Audio Transcript here: http://youtu.be/nQwH1BdK8Zc
During these last four weeks we have been on a journey through Advent, moving towards the first coming of Jesus in the Incarnation, all the while thinking about the second coming, the parousia. First we were called to ‘Keep Awake’- be alert to the certainty of Jesus the Christ acting in our world, then called by John the Baptiser to ‘Get Ready’ by repenting and then to ‘Bear Witness’ along with John, Mary and Isaiah, to the ideas of justice and mercy that were central to Jesus’ life and work. These things are all about the Kingdom of God. The life we live now, what we do day by day, is very important. Last week we thought about what it means that Jesus was the light coming into the darkness, and the fact that we share that responsibility with Jesus- he has passed the light onto us and we must shine. This walking in the light could be called discipleship and in this glimpse of Mary, at this most important moment, we have a model of what it is to be a disciple or follower.
Here Mary is called to a very specific role, and it is not a role that any of us can share, in one sense. To be the “mother of my Lord”, as Elizabeth calls her is particular to Mary, but if we look at her, in this interaction with the angel, we can learn something about discipleship.
One of the things that always stuns me about these narratives is the lack of detail. If you were a novelist, writing this scene you would make sure that your reader knew all kinds of things- you’d somehow convey Mary’s emotional state, you’d describe the angel, paint a picture. But here, the narrative is stripped right down to the essentials. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy the Angel Gabriel is sent to a young girl called Mary who is defined in terms, not of her father but in terms of her husband to be, who is part of the House of David. This is important, because here in this passage, and in the passages we read from Samuel and the Psalm, the succession of the King is the central thing. God has made a covenant with his people, in terms of Kingship. And Jesus will fulfill this- not perhaps in the way that they expect, but Luke is making it very clear that this is the story of the great King David’s, greater son.
I always love this story of Mary confronted by the angel. There is no suggestion that she falls down in a faint, or screams or anything else that would convey girly fear. The angel says, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you!” and Mary is ‘much perplexed’, the text tells us. Don’t you love that? Here is a young girl confronted by an angel, who by all other accounts is a fairly scary being and she is busy thinking about his strange greeting. And it is a strange greeting, really. Mary must have felt as if she was being told she’d won the lottery when she didn’t even have a ticket. An unmarried girl was way down the pecking order, and here she was being referred to as a “favoured one” of the Lord. The angel tells her not to be afraid, though there is no indication that she is afraid and then reiterates his central point, that she has found favour with God. And what that means becomes immediately clear as he explains about the baby. You know the expression, “with friends like these who needs enemies?” Poor Mary, an angel comes along and tells her that she has found favour with God so she will have a child but not to her husband. Even in our society this would take some explaining, but in her society, like many in our world still, she could have been stoned.
The Angel goes on to tell her about the child. You will name him Jesus, Yeshua, “God Saves” which was quite a common name, just as it is today. That is his name, but it is his title that’s impressive, ‘Son of the Most High’- that is ‘Son of God’. Then he is promised the throne of his ancestor David. I wonder, in the years that followed, how Mary imagined this to be. Certainly, the people around Jesus, once they decided that he was the Messiah, or anointed one, did expect him to take hold of political power. But the angel points to something different when he says that he will reign over the house of Jacob forever and his kingdom would never end. This is all fairly overwhelming, I would have thought, but God has chosen very carefully and this girl is up to the task.
Mary responds by asking the first question of obedient discipleship, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary is thinking about the practicalities. She is getting things straight in her mind, so that she understands what it is that she is being told will happen. I almost said, “what she is being asked to do”, but that wouldn’t be strictly accurate, would it? Mary has been chosen by God, like the prophets before and since, like you and me, actually, and God is working out his purposes. I wonder what would have happened if she had refused to participate?
The angel explains how it will work and encourages her by giving her the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. It a piece of cake, the angel says, nothing is impossible with God.
Mary’s response, having heard the angel’s words, is to give herself unhesitatingly and completely. And she uses words from Isaiah, “Here am I, the servant, [or really, the slave] of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And here we have discipleship summed up. Mary listens carefully to what God is going to do and then offers herself freely to be the vehicle for God. And then she lives it out, bravely. God has taken the initiative with Mary, but it is through her participation that it comes to be. Don’t you find that an amazing thing- that God chooses to work through us and with us, even though we are fragile and imperfect?
There is a line in one of my favourite Christmas hymns, When God Almighty came to be one of us. It says, ‘love needs a universe of folk to love’. Our Rector, who went on to become the head of an Evangelical Theological College, wouldn’t let us sing it. He said that was heresy because God didn’t NEED anything. And you know, he is right! But what God chooses is love. God chooses to participate with us, to love us and to be loved in return. And the way we show our love is in discipleship, walking along with God, participating in bringing in the Kingdom. That is what each one of us is doing. Mary chooses to risk her life, to give her life, to God’s project of saving the world from itself. This is exactly what Jesus does as well. Has it ever occurred to you that Jesus made choices? Jesus was fully human, and tempted in every way, we are taught, so he must have been tempted to refuse to participate in God’s plan. In fact we see Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane struggling with this temptation but he ends by saying something very similar to what Mary says here, “Not my will, but yours.”
So that is the phrase for today, “here am I”, “Send me”. I am awake to you, I am ready, to bear witness, “Here I am, let it be to me according to your word.”
This God that calls us into discipleship has made us a promise, first in 2 Samuel, then in the psalms and finally here, that what we are participating in is the Kingdom, but not a human kingdom of power, but God’s own Kingdom. It is, as I said last week, a kingdom of justice and mercy, freedom and equity as Mary will proclaim as she sings the song of the kingdom to Elizabeth. And you know Mary is blessed, because she believes that God will keep his promise.
Mary is called to this prophetic task, this task of discipleship. Mary has a very important role to play, but so do you. You are just as much called as she is, and your task in bringing in the Kingdom is just as important.
“Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to [the ]gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but now is disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of the faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever! Amen.”