There’s a way we turn Mary into a stock character for the plot rather than the key to understanding who Jesus is supposed to be for us.
How Mary helps us better see what God is doing
Advent 4B | Luke 1:26-38
read, listen, or read while you listen!
This morning I remind you that it isn’t yet Christmas! The sun has barely risen, so we have a whole day before we get to do Christmas.
You’ve been listening to Christmas music for weeks. As you’ve gone about your preparing; you’ve met clerks in Santa hats and everyone is wishing you a merry Christmas.
And I know the church is greened. The cloved oranges are casting their scent. The tree is decorated in the Great Hall.
And today is December 24th! Everything screams Christmas! But give yourself a few more hours for Advent 4. It is especially worth it this year.
Because that feeling of anticipation: of skipping over Advent 4 into Christmas is a lot like what we always do to Mary. We skip over her witness as a girl, hardly even a young woman, to her motherhood. And we skip over her courage to her sainthood.
Only the Lowly
I think most of us get that the Mary we read about in the first chapter of Luke isn’t a 30 year-old woman with a career, or college student preparing for exams. She might not even be old enough for high school.
In her society, she can’t earn a living, go to school, own property, or make legal decisions for herself.
She’s engaged to Joseph, an older man who may literally be twice her age. And for Joseph to marry Mary, he would have to make a deal with her dad.
That they will soon be traveling together, unmarried, pregnant is really scandalous and dangerous for the both of them.
And before leaving Joseph’s part, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the most essential pieces of the story.
Joseph is a descendant of David, which makes him royalty. But he’s poor, and doesn’t live near his ancestral home of Bethlehem. So this means either he’s an outcast or his part of the family line are the black sheep.
So this is the lowliness into which the Son of God will be born. A royal family, in danger and on the margins, and cast aside by their people.
So this angel comes to Mary, which has to be quite a surprise enough, but he says
“Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”
Now, if we’re being honest, an angel showing up in our house would pretty well freak us out. So I’m not sure we’d hear what he says to us. But if he said those words would be believe them?
He calls her “favored one”. He doesn’t say
“Yeah, God thinks you’re alright.”
“God thinks you’re pretty cool, but I’m not so sure.”
“God’s looking for some really talented people, so I’m here to see what you’ve got.”
And he’s definitely NOT saying
“God wants to see if you’re as cool as she thinks you might be.”
In fact, Gabriel doesn’t even say “you are favored by God.” He names her Favored One.
She is already favored. It isn’t just that God has chosen her. I don’t think that speaks it loud enough. This isn’t about God scouring the world looking for the right person. It’s already her.
She’s favored. She is Favored One. A girl marrying into the poor, black sheep line of the royal family. And she is the one who will be responsible for bringing the light into a world shrouded in darkness.
Just a Girl
Mary has the completely rational response of being confused. She doesn’t see herself that way. Even if she is able to get over the craziness of the scene, the craziness of the claim would confound her.
She sees herself as lowly. How could she be Favored One?
The angel doesn’t dwell in her low self-esteem, but in God’s favor. Gabriel tells Mary not to worry.
Then he gives her a troublesome proposal. She will have a baby boy; she is to name him Jesus; and he will be the New David, called Son of the Most High.
Her response, in confusion, is also skeptical. How could she give birth to such a one? Here our translation says “virgin” but we know the word is actually more descriptive of her age and station. She’s a girl, a young maiden, not yet worldly.
Her response probably has less to do with her biology and physiology than her self assessment. She isn’t saying “how is that technically possible?”
She’s saying something closer to “But I’m just a girl.”
And to that, the angel’s response is assuring. His way of saying “You have nothing to fear. You have all the support you need.”
Here Am I
There’s something funny in saying this out loud but I only just realized that this line doesn’t have any weight anymore. For me in my life. “But I’m just a boy.” I haven’t been a boy for a long time.
And I really have only just discovered that I’m “the Man” I used to rage against. I never saw that for real. I knew this intellectually and emotionally, but that crutch of weakness was always there to protect me.
I’m just a young priest, I’m still learning how to do this.
I’m just a young father, I’m still learning how to do this.
And all versions of:
I’m just a young ______, I’m still learning how to do this.
Just insert the word: Christian, parent, spouse, child, student, doctor, employee…
All these self-limiting words—the buffer to the emotionally difficult act of doing the right thing.
But Gabriel and Mary aren’t really talking about age here. Or preparedness. She is favored. And Gabriel promises that God shows up. But that isn’t all. She has family who are going through a similar thing.
Elizabeth is older and wiser—and let’s be honest, just as scared.
Gabriel offers her support which is more than spiritual. It’s a promise that she won’t be alone.
And she says “Here am I.” Words which ring with the echo of the prophets and the divine revelation to Moses. It is the one among many refrain when one is called by God to serve: Here am I.
After this, Mary races to Elizabeth to attend her at her birth. And she will sing a song of glory to God, full of the material of God’s favor.
“My soul magnifies the Lord”
Her being makes God more visible.
And this can only be because of who God is. The one who brings low the powerful and raises up the powerless:
“he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;”
Because this is what God does:
“He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.”
Mary, Favored One is our telescope, our projector, our screen magnifier which brings God’s truth closer to us. Hers is the character witness for a God staging a love revolution in the world.
She knows that she is favored because this is what God does. It isn’t about reward for the powerful or their ascent, but lifting up the lowly and making use of those who think they are useless.
Unafraid of the Dark
For a few more hours, let us prepare our hearts for this challenge. That this is how God comes to us, keeps coming to us. Through the weak, not the strong; the poor, not the rich; the young, not the wise
And that the promise we’ve received in Jesus and from Jesus is that light comes in darkness.
So we get ready for the light by recognizing the dark.
Like driving out into the country at night, to the highest land we can find without trees or the din of human habitation, and seeking the right spot. We shut off the car, its headlights, get out, and walk a ways into the field and look up.
And the stars couldn’t be brighter. Stare long enough, and we just might find we can follow them home.