A Sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York.
Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21, 2014
She was much perplexed by his words…
Who here has seen an angel? A real angel sent from God, not a statue or a metaphorical angel like a beautiful child? You know, until Gabriel showed up, I don’t think that Mary had either. We don’t know what the angel looked like—those wings and white robe, come out of other stories and the imagination of artists, mostly centuries later.
So what we have, is a young woman, probably a very young one: a teenager, unmarried and not in any way privileged or wealthy. A regular kid. And this Gabriel guy shows up and says, “Greetings, O highly favored one! The Lord is with you!”
What else was there to say? This made no sense. ‘O, highly favored one,’ indeed, what is this guy selling? The scripture says that she was perplexed—this approach out of the blue was confusing and perhaps frightening as well. The angel continues, “Do not be afraid…” and then goes on with this stuff about her becoming pregnant and so forth. “How can this be? I’m not ready to have a child—I’m not even with a man…”
We usually think of the whole thing of the Blessed Mother as being simple and sweet, sort of a beautiful pastoral scene, and such good news to this docile young maiden. Maybe we see the renaissance paintings where we have an aristocratic young woman sitting in a beautiful garden, or a sitting room in a renaissance palace—everything peaceful, prosperous and easy. But this situation for Mary was not any simpler or easier than it is for any other young woman in a similar situation. There was plenty of insecurity and doubt—the real world impinged on her and no one could fault her if she were afraid.
“Do not be afraid, you have found favor with God.” That’s a bold thing to say to her in this situation. That term “Angel”: the Greek word basically means Messenger. That message that Gabriel brought her, the message of God’s favor, God’s love—it takes some seeing. It did not relieve her from poverty, it did not make people think or say nice things about her. It certainly didn’t get her out of changing diapers and putting up with all the difficulties of child rearing. And if she could see forward, thirty years or so, and see what would happen to her Son…how much pain and grief does the favor of God cost?
But in that child was life. In him was hope. In him is the resurrection from the dead right in the middle of this too real life. How much did Mary know? She was young, no evidence of great education, but she knew quite clearly the situation was in. So she listened to the angel. She heard him out. She even heard him speak about her older cousin Elizabeth: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” She knew, she heard, and she decided. And then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”
When Mary went up into the hills and met Elizabeth she sang a song, which explains why she did that and what it means:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.
God has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy.
The promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.
When we watch the pageant this afternoon, remember that it is this courageous young woman who gives birth to that child who means everything to us.