Scripture Reading: Luke 1:26-38
On this, the fourth Sunday of our waiting for the appearance of Christ, we finally get to the parts of the story that we associate with Jesus’ birth. After trudging through Gospel lessons on the last judgment, Jesus’ thievery of our sins, and trusting God in silence, we find ourselves at the beginning of Luke’s gospel with the familiar stories of angels, Mary, promises, praise, and soon the baby Jesus himself.
We’ve been waiting a long time for this, but the celebration of Jesus’ birth is coming. Over these next three days various subsets of us will gather to celebrate this good news for the world, that Jesus comes and makes a home among us.
But before we can celebrate, we have to spend some time dwelling on the one whose obedience set this whole celebration in motion. She waited a lot longer than we have. For nine months, Mary carried the Messiah in her womb before that day when he was finally evicted from his temporary dwelling and was born as a child in a manger.
Mary is a fascinating character in this great drama, and it’s a shame we don’t get much time to reflect on her contributions to God’s work. We talk about Abraham, Moses, Peter, and Paul all the time. We think about their faith and the ways that they paved the way for our faith.
If we talk about Mary at all, it’s on this fourth Sunday of Advent when we’re trying to hurry the story along and get to the birth of Jesus!
If we hear about Mary at all in our Christmas celebrations, it’s in the song “Mary Did You Know?” as the singer asks all sorts of rhetorical questions.
What did Mary know about this fetus she was carrying and his significance for her and the world?
It turns out, Mary knew quite a lot!
Because of the angel Gabriel, Mary knew that the son she would bear would be a great ruler of a neverending kingdom, that he would be called Son of the Most High, and that he would bear the throne of David. Mary knew that she had done nothing to earn this honor—she was the self-identified lowliest of God’s servants. Yet, she was the recipient of God’s blessing and mercy.
As she expressed in the “Magnificat,” Mary knew God’s choosing of her to give birth to the savior of the world was a continuation of God’s work to bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly and to feed the hungry and send the rich away.
This is what God does! God lifts up the young, poor, and powerless and brings down the powerful from their thrones.
Mary surely knew that this blessing wouldn’t come without great cost. How was she supposed to explain her pregnancy to her fiancé, her parents, and her faith community? Would any of them believe her? She knew that childbearing was difficult and even dangerous in a time before modern healthcare. She probably knew that raising this child would come with the normal parenting challenges.
She couldn’t have forseen, at least at the beginning, the kind of “king” that her son would be. How did she expect it to go? Might Mary have thought that Jesus would lead a revolution and topple the power of Rome? Mary couldn’t have expected that her son Jesus would be crowned with thorns and lifted up on an instrument of execution. Yet, she would be there at the end just as she was at the beginning.
Mary couldn’t even begin to imagine how all of this would work together for the good of God’s people. Yet, she knew that because of this child, nothing would ever be the same again.
Mary knew that the Lord was with her. She knew that God acted according to God’s promises. So she said, “here I am, the servant of my Lord. Let it be with me according to your Word.” She knew that God could do the impossible and she wanted to see God do it!
So Mary did the one thing she could do, the thing God was calling her to do—she took a risk and made space for God. She made room for God so that God would come and make a home among us.
Mary did what all mothers do. She made space in her body and in her heart for a needy, screamy baby that would be wholly dependent on her.
Mary did what all of us, as children of God, are asked to do. She made room in her body, her heart, and her life for God. Because she was faithful, she was blessed.
Before the call of the twelve disciples, before any teaching of Jesus, Mary teaches us what it means to be a disciple.
What makes Mary a powerful example for us is a surprising spiritual virtue: indifference.
Now, I’m not talking about an apathetic kind of indifference. Mary was the opposite. She was full of interest and enthusiasm in what God was doing through her. Her “spirit rejoices in God [her] savior!” She was invested and concerned with what was going on in her life and in the world around her and she was excited for God to make things right.
Mary posessed a spiritual indifference. When the angel came to her and said what God would do, Mary said, “Here I am. Let it be.” She didn’t concern herself with the details. She didn’t try to bargain with God to make sure she would receive blessing for her willingness to accept. Instead, she left everything up to God, indifferent to how God would work it all out for the good.
Mary said three words, turning her entire future over to God: “let it be!”
Mary didn’t know exactly what was going on and how things would turn out. She knew that her life would not end up like she expected, with the quaint wedding in the white dress. She didn’t expect God to do anything for her, showing her with blessings. Her prayer was simple: “God, do whatever you’re going to do. I trust you. I leave my future up to you.”
The first Christmas, all those years ago, was the result of 9 months of difficult, laborous waiting by a woman who didn’t care what kind of gifts she would be given. She just wanted to give the gift of God to the world.
This Christmas, we have all sorts of desires and needs expressed in prayer. Some of them we’ve expressed in this fellowship: healing of our family or friends, job opportunities for us or those we love, peace in our country and world, and a whole slew of other things. We bring them to God in prayer, as we have the priviledge of doing as those who were made in God’s image.
Along with those prayers come all sorts of opinions we have about how God might best answer those prayers. This is true of our prayers for healing and our prayers for world peace. We have a preferred outcome in mind. And no one blames us for that. We want healing in this life. We want our own safety and security above all. And so does everyone else.
Mary teaches us a different way to pray.
The angel says, “God is going to do something. With God nothing is impossible.” Mary doesn’t say, “well, if nothing is impossible, then take this cup from me.” She doesn’t use that opportunity to ask God for any blessing. She doesn’t even express an opinion about how God should do what God is doing (like, “why can’t you wait until Joseph and I are married so we can pretend the baby is his?”).
Mary is indifferent to everything except God’s will. She is a vessel of God. She says, simply, “let it be.”
This spiritual indifference isn’t just something that we should admire in Mary. God intends for us to respond in the same manner that she did.
As Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “What was achieved in the body of Mary will happen in the soul of everyone who receives the Word.”
God intends for us to say “let it be,” that we might also bear the Christ child in us and give Christ to the world.
We all want that to happen, of course. We want to see God move among us with power. But we want it to happen our way. We want our will to be done, on earth as we believe it should be.
I know myself and all of you enough to know, we’re not an indifferent bunch! I’ve heard the musings in the adult Sunday School and at Council meetings. You’ve no doubt heard some of my opinions about things. We know that everything could be fixed if someone would just listen to us! As soon as a topic of interest appears in the news, we have a passionate opinion.
Passionate opinions and wish lists for God, however well intentioned, do not belong to the season of Advent. They probably don’t belong to the spiritual life as Jesus’ disciples at all.
We waste a lot of time and energy with our strong opinions and confidence in our own capacity to know what is right. How freeing would it be for us to leave it up to God?
What if we really left the outcome of our prayers up to God out of concern only for the ways of God? What if we left our carefully formed opinions and our ideas about what God should do in this church, in this community, in our families, in this nation, and in our world at the altar. What if our prayer in all things was simply, “let it be according to your will.”
Indifference is hard. Just ask Mary. Do you think she wanted to watch her son tortured and killed? Yet, Mary left Jesus’ life up to God as every parent, in the end, has to do. She prayed, “not my will, but yours be done” and went along loving God, her son, her family, and her world as best she could. The prayer of indifference didn’t leave Mary off the hook for doing God’s work. It enabled it. Because she said “let it be,” she was faithful in raising the child God had promised.
Even as I proclaim these words, I’m aware that I don’t have the faith of Mary. If Mary was the lowliest of God’s servants, then I don’t even count as one. I may have been able to abandon some of my opinions, but I know what I want God to do. I know what I expect God will do a lot of the time, and it’s no where near as revolutionary as what Mary knew God could do.
As one who is on this journey with all of you, as one who has none of the answers, I ask: Do you have the faith to give your whole self over to God? Do we as a church have the faith to make space in our lives for God to do what ever God wills? Do we have the faith to pray, “let it be?”
When we pray the prayer Mary prayed, “Here I am, the servant of my Lord. Let it be with me according to your Word,” we find out that nothing is impossible for God. We find ourselves, like Mary, giving birth to God’s new thing in the midst of this good and broken world.
Let us pray for God’s will to be done, and let us wait with enduring hope that it will be done according to God’s word. Amen.