Fourth Sunday in Advent
TEXT: Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:26-28)
So begins Luke’s account of what we call the “Annunciation”—of Gabriel’s visit to Mary and the heavenly message he brings to her.
Actually, Luke’s version of this event is the only one we have. While Matthew’s Gospel tells the story from Joseph’s point of view, Luke’s interest in the birth-story is focused upon Mary—and this really quite intimate account of her experiences may well have come from Mary herself.
Can you imagine what it would have been like to be Mary? Most commentators say that Mary was probably about 13 or 14 years old (which was the usual marrying age at the time), and that both Mary and Joseph were of modest economic status. So here was this poor, very young girl who was visited by an angel and told that she would bear a special child, and that she was to name him “Jesus.”
Why was Mary chosen? This is one of the mysteries of the text. We are not told of any special qualities about her that made her a candidate for this awesome responsibility. We only know—as verse 30 tells us—that she “found favour with God.”
Well, we do know one other thing. We know that she said “yes.” The story of Mary’s concurrence is at one and the same time courageous and serene and beautiful: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (v. 38).
This brief Scripture passage reveals a great deal about the personality of this simple peasant girl from Nazareth—and also provides some hints about the “why” of God’s choice. It’s been suggested that Mary’s key quality is obedience—demonstrated by her willingness to do what God is asking of her. But I think that’s only part of the story.
From Luke’s description of her, we see that she has some other very important qualities—and two in particular. The first one is faith—or, we could say, trust.
There are those who maintain that the idea of “virgin birth” could only have been entertained by an ancient, pre-scientific mind. However, Mary’s response to Gabriel’s announcement shows us that—even in ancient times—people weren’t that gullible: “How can this be,” she asks, “since I am a virgin?”
Even to Mary, the idea doesn’t make any sense! Yet, she accepts Gabriel’s pronouncement: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
And so she is reconciled even to what she cannot comprehend: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
But, you know, by saying “yes” to God, Mary is taking some pretty huge chances. For one thing, every pregnancy carries some risks. For another, she is at this point still an unmarried woman. What will people think? What will her fiancé think? She has to consider these things—yet, still, she makes her faithful response: “Let it be with me according to your word.”
And her acceptance of this mission goes far beyond a simple “bowing to the will of God.” For Mary, this is not about resignation. This is not about following difficult orders, or doing her duty. No. As we see from her subsequent actions, Mary’s heart is filled with joy! Her faith gives birth to joy. And yes, that is a double entendre.
Our gospel lesson for Advent 4 concludes with verse 38. But, if we read on, we discover that the next thing Mary does is rush to the home of Elizabeth, her aunt. Why? Because good news—happy news—demands telling! And who better to tell than Elizabeth, whose own miraculous pregnancy is now in its sixth month?
Mary’s joy finds expression in a song of praise which begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”(Luke 1:46-47).
That, by the way, is the passage that’s known as “Mary’s Song of Praise.” It’s also called the “Magnificat,” because that’s how it begins in Latin: Magnificat anima mea Dominum.
“My soul magnifies the Lord!”
“Mary’s Song of Praise” is a melody of triumphant jubilation! And this is her second important quality: Mary has an immense capacity for joy.
Faith and joy. Because Mary had them, God was able—through her—to become part of the human family. And this was not because Mary was perfect, or even because she could understand—but because she had faith in the power of God, and trusted in the goodness of God. That’s why she was able to feel more joy than anything else—more joy than fear, or anxiety, or a sense of burden.
You know, we don’t have to make Mary out to be some kind of minor goddess. Or even an exalted human being. I think we can believe she was just like us: a tangle of complexities and ambiguity; sometimes faithful, sometimes fearing—but always very human, even if faith and joy were her overarching characteristics.
And that is exactly the point. God acts through ordinary human beings like you and me. Ordinary, yes. But also possessing extraordinary trust in God. Enough trust to undertake daunting missions beyond our perceived capabilities.
Yeah. Daunting missions. Just like Mary, we are called to bear Christ into the world. That’s mind-boggling, isn’t it?
Through Mary, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Or, as someone has said, “God became visible and believable.”
So, I guess the question for us is: are we making God visible and believable? How good a job are we doing of bearing Christ into the world? Have faith and joy been our overarching characteristics, this Advent season?
Like Mary, we are ordinary human beings—and no one expects perfection of us. Certainly, God does not expect us to put on a facade of faith and joy—no one can feel that way all the time.
But we might ask ourselves: when others look at us, what do they see? When they listen to us, what do they hear? Would they guess that we have a faith that breeds joy—that makes a difference in our lives? Do we bear Christ into the world effectively? Can others see something of Jesus in us? Can they catch even a fleeting glimpse?
Make no mistake about it: even though the world has changed greatly since Jesus’ time—and even though our culture continues to grow ever more secular and skeptical—most people still have a positive impression of Jesus—and they imagine his followers are supposed to be like him.
Make no mistake about this, either: whatever people say they believe or doubt, most of them, deep down, long for something like a Messiah or a Saviour—for someone who can redeem their lives, and give meaning and hope to human existence. And if people today are increasingly turning away from the Christian church … well, I think it’s at least partly because they see too little of Christ Jesus in us!
Again, I don’t think anyone expects us to be perfect—but if Jesus is real to us, people should certainly expect to see something of him when they look at us.
Well … do they?
Do they see us living lives of peace and joy? Or do they see us quarreling with one another?
Do they hear words of comfort and encouragement from our lips—or …
Do they hear us bitterly complaining about how much work we have to do? Or how much money we have to spend? Or how much time is being demanded of us?
As others observe us, do they witness the living out of forgiveness in our words and deeds? Or—God forbid—do they see that we are no better than the worst of them when it comes to holding grudges, and backbiting, and seeking revenge?
Each one of us who claims the title of “Christian” is called to bear Christ into the world—to make God visible and believable.
Are we willing to accept the mission? Can we hear the voice of the angel saying to us, “You have found favour with God?”
All I can say is: I hope so!
I hope that each and every one of your lives is marked by some measure of the faith and trust and joy that Mary had.
May it be so for each of us. May Christ be born in all of our hearts this Christmas. Amen.