No audio transcript is available.
Sunday 3rd April 2016
The Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary
As you know, today’s the second Sunday of the Easter season. This year, with Easter coming so early, Good Friday fell on March 25th, the traditional date for celebrating the Annunciation, so it was moved to tomorrow, the Monday after Holy Week. We won’t be here tomorrow, so we’re remembering it today. It seems very appropriate to remember the beginning of the Christian story in the light of Easter.
The church has often had a difficult time knowing how to regard Mary. In medieval times, she’d been exalted to a status approaching that of God, so that some medieval theologians even began to speak of a Quaternity rather than a Trinity. Because of this excessive veneration of Mary by the time of the Reformation, the Protestants tended to minimise the importance of Mary’s role.
It can still make people uneasy today. There are lots of churches named St. Andrew’s, St. Matthew’s, or St. Stephens, but very few named St. Mary’s, though she clearly played a vital role in the salvation story. It was a valid issue at the time of the Reformation, but that was in the early 16th century. 500 years later, maybe we can get over the historical nervousness about the Mother of Jesus and see her for what she is – an outstanding example of faith in God and obedience to God’s call.
Today, Mary’s often held up as a model for mothers or devout women in general. She’s hardly mentioned in the most of the New Testament. In Mark’s Gospel, her most memorable appearance may be the account in which she and her other sons come to take Jesus home, because they think he’s lost his mind (Mark 3:21, 31-35). She doesn’t fare much better in Matthew. John never mentions her by name, but she appears in the story of the wedding feast at Cana in John chapter 2, in the interaction with her son that initiated the first miracle, and caused the disciples to believe in him. She then appears finally at the foot of the Cross. Paul makes no mention of her at all.
But in Luke’s Gospel, Mary isn’t portrayed as a goddess, or as an ideal of motherhood, or even as a model for women generally. Rather, she is the first disciple, taking on trust what the other disciples would come to as witnesses. Luke shows her as the ideal Christian. In the Third Gospel, Mary becomes the model for Christian discipleship, the person that all people, both women and men, should emulate, if they wish to follow her son. And in the Book of Acts, she’s with rest of the disciples in prayer in Jerusalem after the Ascension, linking her to the birth of the early Church.
Like so much of the Gospels, the Annunciation story is very familiar, a favourite both of Sunday Schools and medieval art. Sometimes our familiarity can make it difficult to see anything new in such passages, but Scripture is always available to address us in fresh ways, if we let it. So let’s see what this reading can say to us today.
Firstly, the angel came to Mary, a young teenage girl, engaged to Joseph, living in Nazareth. It’s not likely that she was well-off, as Nazareth at that time was a village of probably around 400 to 500 people. Engagements like this were arranged between families and were considered binding, though the actual marriage could be delayed a year or more. She was an ordinary girl, from a small rural settlement in Galilee, the most northern part of Israel. We know from Matthew’s account of the Passion that Galileans had a distinctive accent. In the more developed areas closer to Jerusalem, they were probably regarded as provincials, possibly laughed at for the way they spoke.
There’s nothing in Scripture to suggest there was anything exceptional or unusual about Mary. The angel addressed her as “favoured one”, but that phrase comes from a single Greek word, which essentially means “much grace.” Mary was “favoured” because she received God’s grace – just as we all do.
Luke says the greeting confused her, though I would have thought the fact that it was an angel talking to her that would have been more startling than what was actually said so far. I don’t imagine she had any aspirations to greatness. “Me? Who am I? Why am I favoured? How can the Lord be with me?” She knew her place. She knew who she was. And this shouldn’t have been happening to a simple village girl from the provinces. Nothing like this had ever happened in Nazareth before.
The angel then went on to tell her God’s plan for her, which must have thrown her completely. Clearly she was being told she’d been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah – rather a lot to take in. Her question to the angel focussed on the most practical problem with all the impossible things he was telling her – “How? I’m still a virgin.”
Only after expressing her wonder and dismay, and then hearing again Gabriel’s affirmation and promise, was she able to summon the courage to believe the unbelievable. God was indeed favouring her by working in her and through her for the salvation of the world.
Mary’s response to the angel, – “Let it be with me according to your word” in the Annunciation story, is a direct parallel to what Jesus later prays in the garden of Gethsemane – “Not my will but yours be done“.
In both cases, the response to God is presented as a combination of humble trust and obedient service.
Luke wanted to make sure we understood that Mary was a model for us of obedience and trust. The story of the Annunciation to Mary is bracketed by the parallel story of Elizabeth, Mary’s older relative. Just before our Gospel reading today is the story of the conception of John the Baptist. In Elizabeth’s heart-wrenching yet wondrous words, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” In a world where a woman’s value was the sons she bore, Elizabeth had suffered the years of disgrace of other barren women, like Sarah and Hannah in the Old Testament, and, like them, had become pregnant when she was getting on in years, as her husband put it. As the angel said to Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God.’
In the section that follows our reading today, after the angel’s visit, when Mary had been told that Elizabeth was to have a son, she went to visit her. Elizabeth’s greeting to her ended with her saying “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary is blessed because she has believed the angel’s impossible message, and had assented to the will of God. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
What would it be like to experience, to know, that God favours you? That God has chosen you to work through as the instrument of divine love in the world?
Do we really believe that God is still active in the world? Because if we do, then when we stand and affirm “We are the Body of Christ” and respond “His Spirit is with us”, then what we’re affirming is that we’re the instrument through which God’s love and grace is reaching out to this corner of the world.
I think most of us believe in the power of prayer, and are willing to pray diligently for people we know are ill or in difficulties of any sort. Many of us, I’m sure, earnestly believe that God can and does act in the world today in mysterious ways. There are many members of this parish who are generous with their time in visiting and reaching out to other parishioners in need of pastoral care or practical help. The willingness to care for each other is the glue that binds a community together. Any church depends for most of its organisation and ministry on the willing participation of its members, and we’re no different.
But many faithful and devout Christians can’t imagine that God would choose to work through them in direct intervention in the world. We’re just ordinary people, with a variety of gifts and abilities, at various stages of life. Of course, we believe that God is still at work in the world, … well, probably …., but anyway, most people think that God would be using specially gifted people to do his work, exceptional people with gifts we don’t have. We’re too old, or too young, or just too ordinary to be used by God in anything but the most ordinary ways.
The story of the Annunciation tells us otherwise. In three short verses, Mary moves from peasant girl to prophet, from Mary to mother of the Messiah, from bewilderment and doubt to discipleship. Mary’s story moves us all from who we think we are to what God has called us to be, from ordinary believer to obedient apostle. Mary’s obedience and trust in God completely changed the direction of her life in ways she couldn’t have imagined.
The disciples also had their lives turned around when they responded to Jesus’ call to them. All the Gospels repeatedly tell us just what an ordinary bunch they were, constantly missing the point of what Jesus taught. Yet in our reading from Acts today, we saw the same disciples, who’d been a group of terrified people hiding from the authorities after the Crucifixion, now boldly refusing to obey the orders of the same authorities to stop preaching about Jesus. After the Resurrection they became an unstoppable force empowered to speak out the truth to which they were witnesses.
I’ve experienced this dislocating change of direction myself. 22 years ago, I found myself, to my complete amazement, a pioneer in the women’s ordination movement which has brought much change to the Anglican Church. All I knew when I started was that God was calling me to go to St Mark’s and study theology. I’d finished two years of study before it came to me that I should offer myself for ordination. I very tentatively did so, convinced that I would be turned down. I wasn’t, and I’m still surprised about that.
More recently, Mike and I have found ourselves responding to the call of God in new ways. Firstly, to defend God’s glorious creation from the disastrous effects of human greed, the injustice and suffering that climate change metes out disproportionally to the poor. More recently, we became convinced that obedience to God demanded that we do all we can to defend vulnerable people – asylum seekers – from cruel and unjust treatment at the hands of our own government.
I never thought of myself as an activist. It’s just that God’s calling increasing numbers of ordinary people like us to rise up and resist
the systems and powers that are doing evil things in the world today.
If we’re able to say, with Mary, “Let it be with me according to your word“, then we may be called out of our comfort zone. Obedience and trust in God may lead us down paths we never imagined. It seems God thinks more of most of us than we do of ourselves.
Greetings, favoured ones. You have found favour with God, and the Holy Spirit will come upon you, guide you, and work through you to care for this world and its people that God loves so much. For nothing is impossible with God.