how truly strange and wonderful it is.
But imbedded in this story is the promise that our lives, like Mary’s are meant to be the birthplace of God’s grace. Mary was chosen to receive God’s blessing not because of who Mary was, but because of who God is. This story answers the question of “who is God?” with the declaration “God is he who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things.”
When Jesus walked the earth, he granted healing, forgiveness and salvation to lepers, sinners and outcasts. Jesus did not give these people healing and strength and blessing because they had earned it. Jesus filled their lives with his power because he loved them… because they belonged to him… just as we all belong to him.
I have many times heard people say that they know that God could never love them… God could never forgive them. Some say this with great sorrow; others with a pathetic sense of pride. Perhaps some of you think this way. “God could never love me.”
If so, I’m here to tell you that you are completely wrong. Your tragic error lies possibly in the fact that you have your eyes fixed on yourselves, not on God. Or perhaps it stems from an absurdly small picture of God that you have in your head… that is just a reflection of your own human selves.
If you think your past deeds… or your dark heart… can somehow stop God’s claim on you… or God’s love for you… then you have completely failed to understand who God is. You have not seriously pondered the power of the mysterious hidden one who brought into being the galaxies, planets and stars… the creator of the fabric of time and space, and all the creatures who populate it. Do you really think puny human rebellion can outlast such power?
If you think you are too broken to be healed by God, then you have clearly not contemplated the breadth and depth of the love of the one who entered time and space in the form of Jesus Christ in order to heal all broken bonds and broken hearts… who gave all he had in order to show us human creatures how to live and love… and how to know the one to whom we belong.
If you think you are too far gone to be reached by God, then you have simply not considered the power that lies behind the love of the one who can raise the dead to life. No manner of death can ever cut us off from God, because all death answers to God. Our mistakes, our sins, our rebellion, our despair… none of these things have the power to outlast God’s active, relentless and eternal love.
The Christmas story… and Mary’s part in it… remind us that God entered this world in order to claim all that is his. He came in order to claim us. Everything he has made… everyone… belongs to God. He knows we need him to be complete. We need him to be healed. We need him to have life.
To those who need him most… he comes.
Ordinary, insignificant Mary was chosen by God to receive a great miracle of grace. We too are chosen by God for miracles of grace. Our plain, ordinary lives are not insignificant to God. God desires to claim all that we are and draw us into the work he is doing in this world.
May we all be children of grace like Mary, the mother of Jesus. May we say, “Here am I, Lord,” when God calls us. May we be open and receptive to God’s grace. May we let it shape us, teach us, strengthen us and change us. And may the promise of God’s healing love be born in us all this Christmas season.