Mary has always been a bit of a mystery to me. She is obviously a rather remarkable woman, or rather more correctly, a rather remarkable girl. Scholars generally agree that Mary was probably only about 12 or 13 years old when the angel Gabriel visited her with the shocking news that she was to bear a child.
And shocking news it was. At this stage in her life, Mary had no intention whatsoever of becoming pregnant and bearing a child. She was engaged, but she had an identity. She was a virgin. This is who she was, and it was who she intended to remain until that wonderful day when she and Joseph were married. It was a commitment that she had made to herself, to Joseph, and most of all to her God. And now this visiting angel was asking her to change all of that, and to throw it all over.
So why did she throw it all over? The easy answer is that she didn’t have any choice; that this had been God’s plan from the beginning of creation, and that Mary was simply one cog in God’s big wheel of redemption, as it rolled down through the ages. And a quick read of the opening verses of our passage this morning seems to indicate that this is just the case. Gabriel tells her flat out that she is going to conceive, that she will bear a son, and that she will name him Jesus. There it is, done deal, let’s move on.
A more thoughtful reading of this extraordinary encounter with the angel, though, reveals that there is much more to it than that. This encounter should never be understood in terms of something that God forced upon Mary, and over which she had no control. God needed Mary’s willing cooperation to bring about this great event of salvation in the same way that God needed the willing cooperation of Abraham and Moses and all of the other prophets. The same is true today. We all have callings, but God needs our willing cooperation in order for us to fulfill them. In order for us to become a servant of God, we have to be willing to cooperate with God, or nothing is accomplished. This great truth is revealed throughout all of the Scriptures.
And that is precisely why the angel Gabriel visited Mary in the first place. If God did not need Mary’s cooperation, she would simply have discovered herself to be mysteriously and inexplicably pregnant, and Jesus would have come into this world much to the surprise and shock and dismay of his mother.
When Gabriel appeared, Mary was justifiably terrified. An angelic visitation is always a heart rending, gut wrenching, mind boggling, absolutely frightening experience. Throughout the Scriptures, human beings do not well tolerate angelic visitations, unless they are immediately commanded to dispense with their fear. Those who do not receive this blessed commandment generally lose all control of bodily functions and pass out on the ground. Apparently angels are not the cherubic little darlings that we tend to imagine at this time of year, but rather they are quite fearsome creatures, who strike fear and dread in the hearts of all who meet them.
Mary, of course did not expect an angelic visitation any more that we might expect one. In all of her wildest imaginings, it had never occurred to her that she would become the mother of the Savior. She was just a girl, happily engaged, looking ahead to becoming married, and perhaps raising a family of her own. In many ways, she was probably completely indistinguishable from most of the other girls her age living in or about Nazareth at the time.
But unlike the other girls, she had found favor with God. I’d like to think that she had found favor with God because of her faith. And I’m thinking of her faith in God, her faith in Joseph, and her faith in herself. Virginity was no more a celebrated virtue in the first century than it is today in the twenty first century. We are all human, after all, and we have been human since the days of Adam and Eve. But for Mary, virginity was important. It is her chief objection to cooperating with the plan that Gabriel so hastily lays out for her life.
And I suppose “hastily” is putting it rather mildly. There is no sense in this passage that this was a leisurely conversation between Mary and the angel. There is no evidence of a question and answer session that would have set Mary’s heart at ease. Instead, Gabriel rattles off a long list of who her intended child is to be. “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
As bright and as intelligent as Mary was, I suspect that the only thing she really heard and understood, was that she was going to conceive and bear a son. The rest of it drifted right past her as in a blur. But because Mary was bright and intelligent, this stuff became the fodder for her later ponderings and musings. And all of this stuff is wonderfully and
gloriously true. Jesus Christ is great. He is the Son of God. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and his reign over all things is eternal.
But they paint a far different, far more glorious picture of Jesus and experience of Jesus than Mary would ever see in her lifetime. She would know these things; she would understand that these things were all true, but she would not see them.
What she would see and experience in her lifetime, because of the son that she would bear, would be grief upon grief, sorrow upon sorrow, and loss upon loss. In agreeing to bear this child, she might have imagined that there would be trouble with Joseph. And there certainly was trouble with Joseph. She might have imagined that there might be trouble with her family. And there certainly was trouble with her family. But the rest she could not have even begun to imagine. She had no sense that the birth would take place in a far away town under much less than ideal conditions. She had no sense that an evil and paranoid king would take drastic steps to murder her child, that would ultimately result in the senseless deaths of several toddlers and baby boys living in and around Bethlehem. She had no sense that she would be living as an alien and as as exile in a foreign land with a strange language and strange customs, perhaps for several years. And finally, she had no sense that she would stand at the foot of a Roman cross, and watch as her beloved son, in the prime of his life, suffered in agony and died. And she had no sense of these things because the angel Gabriel did not tell her. And he did not tell her these things, because she would find them out soon enough on her own.
And so with only a fair certainty that she would be rejected by Joseph and by her own family, Mary responded by saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
And in that, Mary sets the pattern and the example for all who would become servants of the Lord, and for all who would respond to God’s callings in our lives. When we say, “Here am I the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” there will be certain things that we can imagine, and certain challenges that we will be able to predict. But the rest will be an adventure. Some of it will be glorious and wonderful, and some of it will bring danger, heartache and loss. From Mary’s example, and from followers of Jesus throughout all of history, we know this to be the pattern for all who say, “Here am I the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
This knowledge may very well deter us from responding to God as Mary did. Like us, I firmly believe that Mary very well could have said no to Gabriel; “Buzz off. Find someone else to have this baby.”
There was nothing preventing her from saying that, and there is nothing that will prevent us from saying no to God’s callings, either. And so there has to be a reason for becoming a follower of Jesus Christ and an obedient servant of our Lord. And it seems to me that the answer is quite simple. If we choose not to respond to God, some parts of our lives will be blessed with some glorious and wonderful experiences. And other parts of our lives will be characterized by heartache and loss and disappointment. If we say yes to God, some parts of our lives will be blessed with some glorious and wonderful experiences. And other parts of our lives will characterized by heartache and loss and disappointment. Either way, the life of the servant and the life of the non-servant will be pretty much the same. Such is the nature of this earthly experience for all human beings.
So why become a servant? What is the point? When the angel Gabriel first appeared to Mary, he said to her, Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.” And a bit later he said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
Nine months later, on the evening of our Lord’s birth, an angel showed up on a Judean hillside and terrified some lowly shepherds out of their wits. But the message was remarkably the same: “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of a great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And moments later the whole night sky was filled with a multitude of angels proclaiming this message:
“Glory to God in the Highest Heaven,
And on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
There it is…God’s favor. On Mary, on shepherds, and on us. But there’s also this business of a Savior being born to us, and the promise of eternal life that comes with it. And so we should never hesitate to bravely say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And then, to bravely live out and face the rest of our lives, living in the favor of God, however that plays out, but always with the sure and certain hope of the promise of eternal life.