December 21, 2014 Series: Lectionary
Topic: Biblical Verse: Luke 1:26–1:38
Fourth Sunday of Advent
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
As we head into the close of another year, you might be starting to feel a little overwhelmed (or maybe you’re just whelmed). A lot of expectations could be riding on your performance at work, at school, and at home as the clock ticks down. But if you start to think about all those expectations, you might begin to wonder if you’re really qualified to get everything done in the way you’re supposed to. Doubt starts to creep in, and maybe fear along with it. When added on to the pressure of the deadlines and goalposts and high bars which have been set and on which it might seem like everything will depend, it’s easy to see how you can feel more troubled than tranquil. Are you qualified? Can you handle it? And have you heard? Christmas is coming, too!
Christmas is coming! That’s not exactly what the angel Gabriel proclaimed to young Mary when he came to deliver the news that she would be the mother of the Messiah; yet that was the outcome of his message. Gabriel comes to Mary completely unexpected with a greeting that literally means, “Rejoice!” It’s a special kind of rejoicing, too, one that’s often connected in the Old Testament to the deliverance of God’s people Israel. Blindsided by this greeting from Lord’s messenger, she hears the decree that she is blessed by God and that He is with her. Talk about being overwhelmed! No wonder, then, that Luke makes note of Mary’s troubled reaction to all this news. She’s a human being like you and me. Why wouldn’t she be troubled?
Over the years, people have poured a lot of time and attention into exploring who Mary was and why she was chosen for her unique role in God’s plan. Traditions built up over time that elevated Mary to a superhuman status, and some Christians hold that Mary herself continues to play a role in connecting people with God. But when it comes down to it, the Bible doesn’t say much about Mary at all. Here in his Gospel account, Luke only mentions that she was a virgin in Nazareth, engaged to be married to a man named Joseph from the line of King David. Mary wasn’t free from sin, the same problem that separates us from God, the same problem that God was sending His Son into the world to conquer; Mary was in need of a Savior like every other human being who came before her.
Was Mary qualified to be the mother of the Messiah? Gabriel doesn’t say, “Congratulations! God has completed an exhaustive search process and found that you are worthy of being the Madonna.” An alternate translation of the angel’s words could be “God has blessed you,” or “God has been gracious to you.” It’s not that Mary was better than other people, or that she was good enough to win God’s favor. God didn’t send Gabriel to this young woman because of her qualifications or her merit. God’s choice is all about His grace.
God’s choice of Mary is entirely based on His goodness. He gives the good that we do not deserve. That’s exactly what happened as the angel pronounces the Lord’s blessing upon this virgin in Nazareth. It’s a reflection of how God has worked to bring about His plan to rescue His creation ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin. Or as one of my seminary professors put it, we see “the allness of God and the nothingness of man” in delivering humanity’s salvation. And it might come as something of a surprise, but the Lord does for you and me just as he did for Mary.
God chooses you entirely in His grace. He doesn’t do it because of who you are: it’s not about how good you’ve been or your qualifications for the role. God chooses you and me because He doesn’t want anyone to be lost and alone and separated from the relationship with their Creator that each of us is meant to have. God’s grace is for people who are overwhelmed (or even just whelmed), for people who are doubting and fearful, for people who are imperfect. God loves you so much that He doesn’t expect you to be perfect to get to Him. He comes to you.
God came to His people Israel to save them, to make a house with them. Ultimately, He did this through Mary, making a flesh-and-blood house for Himself by becoming a human being like you and me. When did that happen? You heard it in today’s reading! When Mary asks how it’s possible that she, being a virgin, could have a baby – even the Son of God – God’s Word spoken through His angel makes the impossible possible. The same Holy Spirit who hovered over the chaos at the beginning of time now overshadows Mary and conceives the Savior within her womb. By God’s power, Mary becomes the mother of God.
Gabriel’s answer to Mary’s question contained an explanation, a promise, a sign, and a message of reassurance. He told her what would happen a she would be pregnant and give birth to a son, pointing ahead to who this child was and would be, the Son of God. Indeed, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who hadn’t been able to have children, was now pregnant! Nothing is impossible for God, not even a virgin having a baby boy.
God comes to His people still. The Holy Spirit build a house out of you and me, bringing us together and making Christ’s Church. And consider this: it happens in the same way that God the Son became incarnate of the virgin Mary (as we confess together in the words of the Nicene Creed). God’s Word conveys faith in us, bringing new life as He declares “God has blessed you,” and “God has been gracious to you.” God had given you His Son, His holy one, to be your Savior – the allness of God for the nothingness of man.
You could doubt. It’s perfectly reasonable to wonder as to how this is possible. After all, you and I aren’t qualified to be chosen by God. We’re not worthy. We can’t even hope to do anything that merits God’s favor. But His answer to our “How is this possible?” looks a lot like Gabriel’s response to Mary. There’s an explanation: the Son of God has become human to live the life you could not live and suffer the punishment that you deserve for your sin. There’s a promise: because of Jesus, the Son of God, God’s peace is with you. There are signs: the virgin giving birth, the empty tomb of Easter morning, Jesus’ bodily ascending into heaven. And there’s reassurance: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” For nothing will be impossible with God.
Mary’s closing response to Gabriel’s message looks entirely different from her initial reaction. No longer troubled, she accepts the promise given in humility and faith, saying, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In the classic King James Version of this verse, it reads “the handmaid of the Lord." The ancient Greek word Luke uses signifies a person who is bound to their master, carrying out the instruction they’ve been given. In faith, Mary, the virgin, would humbly carry the unique role of being the mother of God while her fiancé Joseph would be regarded as her child’s father. And she would rejoice in God’s grace.
As we head into the close of another year, hear what the story of the Lord’s handmaid Mary has to say to you. You, too, are the servant of the Lord brought together to be a part of His mission to restore the life and relationship with God that our world had lost. He has chosen you to hear and live out the message of His grace and favor, not because of your qualifications or how well you’ve met expectations and done everything right, but because He loves you despite of all that. As the servant of the Lord, God will do amazing things in and through you to care for His creation, showing the people around you His grace, too. Rejoice, for nothing will be impossible with God!
Flowing from the season of Advent into the season of Christmas, may we all rejoice with humble Mary and give thanks to the God whose grace does not depend upon your qualifications. In the words of St. Paul’s doxology from the closing of his letter to Christians in Rome: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ!” (Romans 16:25-27 ESV)