4th Sun of Advent
St Barbara’s 21.12.14
Well the waiting is almost over, but not quite yet. A few more days to go before the preparation and seriousness of Advent bursts out into the joyful and exuberant celebration of Christmas.
And for these final few days of waiting it is appropriate that the person whom we should wait with is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Whilst Abraham and Sarah, the prophets, even John the Baptist, were waiting for a leader, a king, a saviour, Mary waits for a child, a child she has been carrying these last nine months. There can be few types of waiting more intimate than that. If the other three had alerted us to the big picture, the glory, the majesty, of the coming King, Mary alerts us to his intimacy, his closeness, his vulnerability.
But let’s re-trace our steps to the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. One of the remarkable things about Mary is, in one sense, just how unremarkable she is. No one would have known her beyond the little town of Nazareth, and even inside the town people may not have known her by name. The fact that she is betrothed to be married makes her no older than a young teenager, possibly even as young as 12, which was the normal age for girls to get engaged. She would have had little or no education. From a young age her life would have consisted of sweeping the dusty yard, carrying the water from the well, feeding the chickens and other animals, caring for younger siblings, tending the fire, stirring the pots, wringing out and washing the clothes. The idea that someone like this would be even noticed, let alone chosen for anything remotely important in the life of the village, would have been unthinkable. So to think God would send an angel to speak to her seems almost unimaginable.
That God should choose to call us too may at times feel equally unimaginable. We may feel too young or too old, we may feel too physically or mentally impaired. We may feel too ignorant or too unspiritual. But none of these things seem to matter. God calls us.
Mary gives hope to the millions of girls in our world who are growing up in a world of limited horizons, where the only imaginable good future is to get married and have children. Mary offers hope that worth in God’s eyes is not tied up with education or aspiration, but goes deeper.
God sees beyond the surface level to the heart, and he calls each one of us.
If that seems overwhelmingly positive 100% good news, well Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel may prompt us to think again. Even before Gabriel gets to the content of his message from God, Mary is “greatly troubled”. She is far more than “perplexed” (the translation in the New Revised Standard Version). In response to Gabriel’s greeting she is ”deeply disturbed”, “greatly agitated”. Mary appears taken aback, disturbed, unnerved, anxious, troubled, by Gabriel’s appearance.
This is hardly surprising one would think. Its not everyday that one encounters an angel. But there is possibly more than just the surprise and shock of encountering a celestial being. Gabriel’s words, “The Lord is here”, so familiar to us in the words we say every week at communion, were words to shake Mary to the core. Mary must have felt overwhelmed by a sense of awe, shock, inadequacy. “What possibly could God want with me, a young poor peasant girl? I’m in big trouble now.”
Even if Gabriel’s words of greeting had sunk in, and she heard that she was “highly favoured”, is that how she would have felt? Mary was astute enough to know that God’s favour was not a universal good. That his presence meant that her life was going to change for ever, was going to be turned upside down. No wonder such a prospect leaves her agitated, disturbed, even before Gabriel tells her what God is calling her to do.
Imagine, if in five months time, the results of the general election has led to stalemate, with no party able to form a coalition or government. And then you get a knock on the door, and its the queen. “You are highly privileged. We have chosen you to come and run the country and get us out of this mess. We’ll give you support, but you’re the person we’ve chosen.” A little honoured? Perhaps. Baffled? Certainly. Scared? Undoubtedly!
You know there is no way you have the skills for the job. You know the sacrifices it will involve – moving home, losing touch with family and friends, being hounded by the media, working ridiculous hours.
Its an incredible privilege, but don’t you wish that you had never answered the door.
Mary must have felt like that, and more. God calls us to follow him. But he never promises it will be easy. His call challenges as well as comforts, stirs up as well as sooths. It is wonderful to be beloved by God, but with that love comes immense challenges beyond our imaginings. I wonder, what are the challenges for you of responding to God’s call on your life?
And Gabriel’s next words don’t make it any easier. You will have a baby, he tells Mary, but it won’t be Joseph’s, it will be God’s. As if there weren’t enough perils and dangers in pregnancy and child-birth as it was, she risks being cast aside in disgrace by Joseph and her own family, a focus of gossip and slander in the community.
As you think about those challenges you may want to listen to this poem called: The Mary of Your Christmas Cards.
Mary would have had some sense of the enormity of what lay ahead as she heard Gabriel’s call.
Somehow, from deep within the reservoirs of God’s love for her, Mary draws up the strength to respond: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Words echoed by her son 33 years later in a garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but yours be done.”
No matter who we are, no matter how unready or undeserving or incapable we may feel, God calls us. That call comes with challenge as well as love, with pain as well as joy.
And our response to that call? Well, may Mary’s words be our inspiration, not as words that glibly trip off the tongue, but as words that we pray through and wrestle with, words that we plant deep in our souls: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”