Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. Traditionally it is the day when the church remembers Mary, the mother of our Lord, and the important role she plays in the story of salvation. Without her openness to God’s call, without her care for the young Jesus, would we be here in church today?
But before we look at the passage I’m aware that I need to pause for a moment and just acknowledge that amongst our own congregation, and elsewhere, there may be a range of very different reactions to the idea that the church might commemorate Mary.
In parts of the Roman Catholic Church of course, Mary has an immensely prominent role – there will scarcely be a Catholic church without a colourful statue of Mary and candles burning in front of it. The Hail Mary may be said or sung, reflecting a spirituality in which people ask Mary to pray to her son for them. There are also doctrines like the Immaculate Conception and Assumption which the Roman Church asserts from its own tradition but the Protestant churches do not accept as they cannot be proved from Scripture.
If Anglicans reject the extremes of Marian devotion, we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The example of Mary can teach us a lot, she is like a signpost pointing beyond herself to her son, it would be a shame to lose sight of some truly Biblical insights. So let’s turn to Luke’s gospel, chapter 1 verses 39-45.
Of course, this story only makes sense in the light of what has gone before. Verses 26 to 38 tell of how the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town named Nazareth. He announces to Mary that she will bear a son, named Jesus, who will reign over the house of David.
We can only begin to imagine how Mary felt. Surprise and fear at the angel, surely. Perhaps delight at being chosen as the mother of the Messiah? Or feeling unworthy of this honour? Interestingly neither of those feelings seem to be in the Biblical reading – only the immensely down to earth question: ‘How can this be since I am a virgin?’
The angel answers at a practical level – it will be a miracle of God. But he doesn’t answer all the unspoken questions. What will this sudden pregnancy mean for Mary? Will she try and explain it as the angel told her? Will anyone believe her? What risks will she run to her health, safety and reputation? Will Joseph believe her and what might he do? Mary will have her own cross to carry. Motherhood in general has a cost and hers in particular.
Although Gabriel’s words about Jesus are couched in traditional Old Testament terms of kingship and rule, although there is no hint of the crucifixion in his speech, nonetheless a great deal is being asked of Mary. She has very few answers, can only see dimly what is involved, and yet she says yes. In verse 38 ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord, may it be to me according to your word.’
In stepping out into the unknown, in following without fully understanding, Mary becomes an example of someone who responds wholeheartedly to God’s call. Any call, any new venture, indeed life itself is like that. We cannot understand completely what is involved, there will always be surprises. The nature of the call or circumstances around it may change. Unforeseen things will crop up. We will be challenged and grow in ways we never thought possible.
But if it is God’s call we are responding to, if we are living in his way, then he promises that he will always be with us. We need not fear the unknown pathway if he will be our guide. It’s probably better that way – to be honest, if we knew what was ahead, we might never set out! Yet God gives us the strength for each day, a day at a time.
One of the ways God blesses us is through the ministry of other people. In v.39 Mary sets out and goes with haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Is she running away from her home town, fearing reactions? Matthew’s gospel suggests that there was some time between Joseph finding out about the pregnancy, and him having a dream in which the angel reassures him. Is it during this gap that Mary seeks sanctuary?
She goes to Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth, who is herself miraculously pregnant carrying John the Baptist. Elizabeth was a much older woman, the wife of a priest with a righteous reputation – yet Mary finds not condemnation or judgment, but hospitality and understanding.
An older person can be a great help to a young person who is in difficulty. Sometimes all that is needed is a welcome and the time to provide a listening ear. Appropriate wisdom, given when sought, can put things into perspective. But often what helps most is the space and hospitality to order one’s own thoughts.
I wonder if you know of a younger person, perhaps a mother, who is struggling? Are there ways it might be appropriate to help? It also makes me wonder what reputation we might have? What would a young mum or dad in trouble see in you or me which might make them want to turn to us?
There is a third generation in this story – the unborn John the Baptist who already seems to have the gift of prophecy. In verse 44 ‘As soon as I heard the voice of your greeting the child in my womb leapt for joy.’ Verses 26 and 56 tell us that the child is at the six month stage – and God is already overshadowing his destiny – is it too much to say that his character is already being formed?
With today’s medical care a baby born at that stage stands a fifty/fifty chance of survival. And yet it is also legal to abort a healthy baby up to 24 weeks.
There is so much promise and hope in a child, and yet so much vulnerability. I suppose the vulnerability of the child is part of the gift of motherhood – otherwise there would be no need for care and love. And vulnerability is part of what parents take on – we accept the risk and openness of having children, the step into the unknown of what might happen, the commitment it demands of us if something does go wrong.
Perhaps we can see reflected there part of what it means for God to be our parent. He creates us, gives us free will in the full knowledge that we may go our own way. Christ gives himself, accepting suffering so that God’s children may be redeemed. God holds out the hope of our return, without any guarantees that we will respond. In this lovely passage, God in Christ unconditionally opens himself to the vulnerability of this world and thereby also its love.
Here we see three generations, called by God. The old, the young and the unborn, each with a vocation in his plan. Through these three, and their relation to one another, the story our salvation unfolds. Amen.