The forth Sunday of Advent, Year B, 2014 – 2 Samuel 7:1-16; Psalm 89; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
And Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
There is something very attractive about the word “No.” If you are about two, or if you are the lucky parents of a two-year-old, this will not be news to you. All of our children enjoyed this word, but it was Robbie who brought it to a point one day, at age 2 in a dollar store on the Danforth. Robbie, actually, almost never said no. He didn’t have to, because we were so busy keeping track of the other 3 children we rarely noticed what he was up to. That is perhaps why he was such a happy child. But on this occasion another shopper told him in no uncertain terms that he shouldn’t be doing whatever it was he was doing (actually something fairly innocent, as I recall). He was mortally insulted. He drew himself up to his full 2 feet and clenched his fists and stamped his foot and shouted straight at her, at the top of his lungs: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!
And that, I think, sums it up. This is the instinct that is overt in every two-year-old and present still in all of our hearts. What right have you, whoever you are, to tell me what to do? Do not infringe upon my sovereignty. Do not limit my freedom. Do not foil my desire. The autonomy of the individual is the guiding principle of our time.
Today, however, Mary says Yes.
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary shows us a different way: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town in Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David, and the name of the virgin was Mary,” (Luke 1:26-27).
Luke’s telling is so lyrical that the things that are startling about the story almost get missed. Notice who has the sovereignty here. It is certainly not Mary. The angel swoops into her life and announces to her, her future. “You will conceive and bear a son and you will call his name Jesus.” Not “would you consider bearing a son” or “would you like to” or “here’s an idea,” but, simply, you will. This is the word of the Lord.
There’s a painting by an American artist named Henry Ossawa Tanner. It’s called Annunciation. On one side of the room a blinding and beautiful light; on the other Mary, young, ragged, huddled on the edge of her bed, looking at the light with something like fear. The painting hears the story’s sharp edges. The purpose of God has suddenly come into this young girl’s life. The will of God, claiming her own, taking her life, making it his. No wonder Mary looks terrified. It is God with whom we have to do, this Advent.
“Greetings, highly favoured one,” the angel says to Mary. “The Lord is with you.” And Mary was greatly troubled at his word.”
It is not a small thing, to be visited by the Word of the Lord. It claims your life. And it changes it—because you are no longer you for yourself, you in yourself, autonomous individual. You are part of a great story of salvation.
It is not just that Mary hears that she will bear a son. She hears that she has this day become an actor in the hope of a whole people. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David. This is the ancient promise of salvation, spoken to David by the prophet Nathan long ago; Israel’s ancient hope, coming now to fruition. Now the temple rising again in Israel; now the presence of God with his people.
From the beginning of the story, in fact, Luke has signalled that it is salvation with which we have to do, in this baby, in this young girl, in this small town of Nazareth. For the angel is sent to a woman betrothed to a man of the house of David, and the woman’s name is Mary. Mariam, in Luke’s Greek. Mary is perhaps nobody. But Mariam is the sister of Moses. She is the girl who hides the child so that he may lead the people out of Egypt. She is the woman who sings, when God leads the people safely through the waters of the Red Sea, the Bible’s oldest song of salvation: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea,” (Exodus 15:21).
This is, the Gospel is telling us, the story of salvation. God’s saving work, drawing his people out, drawing his people back to him, the work begun in Abraham and Moses and Mariam, and above all in David, comes now to a point in another Mariam, this young woman we call Mary.
Do not fear, Mary, for you have found favour with God.
You have found favour, and in you God’s favour comes to the world. This is the year of the Lord’s favour, Jesus will say to the people of Nazareth, the acceptable year of the Lord. (The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor; he has sent me to declare freedom to the captives and to the blind, sight.)
And all flesh will see the salvation of our God. It is this that we look toward, on this fourth Sunday of Advent: not just the birth of the child, but the rebirth of the world. Wrested out of bondage into freedom, rescued from our terrible self-absorption, the conviction that life is somehow better if we live for ourselves, here in our wealthy west with our rights and freedoms, and our loneliness, and our loss of meaning. It is a turning away from God, this life that is lived for ourselves, and it is endemic. It happened with Israel in the wilderness, murmuring against God; it happened with David and Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. And it is the fundamental principle of our time. Think of the slogans: Go ahead, indulge yourself. You deserve it. This one’s for you. Think of the incredible popularity of that song from Frozen, Let it Go: “it’s time to see what I can do; to test the limits and break through; no right, no wrong, no rules for me…I’m free. …A kingdom of isolation, and it looks like I’m the queen.”
We turn to ourselves, and we turn away from God. It’s nothing new. It was this way with Israel; it has been this way ever since Eve. Adam and Eve, creators of the autonomous self. But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of the fruit your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And so the woman ate, and gave some to her husband with her, and he ate. And when they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God. The original “no”, sounding down through the centuries, the world turning its face away.
But today, this last Sunday of Advent, suddenly a difference. Because Mary says yes.
Here am I, the servant of the Lord.
This too is given: the gift of assent. Mary is given a part in God’s work of salvation.
And so Israel shall have its king and he shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Prince of Peace. And the whole world shall see its salvation.
Not Mary only, not only Israel, but through her a world. In the son she will bear, the world’s hope: that we who did not hope to turn may turn again. That we may again say “Yes”. Eve’s “No”, that first instinct of our lives, the first principle of our time; Eve’s “No” undone.
Let it be with me according to your word. Let me learn the way of obedience.
By the grace of God Mary says Yes. Let the last song of salvation begin.
For the Lord is with you. And we may be, once again, with the Lord.