A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. December 22, 2002. Luke 1:26-38.
Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
– Luke 1:38a
How often have you been visited by Gabriel – or some other angel? . . . . Ummm? Or to put it differently, when is the last time that you felt that you had a visitation from God or God’s messenger? . . . .
Now, if someone were to ask us about our favorite parts of the Christmas story, I think that most people would likely begin by mentioning the nativity itself, the visit of the shepherds, and the arrival of the wise men following a star. These, I think, are central to the story of Christ’s birth. But I also find that there are some other episodes which are important to me as well. One of them is the story of Joseph and Mary trying to find lodging at the inn, and ending up in the stable. And another is this account of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary of what was to happen. By and large I have not given as much attention to this story as the others, but I am discovering some important lessons for myself in it.
In Luke’s Gospel we read that
. . . he [that is, the angel Gabriel] came to [Mary] and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed at his words, and pondered what kind of greeting this might be.
And then we read how the angel told Mary not to be afraid, for she had found favor with God, and she would conceive and bear a special child that she should name Jesus, and that he would play a special role in the destiny of his people. Most of the time we have focused on the verses where Mary asks how this can be since she is a virgin, and the reply that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and that her child will be holy, the Son of God. At the end of the angel’s visit, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
Now if you were visited by Gabriel – or some other angel, how would you react? Would you think that you had had a little too much Christmas “cheer”? Or that you were hallucinating? Would you pinch yourself to see if you were awake? Or maybe that it had been too long since you had seen your therapist, and that you had better make an appointment?
Perhaps. Yet I believe that in many ways and at various times God does visit us, and brings a special message to us too. It may be a message that is puzzling to us – as it was with Mary; so that we too ask, “How can this be?” and then give some good reasons why it just can’t happen. I suspect that the visit and the message is different for each person, because God has created us all different. And yet, all of us are created in God’s image, and God respects the way we are created, and God visits us in ways that are appropriate for each of us.
But, really though, the way that God or God’s messenger appears is not the important thing. For one of us an angel may resemble an adult human being, but with nicely feathered wings. For someone else it may be a little cherub like we see on many Christmas cards. And for someone else he or she may take a form that we do not usually associate with angels at all, yet we know that God is speaking to us through that person, or in that situation. A while back someone gave me a copy of a humorous questionnaire – one of those things that circulates on the internet – and the first question asks, “How did you find out about your deity?” Among the many possible answers are: “various kinds of scriptures,” “divine inspiration,” “my mama don’ tol’ me,” “a near-death experience,” “a near-life experience,” and – get this – “burning shrubbery.”
Well, you know, we do tend to be intrigued by the Old Testament story of Moses and the burning bush, but really all that burning shrubbery did was to get his attention. And when Moses turned aside to see this strange thing, then God spoke to him and told him what he was to do. It wasn’t the “how” but the “what” that really mattered. And it was like that with Mary too. Luke tells us that the angel Gabriel was sent by God to visit Mary, but we are not told anything at all about the circumstances of that visit. Simply that Gabriel came and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” And that Mary “was much perplexed at his words, and pondered what kind of greeting this might be.”
So it is not the nature of the visitation that matters. It doesn’t matter whether Gabriel had wings or not, or whether he had a halo or not, or whether the identity was Gabriel or Gabriella – as in some of Andrew Greeley’s novels. Indeed, at the earliest places in the Bible that Gabriel appears, he is portrayed simply as a messenger from God; and this is because the Hebrew people believed that other than rare exceptions such as Moses, human beings could not see God and live. So when God needed to communicate directly with them, God used special messengers. It was only much later – and usually not in the Bible at all – that these messengers were described in any detail and often with considerable imagination.
And while you and I might find it strange to have such an experience, in the first century it was not so unusual to be visited by angels. So Mary was not overwrought about the fact that she had a heavenly visitor. Rather she was concerned with what he said. And while she was wondering just what that was about, Gabriel went on to say, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” And then to announce the child to be born to her, and the quite special nature of this child. Mary’s response is twofold. First she says, “How can this be?” since she is a virgin. And when that has been answered, she says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Now I have said that I believe that God visits each one of us. So while there is much uniqueness about the visit to Mary and the birth of Jesus, there is also a sense in which the visitation to Mary is a model for how God speaks to each of us and how we respond.
And so we note in the first place, that Gabriel’s visit seems to have been a surprise. Certainly his message was: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you.” And Mary pondered what sort of greeting that might be. Iif anyone were to say this to me, I would wonder about it too. And likely, so would you.
Then secondly, the message was that as God’s favored one, Mary was going to do something that seemed to her to be impossible. Notice that there are two parts to the message. First, she is to bear a child, and second this child will be extremely special. He is to be holy, and the fulfillment of prophecy. God will work through him in very special ways.
In the light of all this, you and I can miss just how much Mary is really like each of us. For she is a human being. And she is also someone who at first resisted what God wanted her to do.
Yes, that’s right. How does Mary respond to Gabriel’s announcement? Does she immediately say, “YES!” No she doesn’t. Rather she says, “How can this be?” Does that sound pretty familiar? When we are aware of God visiting us and calling us to be someone special and do something special in God’s name, do we get excited about it and says, “YES!” Most of the time we don’t, do we? On the contrary, what we do is to find reasons for why it won’t work, or why the timing isn’t good, or a host of other things like that. We say, “Uh, I know you think this is a good idea, Lord, but have you thought about this, and this, and this?”
What Gabriel told Mary was that God had given thought to everything. And then what did Mary say? What she said then was, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” When God’s purpose was clear, she responded as a child of God – as a person of faith.
And so, here too Mary is a model for you and me – a model for how to respond to God’s visitation to us. So then, after we have told God all our reasons why it can’t work, and after we have been assured that God knows that it can work, how should we answer? What if we were to respond like Mary, and say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”?
You see, you and I are not called to give birth to the Saviour. That has already been done. Nathan Baxter, the Dean of the Washington National Cathedral of the Episcopal Church, has said the while we are not Mary,
we are potential bearers of God’s grace to the world. We all have had moments of visitation in our lives, . . . . and in that moment, perhaps we had a sense of being overshadowed by the Spirit of God with surety and caring, a sense of purpose that went beyond our own reasoning and confidence.
And Dean Baxter goes on to say that
Like Mary, when we say yes to . . . God’s invitation to us, we become recipients of God’s grace. The results are often far beyond what we know or imagine.
And then he says,
Perhaps the most needed gift in our world today is Christians open to the visitation of God in their everyday life, Christians with faith enough to say yes to the gentle lure of God, the overwhelming shadowing of divine grace that enables us to be God’s servants in a world desperately in need of grace. (Upper Room Disciplines 1999]
At the nativity and all through the year, let us each one – and as the church – be grace-filled and grace-sharing people, wherever we are. And in that way, Christ continues to be present in our world. Let us say with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word. Amen.