For this Christmas Day 2020 I offer this meditation/sermon from Luke 1:26-38:
Those of us who are parents, grandparents, uncles, or aunts all know what it is like to watch our children when they are in the spotlight. Maybe it’s your son’s piano recital or perhaps it is your niece singing a solo with a children’s choir here at church. Maybe it’s your son at the basketball freethrow line with one-second left on the clock and the score tied. Whatever the situation, we all know the nervous knot that suddenly ties up our stomachs; the butterflies that get let loose to flutter around in our innards as we collectively hold our breath. We hope like mad that the child will play the right notes, sing the right lyrics, sink that freethrow.
When children are small and are just learning how to eat from a spoon, parents involuntarily open their mouths as the baby opens his or her mouth. It’s quite comical to see. But over my years as a pastor, I always sat up front and so could see the congregation when children were up front doing things. And many times I saw a mom on the edge of her pew, mouthing the words right along with her child! You can’t help it!
I suspect that seen the right way, something similar happens in Luke 1. The whole cosmos, all the hosts of heaven from the archangel Gabriel on down, are holding their collective breath and sitting on the edges of their seats. All eyes and ears are trained on one little girl, perhaps no more than thirteen years of age. She’s about to get the shock of a lifetime, but what will she say in response? What will her answer be? Will she get it right? As Frederick Buechner once put it, Mary was probably too dazzled to notice, but maybe just beneath his wings and bright garments, maybe even Gabriel was trembling a little in nervous anticipation at how this encounter was going to go.
In the end, as we all know, it went just fine, and the hosts of heaven must surely have heaved a collective sigh of relief! The long-awaited plan of salvaging this fallen creation was now really moving forward! After ages of waiting, a mother had been chosen to become the bearer of the very Son of God himself. Within a year that little baby would be born in Bethlehem, and the salvation of the galaxies would be off and running (or at least off and crawling initially!).
That’s the story. But like an old photograph that has been in the sunlight too long on your grandmother’s living room wall, so this story from Luke 1 has faded and yellowed over time. We’re maybe too familiar with it to sense the kind of nervous anticipation of which I just spoke. We’re probably also unable to detect the multiple ironies of the scene and how those ironies set the tone for the life and ministry of Mary’s boy Jesus. So let’s take another look not only at this story but at some of its wider resonances throughout the Bible
It begins in verse 26 when the mighty archangel Gabriel gets dispatched to Nazareth and to the modest little hovel where Mary lived with her parents. Gabriel is not exactly the kind of visitor you would expect in such a place. Nazareth was a very small village in the backwaters of the Roman Empire. Gabriel’s showing up there looked as out of place as if the presidential motorcade would roar up to a dilapidated trailer nestled in a field just off a gravel road in some poverty-stricken hollow of the Appalachian Mountains.
You just don’t associate gleaming black limousines with rusty mobile homes out in the middle of nowhere. And so also neither Mary nor really anyone else anticipates Gabriel getting sent to a podunk town to locate one young girl. Earlier in Luke 1 an angel appeared to John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, while he was burning incense in the Temple’s Holy of Holies. That’s where you might expect to find an angel! But in Mary’s bedroom way out in the sticks of Nazareth? Never.
But so it was, and no one was more taken aback by it than Mary herself. She’s afraid, as is every other person in the Bible who ever encountered an angel. That’s why every angel knows by heart what he needs to say first off. It’s almost like a police officer reading a suspect his Miranda rights. When a cop cuffs a thief, the first thing the officer must say is, “You have the right to remain silent,” and so forth. Similarly with angels: as soon as they appear in front of someone, the first thing they must say is, “Do not be afraid!” Real angels are not at all like Hollywood versions such as the charming bumbler Clarence, the angel in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Real angels scare folks silly.
So it was for the virgin Mary. Twice in verse 27 the fact of her being a virgin is mentioned. It’s obviously an important detail. It also explains Mary’s immediate incredulity when told she would soon have a baby. Mary may have been young and may have lived centuries before anyone knew much about the biology of reproduction, but she knew how babies were made and so she also knew that she was not a candidate for it.
Then again, she also knew she was not a likely candidate for the exalted, royal form of address that Gabriel gives to her. Go back to the motorcade analogy: suppose that not only did the president’s entourage show up in a hollow of Tennessee but suppose further that when the poor woman answered the door, the president bowed down as though she were the world’s most powerful person! That is pretty much what Gabriel does. He turns the tables on Mary by addressing her as though she were the powerful and exalted one, not Gabriel.
Through it all, Mary says very little. She says only “How can this be?” and “I am the Lord’s servant, let it be.” How can this be? Let it be. Both of those lines could serve as slogans for the rest of Mary’s life. Mary would, alas, have lots more opportunities to look at her life, observe her son, and then ask, “How can this be?” She would also have many more times when she’d have to give herself up to God as his humble servant and say, “Let it be.” Because the course of life the angel sketched for Mary was not to be an easy one.
But that’s always true in the Bible, isn’t it? Luke 1 is just one example among a bevy of biblical stories wherein ordinary, unsuspecting folks suddenly find the pathways of their lives intersecting with the pathway of Almighty God. Noah is just minding his own business feeding the pigs and milking the cows when suddenly, from out of a clear blue sky, he hears, “Noah! It’s going to rain.” Abram was just a childless senior citizen living in a place called Ur, enjoying the riches he’d managed to save up in his seventy-five years of life. Suddenly a finger points to him from out of a cloud to inform him, “You’re the one! You are the father of a mighty nation that will one day save the cosmos!” And so forth and so on in dozens of biblical stories.
And in every case, with the advantage of hindsight, we tend to regard such chosen folks as the lucky ones, the people of God’s own favor who become saints–they are the key players in what we now believe is nothing short of God’s grand plan of redemption. At first blush, being chosen like that looks like something grand, like winning the lottery or having the Publisher’s Clearinghouse prize patrol roar up to your front porch with tidings of great joy. It looks like the boss calling you into his office to announce you just got a big promotion.
Perhaps in the long run being chosen by God is just that wonderful and joyous. But, to riff again on Frederick Buechner, suppose had you been able to stop any of those people at most any point in their subsequent lives to ask them what it felt like to be a chosen saint. Had you been able to ask such a question, you might have been startled at the answers these folks would have given.
Ask Noah how it felt to be the survivor even as he listened to the increasingly faint and diminishing cries of the drowning people outside the ark. Ask Abraham how he was enjoying being the father of the faith even as he prepared to plunge the dagger into his beloved Isaac’s chest. Ask Mary how it felt to be the highly favored one of God when her son turned her away one afternoon, claiming that his disciples were his real family now. Or catch up with Mary at the foot of the cross and ask her how it felt to be so highly favored as to get to watch your firstborn baby boy ebb away from the only life she’d ever known him to have.
In Hebrews 11 we read a now-famous litany of biblical heroes. They all did wonderful things for God, the author to the Hebrews writes. But in the end he sums up their saintly lives this way in Hebrews 11:13: “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them from a distance . . . and they admitted they were strangers on the earth.” Once God taps you the way he tapped Abraham or Mary or all the rest, suddenly you realize that you are a “stranger on the earth,” an alien who no longer fits very well on this broken planet. It’s a world that is so needy of the very God you now serve and yet at the same time a world that is so ignorant of that God, too. Most of the folks around you just can’t see what you see and don’t believe what you believe, and you feel isolated, out of sync.
You find your whole life staked to a passel of promises but for your whole life they mostly remain just that: promises. We keep journeying toward what Shakespeare once called “the undiscovered country,” by which he meant the future. Along the way we do, blessedly enough, see evidences of God’s presence, love, grace, and care. But at the end of the day, when our lives draw to their close whenever that may be, what we still cling to in hope are the promises of God–promises we hope will become a reality for us beyond the grave because for this life, there’s still no escaping that grave.
But we resist such a scenario. We want the roads of the saints to have been smoother, their vision clearer, their sense of ultimate fulfillment keener. We want biblical characters to be happier because we sure want to be happy in our own lives!! Maybe if things go better for them, they will some day go better for us. But no, in the Bible it doesn’t work that way. It’s not easy to be a saint. You don’t suddenly become a superhero of faith. You just go on. Even Mary did that.
In fact, do you know that in the Bible, Mary just kind of fades away. We see her at the cross, of course, but after that her final appearance is a very modest one. Acts 1:14 mentions Mary in passing, mentioning that one day she was praying along with the disciples. But that’s it. Following Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, it seems even Mary had to proceed on the same faith we must embrace. Even she had to deal with the physical absence of her son and hope that he really is now the exalted Lord of Life. Mary lived in hope. We live in hope. But not everyone does.
You know, celebrating Christmas has become such a widespread event in our world that during December it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that just about everybody accepts Jesus in some way. Even people who never go to church hum along in the mall when “Joy to the World” blares across the mall’s Muzak. But it’s not true. The world does not share our Advent hope. One popular Christmas song I hear often at the mall is the one that begins “Do you see what I see?” But when we pose that question to the world the answer is, “No, we do not see what you see.”
Because we see hope. We see grace. We see Jesus. And it turns us into strangers on this earth. We are journeying toward an undiscovered country whose truth and reality we believe on faith but in which we most assuredly do not fully dwell yet. Even we glimpse the things promised from a distance. But we are Advent people. As for Mary so for us, that hope-filled knowledge does not make life easier. It might even make life harder. It for sure makes us ask harder questions as to why things go the way they do sometimes.
When Mary first heard Gabriel’s news, her logical question was “How can this be?” When pondering our belief in Jesus as Lord, all of us sooner or later ask such a question. We stand before an open grave, slit like a wound in the skin of the earth. We prepare to lower a loved one’s casket into that grave, but first we recite the Apostles’ Creed, ending with our belief in “the resurrection of the body,” including of this body soon to be buried. And surely as we glance from the grave to the creed and back again, sometimes we ask, “How can this be?”
The life of faith is not easy while we live as strangers on the earth. And some of you here this morning know that, don’t you? It’s maybe not a terribly Merry Christmas for you this year at all. 2020 has been beyond rough. It has, in fact, been unbelievably cruel as years go. You’ve spent the last year unemployed and it’s pretty tough to buy even modest gifts this year. Or someone dear to you who was at the Christmas dinner table last December won’t be there this year because COVID-19 snatched them from you. Or they died for some other reason but you were not even able to travel to attend any kind of funeral or memorial. In your heart you know the promises of God but when you look back at your life right now, well, all you can say is, “How can this be?”
It’s an honest thing to ask but, thanks be to God, it’s not the last word. Because of God’s Spirit we, like Mary, can one day say also, “Let it be.” While the hosts of heaven held their collective breath to hear what this girl would say, Mary finally said it: “Let it be.” And it wasn’t the last time she said it, either.
As just noted, the last mention of Mary in Scripture shows her in prayer–in prayer to the very son she carried and delivered and nursed and even scolded now and again. In the Bible the last we hear of Mary is that she lived out a life of simple faith, believing and hoping that that boy of hers was who Gabriel promised he would be. And surely Mary ended every one of her prayers the same way: “Let it be.”
We also trust the One who made those promises and so we journey on. And we believe that this faithful woman, last seen in prayer, received the things promised in God’s far country. Our prayer is that by God’s grace, we and all entrusted to our care will receive from God the strength to cling just as tenaciously to the promises despite how difficult it is to be strangers on the earth. Often we must ask, “How can this be?” But through prayer and by faith, God turns our “How can this be?” into “Let it be. Let it be to us as You have said.” Let it be. Let it be.
That is our Advent hope now and always. Amen.