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, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.Luke 1:26-38
My sermon from the 4th Sunday of Advent (December 24, 2023) on Luke 1:26-38.
So there was a meme floating around the internet not too long ago based on a scene from the movie Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker had just returned to the planet of Dagobah to ask Yoda, a Jedi Master hiding from the Empire, a few questions. The last time they were together, Yoda was training Luke to become like him. But when Darth Vadar captured his friends in the cloud city of Bespin, Luke left Yoda to try and rescue them. After a brutal fight in the bowels of the city, Vader told Luke something he didn’t want to believe. So Luke headed back to Dagobah to discover what Yoda knew. While they talked, Yoda did his best to not answer the question. Yet after a little bit, he admitted that – spoiler alert – Darth Vader really was Luke’s biological father. Once that truth was shared, Yoda died and the meme used a picture from the film right before that happened. But instead of focusing on what Luke learned, the meme was a joke connecting it to an experience all parents and guardians can relate to. It said: “Once I became a parent I finally understood the scene where Yoda gets so tired of answering Luke’s questions he just dies.” Luke, in his own way, is the quintessential sci-fi version of the kid who always asks why. Now that kind of curiosity is a good thing but we don’t always have the energy to try and explain in 30 seconds why the sky is blue, why some dogs are brown, if ghosts are real, and what life would be like if we had no bones. Asking questions or being able to even answer them isn’t always easy to do. Yet while reading this morning passage from the gospel according to Luke, I couldn’t help but notice how Mary was brave enough to question God and Gabriel was smart enough to answer the real question at the heart of her words.
Now when we find ourselves listening to a story that is either new to us or one we’ve heard a million times before, I think it’s important to use our imagination to wonder what it might have been like. We can paint a picture in our heads using all the details the Bible gives while noticing the assumptions we use to fill in any gaps. It’s an exercise that holds us accountable for all the stuff we bring to our Bible while inviting it to surprise us in compelling ways. So let’s do that with our story about what happened when the angel Gabriel visited Mary. Imagine, for a moment, a divine being radiating with the overwhelming majesty and power of God – showing up in your home. We’d hope that such an experience would be peaceful but I think it would be pretty scary. Mary had every reason to be freaked out by this stranger showing up since she was anything but powerful. She was a young teenage girl, maybe only 13 or 14 years old at the time, who came from a poor family. In the eyes of those around her, she was nothing; and yet the God who created the universe came to see her.
It’s a bit hard to imagine the fullness of what that moment must have been like. But I personally can’t help but be in awe of Mary’s courage and bravery. She could have cowered in fear of the overwhelming presence of the divine or acted as if God couldn’t do what God wanted to do. Mary, though, chose to do something else. She asked a question – wondering how her story and God’s story would meet. It was, in a sense, a question of “how” since she knew how babies were made and the story of her life so far. But she was also well aware of the social costs that come with being a young unmarried woman with a child on the way. Mary had no desire to be prop in whatever God was up to since a pregnancy would change or possibly destroy the relationships she had with Joseph, her family, and everyone around her. Since Mary would be the one carrying this baby into the world, she wanted to know if her life would be as scary as she feared it could be.
Now if Gabriel had only answered the biological “how,” he probably would have found themselves in a situation like Yoda – being asked all kinds of questions over and over again. And yet when Mary had the guts to question this messenger from God, Gabriel actually listened. He heard her wanting to know how she was going to live in a world that doesn’t often accept women who do unexpected things. And so he answered by telling her about another woman who was living through the same thing. Mary’s cousin and friend Elizabeth, was entering the final trimester of her own pregnancy that no one thought was possible. She was living the kind of life Mary would live. And that was exactly what Mary needed to hear. It wasn’t the grand pronouncements stating how God was with her and she was favored and her child would be the Son of the Most High that fully addressed the anxiety she felt. But when she heard that a friend was already living her story, Mary consented to what God was about to do in the world.
In the words of Professor Raj Nadella, “For people at the margins facing difficult situations, what matters most is someone who will share in their experience, stand with them, and walk with them.” “In the end…it was the prospect of a shared experience that mattered to Mary more than any of those grand promises from Gabriel.” What Mary needed to know was that she wouldn’t go through this life alone. God wasn’t just going to be with her; God also gave her a person who she could talk to and who would believe every one of her stories. When others laughed at her, derided her, questioned her, and acted as if Mary could never be who God declared her to be – Elizabeth would be there to show her what God’s love actually looks like. God didn’t want Mary to be a prop in the Christmas story; she was, instead, going to live through it first hand. God would do what God has always done and bring grace, hope, mercy, and peace into the lives people lived. Mary, through the words of an angel, discovered that God would not let her live her life without people who would embrace her, love her, and be with her through every part of her story. And that same kind of promise, while maybe not delivered to you through the mouth of an angel, is given to you every time we worship, pray, sing, and gather in many different ways around Jesus’ table. When you were brought into the body of Christ, it wasn’t because God thought you’d never ask questions or that you would be a decent prop in God’s master plan. God, instead, included you in God’s story because God loves you and wants you to experience that love first hand. It isn’t always easy to notice that kind of love while living through everything that life brings. But that’s why God surrounds us with people, a community, and a church who are meant to show us what “God-with-us” actually means. There are days when we will be like Mary, asking questions and wondering why. And yet there will be even more when we get to be an Elizabeth to everyone God brings our way. On this fourth Sunday of Advent which also happens to be Christmas Eve, we gather together on this day not only to proclaim that Jesus – God-with-us – has been born but also to remind us how we, through God’s grace, can be with others in the exact same way.