The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s095g05 Lockleys Advent 4 18/12/2005
"the angel Gabriel was sent .. to a virgin" Luke 1.26
I confess I have never had angelic messengers visit me in quite such a spectacular way. One wonders, just who is supposed to be impressed? Was God actually not giving Mary much choice anyway? Or were these words written for later generations to be afraid?
There are issues of just how much free will Mary was allowed, but also how we might diminish our own responsibility. We might claim, God didn't make his will plain enough for me to respond as willingly as Mary.
I want to point out that God didn't ask something of Mary that was unusual. Pregnancy and childbirth are everyday occurrences, though our modern western society has ways to delay these. To a young girl, such as Mary would have been, the message would have been a call to an adventure, to maturity. In that time and culture, it would be most unlikely that she was even 18, the statutory minimum age for marriage in Australia.
Yet there are traps here too. God hasn't asked of us to do anything like Mary. We might reason, of course, if God had asked something like this of us, we too would similarly respond. But God leaves us with boring tasks like getting on with those around us. The angelic message and Mary's obedience can actually serve to put Mary on a pedestal and cause resentment in us.
Similarly we can be led astray by her virginity. Does this denote a purity that implies that God cannot work through ordinary human beings like us?
It is sad that the ancient writers of scripture thought of women as lesser beings. So St John says in Revelation of the 144,000, "who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins". I wonder how many people have lived stunted lives because of words like these? Perhaps her virginity lifted her above the lesser status then accorded to her gender.
Mary is revered for all time, simply for being a mother, and we have no way of knowing how good a mother she actually was. We are without any reference to how Mary actually lived. We just assume she was perfect, a perfect neighbour, a perfect friend, never raised her voice, and of course she never had any cause to discipline Jesus. We do know one of her "helpful" suggestions to Jesus was unwelcome, suggesting that he could fix the deficiency in the wine at the marriage at Cana.
The beauty of this story is that God used Mary as she was, she was accepted as she was. She was not chosen because she was someone special. Much later theology would provide her mother with a name and an immaculate conception of her own. It was as a normal woman that she had a particular role in the economy of salvation. Jesus could have done everything he did, said everything he needed to say, achieved all he did, entirely without reference to how he came to birth or who his parents were. Mary is only mentioned once in the gospel of Mark, and that in the list of his family members.
And, of course, being a parent can be enormously frustrating and boring as well. It is something for which the primary qualification is patience! And I am sure that Mary and Joseph would have had to have just as much patience to bring up their family as any of us do today. Trying to bring up a family and to get along with our friends and neighbours was no less difficult then as now. It is the great leveller. Mary was called simply to be, to be herself and to do what she would have done quite naturally, without any prodding. Along the way she was called to get along with friends and neighbours, just as we are.
So too, we are called to be ourselves, to do what we would normally do, to get along with those God puts around us, and to allow others precisely the same ministry.
Who Jesus actually was, what he said and did, and what became of him in the end, had little or nothing to do with how he was brought up, or the parents he had. His role in the economy of salvation was far more dependent on what God did in his life.
So too, the things that I value in my life are the things where I perceive God at work, and more often than not, that is when I am not controlling the people or the events around me.
And it is here that perhaps the importance of her youth and her virginity become apparent. She was accepting, perhaps even na´ve, and she wasn't in control.
I have been reading some of John Macquarie's "Principles of Christian Theology" and I was struck again by the words: "One's own self is the last idol" (p288) though I would put it first. This idol is the pretence and illusion of having power and authority to control our circumstances.
In this little picture, we have a delicate balance to maintain. Certainly there is a power in the visitation, yet also it is merely an invitation. It is a call that didn't ask of Mary anything unusual, and in her acceptance, she wasn't transported to some magical blissful existence, free of the trials and tribulations that we have to face. She, like we, are never entirely in control of our own destinies, and any attempt to do so is soul destroying anyway. It is as we too face our successes and failures in our lives that we bring about the Lord's purpose for us, not as we spend our time on our knees here in church.
Finally I look at this vignette and think how God treated Mary gently. Here was a person of seemingly little account in the grand scale of things, and she is treated gently, not forced. And this is how God treats each and every one of us, gently and without force. And if God is content to treat each and every person gently and without forcing, perhaps we might be encouraged to do likewise -- treating ourselves and others as precious and sacred.
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