I think this moment with Mary and Gabriel is just earth-shatteringly beautiful. I'm not sure it gets better by talking about it. I'd encourage you, in the coming days, to find some time and space just to sit with it, meditate on it, pray the words and images that jump out. As I was doing that in preparation for this morning it occurred to me that talking about this passage is like trying to describe what it's like to look into a lover's eyes, when they really see you and you see them, and everything just stops for a moment. I think this story is one of our best attempts to capture what it's like to have God's face turned towards us, to know that God sees us--truly and as we are--and what it's like to look back at God in a moment that gathers up everything in wonder, love, and praise.
That said, for all its strange beauty, one thing that's so marvellous is how utterly unassuming it is. It seems like at this time of year we're sort of in the mood for miracles, but the miraculous stuff in this story is so understated that we could get the impression that this kind of thing happens all the time, that it might well happen here. Luke tells us that when the angel Gabriel shows up out of nowhere, Mary is "much perplexed" and a little curious, which must surely be in the running for greatest understatement of all time.
But I can't help thinking the point is that there's something so wonderfully simple about the love affair between this nobody country girl and the God of all creation, that makes the appearance of a holy messenger, bearing the promise of a beautiful and miraculous gift that will turn the world over and save it in the process, not all that surprising. The logistics are a bit complicated, yes. But the facts are not all that hard to imagine, when we remember the One who's really being revealed--the One whose face is turned towards us.
As the angel explains what's up, it's not like things become any less strange or complicated, but Mary--perplexed as she might well be--seems to know her beloved well enough that this is not in any way out of character. That the Most High would get bound up with the most lowly, that there would be life where life was impossible, that the Holy Spirit would hover over the most unlikely of circumstances and shape them into the hope of all things, is just exactly like the Lord that Mary knows and loves, the God who knows her and loves her; the God who knows and loves us.
Let us pray: Loving God, turn your face to us this day. Let us come to know more and more the height and depth and length and width of your love for us, in your love made flesh. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight. Through Jesus Christ our Lord: Amen
This is how God is. We should never cease wondering at it. Around here some of us have been talking a bit lately about the oddness of our Christian calling and vocation, about what our story has been and will be as a congregation. And I think if we want to really begin to understand those things, if we want to really be ready to let God shape a story in us, we can't do much better than standing with Mary, and letting the wonder of who and how God is wash over us again.
Once more, just like with John the Baptist, who's been our Advent companion for the past couple of weeks, we find ourselves in an unavoidably earthy situation. We're not dealing in a sort of vague spirituality here; we're not being given a sense that there's probably something beyond the end of our noses, but that it's sort of elsewhere. No, we're in the sixth month, in Nazareth, with a young woman named Mary, who's got plans to marry a fellow named Joseph, a carpenter with a traceable family tree (even if he is a fair ways away from its original shoot). We're in the thick of everyday life, in the midst of whatever it is that first-century, Nazarene teenagers do. There's nothing spectacular going on. Luke doesn't tell us that Mary's doing anything especially holy at the moment--she's not performing religious duties like Zechariah the priest; she's not calling for a holy revolution, like John. In fact, whatever she's doing is so run-of-the-mill that Luke doesn't even bother to mention it; she might well have been sweeping the floor, or fetching water, or daydreaming about her wedding day. She's just minding her own, in the sixth month in Nazareth, and God shows up.
Of course, it's not always perfectly straightforward when God shows up, or even when God sends a messenger. We can be so confident that we have a handle on what's going on, that not much will be different today than yesterday, that we are perfectly capable of navigating our everydays, that the sudden realization that with God we get quite a bit more than we can handle and quite a bit more than we can navigate by our own wits and skill, can knock us rather off stride.
One thing that reminds us of this fact is that just about whenever God acts in the kinds of specific and intimate ways that God consistently seems to act, someone needs to be told not to be afraid. "Don't be afraid" is almost always among the first words divine messengers have to say. "Don't be afraid" is a phrase that echoes throughout the Scriptures, which are largely an account of God getting mixed up with this beloved creation and us beloved creatures. Apparently (and I never quite tire of this fact--I know I've mentioned it before) "Don't be afraid" shows up 365 times in the Bible, which is a happy reminder that God is glad to show up on any given day, and flip the world over, being with us all the while.
The truth is that, if the angel is right and true, Mary has much to be afraid of. If she's suddenly pregnant and not by her fiancée, it's almost certain that she'll be in all sorts of trouble. She'll be the object of scorn and judgment that will follow her around for the rest of her life. It's probably not too much to say that all of her youthful hopes and dreams will be gone as abruptly as Gabriel showed up. The details of the situation make it hard to imagine that anyone but God (and some will surely wonder if even God) would find her favoured.
"Don't be afraid," the angel says.
And I think what's most stunning about Mary is how quickly she remembers who she's dealing with. Unlike, say, me and nearly everyone I know, she doesn't seem to be all that hampered by the consequences of trusting God, and doing what God says. She's a bit puzzled about how it's all going to come about, but she doesn't ask any of the questions that jump to my mind--specifically, whether God has really thought this through. Steeped in the stories and songs, the prayers and worship of her people, Mary knows that this is how God is.
We tend to have fairly short memories for the fact that God has rarely acted in a way that would have us imagining that God's ways and thoughts are anything like ours. This God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has regularly been content to do nothing like we'd expect, to bring divine plans to life in ways we couldn't have imagined before they happened, to send our worlds spinning in wholly different directions. And though that can be quite unsettling, perplexing and curious (and terrifying, the shepherds will tell us), there's a rather long history of folks who have managed to hear the angels' "Don't be afraid," through the haze of uncertainty, and found themselves caught up in the wild and wonderful ways of God's love and salvation.
Mary knows--because she knows this God whose word has arrived on her doorstep and is about to be knit together in her womb--that if there's going to be trouble (and there is going to be trouble) it will be holy trouble. It'll be an ark in the desert, or a ninety-year-old adventurer and his childless wife; it'll be an angel-wrestling scoundrel and a tongue-tied fugitive; it'll be slaves and prostitutes and fickle congregations; it'll be mystics and visionaries and jail-bound prophets; it'll be kings dancing praise in their underwear and exiles singing psalms; it'll be bellies filled and tears wiped away and a world turned right side up; it'll be a Holy Spirit pregnancy and God in a feed box; God in sandals and God on a cross; it'll be something like the odd way that God has always worked in this broken and beloved world. Whatever this is and come what may, Mary knows that she's in cahoots with the God for whom and with whom nothing is impossible.
And the beautiful thing is that when she knows that and leans into it, when she says "Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word," (a line and a posture she'll surely teach her baby boy) she's not subjugated, she's not turned into a puppet for God's will--she's filled with impossible life; she becomes most fully herself, favored and blessed by her consistently surprising, altogether loving God. She will sing and dance God's praises, not out of compulsion, but because of what God has done, in her and through her and for her!
In her service and obedience, she ushers in the kingdom that will save her; the completely improbable stuff that she sings about, while she's dancing around with her too-old-to-be-pregnant pregnant cousin, Elizabeth, becomes radically, miraculously and wondrously, possible. In cahoots with this God whose wisdom makes our best thoughts foolish, and whose power makes our best efforts weak, Mary--a girl nobody ever heard of, in a place nobody wanted to go to--will give birth to heaven's never-ending kingdom! I mean, how good is that?!
This is how God is; this is who God is; this is who we are. This is the God who has turned his face towards us--the light of God's countenance has broken through the dark of sin and death, in the most beautifully ordinary, most divinely extraordinary, way. It's a way that insists that heaven and earth will be one: that God's will, God's hope, peace, joy, and love, can be and will be perfectly at home, here and now and in our lives. Obviously, Mary had a very specific role to play in the story of God with the world, (she's more than an analogy for how we should live) but I think that that beautiful specificity should draw us into the truth that this is how God is: God calls specifically, God turns his holy face towards us--sees us, loves us, calls us, is eager to knit heaven and earth together in us.
This is our story, the one which God, in Jesus, has called us into. We are not stuck with a god who is elsewhere and other; we don't have a god that made the universe, set it spinning and then wandered vaguely off to more interesting, divine things. We have this God, whose word shows up in our lives and happily turns us upside down, which is right-side up. We have a God who calls and chooses us, who in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the calling Word made flesh, has named us favoured and blessed. We have a God eager to bring to life in us things that are not, so that we can glimpse and live now the way they will be.
We have a God pleased to be magnified by first-century, Nazarene teenagers, and twenty-first century folks like us. We have a God who is pleased to hover over the chaos and voids in our lives and birth newness. We have a God who calls us to do impossible things--to love impossibly, to live impossibly, to hope and heal and give impossibly--because nothing will be impossible with this God.
We have a God who calls us into Mary's dance, to participate in the impossible things that she sings about, to rejoice in the ridiculous wonder of it, to sing the wild promise that heaven and earth are no longer divided, that God's world-blessing, world-renewing promises are as sure now as ever. We have a God who calls us to live, here and now, as though the way things seem to be is not the way they are or will be, that the broken and destructive ways of the world are passing away--the ways of greed and violence and arrogance will give way to righteousness, justice, and peace--because the kingdom of our God will know no end! In the One who is coming, heaven and earth will never be separated again! There is nothing in heaven earth or hell that will separate us from the love of God in Christ!
We're called to live that truth fearlessly, like Mary: boldly and bravely and maybe with a touch of youthful, new-life recklessness. Don't be afraid! We too are called into cahoots with the One for whom nothing is impossible.
May we bold to believe it, and brave to say with her: "Here I am, the servant of the Lord."
The Lord has done great things. Thanks be to God.