And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,
To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.
And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.
For with God nothing shall be impossible.
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
— Luke 1:26-38
In his book Peculiar Treasures, the American theologian Frederick Buechner reflects upon this familiar passage of scripture. He writes:
“She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. And as he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.” *
The whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl. Imagine all the angels gathered around, looking down, holding their collective breath. “What will she say? Will she do it? C’mon, Mary, say yes!” Because they all know the way God works is only by allowing people freely to answer “yes.”
Freedom of choice, the exercise of free will, has always been God’s way with people. God never forces a “yes” from anyone, never tricks anyone into a response of love. We human beings have—always—the right of refusal. We are allowed to say, “no.”
That’s the way God has been from the beginning. God respects our freedom—has, since those days way back in the garden. If it weren’t so, God would not have to come up with new ways to reach out to people, to ask them again and again to say yes—to freely say yes. And now an angel stands before a girl, answering her questions, his knees knocking together, trying to keep the quiver out of his voice, as he and all the angelic host—and even God—wait. Will she do it? Will she say, “Yes”?
We know the answer Mary gave: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” With this answer, all the heavens rejoice! With this answer, a plan is set in motion—a plan that will cause new light to shine in the darkness.
During Advent, we hear about how to prepare for the coming of the Lord, how to become more and more the disciples—the followers of Christ—we are called to be. We hear about Advent’s gifts to us: a time for self-examination, a time for repentance, for turning away from things that keep us from drawing close to God.
Today, the Advent gift we hear about is the gift of commitment. We are called to turn toward God and make the commitment to offer ourselves as his servants; to say—along with Mary—our own yes: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” These are words that change everything.
Mary was not the first to say these words. She stands in a long line of witnesses who have been brave, or adventurous, or grateful, or obedient enough to say to God’s request, “Here am I!”
Noah said, “Here am I,” and God told him to build a floating zoo and wait for the rain to fall. God told him that he would spend the next 40 days feeling seasick and wondering why this was his reward for righteousness.
Abram said, “Here am I,” and God told him to pack up his wife, and his belongings, and go—sight unseen—to a land that God would show him.
The boy Samuel said, “Here am I,” and then began a long career of speaking truth to the powers that be—King Saul in particular—and being the bearer of the unpleasant news that Saul had done wrong in God’s sight. Samuel had no way of knowing if he would still have his head—let alone his job—in the morning. And Mary, this young girl—probably just old enough to bear a child—ponders and asks and wonders … and then says the words that change everything: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”
And she would give birth to the One who would make service—even service unto death—the way of discipleship. She would give birth to the One in whose service is perfect freedom. The name of Mary’s baby was Jesus. In Hebrew, his name is Yeshua, which means, “Yahweh liberates.” God liberates. God brings freedom.
When we are willing to serve God and do what God asks of us, we find true freedom. When we can stop asking, “What’s in it for me? How does this help me? What can I get out of it? What have you done for me lately?” then we will know true freedom.
When we present ourselves as God’s servants and are open to hearing what it is that God asks of us, we will take our places in a long line of faithful people who have done just that. We will be made available for the adventures God has in store for us, for the work God needs us to do, and the work God has designed us—uniquely—to do.
That’s the beauty of it. Even though you may never have thought about what God is asking of you, it doesn’t mean that God hasn’t been preparing you to do it. Or that God doesn’t need you—and you in particular—to do it.
Mary has already taken care of giving birth to the Divine Word Incarnate, so God won’t ask you to take that on. But don’t think the angels aren’t all holding their breath to hear your answer when God approaches you with a task. And don’t think—just because you can’t hear it—that all the heavenly hosts are not singing, “Alleluia!” when you freely say, “yes.”
So listen, my friends. Listen for God’s call—not just in Advent, but all the time. And when the time comes for you to respond, you won’t need to find new words. These words will do: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” Amen.
* Buechner, Frederick. Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. New York: HarperCollins, 1979, p. 113.