Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B)

To Be Regarded…

The Annunciation to Mary is a remarkable text.

December 18, 2011

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Commentary on Luke 1:26-38

To Be Regarded…

The Annunciation to Mary is a remarkable text.

As I began to work on this commentary, my first memory of this story took me back to my high school days. For various and sundry reasons, this Lutheran girl, and a preacher’s kid, ended up in a Catholic high school. Thinking about this passage, I remembered being amazed and even surprised when I first attended an Annunciation Day mass at San Domenico School for Girls. I had some sense that as a Lutheran this was neither an event nor day that we acknowledged or celebrated. I was perplexed and considered the rationale for and reasons behind why our classes would start an hour late that day. But the primary image that came to my mind is being surrounded by girls, by my friends, and thinking, God has looked with favor on us. The feeling that I remember from that day in the midst of unfamiliar ritual and religiosity is that God had regarded me.

It is no small thing to be regarded, to be favored, especially when you are exceedingly aware that you should not be. A first pass at this text for the last Sunday of Advent brings these reactions, these feelings to the surface. One homiletical move on this text could very well be to create the sense of what it feels like to be noticed and regarded. Going into the week before Christmas, in the midst of everything that is the season (fill in the blanks here), what it would be like to experience, to know, that God favors you. I wonder how many of our people need to hear these words, now, not later, and not after Christmas. So much of the season is focused outside of oneself, the shopping, the gatherings, the giving. To hear that in the middle of all of what the Christmas season is that God favors you, well, that kind of claim really brings the incarnation home.

The Impossible Possibility of God

This story of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary is surrounded by the impossible. Elizabeth’s story brackets Mary’s. Just before the designated text for this Sunday is Elizabeth’s pain-filled yet wondrous words, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” This impossibility demands that we hear Mary’s story as equally incredulous. The angel’s confession that “nothing is impossible for God” finds its deepest meaning in that impossibility abounds, that a barren, elderly woman is pregnant, that a young teenage girl from a nothing town is favored. Once again, our set imaginations that might idealize the Christmas story are turned upside down. This just does not happen. Do we get that? One of the greatest challenges of preaching this story is somehow to create the movement from impossible to possible, to let God’s possibility ring new and true and whole when all we know in our world, in our lives, is impossibility.

Mary herself acknowledges the impossible possibility of God with her first response to Gabriel. She is perplexed and debated/considered/reasoned/consider different reasons. While the New Revised Standard Version translates the latter verb as “pondered” it is not the same Greek word as in 2:19. She debates, reasons about the angel’s greeting when the only thing Gabriel has said so far is, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Mary’s initial response to this encounter is worth significant pause. The angel has barely said a thing.

Why is Mary bewildered? To call attention to Mary’s response to the angel’s first words is to emphasize to what extent Mary cannot even believe this impossible possibility. Me? Who am I? Why am I favored? How can the Lord be with me? She knows her place. She knows who she is. And this should not be happening. She’s a she, a teenager, and from the wrong side of the tracks.  Gabriel then tells her the big news that she’s going to be pregnant with a son, but not just any son, the Son of the Most High, no less, from the lineage of David, with a never — to — end kingdom. OK. What? “How can this be?” Can we voice her disbelief with the kind of incredulity that must have been Mary’s? Or, do we perpetuate an obedient response, relegating Mary’s true astonishment to some sort of obligatory prophetic answer?

The Move to Christmas

Any sermon on this text worth its weight will somehow create, expand, and eventually resolve, to a certain extent, and as much as is theologically possible, the tension between “How can this be” and “Let it be with me according to you word.” It will move us from the absence of God (1:34), to the presence of God (1:35), to the fulfillment of the promises of God (1:36). To collapse “Here I am” too quickly into our idealistic notions of answering God’s call reduces Mary to simply a pawn in some sort of divine play and further marginalizes her.

Somehow, someway, a sermon on this text will negotiate the radical transformation in only three short verses, from peasant girl to prophet, from Mary to mother of God, from to denial to discipleship. In a very real way, this is the appropriate transition from Advent to Christmas. Mary’s story moves us all from who we think we are to what God has called us to be, from observant believer to confessing apostle. Moreover, remarkably, impossibly, Mary’s story demands that we acknowledge the very transformation of God. It is no small journey to go from our comfortable perceptions of God to God in the manger, vulnerable, helpless, dependent. Yet, this is the promise of Christmas.