Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 24, 2023
Luke 1:26-38 Commentary
The last Sunday of Advent finally brings us to the Incarnate one himself. Well, sort of. Because this is also a calling story for Mary, the servant of God.
Mary is a compelling character in the Scripture narrative. Her calling is like that of the prophets before her: a messenger from the Lord comes to tell her that God has a task for her. Her willingness to say yes becomes the way that God brings salvation to flesh and blood. Mary becomes the first human to literally welcome Christ and invite him to make his home within her. Rightfully so, she has become a model to Christians of all time and place on what it means to bear God in obedience and devotion.
There is much in her encounter with the angel Gabriel to ponder as we put ourselves in her shoes. Let’s remind ourselves about what we know about Mary at this point. The text has really emphasised that she is a virgin. This is not just a point about sexual purity, it is also a social status statement: Mary is a woman without children and without a husband; she is not yet where society has prescribed her to be. Mary is young, and though she is engaged to Joseph, she holds no place of honour in anyone’s circle.
For no one, that is, except for God. God’s messenger tells her so: she is the favoured one! (Favour, charis, is also the word for grace.) Not only does she, as an ordinary woman living an unremarkable life, have the grace of God, Gabriel says that the Lord is with her! God’s grace is for the remarkable and unremarkable alike, God’s presence is with each and every one of God’s people. That’s good news, my friends.
Understandably, Mary wonders what is going on. Why has this angel appeared and interrupted her day? Why would God need her to know this, right here, right now? If I were Mary, I’d be afraid about what’s about to happen next too. Given the pattern of the prophets and leaders in the Hebrew Scriptures, when God sends word, there’s usually something coming—and that something is not always a pleasant experience or easy task.
Gabriel wastes no time, telling Mary to not be afraid (easy for him to say!) and repeating to her that God’s grace covers her. It is this twice-repeated comment about grace already being hers that I think will sustain Mary in the call she now receives to be the mother of God. We can add to what we know about Mary-the-unremarkable: she is remarkable because she can see that she is in God’s grace.
Then Gabriel lays out the plan. Her mission, if she chooses to accept it, is to bear a son and give him the name Saviour. God will do the rest: Jesus will be great, rule a greater kingdom than that of David, one that will not end.
There are any number of ways that we can read or hear Mary’s question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” It could be a literal question, a question of disbelief, or even a discreet follow-up question as to how God would like her to proceed—should she take matters into her own hands? But, it can also be a question of deliberation, a peek into Mary’s “pondering mind” (as the Scriptures describe her having in multiple settings) as she considers the cost of what is being asked of her.
Mary may be unremarkable right now, but what God is asking of her will make her remarkable in her community in the worst way possible. It will only be in the annals of history that her story will be redeemed. In the meantime, asking her to bear this child means risking the possibility of a secure life in the here and now. This interruption to the acceptable path laid out for her, becoming Joseph’s wife and the mother of his children, means putting herself, and it should be noted, this baby, in a precarious life situation. So perhaps Mary is asking not just a literal question as to how she is going to get pregnant, but how are they going to survive—especially if it means that they are on their own?
Gabriel’s answer is another word of grace. As the apostle Paul will describe the Holy Spirit’s power coming upon God’s people with spiritual gifts as a charism (a grace!), Gabriel says that the Holy Spirit will come upon Mary in order for this greatest gift of God to become reality. Then Gabriel adds a sign: Elizabeth’s pregnancy proves that God overcomes our impossible situations and brings about life.
If, and it’s a big if, we are willing to go with the interruption. As Lauren Winner comments on Mary’s story, “To live the life of faith we must let God interrupt us.” Like Mary’s spiritual ancestors who answered the call to go to a land they knew not of, Mary makes a similar choice here, knowing that the most important thing about her is not that she was meant to be someone’s wife, but that she is a servant of the Lord.
In point of fact, it is by embracing this major interruption to the accepted path that society has laid before her that Mary gets to embrace her truest calling—which includes, ironically, being a wife of Joseph and a mother to his children. In Mary’s case, it wasn’t an either/or, but a both/and. And that’s because God’s favour, God’s grace and provision, made it so.
As we think about what it means to be advent people who will say yes to God like Mary did, we’ll need to remember the order of these callings. We’ll need to consider carefully what is important to us. Are we set on security by towing the line or a set of experiences we’ve set our hearts upon? Do we recognize that the possibility of those very things might need to be risked for the sake of discovering how we are in the flow of God’s grace?
Some of us might feel like it’s too late—that we’ve committed ourselves in ways that cannot be abandoned. But good news! God’s grace continues to abound and invite us to choose the interruptions over the status quo of acceptability. What might it mean to say, “Here I am, in this place and situation, your servant, Lord. How can I live in your grace?” Who knows what wild adventure God might ask you to bear!
It may be worth spending some time with Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel, which immediately precedes our text today. Zechariah and Mary have parallel experiences that lay bare the difficulty in accepting a good word from the Lord, both in the moment and in the lifetime that follows.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is perhaps most well-known for the idea of taking a “leap of faith”—it’s even become an idiom! Basically, a leap of faith is choosing to believe or act on something that you wouldn’t be able to convince yourself of through the use of reason. As Mary looked at her situation, there was nothing she could reasonably cling to about how she would make this plan work. For it to be so, she had to trust, and as Kierkegaard describes, leap into the loving arms of God. I think that many of us can actually relate to this. We know that we have a calling from God for something, but aren’t sure how it’s going to all come together. We trust and take the next step of faithfulness, and with each step we discern the next step, remembering that we are surrounded and upheld by God’s favourable grace.
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