The last time I stood before you I spoke of the need to pay attention to the deeper meanings of our relationship with God; the deeper meaning of Hope; and the need to actively foster that relationship and I hinted that to foster that relationship we needed to rely on scripture and listening to what the Holy Spirit may be telling us through the stories we have heard a thousand times. Today we heard a familiar story. The story of a teenage girl being told that she is going to be a mother. Most people I know reject this story because they can’t possibly believe in a virgin birth, but as is often the case, their focus is in the wrong place. Rejecting a virgin birth or even a visitation by an angel because they are not possible within the realm of known science is not the point; science is a human invention, a wonderful and amazing human invention, that we use to help us understand God’s creation; science is of course possible because of God’s gift of free will and thought, but when we focus on the science we are not focusing on God, we are focusing on our interpretation of God’s creation, which means we are once again missing the whole point. Advent does not end with this Gospel simply because it is the last Sunday before Christmas, it ends with it because Mary’s reaction represents the culmination of the preparation that is required to live into a relationship with God.
Mary is a surprising choice to be the mother of God. By modern standards she would not have been our first choice because her resume was bleak at best. She is poor, she lives in a small, sleepy town of about 400 people that is tucked away from the excitement of Jerusalem and its existence was likely barely known. At the age of 16 she has done nothing of note and is likely never going to, so why did God choose her? Clearly there were other people who were more deserving of such a blessing. Again, these judgments are human, our culture tends to focus on a person’s accomplishments, including which side of the tracks they are from, when determining their worthiness to do whatever it is they did. I saw an add on Facebook yesterday for a device that is supposed to help you save on your electric bill. The story they told was of a poor teen who invented a device that does some fancy thing to the flow of electricity in your house. I have no idea whether this invention actually works or if he even invented it, but the advertisers clearly believed that it would grab my attention and it did. I was moved by the story of such a young man, of such meager means, and that was the point; it is a rag to riches story, born out of a desire of a young man to help his mother and whether it is true or not, it is inspiring. I think that the story of Mary is inspiring too. I mean a young, poor, faithful Jewish woman agrees to raise the son of God, what could be more inspiring that that? It certainly turns the general views of our society on its head because we never expect the unknown person to be chosen, we expect the super stars to be chosen. Afterall our entire culture is geared towards being the super star. We have this pervasive belief that if you are not willing to pull yourself up by the boot straps, then you are a loser; which is why stories like the young man I mentioned earlier, get highlighted and frankly preyed upon; but again, these stories are human and our judgements of them are human; God is in the story of the young man and his invention, but as usual we need to look hard to see it because we are out of practice. God is in the love the young man has for his mother and for his neighbors, which is what led him to invent his money saving device in the first place. He saw the struggle his mother and their neighbors were having to pay their electric bills and he wanted to do something about it.
So, if Mary doesn’t meet the modern expectations of who is worthy, if she didn’t pull herself out of her meager existence, and if the entire story is not scientifically possible, why do we retell it every year? Why is Mary revered by so many people? As usual, we need to look past our initial observations and ask ourselves what the Holy Spirit may have been guiding Luke to reveal through his words. I draw your attention to Mary’s response “How can this be…”. These words indicate active participation in the conversation and that Mary was actively ready to receive the news. This doesn’t mean that she wasn’t afraid, or that she wasn’t confused, it doesn’t even mean she wanted to do it, it simply means that she was ready to hear what God had to say. Mary’s willingness to hear the word of God, through the Angel Gabriel, indicates that she was faithful to God and that she actively cultivated their relationship just as we would expect a faithful Jewish woman to do. We began advent with a prophet’s plea to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Messiah, and we are ending advent with the story of a young woman who heeded that very cry. Mary did the work, she cultivated and lived in faithful relationship with God, she prepared herself in her heart to receive god’s grace and love and when God did call upon her, she answered. She was able to answer only because she was prepared to listen, which makes this the perfect story to end advent. It not only sets the stage for Christmas, it helps us to understand what it means to be prepared, but only if we are ready to hear it. And to be ready means we must put the work in. We must read and reflect on scripture, we must talk to God, and we must listen and watch for signs of God in our lives. As I write this, my Christmas tree is only a few feet away and I can see the ornaments I made as a child, the ornaments made by my children, the ornaments made by various great aunts, the ornaments given to us by our mothers and grandmothers, and the ornaments that my wife and I have collected over the past twenty years. I have never thought of this before now, but our Christmas tree is a sign of God’s grace and love, it is a reminder of the love that has filled the entirety of my life, even in the years that felt dark and lonely, God was reminding me, through my Christmas tree, that I have been and always will be loved. Amen