Some good people spent countless hours this week transforming this sanctuary into a place of wonder. Today we hung the greens, lit the first Advent candle and sang, “Light of the World into our darkness come.” Advent has arrived. It is here. For the next four weeks we will light more candles and sing more songs about light and darkness, angels and shepherds, incarnation and Emmanuel. At least that is what will happen when we are here in the sanctuary together.
Outside of this space we will have other things we do that define the Christmas season for us. Shopping and wrapping, baking and decorating, singing Christmas carols and sending Christmas cards….whatever puts the “fa la la la la” in your Christmas heart. I don’t think any of those things are wrong. What I am hoping is that what we do in this sanctuary for an hour each week places us in the middle of the Christmas story, a story about welcoming God….saying yes to God. I am hoping that this sacred story anchors what we do when we are apart from one another.
You and I have said “yes” to lots of things in our lives….jobs, dates, marriages, fundraisers, cars, puppies. Some of those decisions were good ones …some of them we wish we could take back. You and I have said “no” to lots of things in our lives…some of them were good decisions and some of them we wish we could do over. Yes or no….our life is filled with decisions.
Today, in this hour in which we have briefly hit the pause button on the busyness of Christmas, we are going to look at Mary’s decision…her yes or no opportunity. Mary, who is a seemingly insignificant woman in a time when women were not deemed important or relevant, is the main character in our story today.
We are told it is the six-month of the miraculous and unexpected pregnancy of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth and the baby she is carrying are unseen supporting actors and right now they are used merely to set the time.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the Angel Gabriel visits a peasant woman named Mary. At the time she was engaged to a man named Joseph. The angel appears next to Mary and says, “Hello, favored one. God is with you.”
Interactions between angels and women in biblical literature is beyond rare. It is such a momentous event that we expect Mary to just fall down on her knees and say, “Yes. Yes. Yes. Whatever you want, I say yes.” Bu that is not what happened. Mary was perplexed and she needed some time to ponder. Mary slows the whole thing down. You can visualize her mind racing. Why me? Why an angel? Why am I favored?
The Angel Gabriel goes right on as if he doesn’t notice her confusion. “Don’t be afraid. God has chosen you. Here is the plan. Let me spell it out for you. You will conceive. You will have a son. You will name him Jesus. He will be called the Son of God. He will take over the throne of David. He will reign over the house of Jacob. His kingdom will never end. Got it?”
But Mary doesn’t say, “Yes. Of course, yes. I’ll get right on that.” There is a long pause as she considers. Botticelli produced a painting of what I think must be his understanding of this exact pause. It is the picture on the front cover of your bulletin. See Mary, her body turned away from the angel. Mary is all scrunched over against the edge of the painting. Through the open window you can see a castle and an unfinished bridge. One of Mary’s hands reaches out to the angel, the other is held up as if to say, “Stop!” There is an eternity in this pause.
Finally Mary asks, “How can this possibly be true? Joseph and I aren’t yet married. I’m a virgin.” Imagining Mary, in the presence of God’s messenger, taking her time to make her decision makes me love Mary. She has agency. She has the ability to make a choice of her free will and before she does she has some questions. She has chutzpah. She engages the Angel Gabriel before she makes her decision. “I want to say yes but do you know what you are asking?”
I remember when I was a teenager and I asked my mother about how she and my father got engaged. She told me they were on a family picnic in Elgin, Illinois and when they went for a walk my father proposed. “And you said, “yes”, right away, right?” I said. “No,” my mother said. “I told him I needed two weeks to decide and that I would write him a letter with my answer.”
I was absolutely shocked. “Why? What did you need to think about?” I asked. “I knew your father,” she said “and there were some deal breakers for me.” I can’t tell you how stunning this conversation was for me as a teenager. I kept thinking how important her “yes” was to my being alive. She just had to say “yes.” I needed her to finish the story so I didn’t disappear from the face of the Earth.
She assured me that she didn’t make my dad wait two weeks but she did write a long letter. Her reply was “yes”, of course or I wouldn’t be here, but her yes was contingent on some things. She said she was excited by the prospect of spending the rest of her life with him and of them being missionaries together to Nigeria. After all, it was the place of her birth and, at that point in her life, she had spent more years in Nigeria than she had in the United States. “But,” she wrote, “If you have any thought of changing that plan to become a farmer or a pastor my answer will need to be ‘no’. I have no interest in being a pastor’s wife or a farmer’s wife.”
At the time I was horrified by this story. It wasn’t the romantic story I expected to hear. Also, I learned that my mother had agency. She had free will and she was willing to use it. Plus, at that time she told me this story my Dad was a pastor. Our family had returned from the mission field because my father was deathly ill. When he recovered he accepted an offer to pastor a church. I went to bed that night praying that my mother had changed her mind about her original deal breakers and deeply aware that life can turn out differently than you plan.
Mary, insignificant Mary, was a woman with agency. She could say yes or she could say no. The way we have been told this story is that the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she was going to conceive the Christ child and she bowed her head in reverence and said, “Let it be.” But that skips a whole bunch of important decision making. Gabriel may have said, “Don’t be afraid” but Mary was smart enough to be afraid. If she became pregnant out of wedlock she could be in grave danger. She risked being stoned to death by her own neighbors. At the least, she would be the subject of gossip and scorn. She was risking her life, her reputation and her upcoming marriage. What was being asked of her wasn’t going to offer her honor and prestige. She was being asked to believe that God was about to do the impossible and she was going to be part of God’s grand story…despite the consequences.
The angel had a mission to complete and so he responds to this perplexed young woman, “All I can say is that this is the work of the Holy Spirit and that God will protect you. As a sign to you, your cousin Elizabeth is now in her sixth month. I know it all sounds preposterous. You are a virgin and Elizabeth is passed her childbearing years. But God loves a good story. You are going to have to trust me.”
And that is when I imagine Mary, with resolve to follow God’s will, says in a brave and strong voice. “Let it be with me according to your word.” But she couldn’t possibly have known where this road was going to lead her. It won’t be long and she will be running to Egypt to save this child’s life. Over the years she will see people follow her son and demand things of him all while his enemies line up against him. Then she will stand near by and watch him be crucified. Being the favored one of God takes courage.
When we say “yes” we have no idea where the journey will take us. When my mother answered my Dad’s proposal with a “yes but”, she couldn’t have know that illness would turn her grand plan on its head and lead her right where she didn’t want to go.
One of the most basic practices for those who do improv is called “Yes, and….” It is the practice of accepting and welcoming in order to build on whatever is said so that the actor can keep the conversation going. You can’t control the other actors but you can keep the scene moving forward.
In this scripture Mary is the main character. She is not here merely as a vessel for God’s purposes on Earth. She is an active participant in God’s grand scheme. She is the one who will raise this child who will be called Jesus. She will not only teach him to walk and talk she will be his greatest role model. Her “Let it be with me according to your word” sounds very familiar to Jesus’ words in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified, “Not my will but yours be done.” Wonder where he learned that?
One day while Jesus was teaching, a woman yelled out to him from the crowd, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you.” Jesus turns to this woman and says, “Actually the blessed are those who hear God’s word and obey it.” I have always thought that he was putting down his mother but I think it is just as likely that he was rejecting a sexist ideology about her while honoring the woman of agency Mary was…a woman who did the brave work of trusting her life to God’s call.
We lose Mary under layers of light blue cloth dyed in piety, politics and theological wars about the virgin birth. It has become almost impossible to excavate her. But I think it is vital that we do. For Mary is our example…our role model for welcoming God’s incarnation into our lives….of risking it all for God’s grand scheme….of using our agency to birth Love into the world. We are not called to be pawns or complacent vessels. We are called to be active participants in raising the prophetic voice.
After Mary says yes, the angel departs. He doesn’t stick around to erase her doubts, silence her critics or give her the right words to say. He leaves her, this woman of agency and courage, to do the work of discipleship and discernment in this world. He leaves her to the journey that her yes began. He leaves her to the practice of improv…Yes, and.
Say “yes…..and”. Amen.