[I preached this sermon on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, 2017. Hat tip to The Rev. Joseph Farnes for his insights into the response of the Virgin Mary to God’s invitation.]
On Christmas Day in 1986, I experienced a life-changing revelation. That morning, my brother and sister gave me the brand-new, recently released, five record album boxed set of live music by Bruce Springsteen. I had already been a fan based on one record from 1984, but this collection of songs interwoven with stories performed and recorded over the previous ten years transformed me into a true Springsteen devotee. But interestingly, for all of the roaring guitar and pounding drums in his work, Bruce starts this whole collection off with a quiet and powerful song. A song about a young woman named Mary, who is dancing across her front porch as a lonesome song plays on the radio.
And then, from what seems like nowhere, a man appears, calling out to this young woman, much like the angel comes to Mary in Nazareth. The story of what transpired between Gabriel and Mary has been imagined in a variety of ways over the years. So much so that there are even multiple locations in Nazareth which claim to be the site of this announcement. Was Mary at home, helping with the chores? Or maybe she was at the well, drawing water for her family? When Gabriel appeared, I wonder if this young lady, who was isolated in her little backwater town and looking at her soon-to-be-married life stretching out in front of her, I wonder if she was singing a song and perhaps doing a little dance to cheer herself up in the midst of her loneliness.
So imagine how startling it would be to have someone pull up to the curb while you are lost in a dance you are doing on the front porch. Now think about how completely shocking it would be to look and see that the driver was God’s messenger, the angel Gabriel. Mary is perplexed the gospel tells us. She is perplexed by his greeting, but Mary is not dumbfounded. She’s not at a loss for words so much as she’s deeply troubled because she knows just what Gabriel is here for and it seems like Mary might run back inside the house. She is scared. Who wouldn’t be scared?
You see, six months before this, the same angel Gabriel had come to Mary’s cousins, Elizabeth and Zachariah. He told Zachariah that Elizabeth’s long held dream of having a baby was about to come true. Now Zachariah’s no hero, that’s understood, and all the response he can offer to Gabriel is to say that it’s not possible. Elizabeth can’t get pregnant. She ain’t that young anymore. Which is the exact opposite of Mary’s argument, Mary who said that it was not possible for her to be pregnant because she had not done what is necessary to get pregnant. God’s too soon for Mary and too late for Elizabeth. Just how many ways, in scripture and in our own lives, do you think people have come up with to argue that we are unsuited to do what God is calling us to do? We’re too old or too young. We’re too fat or too slim. We’re too straight or too gay. We’re too poor or too rich.
“Well show a little faith,” says brother Springsteen while Gabriel testifies to the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary is being asked to take a huge risk, to take a step towards the unknown, to go out for a ride with God. She, probably along with her father, has already committed to marrying a certain, expected person and to living in a certain, expected place. Now it seems like all her promises to Joseph and to her family will be broken. She is being asked to trade potentially lonesome but knowable future for an unbelievable and improbable life with God. How likely was it, do you think, that she would respond in the way she did?
It’s possible that, in her life, Mary has said no to a lot of things. Maybe she had previous suitors that did not work out, all sort of boys she turned away. In the idealism of her youth, Mary may have said no to all the ways she was asked to compromise instead of holding fast to the values her community espoused but didn’t always embody. How often do we ask young people to make similar compromises? It is in those compromises that we say no to God. When we fail to show compassion, or even simple courtesy, to the person who walks beside us, we say no to God. When we fail to reach out to those who are sick or mourning, we say no to God. When we fail to do what is fair for our neighbor, we say no to God. Yet despite all of our myriad no’s, it is Mary’s singular yes that God hears. It is Mary’s yes that shows us how the love that is established forever can become embodied in our lives.
And since before the time of King David, God has repeatedly declared the desire to take up residence in our lives. When David offers to build a house for God as grand as the king’s palace, God replies in effect, “When have I ever asked you for a house?” Instead, what God wants is to live in us, to make us God’s home. In the light of God’s desire, all the no’s we have said can seem dark and unworthy. All the hurts we have endured at the hands of other people can lead us to believe we are inadequate to answer God’s invitation. We hide beneath our covers and study our pain, thinking that new life is simply not possible. Yet even in those darkened places, God comes to life in us because, as Gabriel says, “nothing will be impossible with God.”
So tonight, this night, the heavens are busting open for Christ to enter our world. We’ve got one more chance to make a life with God real. And with this chance to make it good somehow, what else can we do now except say “Here am I. Yes.”