The candles of Expectation, Preparation, and Joy glow on the Advent Wreath helping us to remember and to draw close. Earlier in this service we lit the Candle of Faithfulness. We now stand only hours away from Christmas Eve and draw ever closer to Christmas morning. We come celebrating more than the birth of a babe in a manger, but to renew our joy of the birth of the Savior, just like the people of God had done each year for more than two thousand years. We come seeing and embracing the two intertwined stories of faithfulness pronounced in the Scripture that tells us: "The virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means God with us)."
This morning we remember the faithfulness of God, who fulfilled the prophetic promises to come and walk among us. We celebrate the faithfulness of God, who makes the way for our redemption in his life, his death and resurrection. We celebrate that God has acted out in love for us, just as He said.
We also come to remember the faithfulness of Mary, one chosen by God to be an instrument in the greatest story ever told. You can almost feel Baptist begin to get nervous when we talk about Mary. We have seen the elevated place that Catholic Church has given to Mary and we push back wanting to make it very clear that Mary was very, very human. We do not want anything to take away from the story of Jesus. But sometimes in our push back we miss a remarkable story of faithfulness and a powerful witness of what it means to be called to be an instrument of God.
Soon enough we will get to Luke 2 and tell the Christmas story. But let’s not rush too quickly by the story of Mary found in Luke 1. We listened as James read our focal passages earlier in our worship service. But take a closer look at this story with me. Almost immediately we can feel the tension in the moment. Not only did Mary have to deal with the appearance of an angel, the words he brought caused concern. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
Can you imagine what must have been racing through Mary’s mind? Why is an angel appearing to me? This is clearly far from an everyday experience. A visit from the realm of heaven would have been enough to shock, even terrify, the strongest among us. And then there was that greeting. What would make her favored by God? After all she was a young girl living in a small village that would have had little or no status in her family, not to speak of her culture. The Lord was with her? What was angel talking about?
Gabriel spoke into her fear. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. With these words hanging in the air the angel explained the commission from God. God would use her as an instrument to bring into the world the promised Messiah. Mary had one great question. How would this happen? The angel tried to explain but ultimately spoke to her heart. The New King James version translates his words as; For with God nothing will be impossible. The New International Version translates it; For no word from God will ever fail.” The heart of the words is the same. If God says it will be, it will be.
Recent archaeological digs reflect that at the time of the birth of Jesus Nazareth would have been a hamlet of about 50 homes consuming an area of about four acres.[i] To put the population size in context, there are many more of us here in the room this morning than would have lived in the village when Mary received this word from the angel. The word the angel brought her must have seen almost impossible to believe and even harder to imagine. She would have been on the edge of her teens faced with a very adult decision. An unexplained pregnancy by an unmarried woman would have brought shame on her. It would have brought shame on her family. It would have brought shame on Joseph. It would have brought shame on his family. It would have brought shame to her whole village. She would face the daily looks of judgment from all she would see. Some might speak the words. Others would have simply gazed at her with contempt and self righteous indignation. She could tell them that it is an act of God, but would anyone believe it? (photo from Biblical Archaeology)
You must understand that this is not something that happened to Mary. Listen again. 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary had a choice to make. Would she be willing to be an instrument of God, or would she turn away for her sake her reputation and the reputations of everyone she loved? Can you begin to image the weight of this decision laid on the shoulders of this young girl? This is not a decision that will affect her for a moment and then move on. It will shape every day for the rest of her life. She could not know how Joseph might respond. He could publically humiliate her or worse. She could not know how the story would play out. She could only see what God was asking of her and could only respond out of her faith. She makes the choice that will ripple through history. Mary’s story matters. We have to see Mary as a faithful servant of God willing to do whatever God desired of her, regardless of its price.
The last three verses that James read to us emerge from Mary’s song. This is the song that Scripture attributes to Mary as a reflection of her response to this divine commission. She sings; “My soul magnifies the Lord,47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. 48 For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. 49 For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name. Rather than shake and quake and the prospect of what is in front of her she sings out in faithfulness. She sings out in celebration that God would work in her life and that God would use her as an instrument of His plan. Instead of freezing in fear, she celebrates what God is about to do. She plays a central part in the story of the birth of the Savior – the one that will change everything with His love and grace.
Mary’s song also reminds us powerfully that she understood that she was ordinary. She sings that she is in the lowly state of His maidservant. She was not the most beautiful, the graceful, the most powerful, the most popular, or the best educated woman in the land. In fact, she was exactly the opposite. Mary was no spiritual superhero, but instead was remarkably ordinary in her circumstance. But the Bible is filled with stories of God’s consistent choice to work through the lives of the ordinary to do extraordinary things. What made Mary special was her heart for God. No, Mary is not part of the divine, but she was willing instrument of God.
How do you think you might respond if God asked you to put everything on the line? Are we willing to do all that God might ask of us, regardless of the cost? Would we be willing to risk our reputation and the potential for rejection by everyone we know and love? Would we be willing to go anywhere and do anything because we believed it was what God asked of us? Are you – are we – willing to be an instrument of God’s work in the world. God still calls. How will we answer?
We draw ever closer to the manger’s ledge. Hear the witness of the faithful; "The virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means God with us)." Christmas reminds us that God is with us and is ready to work in us and through us. Hear the Christmas call, be a willing instrument of God. For with God nothing will be impossible.