Sermon Advent III 2020 Luke 1:26-38 Mary Paused Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you know what the hardest Bible story is to tell little children? Oddly, it's not any of the stories where things get a bit violent. Some children find those stories tough, for sure -- and they feel quite sorry for Goliath, or they worry about everyone who didn't make it onto the Ark, or they wonder if it was absolutely necessary for all of Pharoah's army to actually get drowned when the Red Sea closed up again –
So some find those stories tough... but most little children are sort of willing to go along with the kind of 'good guys bad guys' dichotomy, at least for a while, and so those stories in the Bible that get a bit violent really aren't that difficult to tell them. At least with a bit of care.
No: in my experience, the hardest Bible story to tell little children is Jesus calling the disciples. Which in case you're not familiar with it pretty much goes like this.
Jesus is walking along the road, and he sees Peter, Andrew, James, John, Nathaniel, Matthew, Philip, whoever – and he says to them "Follow me!"
And they hop right up and they follow him. Which is clearly in the story meant as evidence of their faithfulness and their devotion to God and their readiness to serve. All clear positives. Obviously an example of goodness and grace. "Look upon the disciples, all ye little children, how when Jesus says "Follow me" they all hop up right away and they DO."
SUCH a beautiful story. Their immediate commitment. Their heartfelt faithfulness.
Only – please. If anyone ever comes up to you and says "follow me"? Please don't do that. Please run, please scream, please find mummy. If anyone comes up to you and says "follow me", please DON'T hop up and follow them. Even though I've just totally construed that as a completely positive thing and a sign of the goodness of the disciples.
Hardest Bible story EVER to responsibly tell children.
Which is why it's a sheer delight to instead tell the stories of God calling the prophets. From Moses to Deborah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah – every single one of them. And not ONE of them just hops right up and says yes.
Moses says he's a lousy speaker, Deborah's uncertain, Isaiah thinks he's way too sinful, Jeremiah thinks he's way too young, Amos and Micah are fairly sure God's made some sort of mistake, they're just ordinary people – NONE of them just hops right up and says yes. Not one.
Instead, there's a pause. There are questions for clarification. There are protesting expressions of deep lack of conviction that God really knows what God is doing, because this doesn't actually make sense.
There's a pause. And real thinking. Before ANY of these prophets get up and follow. Before ANY of these prophets actually hop up and hop on board.
And lest we imagine that this points to some kind of shift in paradigm between the Hebrew scriptures of the Older Testament, and the Christian scriptures of the Newer Testament – like the prophets paused while the disciples just hopped up –
No indeed. Because here we are today in the very first chapter of Luke's gospel, and the call of Mary – as a prophet for God's people not in any WORDS she's expected to begin saying, but literally in her body.
Embodying the same prophetic message of good news for all God's people that earlier prophets spoke in their words. Mary's literally going to carry that good news in her body.
She's a prophet. Whose call by God in fact parallels the calls of all the earlier prophets.
Because centuries of Christmas carols and Christian dogma notwithstanding, Mary is in no way presented in Luke's gospel as meek and mild. On the contrary – when Mary is accosted by an angel, like all the prophets before her, she does exactly what all the rest of them do.
She makes the angel pause. Because she has questions.
First, she's not at ALL sure what kind of greeting this might be. That'll take a bit of pondering. And frankly, she's a little perplexed.
But when the angel goes on to announce to her that she will conceive in her womb and bear a son and he will be named Jesus, and of his kindom there will be no end – seriously?
THAT'S not making a lot of sense. She's only young, a virgin, not married. Which she has no difficulty at all raising with the angel as a clear presenting issue that will require some explanation. Because at present to be honest she's not convinced God's thought this through.
So let's just pause, she says to the angel. I have some questions.
And only then, like Moses, like Isaiah, like Jeremiah, like all of them, only then – when there's been the pause, when there's been the questions, when there's been the clarification, when she's good and ready –
Only then, does she say yes. Except in fact she no more 'says yes' than any of the other prophets do!
Because NONE of them really ever gets a chance to say yes. Centuries of Christmas carols and Christian dogma about Mary's precious and overwhelming obedience notwithstanding, she's no more 'obedient' than any of the other prophets ever get to be.
They don't actually have a choice. Being prophets isn't something they agree to – it's something that happens to them.
Just like things happen to us all the time that we would never choose and we can't change but there they are. Remember the prophet Jonah, who famously thought he could avoid it when being a prophet happened to him? A few days in the belly of a big fish, and he learned what Mary knew right away. Sometimes things happen and they just ARE. And the only real choice is how to deal.
And THIS is where Mary as a prophet transcends what's otherwise a prophecy of good news that she simply embodies. Literally carries in her body. Because THIS is where Mary as a prophet -- having claimed her right to pause, to ponder, to raise a few issues and ask a few questions –
This is where Mary as a prophet SPEAKS. SPEAKS out of her own experience of something happening that she'd never choose – unwed, carrying a child, when women could be stoned for adultery –
This is when she speaks. Out of her own experience and into ALL of our experiences of something happening that we'd never choose and we can't change but there it is – and she says Let it be.
Let it be with me, she says to the angel, according to your word. It's not the only prophecy she speaks. When she visits her cousin Elizabeth, the two of them sharing the experience of being prophets EMBODIED, she also lifts up her voice in the status quo shattering powerhouse prophecy that we call the Magnificat. With the mighty brought down from their thrones, and the lowly lifted up, and everything overturned into God's vision of justice and righteousness and healing and wholeness.
But if we're tired, if we're anxious, if we find ourselves in times of trouble, it's her first words as a prophet of God – after she pauses and ponders and questions and challenges – that really are the Advent blessing. While we wait for the Christmas blessing she embodied. (Let It Be: Lennon/McCartney)