“Tis the season” isn’t it? The season to bring as much unexpected joy as you can the hearts of the people you know and love. Especially the children of course.
But it can be hard to wait, can’t it? Patient, faithful waiting infuses many stories in scripture. Like Israel’s long wait for God to bring a messiah and restore the kingdom and throne of David. Like Elizabeth and Mary’s inexplicable pregnancies.
Mary resonates with all sorts of people, and since long memory especially with mothers and young women. As the angel Gabriel arrives on the scene to announce God’s plan for the unmarried young woman to bear a child “out of season” so to speak, Mary seems very vulnerable indeed. Very alone.
So to find comfort and encouragement in Mary’s example is a good thing. But for record, it doesn’t appear that Mary perceived her circumstances as quite so dire. In fact, in her response to Gabriel and to God she emerges as a surprisingly strong player in the nativity story.
The angel Gabriel tells the young woman, “Do not be fearing…” The grammar of this verse tells us that this has nothing to do with being afraid in that moment. Rather it is the verbal signal used repeatedly in scripture from Genesis onward whenever big news is coming and it’s important that the person be prepared, because it’s good news. Evidence of this is borne out in the second half of the verse: “…for you found grace with God”.
It sounds as if Gabriel delivered the rest of the message in one breath. Like well-rehearsed lines from a script that has a long history, which everyone knows by heart. “You will conceive...bear a son…name him Jesus…[who] will be great, called Son of the Highest…and God will give to him the throne of his father David.” It sounds like the whole thing is a done deal. It sounds a lot like what the prophet Isaiah of blessed memory said.
But Mary had a question. How? The question of questioning God’s messenger is a delicate matter. Look at what happened to Zechariah, husband of Elizabeth, just six months before Mary’s visitation. While at the Temple serving his assigned term as priest, the angel Gabriel visited him in a vision. God was answering his prayer about Elizabeth becoming pregnant.
Zechariah trembled like a leaf when he saw the angel. Gabriel told Zechariah also, “Do not be fearing…” Next came the news of an unexpected pregnancy. Elizabeth would bear a son who would be great in God’s sight, filled with the Holy Spirit, turn many of Israel to their God, be filled with Elijah’s spirit and power and prepare people for the coming of The Lord God.
Instead of saying, Wow! That’s wonderful! Zechariah said, “How will I know…I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” He was a priest of God and he still he wanted proof. Gabriel was not amused. For disbelieving, Zechariah lost the power of speech then and there and had to wait patiently to regain the power of speech at John’s birth nine months later.
Zechariah finished his term of Temple service though he was speechless. Ordinarily that would have been unlikely. But these were God’s circumstances. And so Elizabeth became pregnant at an advanced age. Mary went to stay with Elizabeth, and in those three months apart from Joseph her pregnancy began. Together they waited patiently.
Mary got her question right though. Her query, “How can this be…” wasn’t a demand for proof like Zechariah’s. She was asking about the means by which this would all happen. How would all this come to pass without compromising her honor and dignity?
Mary was not powerful in any usual sense, but she was a young woman with astonishing composure in a strange moment. We celebrate her inner strength and deep faith! Her question implied her willingness to receive God’s word. Gabriel explained that the Holy Spirt and Most High would come over and fill Mary with the very Life of God.
Gabriel’s message carried the reminder that God is all about impossible things. God overcomes the barrenness that confronts humankind when we cannot see beyond our present circumstances. Mary was to look to her kinswoman Elizabeth to see God working out a new possible.
Mary’s yes to God was unambiguous. Her response to God suggests that she realized from the beginning that God was partnering with her to accomplish God’s purposes. She volunteered herself as God’s servant. “Here am I.” Bring on God’s word to be with me, she said.
And so Gabriel’s initial salutation to Mary, “…the Lord is with you” became actual as God spoke a new Word of life and vision of hope into the world through Mary. And Mary claimed her own unique place in a grand succession of faithful people praising God and living in solidarity with God’s Word.
Mary’s embrace of God’s Word addresses a mystery as Paul said to the Roman Christians. Israel had long been subjugated to other nations, and without a king. How did God keep the promise disclosed in Second Samuel to make a house of David and to establish an eternal kingdom and throne? The answer to this mystery was the birth of a holy child – Jesus. In whom was joined the blood line of David to the seed of God’s Word.
The joyful song Mary sang is what we call the Magnificat. Her stirring and prophetic witness was read in place of the psalm today. Zechariah sang a similar song when his voice was restored. Both songs claim that God made good on those promises to David so long ago.
This gospel raises some questions for us though. What is your response to the Incarnation of God’s word? What song do you sing in celebration of the everlasting reign of Christ? What promises have you made that respond to God’s will and serve the reign of God?
If you are a follower of Jesus, well, then, you too have a message to share for God’s sake. You are called to bring unexpected joy to the hearts of people you don’t know and don’t love. Jesus said God’s voice is heard in the stranger, the outcast, the prisoner, the widow, and the world’s vulnerable children whose only family is God’s family. Which includes you, yes? You too can sing the nativity’s word of hope into this old world. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.