December 21, 2014
We always celebrate some aspect of the Annunciation on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. Each year, we hear a different part of the great story involving the Angel Gabriel, Joseph, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. And all of this foretells the imminent birth of the Savior.
In today’s story, the angel says to Mary, “Greetings, O favored one! Our God is with you.”
Luke tells us that Mary was much perplexed – greatly troubled – by these words, and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. And no wonder: She was a peasant girl, at the dawn of what we now call the first century, in Nazareth. You remember Nazareth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was perhaps the equivalent of the worst slums of our age, a place from which no one expected much of anything.
And Mary has just become accustomed to the idea of her engagement to a carpenter. Steady income and honest work, carpentry. And her marriage to Joseph probably represented a great improvement in her social location.
Then along comes Gabriel, who greets her with these astonishing words: “Greetings, O favored one! Our God is with you.”
Not just appearing as a man, with whom she is forbidden to speak. Women were not ordinarily allowed to have casual conversations with strangers, you see. And not just any old low-ranking angel, but the Archangel Gabriel.
And this angel guy doesn’t demand a drink from the well, or the washing of his feet, or even directions to the nearest inn. He really came to speak with her. And he greets her not as a slave, or a woman, or even as an equal – but as the favored one of God.
What must it have been like for her to confront the messenger of the Lord God of power and might in this way? It makes sense that she must have been quite startled – “much perplexed” as scripture tells us. We cannot help but leap to the conclusion that these words sound as strange to us as they did to Mary.
We may find these words strange. We may not like them. We may ponder in our hearts what sort of greeting this might be. But we hear these words, and perhaps come to rejoice in them.
Greetings, favored one! There is good news here for everyone.
Those who lean toward the more Catholic can revel in the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Those who prefer the Protestant end can take comfort in Gabriel’s word of grace. Feminists note that the willing assent of a women was necessary for the whole plan of salvation. Those who are more fond of patriarchy insist that the angel – who appeared as a male, after all – set the whole thing in notion. Humanists delight that a human vessel could contain God. Believers claim authority for the divinity of Christ. Skeptics repeat the words, “How can this be?” Optimists find hope in the phrase “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And all of us are invited to accept our call to vocation, proclaiming, “Here am I, the servant of God.”
In this, Christian people everywhere imagine themselves ready to let go and take the plunge, like Mary – responding to God’s messenger with the only words we can utter that help carry out the plan of salvation: “Let it be.”
This very text reminds us that God loves us, all of us. God has a message for each one of us. We are – all of us – the favored ones of God.
And God has a plan for us – each and every one of us: to help bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly; to fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.
Those are the words from the Song of Mary, the Magnificat. And that is what follows immediately after today’s story in Luke’s gospel.
It may seem rather odd to you that much of the time we hear the Magnificat it is sung by a very civilized and expensive-to-run choir in, say, a very historic cathedral in a perfectly staged liturgy by clergy of the upper-middle class. Have you ever been to one of the great English cathedrals for Evensong? Or perhaps one on these shores? The liturgy is so beautiful, so lovely, and so very odd.
Evensong can be gorgeous, but the message of the angel and Mary’s glad song in response are seditious, politically charged and highly volatile – even today.
God will bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, send the rich away empty, and scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
Now, there are some of us who don’t much care for delving into things political in sermons. And don’t worry: There won’t be any specifics mentioned today. But how can we hear these texts from the gospel we hold so dear and not engage with the political realm?
Because poverty is a religious issue. Oppression, too. And hunger, injustice and untruth. Not to mention war.
And God is enlisting us in the cosmic struggle for good over evil, to help make the world a better place for all his children.
Because the God we worship is not a far-off, distant judge. Not someone who punishes bad behavior from a lofty paradise by sending down thunderbolts. And not the sort of deity who must simply imagine what it is to be human.
No, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus, God has become fully a human being, with flesh and bones – one who hurts and cries and laughs and sings. No longer are we separated from God, pleading for mercy from an omnipotent judge.
Our God is among us, “with us,” Emmanuel – and God knows what it is like for us.
What it is like to feel the power of the attraction to light in the darkness.
What it is like to be drawn by glittering images.
And what it is like to struggle to resist temptation, or even to recognize the difference between divine light and the alluring glow that grows out of wickedness.
This is the message of the angels, really: God understands us, God forgives us, God loves us.
And perhaps our inability to accept the message fully, to believe we really are the favored ones of God – perhaps this accounts for our unwillingness to cooperate sometimes with God’s plan for us.
It is far easier for us to store up treasure for ourselves than it is to ensure that all human beings have their rightful share in the earth’s bounty.
It is far easier to command armies to annihilate those whom we believe to be evil than it is to weed out the roots of injustice.
It is far easier to engage in a bit of “retail therapy” than it is to confront the painful possibility that we may be the rich who God will send away empty.
And so, our God has given us a sign. A young woman is with child, and shall bear a son, and shall name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.
And he shall be Emmanuel – “God with us.” For nothing will be impossible with God.
And this great Good News begins anew this season by putting our faith in mere words. This Christmas, may we hear the words of the angel and know in our hearts that they are intended for each and every one of us: “Greetings, O favored one! Our God is with you.”
— The Rev. Barrie Bates currently serves as interim pastor of Zion Lutheran Church on Staten Island, New York.