December 24, 2017
“Mary's Questions, Mary's Faith”
One of the main characters on the stage of the Advent season is, of course, Mary the mother of Jesus. It is likely the case that when St. Luke set out to write his gospel, he sat down with Mary for an interview. Luke tells us he endeavored to write a careful, orderly account of everything that had happened. And at the end of these first couple of chapters, he mentions twice that “Mary treasured these things up” and “pondered them in her heart”. While of course, the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of these events as he did with all of Holy Scripture, he likely worked through the recollections of a young mother looking back years after her son, the Messiah, had ascended into heaven.
As Lutherans we take a view of Mary which might not sit well with Christians on either side of us. On the one hand, we have some serious disagreements with Roman Catholics about Mary's place and role and status. Scripture gives us no indication that she was without sin, or was assumed, bodily, into heaven. Neither are we told to turn to her as an intercessor. We are careful to treat her, like all the other saints of God, not as one justified by her own merit, but only by grace through faith like the rest of us. However. Unlike many protestants, we still hold Mary in high regard and can even call her by the title, “Mother of God”, as we do in the Formula of Concord. But especially we know of her from the pages of Scripture, like today's Gospel reading, and those accounts show us that she was a woman of great faith, and therefore an example to follow.
Today I'd like to focus on this particular account, the Annunciation as it is called, and especially on the questions that Mary asked and pondered... as the answers, of course, are found in Christ.
What sort of greeting?
Perhaps you'll agree with me that it's more than a little odd how Mary reacts to the appearance and greeting of the angel Gabriel. Or at least what we are told about it. If an angel appeared to me, I would be shocked, awed, amazed... filled with wonder. I might fall down on my face as so many did – or be stricken with great fear. I would certainly be concerned with the reason for such a visit. Perhaps this is the angel of death? Is my time up? Or is this a warning from God that I'm in big trouble? And while the angel here says what angels always seem to say, “Do not be afraid”, it doesn't give us any indication that she was. In fact, the appearance of the angel itself doesn't seem to trouble Mary. But what does trouble her is instead – his words. His greeting. “Greetings, O favored one! The Lord is with you.” And Mary wonders, “what kind of greeting this might be”. She was “greatly troubled at the saying”.
Mary seems to me to be a thoughtful kind of person. The kind of person who ponders deeply – as she did for years the events of the nativity of Christ. She pondered the shepherds and their stories about angels. She pondered the strange visit with her cousin Elizabeth, and how the baby John leaped in Elizabeth's womb. She pondered Zechariah and the angelic visit he received. She pondered all these things, treasured them up in her heart. She must have continued to ponder this angelic visitor and his troubling words for some time also. But why would it be troubling?
Perhaps Mary was also keenly aware of her sin. For the sinner doesn't, and shouldn't expect the favor of God. At least in the sense that one has pleased God. I get the feeling that Mary's first question here has the sense of, “Well gee, that's nice, but why me?” Why a young girl from Nazareth? Like Nathanel would later say, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Mary seems to be asking, “Why me?” What have I done to deserve this? That's a paraphrase of Elizabeth's question when Mary visited her. It's a similar idea. What have I done to deserve such a gift? It's a confession of sorts, “I don't deserve such a gift”. “I'm nothing special. I'm no one worthy.”
We can sympathize, can't we? Why would God look at me with anything but disdain? I know my sin. My failure is always before me. Sure I keep it hidden from the world, because I don't want anyone to know what a scoundrel I really am. The things I think. The words I say. The things I do when no one's looking, and even when some people are. But God knows my sins – all of them – better than I do. He's God, after all. Why would, how could I expect to get away with anything? I deserve judgment. I deserve his anger. I deserve punishment.
So what kind of greeting is this? “You who are highly favored”. Well like I said, the answer is really only found in Christ.
Favor – the greek word is “Charis” which we sometimes translate “grace”. If you've ever heard the Roman Catholic “hail Mary” prayer, it begins, “Hail Mary, full of Grace”. Well she's not full of grace on her own, but like every true believer in God – she has his favor and grace, his undeserved love... only through Christ. You have God's favor and grace, his undeserved love... only through Christ. Though you are, in your sins, a scoundrel. Though you couldn't expect a just God to do you any favors, yet the merciful and kind God has done you the greatest of favors in Christ, the child of Mary.
That Mary had such faith is also evidenced by her next question. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Now, if you've been reading Luke's Gospel from the beginning, you might also find this a bit strange. Because Mary isn't the first one to see an angel, nor the first one to hear tell of a miraculous conception and birth. Zechariah, one of the priests, married to Elizabeth, a relative of Mary – he saw the same angel. And he heard a similar word – “your wife, though she is old, will have a son”. And Zechariah had a question of his own - “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years?” A very similar question to Mary's, “How will this be? For I am a virgin...”
But Zecharaiah's question was not asked in faith, but in doubt. He was struck mute – unable to speak until this word of God was fulfilled. Only when he confessed his faith by same-saying that the name of the child was John (scrawling that name on a tablet). Only then could Zechariah speak. And his first words after that were a Spirit-inspired song of praise.
Mary, for her part, believed from the get-go. Her, “How will this be..?” wasn't out of doubt. It was a simple request for information. She knew the normal way things worked, and that this wasn't normal. It didn't make sense. But her trust wasn't in her senses, it was in the Lord. This was an honest question of faith, how will this unfold? What will happen? Unlike Zechariah's question tinged with doubt.
But like Zechariah, she also responded to the news with a song, full of the Spirit. Only Zechariah had to wait to see the fulfillment of the promise. Mary took it on faith from word one. We sing both these songs in the church to this day – the Benedictus of Zechariah and Mary's Magnificat.
Some of us hear the word of God and believe it right away. Some of us have more struggles and doubts. Some of us may have even rejected it entirely. But the word still stands. The Law still convicts. And the Gospel still calls us to faith. And like both Mary and Zecharaiah, we too sing our faith in joyful response to God's promises. Because no matter the odds, or the appearance to our reason and senses, we trust in the words and promises of God in Jesus Christ. We are thankful when we see them fulfilled. And we are just as thankful while we wait for the fulfillment.
Where the doubters and the scoffers say it's impossible, the Angel Gabriel reminds us, “With God, all nothing is impossible”. Not a virgin conceiving and bearing a child. Not that God himself would become a human being. Not that this child to be born would save his people. Is it impossible that God would die for man, so that man could live for God? Is it impossible that a man who died would rise, that all die in him would also be raised with him? Is it impossible that he will come again in glory, and take us to our eternal home? Faith believes the promises, even when it seems impossible.
Mary believed. And her faith took on words – as she responded to the angel confirming that what he said would be, would be:
“I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me according to your word.”
What an example for us. May your faith say the same:
I am the servant of God. I'm not here to set the agenda, God, but to serve at your good pleasure. I am the Lord's servant – not his master, nor my own master. In humble faith I will receive your direction and follow it. May it be to me according to your word. What you say to me, Lord, is true. What you promise me, is certain.
As it was to Mary, may it be to you according to God's word: that your salvation is assured in Christ. That you, too, are highly favored, and full of grace. Find all of the answers to faith's questions in him, and know that with Jesus, nothing is impossible. In Christ, Amen.