by Thomas R. McKibbens (1)
Scripture: Luke 1: 26-38
The familiar story says that when the angel Gabriel visited Mary with the news, she was much perplexed by his words…. That has to be one of the great understatements of the entire Bible! Her perplexity is no surprise, for nothing could have been more unexpected, more perplexing, more shocking, than the appearance of Gabriel and his dramatic announcement. If we have trouble understanding much of the story of Christmas, this much we can easily understand. As the text readily admits, she was much perplexed!
This element of surprise is consistent throughout all the stories of the birth of Jesus. All the familiar characters in the biblical accounts are surprised and puzzled. It is a story full of surprises.
Who would expect, for example, that such a world-changing event would transpire in such a marginal location? The angel Gabriel, we are told, was sent by God, not to Jerusalem, the center of religious life; and not to Rome, the center of political life; and not to Athens, the center of cultural life…but to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to announce the birth of a king. This king would inspire a new religion, challenge the politics of that day and this, and revolutionize the culture of the world. All of that was about to happen, and it would be announced by Gabriel in a place of religious, political, and cultural obscurity.
What a chancy thing to do! God was going out to the margins of respectable society to inaugurate this world-changing event. Galilee was hardly a respectable place in the eyes of the Jewish elite. Thus from the beginning Christianity had two strikes against it. To speak of a Savior from Galilee was almost a contradiction in terms. Galilee was known as a hotbed of political sedition, a land of uneducated yokels who had little respect for the Torah. The Gospel of John even quotes a well-known proverb: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? (2) At the end of the gospel story, when Jesus was arrested and Peter is outside the high priest's house in the courtyard, it is his distinctive country accent that betrays him as a Galilean.(3)
If you are swayed by the cult of celebrity; if you think that the only way to influence the world for good is to have your picture on the front of People Magazine; if you think that God only uses people with Ivy League degrees and titles before their name; it is worth remembering where God sent the angel Gabriel to make the momentous announcement to a young woman in an obscure place on the margins of society.
Consider, too, how surprising it is that God chose such a vulnerable way to change the world. At any point the plan could have collapsed. Mary and Joseph could have laughed in Gabriel's face. Joseph could have been a jerk. The unsanitary stable could have led to early illness and death. Herod's goon squad could have found the baby before they escaped to Egypt. All along the way there were plenty of times when the whole story could have come unraveled.
There are some, of course, who like to think of Mary and Joseph as puppets in the hands of God with no more freedom of will than a robot. But is that really the way we think God works? It is not the way most of us have experienced the divine nudging in our lives. God seems to have a penchant for free will.
Frederick Buechner, in his book Peculiar Treasures, imagined this scene when the angel Gabriel visited Mary. Buechner imagines what the angel Gabriel could have been thinking when he told Mary not to be afraid: '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." (4)
Imagine that the angelic host hovered invisibly over that scene with Gabriel talking to Mary. The angels are holding their collective breath: "What will she say? Will she do it? C'mon, Mary, say yes!" God seems to change the world by asking ordinary people to 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." Of course, Mary wasn't the first to say these words. Abram said them when God told him and his family to pack their things and head off to a land that God would show him.(5) Hannah said the same thing when she brought her child Samuel to the temple to dedicate him to God,(6) and the child Samuel said the same thing when he heard God calling him at night.(7) Ruth said yes to God when she spoke to her mother-in-law Naomi and said, Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge.(8) The young man Isaiah said the same thing when he heard the call of God saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go…? And Isaiah said, Here am I; send me.(9)
And now Mary, this young wisp of a girl, barely old enough to have a baby, senses the call of God in her life, and even though she has no idea what this call will mean for her future, she says 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord.' She never asked, "What's in it for me?" She never asked if she would be safe through childbirth. She never asked if she would be stoned for being pregnant out of the marriage bond. She never asked, "Will my parents disown me?" She just stood up to the voice of that angel and said, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to your word.'
Sojourner Truth, that fearless former slave who electrified audiences throughout the country in the 19th century, attended a women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio in 1863. One of the women attending the convention recorded how Sojourner Truth answered a heckler who shouted out that women could not have as many rights as men because Christ wasn't a woman. Raising herself to her full height of nearly six feet, she said, "Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wan't a woman! Whar did your Christ come from? …From God and a woman! Man had nothin' to do wid Him."(10)
Sojourner Truth joined that long line of ordinary people who, like the young girl named Mary, opened themselves to God and said "Yes!" That line stretches all the way to Worcester, MA, for here in this place are ordinary people who have been called by God to do extraordinary things. No, you will not give birth to Jesus, but don't think the angelic chorus is not holding its breath to hear your answer when God nudges you with an urge to do something good and helpful and courageous. And don't think, just because you can't hear it, that the heavenly host is not singing "Alleluia" when you stand up and say, "Yes!" Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to your word.
God calls churches in the same way. God asks particular things of particular communities. The angel Gabriel is always at work, bringing the summons of God to communities of faith, and asking churches to be bearers of Christ to the world. The Greek Orthodox tradition calls Mary, theotokos, which means God-bearer. Is that not our calling, to be the bearer of the divine in our particular corner of the world?
There is an underlying question running all through Luke's familiar stories of the birth of Jesus. That question is this: "Where will the divine find room in our world?" Where is there room for Christ? At the beginning of his gospel there is no room in the inn. At the end of his gospel there is no room for him in the world. No one shouts out a word of support for Jesus when he stands before the crowds and Pilate asks, 'What then shall I do with Jesus?' No one makes room for him. 'Crucify him' is the only word we hear.
They all assumed that there really was no room for Christ in this world. They even laid his corpse in a borrowed tomb, reminiscent of the way Mary had laid the little baby in a borrowed manger. Once again, at the end of the story, it is women who take center stage of the drama. As an angel appears at the birth stories, so angels appear once again at the resurrection, this time speaking to another Mary…Mary Magdelene. And the good word at the end is that there really is room, for not even death can exclude the divine invasion of the world that began with the birth of Jesus.
If you find that your life is messy, busy, and over-scheduled, there is one surprise that beats any Christmas surprise we have ever received. That surprise comes from the lips of the angel Gabriel in Luke's story. Those shining angelic eyes look deeply into the heart of Mary, and look deeply into our hearts, and the angel says, "For nothing will be impossible with God."(11) Notice, that promise is in the future tense. Nothing WILL BE impossible with God. And that future tense stretches all the way from Galilee to the corner of Park and Salisbury in Worcester, MA.
Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid. For nothing will be impossible with God.
1 Thomas R. McKibbens, December 12, 2010.
2 John 1: 46.
3 Luke 22: 54-62.
4 Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 39.
5 Genesis 12: 1-4.
6 I Samuel 1: 12-28.
7 I Samuel 3: 1-10.
8 Ruth 1: 16.
9 Isaiah 6: 1-8.
10 Jacqueline Bernard, Journey Toward Freedom, the Story of Sojourner Truth (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1967), pp. 166-67.
11 Luke 1: 37.
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