December is upon us, and yesterday we had the joyous task of decorating our building to celebrate Christ’s coming. That physical preparation is important, but we have some spiritual preparation to do as well. What does it mean to you that Christ has come and is coming? We live in an in-between time waiting for the fulfillment of promises in a world torn by strife and empire building. Mary lived in a similar time in world history. The Roman Empire was well on its way to controlling the world and the Hebrew people were waiting for the promised coming of the Messiah to free them.
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Luke 1:26-45
There are some hard questions that God asks me when I read this story: “Would Mary be welcome in your church? How would you treat her? Would she have to run to the next state to stay with family?” Mary was a young woman with a problem. There are names for young women that get pregnant when they aren’t married, and she knew she was about to be on the receiving end of them. I find it interesting that there aren’t nasty names for the young men that are part of these kinds of situations. Mary knew God would protect her, but how could she look her family or neighbors in the eye? Who would believe the story she had to tell? She needed to get moving before she started to show. Her life was possibly in danger and her future was uncertain. She needed to go somewhere to figure out what to do, how to break the news to Joseph, how to not become an outcast. Mary paid attention to the words of the angel and went to visit Elizabeth. Elizabeth could have said quite a few things to her cousin, regardless of how her baby reacted, but she welcomed Mary with open arms, seeing the truth of the situation. It is not recorded what counsel Elizabeth gave Mary, but we do know that Mary returned home after only three months, right when she started to show. Who would have thought that the Messiah would be conceived out of wedlock? If the mere fact of her pregnancy didn’t get her in trouble her excuse would have. If a teenager came up to me and said that God got her pregnant, I know that I would have a bit of difficulty swallowing that one. But God’s ways are not our ways. Jesus was to come through an unlikely, but willing vessel.
“Unlikely but willing” is a theme that runs all through the scriptures. God is much more concerned about willingness than he is about qualification. Abram had no idea what he was doing, but he was willing to trust God and became the father of Israel. Miriam was a poor slave, but she was willing and through her willingness to obey God Moses lived to lead Israel out of bondage. Rahab was a prostitute but was willing to hide the Israelite spies and was spared to become part of God’s people. Samuel was a ward of the temple, but he was willing and God spoke through him as the prophet to Israel. David was a shepherd in a rural area, but he was willing and became king. The list goes on throughout the scriptures and there are some people in this church who have their rightful place on that list. Because of Mary’s willingness we remember her 2000 years later as the mother of God, but we sometimes gloss over her unlikeliness.
Some of that is influenced by our own self-images. We see ourselves as unlikely, unworthy, and unprepared for the calls God has placed on our lives. We see our unlikeliness as a failure on our part to be the person God has called us to be. But we forget the examples that have come before us of God preferring to use the unlikely. God’s will is for us to grow, not to remain as we are. Let’s look at David as an example. David was an uneducated youngest son in an agricultural society. His chances of becoming the king of God’s people seemed not only slim, but laughable. The current king was vigorous, and had a healthy son to continue his line. David was God’s choice though and God created opportunities for David to grow into the role. Not only did God create opportunities, but protected David as he learned the call God had for him. God trained David and gave him the opportunities to grow and prepare that led to his being one of the greatest kings of Israel. David’s biggest failures came when he was at the top of following God’s call because he forgot the responsibilities of the call. What gives us hope is that even though David had his flaws, as did Mary, God still called David a “man after God’s own heart.” If God can use an adulterous murderer like David to do great things in God’s plan, we certainly can be used as well. God has a call on the life of each person in this room no matter what you think about your ability, worthiness, preparedness or the lack thereof.
Just like Mary, Christ resides within each of us, waiting to be born into our daily lives. Waiting for us to willingly lay our lives, hopes, dreams, ambitions, and prospects down in favor of God’s will. This is the real test God has for us: Are we willing to lay aside everything in favor of following Christ’s lead? When the Angel told Mary she would be with child, Mary knew there would be consequences to that. It could have meant the loss of everything she had hoped for in life. It could have meant the loss of her family, the loss of her future husband, the loss of her home, and possibly even the loss of her life. But Mary was willing. She could have said no. She could have asked the angel if it could wait until after the marriage. Mary could have tried to negotiate an easier path, but she didn’t because she was willing to trust God with her future. Mary’s willingness was not blind obedience. She had some questions to ask the angel, and she got answers that confirmed the call. But if you look at the questions she asked, they were not only logical, but they were focused on how God was to accomplish this while keeping Mary’s integrity intact. Mary was willing, but she was also wise to make sure that this was an angel of God, not one that was leading her astray. It is perfectly alright to ask God “How on earth will this happen?” and to make sure that everything is on the up and up. I knew I was called to become a pastor. It was a long journey, and I had some fears and some questions. When I was approached by the Elders at Olympic View Friends Church in Washington, I told them that I wasn’t sure I was ready. They said that they didn’t think I was ready either, but that wasn’t what they were asking me. They wanted to know if I was willing. I said I was, but that I had some questions about how. God answered those questions, because here I am today. God took an extremely extroverted, disorganized, college dropout, and taught me how to shut up, how to organize around relationship and helped me gain admission to and a scholarship for seminary. I was an unlikely vessel for God’s words, mainly because I had plenty of my own, but because I was willing God set me on the road that led here.
The angel also gave Mary a way to confirm things and a direction to go. This direction led to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist who welcomed Mary. We are also called to be like Elizabeth. Elizabeth saw that Mary had some challenges to face, but welcomed Mary into her home and spent three months preparing Mary for what was to come. Without Elizabeth’s support, Mary might not have had the courage to go home and face Joseph and her family. Those of us who have been in the faith a while have a responsibility when we see people God is beginning to work in. It is not our job to point out what makes people unlikely vessels. We usually are all too aware of our unlikeliness, that message is blasted at us all day every day from thousands of advertisements. Our responsibility is to fan the flames of the call, to help them prepare for the path ahead. Elizabeth was paying attention to the workings of God and because of that was able to provide that initial support that Mary needed to begin the process of bearing Jesus. When we are in prayer and are paying attention, looking for the working of God in each other, we can have the privilege of working beside God as he begins a new work in someone’s life.
These two women, Mary and Elizabeth, are role models that display God’s activity in human history. Mary willingly bore Christ, with all of the complications and suffering that added to her life. Elizabeth willingly welcomed the Christ that Mary bore and helped Mary prepare to face the consequences of that call. Just as with Mary and Elizabeth, God has given each of us the privilege of bearing his Son into this broken hurting world and the joy of welcoming the Christ that others bear. I pray that each of you finds ways to bear Jesus to your community and that you eagerly seek to nurture others in following the lead of the Christ they are also called to bear.