Lesson: Luke 1:26-38
I saw a Roz Chast cartoon this week with the caption, “Obsessive-Compulsive Santa,” showing Santa singing, “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, but the margins are crooked so he’s writing it again. And he’s checking it again, and he’s checking it once more, but somehow he misspelled ‘Laura’ so he’s crossing it out. …. ” and so on. I think I find this Santa funny because it hits pretty close to home for me, this time of year, as my colleagues will attest. So I hope your sense of neatness and order isn’t thrown off too much by the fact that, this morning, we take a step backwards in Luke’s gospel to hear what came before the story we heard last week. Last week we heard Vivaldi’s Magnificat, sung so beautifully by our choir. The Magnificat is the song Mary sings in Luke’s gospel after her cousin Elizabeth recognizes that Mary has been chosen to give birth to Jesus. This morning’s passage, a few paragraphs earlier, is our first encounter with Mary in Luke. The angel Gabriel visits her, and tells her she is going to give birth to the Son of God.
This is a story that gives some people fits, one way or another, and so I treat questions about the virgin birth seriously. First of all, please don’t get hung up on it. People disagree about it and apparently always have and the church has survived. Neither Mark nor John’s gospel nor the apostle Paul in all his letters thought it was important enough even to mention the virgin birth, or any birth, for that matter, and this tells us that different communities of believers were able to preach and write about Jesus without making the virgin birth an article of faith about him. I love the way Frederick Buechner sums it up: “If you believe God was somehow in Christ, it shouldn’t make much difference to you how he got there. If you don’t believe, it should make less difference still. In either case, life is complicated enough without confusing theology and gynecology.”
It’s only during Advent and Christmas that we Protestants pay much attention to Mary. Besides the virgin birth, there are a couple thousand years worth of theology, piety, and politics layered over Mary and it’s nearly impossible to dig her out from under it all. Some Christians pray to her. Others ignore her on principle. John Knox, the reformer who started the first truly “presbyterian” church, the Church of Scotland, not only condemned making her an object of worship but pretty well omitted Mary from his theology all together. Some Christians call her “Theotokos,” the Mother of God. For others, she represents a troubling model of pious femininity — ever sinless, ever virgin, ever mother.
I think the most extraordinary thing about Mary is how ordinary she was.
In this special season, this special holiday celebrating this Special Baby born to this Special Woman, it’s easy to start thinking Christmas is all about extraordinariness. But, on the contrary, if it’s about anything, it’s about the power of the ordinary to bring about God’s purposes. The power of the ordinary to bring about God’s purposes. Mary was not chosen to be the mother of Jesus because she was special. She was chosen because she was the epitome of ordinary. A young girl of marriageable age, living an ordinary life in an ordinary town in an ordinary country. What a spit in the eye that was to the folks in power in Rome and Jerusalem.
Mary says, “Yes,” of course, “Let it be; here am I, a servant of the Lord,” but before that, she says something we often skip over. When the angel announces what’s coming, Mary says, “How will this happen?”
We know these words. We’ve said these words. Maybe prefaced by “Whoa,” or “uh-oh,” or maybe something less delicate. We know that feeling: “How is this going to work out? How can this work out? What’s going to happen now?” It’s a confession of vulnerability. It’s admitting, “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to be in this place.” Mary’s got to be thinking, “There is no way I can pull this off. Me? Who am I? It’s impossible.”
And Mary speaks up about that – she shows up with her authenticity as well as her disbelief and asks her very reasonable question; asks it right to the face of that angel from God, for crying out loud, and that’s the first good lesson we get from Mary. She shows us the ordinary courage of speaking up. What I mean by “ordinary courage” is that the root of the word courage is the Latin word for heart, and courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling one’s heart.” Over time courage became synonymous with heroics, but ordinary courage – speaking one’s mind by telling one’s heart – means putting your vulnerability on the line and in our world, that can be pretty extraordinary.
The angel Gabriel doesn’t try to talk her out of her questions; he doesn’t tell her she can do anything she wants if she just tries hard enough or wants it enough. He doesn’t tell her that if she believes it enough she can make it come true.
He says, “Nothing is impossible with God.”
This point is driven home in the way Mary’s story is surrounded by the impossible made possible. Her cousin Elizabeth, an older, barren woman, has conceived a child. Mary is from a backwater town, far, far from the seats of power; she’s an absolute nobody. A nobody, visited by an angel, chosen by God. We’re so used to this story that we don’t recognize that the virgin birth is only one small piece of the impossibility here.
Mary listens, and then answers, “Let it be.” It doesn’t do Mary justice to assume this was merely acquiescence, that when she said, “Let it be,” what she really meant was “Whatever.” That’s a popular assumption and it’s served the purposes of people in power, people who would prefer the ideal Mary and by extension ideal women in general to be compliant and above all, keep their mouths shut. For starters, this view can’t be reconciled with the other nine stories in which Mary appears in the New Testament. Mary shows up again and again as a woman with gumption, and we see it for the first time right here in this story. She says, “Yes.” Maybe saying yes is the most extraordinary thing about Mary. There were probably hundreds of other ordinary, nobody girls who could easily have taken Mary’s place. One writer poses the provocative but fascinating question: “What if Mary wasn’t God’s first choice? Imagine… a whole string of Marys who said, ‘No way.’” And far from being, “Whatever,” I believe Mary’s “Let it be” is much more powerful, much closer to the words of one of my favorite “Star Trek” characters, Captain Jean-Luc Picard: “Make it so.”
Our Advent theme this year is “Expect Something New.” We are constantly being faced with something new – new technology, new cultural trends, new ways of being church, new challenges as followers of Jesus. Here is our Advent challenge for this morning: Do we believe God’s purpose is unfolding in a new way we might not only not expect, but can’t conceive? Do we think God is done interrupting people’s lives to use them for the healing of the world, for doing things that still remain impossible for us, on our own? Or might we imagine that God is still doing things just like this, doing something new? Might we look around at the ordinary people in this sanctuary, our congregation, and see ourselves as those persons who are also favored by God and through whom God plans to do marvelous things? Perhaps not conceive and bear the Son of God, but, then, Mary did that already! But think how many other wonderful things there are that God wants to accomplish through us, so many that we couldn’t begin to count them all. And we ordinary folks are in all kinds of places and positions to do those wonderful things; for God to do those wonderful, new, impossible things through us, and we need only the ordinary courage to show up.
I heard a story about ordinary courage this week and I trust God was at work doing something very new. Last Monday, a lone, armed terrorist entered a café in Sydney, Australia, and took a number of employees and customers hostage. Early in the crisis, the police confirmed reports that the hostage-taker was an Iranian-born man who called himself Sheikh Haron. As news of the siege unfolded, a woman named Rachel was on a commuter train on her way to work, scrolling through the updates on her smart phone to see if anyone in her family was close to the danger. At that point, Rachel saw a woman on the train, apparently Muslim, start to fiddle with her headscarf, start to unpin it to take it off.
Rachel said she felt tears come to her eyes, feelings of anger and sadness, and she decided to speak up about the victims of the siege who were not in the café, the victims who were the ordinary, law-abiding Muslims living in Sydney and going about their business. She posted a Facebook status update that said, “and the (presumably) Muslim woman sitting next to me on the train silently removes her hijab. I ran after her at the train station. I said, ‘put it back on. I’ll walk with u.’ [The woman] started to cry and hugged me for about a minute and then walked off alone.”
A couple of people responded to this post quickly. One said, “This is what good people do.” Another tweeted (which means posted on the social media platform Twitter) – the person tweeted, “If you reg[ularly] take the #373 bus [between] Coogee [and] Martin Place, wear religious attire, & don’t feel safe alone: I’ll ride with you. @ me for schedule.” And then someone else tweeted, “Maybe start a hashtag?” And he suggested “#illridewithyou.” Creating a hashtag, using the symbol that many of us would call a pound sign, allows other people to follow your tweets, your Twitter posts – to see them and be notified of updates and other comments.
And so it snowballed from there. In just 12 hours there were more than 150,000 tweets with the hashtag #illridewithyou. A woman posted a photo of herself with a blue scarf tied around her wrist: “I’m a semi regular commuter on the #mandurah line. If you see me #illridewithyou. I’ll be wearing this scarf.” Another tweeted, “If you wear religious attire, & need to get from #Adelaide’s west suburbs to the city on Tues[day] but don’t want to travel alone #illridewithyou.” A man posted a photo of a sticker he’d put on his briefcase that said, “I’ll ride with you.” He tweeted: “Practical thing: I’ve made a temporary sticker for my bag so people who need me can spot me #illridewithyou.”
A new way to respond to terrorism. Ordinary people doing God’s work. My friends, expect something new. Expect that God’s purpose is unfolding in a way we might not only not expect, but can’t conceive. Expect that we, too, might be perplexed, confused, and perhaps troubled that God has noticed us, that God favors us, and that God has wondrous things to accomplish through us. And expect God will give you the ordinary courage you need to show up.
Now, this might be pretty hard to get our heads around so I’m going to give you a few minutes to think about it. That’s why the little blue piece of paper is in your bulletins, along with the flyer for the Christmas Joy Offering. I invite you to take that blue piece of paper and think about the seemingly impossible truth that you are a favored one of God. And indeed, God wants to do great things through you. Please take a moment to let that sink in and using one of the pencils in the pew racks or your own pen or pencil, write down what one of those things may be.
I’d like to close with the litany on that same sheet. Please join me in the litany:
One: Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and intends to do great things through you.
Many: How can this be? We are ordinary, everyday people.
One: Yet you have found favor through God, and the Holy Spirit will come upon you, guide you, and work through you to care for this world and people God loves so much. For nothing is impossible with God.
Many: Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.
Let us pray: God of Advent, we await the impossible. Make it so. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2014 all rights reserved.
 Roz Chast, The New Yorker, December 13, 2010.
 Mary Hinkle Shore, Fourth Sunday of Advent, in New Proclamation, Year A, 2007-2008 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), p. 29.
 Frederick Buechner, “Annunciation,” in The Magnificent Defeat (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1966), p. 60.
 Gabriel Torretta OP, “Our Lady Reconsidered: John Knox and the Virgin Mary,” in the Scottish Journal of Theology / Volume 67 / Issue 02 / May 2014, pp. 165-177, http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9221941.
 Debie Thomas, “The Pause Before Yes,” December 15, 2014, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20141215JJ.shtml.
 Emory Gillespie, http://pastoremory.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/valleys-humming/
 Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010), pp. 12-13.
 The other nine stories are known as the Visitation, Nativity, Presentation, flight into Egypt, losing Jesus in the Temple, going to bring Jesus home from his public ministry, the wedding feast at Cana, being at the foot of the Cross and Pentecost.
 Lia Scholl, “Mary, Actualized, Mature, and with Agency,” December 15, 2014, http://www.questionthetext.org/2014/12/15/mary-actualized-mature-and-with-agency/
 David Lose, “Favored Ones,” December 11, 2011, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1611.
 Rachel Jacobs, “How #illridewithyou Began with Rachael Jacobs’ Experience on a Brisbane Train,” December 16, 2014, http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/how-illridewithyou-began-with-rachael-jacobs-experience-on-a-brisbane-train-20141216-128205.html.
 Jordan Valinsky, “Australians Just Showed the World Exactly How to Respond to Terrorism With #IllRideWithYou,” December 15, 2014, http://mic.com/articles/106442/australians-show-the-world-exactly-how-to-respond-to-terrorism-with-ill-ride-with-you.
 David Lose, ibid.