Advent 4b, December 24, 2017

December 26, 2017

Divine Availability

Luke 1:26-38


26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. 


Had my father’s family remained in the religious tradition of our Irish Catholic ancestors I would probably have paid more attention to Mary than my Methodist roots have provided me. It was my great-grandfather on my father’s side who somehow fell away from the mother-church. I know he was born a Catholic, but he didn’t raise my grandfather in the Catholic tradition. I’ve often wondered how that came to be. I know the old-school Catholics considered there to be two types of people. You were either a Catholic or you were doomed.


I’m guessing there was some drama in the family over this, but I have no idea what it was, but as a consequence, I’ve never spent much time thinking about Mary. I’ve read these stories about her every year at Christmas for as long as I can remember, and I repeat her role in the birth of Jesus every time I say the Apostle’s Creed, but I’ve never spent much time trying to decide what it was about Mary that made her the proper candidate to bear the savior of the world.


But I’ve remedied that. I’ve thought about her for a few minutes now. I’ve read a few paragraphs about her, and here’s what I’ve come to understand. In the Catholic tradition, Mary is considered to have been a person of extraordinary character. She’s portrayed as being the most pure-hearted person that a normal human being could be. Of course this is basically extrapolated from the one thing we know about her which was that she had never been alone with a man prior to the arrival of the angel Gabriel. She certainly wasn’t the only young woman of the day that had been untouched in that way, but according to Catholic tradition she was a young person of extreme righteousness and that’s why God chose her to be the mother of Jesus.


Of course this played well in to Catholic instruction of how all young people are to behave, and I’m sure this has helped to maintain relatively good behavior among young Catholics to some extent, but we all know it’s a large burden to try to be good enough to qualify for a mission from God. And because we all know this, the fact that Mary was qualified to be the mother of the God-child, she became a bit of a super-human within the Catholic tradition. Mary became a revered saint within the Catholic Church. Many people within the Catholic tradition consider Mary to be a bit of a bridge between us fallen humans and the divine presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Many Catholics pray to Mary for her to take their petitions to Almighty God.


So this is my thumbnail sketch of Catholic understanding of Mary, and the Protestants came to see this as a bit of a distortion. A big part of the protestant reformation was to undermine the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Along with the Pope and the priests being knocked off their positions of power, the protestants took Mary off the pedestal as well. I’ve never known of anyone in any Christian tradition speaking poorly of Mary, but Mary has never been as revered within protestant denominations as she was and is to some extent in the Catholic tradition.


John Calvin, one of the most influential early Protestant theologians wrote that Mary wasn’t blessed because of anything she did. He argued that she became blessed when the angel Gabriel came to her and announced that she had received the undeserved love of God. And this sort of illustrates the early conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants. In the Catholic Church the love of God was considered to be earned to some extent, while the protestants considered the relationship to be a gift from God. This is an oversimplification of it all. The real nature of the conflict was that the Catholic Church had clear instruction on how everyone was to understand everything, and the Prostestants came along with equal certainty that they were wrong about it all. How they were able to think Jesus wanted them to kill each other is a mystery, but fortunately, we are no longer so intolerant of each other.


I think it’s nice that the Catholics have such adoration of Mary. There are worse things to do in life than to revere the mother of Jesus. If you have an extraordinary amount of love in your heart for the Virgin Mary you are probably going to be a little nicer to people than you might otherwise be. It’s not a bad thing to think that somebody as amazing as the mother of Jesus is keeping an eye on you.


But I’m more inclined to agree with my fellow Protestants that it was Mary’s ordinariness that made her a good candidate to be the mother of Jesus. I don’t think it was Mary’s purity that made her the right person to bear the baby Jesus – it was Mary’s humility that made her the right person for the job. And I’m not talking about false humility. I’m not talking about the kind of person who takes great pride in their humility and who wants everyone to know how humble they really are. That was not the kind of person God sent Gabriel to find. God was looking for the kind of person who was afraid she might not be up for the job, but who was willing to make herself available anyway.


Humility is one of the great gifts that comes to us in life. Some of us have received that gift more often than we might have preferred, but it really is one of those things that sweetens our lives. I’ll never forget one of the people who provided me with that precious gift. I was in seminary at the time. It was at the end of my second semester. Sharla and I hadn’t been married long, and she was working as a new teacher in a school district that was a long way from where we were living. We were actually living as the caretakers of a summer camp that was sort of out in the country and our living situation provided us with an additional set of challenges.


Those were hard days, and we were both grateful when the semester came to an end. But soon after I had finished my classes I got a call from the secretary of the Divinity School Dean who asked if I could come meet with him the next week.


She didn’t say what it was about and I didn’t ask. He wasn’t someone I knew very well, and I was a little anxious about what he might say, but I was also a little excited about it. I didn’t know if he had heard about how well I pontificated on essential matters in the lounge between classes, or maybe he had some kind of project he wanted me to get involved with. Of course I knew there was another matter he might want to address, and sure enough that’s what it was. I showed up at the appointed time and he invited me in to his lovely office, and he very kindly pointed out that I needed to improve my grade point average if I wanted to stay on course to graduate.


Now I wasn’t entirely surprised by that conversation, but it wasn’t what I had been hoping to hear. I’ve never been a very grade conscious person. My ego has always been attached to far less important matters than academic achievement, but it was a humbling experience on some level and it was something I needed to hear. I guess I spent a little less time in the lounge and more time in the library for the next semester or so, and I actually graduated.


Some of my friends didn’t really like our Dean, but I always had a soft spot in my heart for him. I’m sure that wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have with me, but he delivered the message in a kind way – it was clear, and it made me want to do better.


When the gift of humility comes to you in the right way it’s actually very motivating – it moves you to do things that you never expected yourself to be doing. I don’t think of Mary as being a person who had done anything wrong or who had failed in a significant way, but she knew to be afraid of the information that the angel had brought to her. She didn’t consider herself to be qualified for the task that was before her, but she listened, and she trusted, and she humbly accepted the mission.


In the comfort of our sanctuary with the safety of distance from the circumstances of Christ’s birth, and in light of history it’s sort of easy for us to simply think of this moment in Mary’s life as being nothing short of a wonderful opportunity. You might say that Mary is the mother of all celebrities, but this visitation from Gabriel is not what any of us would have experienced in the moment as a career boosting break. What Mary was asked to do was to place herself at extreme risk for a mission with an unknown outcome. It’s easy to say that if you can’t trust God who can you trust, but Mary was dealing with a messenger from God, and this was not an easy story to sell. I think we all know that there would have been a lot of men willing to throw stones at an unmarried woman who claimed to be bearing the child of God.


I actually deserved the gift of humility that I was granted, but Mary didn’t deserve the humiliating position that she appeared to be in. She didn’t deserve it because she was extraordinary or because she was at fault. But it did come to her as a gift. For whatever reason, God chose Mary, and Mary accepted it. God interrupted her life, but God didn’t force this upon her. That’s the way God works – God provides us with opportunities, and we have to accept them.


Sometimes those divine opportunities come to us in the form of apparent disasters – as moments when our lives feel turned upside down, our expectations are shattered, and our need for a new direction becomes obvious. Sometimes divine opportunities arise in the course of quiet conversations when nothing significant is being decided but honest affection and caring is being shared. God works in countless ways and in unexpected moments, and our job is simply to be available when those opportunities arise.


Only one person was chosen to bear the baby Jesus – the savior of the world, but all of us are the beneficiaries of her faithful response. We have all been touched by her humble spirit and her courageous act. This ultimately good thing happened because of the way she responded to the opportunity that God provided, and we don’t need to forget this. This isn’t a turn of events that’s going to happen again, but we don’t know what God has in mind for the future. Our task is not to try to figure out what that might be but to be available for whatever comes our way.


I doubt if any of us are hoping to open a big box of humility for Christmas, but if that’s what you find under the tree give thanks to God for it might help you become even sweeter than you already are.


Thanks be to God.



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