Luke 1:26-38 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[a] 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 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. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 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. 36 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. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 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.
How many of you here have played Mary in a Christmas Pageant? I did, although not at my own church. My Girl Scout troop did a Christmas program the year I was in 5th grade and since I was the only one with long, straight, dark hair, I was chosen to be Mary. My mother made me a beautiful blue robe and pinned a white cloth on my head like a veil, like all the pictures we had of Mary. I felt so special, to be chosen to play Jesus’ mother.
Mary is special, in so very many ways. She has been revered by Christians since the beginning, as we can tell just from the fact that Luke’s includes her story in his Gospel. She encounters an angel. Now many people in the Bible have had encounters with angels, but most of those angels aren’t named. Mary however, is approached by not just any nameless angel, but the Angel Gabriel, who had previously appeared to the prophet Daniel and the priest Zechariah. He greets her as “favored one” and goes on to tell her that because she has found favor in God’s eyes she will bear a child who will rule the Israel forever. This hasn’t happened before. Other women had been told they would bear a son, after having been childless - Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, and Elizabeth. And like Mary, they were told their sons would be special, chosen by God for great things - prophets, priests, leaders, the father of nations, even. But all of these were married women, struggling with infertility, and none were told their son would rule Israel. Mary would have known these stories - well, except for her cousin Elizabeth’s story, and Gabriel tells her that one. And she would have wondered how on earth this was supposed to work for her, since she wasn’t yet married. We all know the story - we tell it every Christmas. But over the millennia this story led the Church to revere Mary in ways that no other human is revered.
In 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the immaculate Conception, saying “the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin.” In 1950, after experiencing a vision in which Mary spoke to him while he walked in the Vatican gardens, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Assumption of Mary, saying that “the Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” No other human was born without sin. And according to scripture, only one other, the prophet Elijah, ascended bodily into heaven. And although these particular beliefs about Mary are not scriptural, many Christians believe them to be true.
Unfortunately, Mary has also been used by the Church to teach women to be mild and self-effacing, and to allow themselves to be guided in all things by men. She is presented as the example of the perfect woman, pure, meek and obedient in every way. And yet, that isn’t really the way the Bible portrays her. Nancy Rockwell, in an article titled, “No More Lying About Mary,” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/no-more-lying-about-mary/) points out a number of things that would contradict the image of Mary as meek and mild, or even as a traditional woman of her own time. Unlike most other women portrayed in Scripture, she isn’t engaged in any household chore at the time the angel appears - or at any other time she appears in Scripture. Frankly, we don’t know what she was doing when the angel appeared, but later she will usually be portrayed as traveling or visiting someone, even attending a wedding, but not in her own home. When Gabriel tells her that God has chosen her to bear this special child, she doesn’t agree right away. She wants to know how that will be possible, since she isn’t married. She knows what could happen to her if she is known to be pregnant and unmarried - she could be stoned to death. She knows that God is asking her to literally put her life on the line. It is reasonable, if a bit bold, that she should stand up to this terrifying creature and ask him, “How is that possible?” She doesn’t agree until Gabriel tells her about her elderly cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy and assures her that with God all things are possible. And then she replies, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
A meek and mild Mary wouldn’t have been God’s first choice, I don’t think. She was going to have to face great difficulties - traveling in the last days of her pregnancy, fleeing into exile in Egypt, raising a son who she knew would be special but having to keep that all to herself, his death, and all that happened in the years following his death. No, God was going to need a strong woman, a self-reliant woman, a faithful woman, to do all the things that lay ahead for Mary. Just giving birth for her was going to be more difficult than for her contemporaries, most of whom would at least be in the comfort of her own home. Not Mary. Nancy Rockwell said of Mary, “She gives birth in a barn, lies down with animals, and welcomes weathered shepherds in the middle of the night. She is determined, not domestic; free, not foolish; holy, not helpless; strong, not submissive.” (Nancy Rockwell December 3, 2017 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/no-more-lying-about-mary/)
How is that possible? Mary’s story is about faith. She is told that she has been chosen to walk a certain path, she accepts that path and proceeds to walk, no matter how frightening or potentially dangerous that path might be. Many of us here have been at a point in our lives when we know what it is we are supposed to do, but we have no idea how that’s going to happen. During Bible Study Wednesday night we shared stories of things that had been obstacles, things which might have kept us from doing what we believed God wanted us to do, how we had faith that God would bring us through - and how God did bring us through. If God really wants us to do whatever, then it’s going to happen no matter what obstacles got in the way. There is a prayer form known as, “Name it and claim it,” in which you proclaim that the thing you need has already happened, and it’s just a matter of walking forward into a future in which that thing exists. I’m not entirely comfortable with that in every situation that comes up, but there are times when “name it and claim it” is appropriate. If I believe that God wants me to do something in particular - like, be a minister, or a teacher, or a music therapist - then I must also believe that God will give me what I need to surmount any obstacle in my way.
“If God brings me to it, God will see me through it.” When everything seems to be going sideways, when troubles and trials seem to be outnumbering the blessings, this helps. No matter what is going on in my life, God will be there with me to help me walk through it. For Mary, this thought probably became a way of life. In the very near future, she was going to have to deal with a confrontation with Joseph, and probably her parents, and then the whispers of her neighbors. Who is going to believe her if she tries to tell them that the child came from God? Only Elizabeth. Joseph would require angelic intervention. There would be times, I suspect, when Mary wondered, “Why me? Why couldn’t He have picked someone else?” Like, maybe when Jesus decided to stay behind in Jerusalem the year he was 12. But you know, I don’t think that happened too often. Because if 10 year old me felt so much awe and wonder at being allowed to play the part of Mary one Christmas, with a plastic doll taking the part of baby Jesus, I can’t even imagine what the real Mary must have felt when she held the the Christ Child in her arms. I think that no matter what came her way throughout her life, that awe and wonder must have been constant, because she knew that the child, the boy, the man, who came from her body, was truly the Son of God.
Tonight, a Child will be born to us, again. Tonight, new life, new meaning, will come into the world, again. Tonight, we will be reminded again that nothing is impossible with God, for the Child is coming. Therefore, let us be like Mary, and go forward from this place knowing that All things are possible with God. Let us lift up our voices, our souls and our hearts, to give Glory to our God.