December 21, 2014, Advent 4 – A Most Unexpected Greeting
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An angel named Gabriel arrived in the little backwater town of Nazareth one day, and entered the home of Mary, a young girl probably somewhat younger than Victoria and Anneke. Her parents had already arranged for her engagement to a local carpenter named Joseph, but when this all happened, Mary was still living at home with her parents awaiting the time of her marriage. But then one earth—shaking day, Gabriel arrived at their home and greeted Mary with these words: “Greetings, highly favored one! The Lord is with you!”
Luke’s gospel is the only one that tells the story of Mary and the angel. One thing we know about Luke is that when he wrote his gospel he did careful research to be sure that everything he wrote about the life and ministry of Jesus was accurate. He was writing probably about thirty years after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, so that there were still many people living who had seen and heard Jesus and his apostles. Luke starts out his gospel by saying that he is writing things down according to the testimony of those who were witnesses firsthand of the events of Jesus’s life and ministry. And so, in writing about the visit of the angel, it is most likely that Luke got his information from Mary herself. Remembering the day so many years before, before the scary and painful and glorious night of her eldest son’s birth, before the blessed and confusing decades of his childhood, before the anxious and exciting and exasperating years of his ministry, before the dark and terrible week of his death and the incomparably joyful day of his resurrection, Mary must certainly have remembered how the angel’s words had troubled her.
And Mary’s distress doesn’t seem strange at all. We don’t wonder that she would be troubled by the angel’s message that she was going to conceive a child. That makes total sense, because clearly the message that Gabriel was bringing to Mary was about to turn her whole life upside-down. Here she was, a young Jewish girl from a poor family, preparing for a life pretty much the same as her mother before her, and her mother’s mother before her – just your typical small-town existence as a wife and a mother and a home-maker. But the news the angel was there to tell her was going to throw a wrench in the whole thing. Mary would know that Joseph, her fiance, as well as the entire village, would certainly assume that she had gotten herself pregnant in the usual manner, so that her troubles would be fodder for all the local gossips, and she would be marked as damaged goods. And Matthew’s gospel tells us that that is exactly what Joseph thought, and that it was only out of the kindness of his heart that he was going to deal with the whole embarrassing mess as quietly as possible. So basically, the import of the angel’s message, as far as Mary could know, was that her life was about to get a whole lot messier and much more complicated and uncomfortable. It was no wonder that a young girl would be troubled by that kind of a message, no matter who it came from.
But the thing is, that’s not what threw Mary into such confusion. Mary was greatly troubled, but not by the news the angel brought her, not by the difficult road that lay ahead of her. She was troubled by his greeting. She was troubled by the very presence, in her poor, dingy little home, of a glorious being who came from heaven and who declared that she, Mary, was highly favored by the most high God. It troubled her greatly to be told that the Lord was with her. That is what threw Mary into utter confusion and perplexity. Because she knew who she was – nobody special, nobody particularly holy or wise or worthy. What could God himself possibly have to say to a peasant girl from Nazareth? How could it possibly be that she, just plain Mary, was highly favored by the one who spoke the sun and the moon and the stars into being? What manner of greeting was that?
When we think of our own faith, how strong or weak it is, I think we most often measure ourselves against those who do great things for God. When we think of Mary, we think of her, and rightly, as the one who humbly submitted herself to be the vessel through which our Lord was born into the world. We think of Christians in the Middle East, or courageous schoolchildren in our own country, who face death rather than deny their faith in Jesus Christ. We think of great men and women of history, like William Wilberforce, who worked for the abolition of the slave trade, or Mother Theresa, who ministered to lepers in Calcutta. And most of the time I think our own faith seems a pretty pale and feeble thing when we compare ourselves to all those people out there doing great things for God.
But what we don’t realize is that the first and most important step of faith is not to do and dare great things for God. The first step of faith, the most important step, and perhaps the hardest step for most of us, is to believe, really believe, that the Lord is with you, that you are highly favored by the Almighty God, that he delights in you, and that he wants absolutely the very best for you. That is the one needful thing that Jesus’s friend, the other Mary, understood, sitting in quiet joy at the feet of Christ, while her sister Martha bustled around the room trying to do everything she thought she needed to do for him.
It is generally easy to say that we believe that God loves us, we sing “Yes, Jesus loves me.” We say that we know we are his children, that he delights in us – we know and love the Scriptures that tell us things like “The Lord is my shepherd” – but what would we really think and feel, how would we really react, if the angel of God came to us, working in our kitchen or sitting in our living room, while we were watching TV or washing the dishes. Would we really believe the angel when he told us that we were highly favored by God himself? Because the truth is that we are his beloved, and not because of anything we do or say, but because it is his good will and pleasure to love us, unconditionally, unendingly, without measure. Any great or good thing you or any other person will ever do, is only a reflection of the knowledge that you are his, and you are loved.
The most wonderful thing about Mary is that when she had pondered the troubling greeting of the angel, she suddenly understood its meaning – first of all that it was true, no matter how unlikely it seemed – and really, it was the most unlikely thing that has ever happened – that the Almighty God had shown his favor to a simple peasant girl. But second and most wonderful, she understood that God Most High had come to show his love to all the least of his creatures, to the poorest, and the most lowly, to the weakest and neediest. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had come to his people, but he had not come to the wise and pious and learned as everyone had expected. Instead, he had come to the poor and simple and humble. And Mary sang her song of rejoicing, because her heart was full of the wonder of who our God is and what great joy that is to all of us who are his children, to all of us who know ourselves to be nothing particularly special or important – except for this one glorious truth, that the Lord has remembered his promise of mercy, and looked with favor on his lowly servants.
The tiny spark of a child that was conceived in Mary’s womb that day was the infinite Love that had come to make his home in the midst of his children. The prophet Isaiah had written, long, long before: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, which means ‘God with us”” When the Holy Spirit kindled life in the womb of the Jewish girl, when the Word that existed from the beginning of the worlds put on the fragile garments of flesh and blood and bone, the living, breathing Word spoke new life into this dark and tired world. And the word that was spoken was this, and it was spoken to you: Greetings, highly favored ones. The Lord is with you.
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