“The Surprise of Mary”

Advent Candle 3: Love

“The Surprise of Mary” a sermon by Rev. Keenan Kelsey, Noe Valley Ministry, December 11, 2022

Luke 1: 26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[b] 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He 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. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[c] 35 The 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[d] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And 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. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then 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.

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[e] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary[f] said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowly state 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;
50 indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has come to the aid of his child Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Today is Mary’s story.  Mary, mother of Jesus, venerated in the Christian church since the Apostles, named a saint, worshipped for her devotion and willingness and faith.  Even in Islamic theology, she is one of the most honored figures.  Mary is a prominent subject in western art, music, and literature.  But for all that, we know little of her.  History tells us where and when she lived, , but rest of what we know is  from biblical references, and these  are too sparse to construct a coherent biography. And so, we are left to the story.

We first meet Mary as she is visited by an angel.  Throughout the centuries, artists have rendered this in very formal strokes.  The angel is magnificent, often holding a lily, an olive branch, or a royal scepter, signs of the purity, peace, and authority he brings from above.  Often Gabriel is kneeling.  Somewhere in the scene you can find a dove, a sign that what is happening is through the Holy Spirit.  And Mary is the picture of femininity, golden hair plaited like a crown, dress of blue brocade, nails perfectly manicured. She looks so composed

But this is not the scene painted by the Gospel words!  Instead, we have the same imposing, terrifying archangel from last week, barging into Mary’s room, announcing that she will become pregnant.  He tries to be gentle, calling her blessed, highly favored by God. But he ups the ante by describing her babe as the son of Most High, of whose Kingdom will be no end.  No pressure for a girl who has had precious little experience with men, or angels, or the world.

Scarcely can Gabriel cajole, “Do not be afraid” than Mary blurts out, “How can this be?”

If it had been me, that is not the only question I would have asked. If true, Mary’s pregnancy would result in shame and ostracism and the possible end of her engagement to Joseph.  I would have said, Are you kidding? What will Joseph say?  Surely he will abandon me.  What about my family — betrothal is a contract between two families. Will my parents toss me out?  How will I live? Will my friends stand by me or will I be dragged into town and stoned?  I’ve known no man.  Will the labor be hard?  Will I survive this birth?  What have I done to be so blessed?  What is your definition of blessedness?      Inside, young Mary must have been screaming!

Mary’s resistance is strong. This part can’t surprise us, can it?   Isn’t that what most of us do with an impossible request? An uncomfortable or demanding challenge?   We resist.  No I don’t want to go out into the storm, no I don’t want to return that call, no I don’t’ want to help my friend, no I don’t want to lead a political campaign, no, I don’t want to forgive that person. It is daunting.

Mary’s resistance, at least for a moment, turns to outrage.  I recognize that one as well.  How dare you ask or expect me to do this? Don’t you know who I am?  Why me?  After all, Mary holds no official position among the people.  She is not described in terms of righteousness, she is among the most powerless people in her society: young in a world that values age; female in a world ruled by men; artisan’s daughter is a stratified economy.

And then she pauses. Pause when agitated is a good idea!  She quiets herself.  Anger melts to thoughtfulness.  Perhaps this is the moment she hears, in her head or in her heart “why not me?”

Perhaps this is the moment she whispers, I know nothing of men, nothing of babies’ and Gabriel suggests “But you know God, Mary, do you not?

Perhaps this is the moment she agrees, I love God.   To which Gabriel assures her, nothing is impossible with God.

Perhaps this is the moment she yields, in ultimate trust and faith, and surrenders to something greater than herself.

Mary had to decide whether to say yes to the situation, or no.  Whether to take hold of the unknown life the angel held out to her, or to defend herself against it.  Mary was the only one in the history of the world who had that particular decision to make.  Would she be the one who consented to carry, give birth to, nurse and raise the Son of God

There is a lot of talk these days about all the choices we have, and about how it is up to each of us to choose our own lives.  But more often than not, life seems to choose us.  Our best laid ten-year plans are interrupted–by sudden illness and surprise babies; aging parents and failing economy; natural disaster and accidents on the road.  Terrible things happen and wonderful things happen and like Mary, our choices often boil down to yes or no. Yes I will live this life that is being held out to me, or No, I will not.  Yes I will explore this unexpected turn of events or No I will not.

If you decide to say no, you simply drop your eyes and refuse to look up until you know the angel has left the room.  You pretend that nothing happened.  If your life begins to change anyway, you have several options.  You can refuse to accept it, you can put all of your energy into ignoring it, and insist in spite of all the evidence that it is not happening to you.  If that does not work you can become angry actively defending yourself against the unknown and spending all of your time trying to get your life back the way it used to be.  And then, of course, you can become bitter, comparing yourself to everyone else whose life is more agreeable than yours and lamenting your unhappy fate.

If you persist in lamenting your life because it is not packaged the way you expected, you can rest assured that no angel will ever trouble you again.   On the other hand, you can decide to say yes. You can decide to take part in a plan you did not choose, doing things you do not know how to do, for reasons you do not entirely understand.  You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees.  You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own being.

Deciding to say Yes does not mean that you are unafraid, by the way.  It just means that you are not willing to let your fear keep you locked in your room.  So you say yes to the angel.  And the angel says

“Do not be afraid,” No matter what the message is, no matter what the X-ray says, no matter what the phone call tells you, no matter what the mass murderer or crazed child does…Do not be afraid. This is the quality of faith God seeks and offers.

The rest of this annunciation story follows in our second reading, and it is also spectacular, in a different way.  Mary goes off to visit her cousin Elizabeth, surely she is seeking some space, some comfort.  But Elizabeth does more than that.  Her own baby leaps in the womb in joy, and she exclaims” Blessed be you who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord.”  Don’t we all need such affirmation? Sometimes I need a thousand assurances just to feel normal1   God works through angels but also through people.  We need each other on this journey.  Elizabeth’s certainty liberates Mary

.  She is swept by a rush of acceptance.  More than understanding, it was a rush of knowing.  Mary suddenly sees what might be possible, that this is real… and she bursts into song.   we sang this in our first hymn, and we read in the second reading…It is triumphal, heralding a God who blesses lowly nobodies and ne’er do wells and turns the tables on blue bloods and power brokers. Kings wait tables while servants feast.  The lyrics are a patchwork of Jewish scripture And the message is explosive! Not a sweet lullaby, but a powerful song of God’s redeeming work a song of justice l— the proud scattered, the powerful dethroned, the lowly lifted up, the hungry fed, the poor made rich.

Do you remember how a Gabriel greets Mary?  He says greetings favored one.  Those words enable the whole Christ event, because they mean, God loves you. Our God loves this world, and each of us in it.  God makes a colossal request.  And Mary is terrified.  Then she waits, she questions.  She resists.  And then she waits again.   She is not asked for her consent.  Nonetheless she gives it, although she has no earthly idea what this heavenly invasion will mean. She does it because she knows the love of God.  And she lives out of her love of God.  When she finally realizes the magnitude of what would happen through her, she sings of liberation and justice. She sings for the world.

It’s what she did for love.

What do you do for love?

Nothing is impossible with God. Yet, God needs our help, our hearts, our trust and obedience – the kind that Mary gave. And it will cost us too, just as it cost her. Dare we believe the impossible is possible? Dare we stake our lives on it?  Deciding to say Yes does not mean that you are unafraid, by the way.  It just means that you are not willing to let your fear keep you locked in your room.  So you say yes to the angel.

We are all meant to be mothers of God, wrote Meister Eckhart.  What good is it to me, he said, if this eternal birth of the divine son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself?  And what good it is to me if Mary is full of grace and if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to God’s son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture.  This then is the fullness of time:  when the son of God is begotten in us.

Greeting favored ones.  The Lord is with you.

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