Advent 4B: Strangers on the Earth
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 at church. Maybe it’s your son at the basketball freethrow line with one-second left on the clock and the score tied or perhaps it’s moments similar to what we saw this morning as the children presented the annual Sunday school program.
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 free throw, or speak slowly enough to be understood.
When children are small and are just learning how to eat from a spoon, parents involuntarily open their mouths even as the baby opens his or her mouth. It’s quite comical to see. But since I get to sit up here and look out over the congregation, I can tell you that something similar happens when some of your sons and daughters perform here in church. Many times I’ve seen 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 twelve or 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 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 holiday 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 only twelve or thirteen 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.
What follows is more outlandishness as Gabriel lays out God’s whole plan of salvation in so swift a fashion, it is all but certain Mary did not comprehend all of it. But although she asks one question as to the biological mechanics of it all, in the end she remarkably accepts it. Mary even gets the last word. Then Gabriel leaves, and Mary must surely have had to wonder if the whole thing had not been some hallucination.
She speaks very little here. 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. 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 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 Jacob how it felt to be the favored one of God as he fled into the hills from Esau’s wrath, bidding adieu to his dear mother for the last time. 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. And we think this way probably in the hope that maybe our journeys will be smoother and more fulfilling, too. Perhaps that is why in the Catholic tradition Mary has been glitzed up by all those ad hoc doctrines about Mary herself having been conceived without sin, about Mary’s being taken bodily to heaven where she now serves as a co-redeemer along with her Son. Maybe part of what fuels such ideas is that we just cannot accept Mary’s quiet exit from the biblical stage. Because in the Bible, Mary pretty much just 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. At the cross, we see that heartbreaking image of the Mater Dolorosa, the Mother of Sorrows. For all the qualms I had with Mel Gibson’s movie earlier this year, his presentation of Mary’s pain was just right.
The last recorded words that Jesus spoke to his mother came from the cross. Seeing his despairing mother weeping below, Jesus rasped out those choppy phrases to the disciple John and to his mother: “Woman, son. Son, mother.” It was about all Jesus could manage to say through his searing agony. He commended his mother to the care of a disciple. It was a loving act but fitting, too. Really, Jesus put his entire church, all of his people, into the care of the disciples. Eventually he’d equip them with the power of the Holy Spirit to do this task but in the end it was clear that if anyone was going to know about Jesus’ care and love and grace, that message would have to come through the care and love and grace of Jesus’ followers.
The same task falls to us yet today. We are Jesus’ witnesses. We are the ones who have been entrusted with the gospel and with showing the world Jesus’ love. But like Abraham and Moses and Mary and any number of others you could name, so also with us: having been given this assignment, we know that we may not be in for an easy road. We are 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.
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. But because of God’s Spirit we, like Mary, can also say, “Let it be.” The last mention of Mary in Scripture, as we just noted, 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.
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 we and all entrusted to our care will 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, we find that our “How can this be?” turns into “Let it be. Let it be to us as You have said.” That is our Advent hope now and always. Amen.
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