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Surprised by How


Watch the sermon here.

Luke 1:26-38

Who, what, where, when, why.

The “Five Ws” they are sometimes called, and according to Wikipedia, together they create “a formula for getting the complete story on a subject.”  They are all equally important, I’m sure, but I sometimes wonder if some of us put more emphasis on one than the others in our daily lives.  For example, some people are a little obsessed with the who.  Who is going to the party?  Who is getting a promotion?  Who will enhance my reputation?  They fall for the fake “Who’s Who” directory scam and pay hundreds of dollars to be included in the book. It’s all about the “Who.”

Other people live in the “When.”  They live in the past, when life was good and easy or if not easy, at least happier.  Or they live in the future, worrying so much about tomorrow that there’s little joy today.

Me, I’m a why woman.  I’m all about the why, often to my detriment.  Why should I do such-and-such?  Why do we have this tradition?  Why did this Biblical character do what he or she did?  Why did this happen?  On at least one occasion—and knowing me, probably more—Jackie has shouted an urgent instruction to me and I’ve asked why.  Now, Jackie doesn’t shout at me often, and she certainly doesn’t order me around, so if she does, there has to be a good reason for me to just do it.  But still I ask “why.”

I can’t say for sure about Mary, but at least in this story, she doesn’t seem nearly as concerned with the 5 W’s and she is with the 1 H – how?  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me back up, and please forgive me for repeating things you probably already know, but I think it’s good for us to be reminded of a few things.  First, Mary was young.  Scholars disagree about how young she was—some say as young as twelve or thirteen, while others say girls didn’t reach puberty as early then as they do now.  But regardless of exact age, she would have been a teenager.

Second, Mary was most likely from a poor family, and her ability to get married was crucial to her financial survival and to that of her family.  But if she was found to be pregnant before the wedding, and her fiancé did not claim the child as his, she could be killed—stoned to death for her sin; or at the very least, be an object of shame and scandal for her entire life.

Third, we don’t know that Mary was particularly unique or special.  We assume she was righteous and holy and pure, above all the other young girls in her village.  But the story doesn’t say so.  Just 20 verses earlier, the Gospel writer was clear to say that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments of the Lord.”  But Mary? The writer doesn’t say anything about her qualifications.  We assume she was devout because of her response, but nothing we are told makes her worthy of this great honor.  “This moment tells us as much, if not more, about God who is calling than it does about Mary, the called.  We see in this moment a God who surprises us, who does the unexpected.  We encounter a God who is willing to entrust the most important task to the least.”[1]

And it is quite a task, and quite a pronouncement that the angel makes.  The angel says to her, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.  He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

Wow! Such a pronouncement has got to knock you back a few steps.  I’d be saying, Woah, slow down Buddy. What do you mean, he will be great?  Like, a great carpenter or great baseball player?  And he’s gonna have a throne?  Really?  And you’ve chosen me why, exactly?

But those are my questions, not Mary’s.  Mary, we are told, just wants to know “how.”  “How can this be, since I haven’t…”  The different translations vary on how explicit they are about what she hasn’t done,      but they all agree on the first word.  They all start with “How.”  She cuts right to the chase, doesn’t she?  Perhaps Mary was simply practical.  Forget the when and why.  I want to know how!  Or perhaps she was a typical teenage girl who knew her mom was gonna’ freak when she turned up pregnant before the wedding.  Or maybe she realized that Joseph could abandon her, the village could turn on her, her family could disown her, and the Pharisees could stone her.  How can this be?  How will this happen?  And how can this be your will?

The angel’s answer isn’t actually all that helpful— at least it wouldn’t have been to me.  This whole “the Holy Spirit will come over you, will overshadow you” nonsense doesn’t actually explain how this miracle is going to take place.  But that’s because this is not about conception.  This is not a story of a god having intercourse with a human—that is the stuff of Greek mythology, not Christian tradition.

According to the great theologian Karl Barth, this is not a story of conception, but a story of creation.  God takes an empty space and declares, “Let there be life!”  and there was life, and it was good!  And just as, in our Creation story, God created the world with a word, so the angel says to Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God”—which literally means “No word is impossible for God.”   God spoke worlds into being, and in this case, God spoke a human into being.

That’s quite the amazing “how,” isn’t it?  How will this be? God will speak it.  God will speak new life into existence because no word is impossible for God.  Mercy?  No word is impossible for God.  Justice?  No word is impossible for God.  Equality?  No word is impossible for God.  Hope, peace, joy, love?  No word is impossible for God.

What’s your word?  What word do you need for God to speak into you?  What new life is waiting to be born in you?  We don’t have to worry about the “how.”  We don’t have to worry about the “why.”  We can give ourselves over to God, for a word—for the Word Incarnate—to be born.

Since this is a creation story and not a conception story, it applies to all of us.  All of us, whether we have wombs or not, have a space within us where Christ can be born.  To each and every one of us, an angel appears and says, “Rejoice, favored one!  The Lord is with you!”  That is, ultimately, the meaning of the Incarnation—God becoming flesh, God dwelling within and among humanity.  The incarnation did not happen just once.  It can happy any day.  Every day.  Within each of us.

As the Rev. Mary Haddad states it, “The burden of bearing the Christ child into the world is no less ours than it was Mary’s….  We are—all of us—ordinary people like Mary, but we are also favored ones, full of grace, and God has a claim on our lives. . . .  We are pregnant with possibilities.  Ultimately, we have to decide if we are willing to carry Love into the world, if we are willing to say, ‘Let it be with me according to your word.’”[2]

Do you carry Christ within you?  Are you “great with child,” ready to give birth to love?  Are you only “a little bit pregnant,” with just a seed of life you can’t even feel for certain?  Are you waiting, like the formless void, for God to create life within you and declare it to be good?  Wherever you find yourself this Advent season, know this:

Christ is coming.  Love will be born.

The question is: will Christ be born in us?

[1] Lectionary Homiletics, December 2005 issue.

[2] From a sermon preached by Rev. Mary E. Haddad, Associate Rector at Saint Bartholomew Church in Manhattan, on December 22, 2002,.

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