I have to admit that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is not my favorite Biblical character. It probably has something to do with the fact that the Lutheran churches I grew up in were generally at pains to prove that they weren’t Roman Catholic. And so I was taught that Mary was not perpetually virgin after Jesus was born, so that when the Gospels talk about Jesus’ siblings, those were his siblings born of Mary. I was taught that Mary was an ordinary woman and not immaculately conceived, and to venerate her was not appropriate, because she was not on the same level as God. So I started learning these things when I was young. As I got older, I found Mary to be a very remote character and very hard for me to understand and identify with. I have identified with women like Deborah, the prophetess and judge of Israel; Ruth, the woman who courageously left her family in Moab to return to Israel with her mother-in-law, Naomi; and Mary Magdalene, who boldly went and told the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. In contrast, Mary the mother of Jesus was just that: a mother, and since I had no intentions of being a mother, I never understood what all the fuss over her was about.
But then, I heard a sermon by our worship professor, Mark Oldenburg, on today’s Gospel lesson while I was in seminary at Gettysburg, and I will be borrowing some of his ideas that I remember from that sermon today. And I’d like to make my opening statement the same as his: “Of all the silly things the church has ever said, the statement that ‘Mary was meek and mild,’ has got to be the silliest.” With that statement, he helped me see Mary as a mother, yes, but also as a woman who was just as bold and courageous as the other women in the Bible with whom I identified. For in agreeing to become the mother of Jesus, Mary was saying yes to the work of the Holy Spirit within her, and all of the wonder, awe, danger, and excitement that the Holy Spirit can bring to a person’s life.
The visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary to tell her that she is going to give birth to the Son of God has been the subject of so much artwork and so much retelling, it can be hard to get past this in our minds to think about what was actually happening. But, we’re going to try. So, imagine, if you will, this unknown teenaged girl living in Nazareth going about her daily work. She is engaged to this man named Joseph, but they have not yet begun their lives together. We don’t know if Mary was looking forward to this marriage or not—it was most likely an arranged marriage, so we don’t know how familiar she was with Joseph or even if she liked him. As I said, she’s going about her daily work when the angel Gabriel appears to her with the words that she is favored and that the Lord is with her. We can assume that she’s frightened by this, because the next words out of Gabriel’s mouth are, “Do not be afraid.” And after all, who wouldn’t be frightened by the sudden appearance of an angel? But, Mary gets over the fright, because when the angel tells her she will become pregnant, she talks back to the angel and is not afraid to ask him how this is supposed to happen, since she is a virgin. This takes bravery: remember that when Zechariah talked back to Gabriel, he was silenced for nine months until John was born! But instead of doing the same thing to Mary, Gabriel tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” And the miracle in all of this is that Mary says yes: yes to God, trusting that, even though she is endangering her marriage and her very life—the penalty for adultery was death, remember, and no one would have believed that God made her become pregnant—she would count on God to protect her. There is nothing meek and mild about Mary whatsoever—she is instead brave and she is going to hold God to his word that somehow she will not suffer the penalty for adultery, that she will live through all of the stares and whispers and unkind remarks from the people of Nazareth, and that she will indeed give birth to God’s Son.
So in this account of Mary learning that she is to bear God’s Son, we find that she is the model for a Christian to follow: not because she is a mother, for not all of us can be mothers, but because she believed that what God had told her would come true. Throughout Advent, we have heard the promises that God has given us: The promise that Jesus will return again, and that when he does, all will be well, justice will be done, and we will all live in harmony with one another. The promise through John the Baptist that when Jesus comes, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And now the promise made through Mary that, when we say yes to the Holy Spirit, God will be with us and, no matter what comes at us in life, God will fulfill all of his promises to us.
But, before we say yes to the Holy Spirit, as Mary did, there is something else about this story that we need to notice, and these are the words that the angel greets Mary with: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Do you notice that, during worship each Sunday, I say some of these same words? “The Lord be with you.” And you respond, “And also with you.” Even before we say yes each week to the Holy Spirit working within us, we hear the good news that the Lord is with us. We are noticed by God and favored by God, and God chooses to be with us always, no matter what. We are the Lord’s.
And just as Mary was to be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and become pregnant with Jesus, the very Word of God, we too are “pregnant” with the Word of God within us. And the Holy Spirit comes upon us and overshadows us, urging us to give birth to that Word of God in different ways. Sometimes the Spirit works gently, as a cool breeze on a warm summer evening, helping us to speak words of comfort to those who need to hear it. And sometimes the Holy Spirit blows like the ferocious winds that often blow through Powell, urging us out of our comfortable spaces so that we speak God’s truth to those who are in power, often placing ourselves in danger of ridicule and scorn from those around us, but whispering to us the promise that God is with us through everything that comes at us, and will keep his promises to us.
So, let us admire Mary, not simply because she was the mother of Jesus, but because she gives us Christians the example of saying yes to the Holy Spirit working within us. Let us say yes to the Holy Spirit’s work within us, and then hold God to his promise of always being with us through whatever the Holy Spirit gives birth to through us. But most of all, let us trust in that perplexing greeting that tells us that we are favored by God, loved by God, noticed by God, and deemed worthy to do God’s work in this world, even though God knows we will stumble and fall and make a mess of things. And finally, let us trust that God will still work through that faltering witness that we give to him, and that the Holy Spirit will bring people to the knowledge of God. “Greetings, favored ones, loved by God. The Lord is with you.” Amen.