Advent 4

Mary, our model for discipleship -  A sermon preached by Fr James

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we focus on the person of Mary, and her unique vocation as Theotokos, Mother of God, as she has been described. Mary was a young girl of about fourteen and she was engaged to Joseph. This basically meant that while they weren’t yet sexually intimate, she was in a legally binding relationship and would continue to live with her parents for another year before the big wedding.

It is into this context that the angel Gabriel visits Mary and says: ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ Mary is perplexed. You can almost imagine Mary looking around and saying to herself, what’s going on, who’s he talking to? The word perplexed, which our Bible version uses, doesn’t quite capture the original. Greatly agitated gives more of the sense of what Mary was feeling. She was greatly agitated. The angel then commissions Mary. She is told that she has found favour with God, that by the Holy Spirit she will give birth to a child, a boy, that she is to name him Jesus, and that this child will be destined for great things, that his kingdom will never end. In this child, God will become present in a new and unique way

The first reading describes the calling to build a Temple, where the presence of God will occasionally descend. In contrast, the presence of God will now be found not in a Temple but rather in a body, a person. And Mary is to be the one who carries this child. ‘Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb’ as John Donne puts it. The eager waiting of Advent is soon to be over, the sense of God’s absence will give rise to the reality of God’s presence with us. However, this vocation will also be painful – a sword will pierce her own soul (2.35) – which is what we see in many depictions of Mary in art.

So, in Mary we find a young teenager, sexually chaste, with no elaborate pedigree, living in an insignificant town in something of a liminal state between her husband-to-be and her father (The Lectionary Commentary, Brent Strawn). And it is to this poor peasant girl, it is to this unlikely person, that God chooses to exalt, to lift up. In God’s way of doing things, which is so often different from our way of doing things, there is this rather subversive status reversal. The lowly are lifted up and the rich and proud are brought low. This depiction is not one of a submissive or passive Mary, but a Mary with a joyful revolutionary song on her lips. Scatter the proud; pull down the powerful; raise up the forgotten ones; feed the hungry.

Into this situation, God acts. Mary becomes pregnant. However one makes sense of the virgin birth, the real significance of what is happening is that God is about to do something new. In Jesus Christ, God is acting in a new creative way. And in continuity with the past, he does so through the lives and bodies of people who were faithful. We see in Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel a model for Christian discipleship. Her response is extraordinary: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

Mary responds with a resounding ‘Yes!’ ‘I am the Lord’s maid, the Lord’s servant. Be done to me according to your will. Let it be with me just as you say’ (Luke 1.38). This isn’t about simple submission, and it certainly isn’t a passive resignation. Mary expresses here her joyous desire to collaborate fully in the divine plan. Mary is saying, ‘Be done quickly what the Lord wants for me. I am ready. Here I am Lord.’

It was what one might describe a ‘big ask’. She’d have to endure the mockery of her neighbours, because of the ‘illegitimate child’. There was a high possibility that Joseph would call off the wedding. How was she going to cope financially? In an age of high mortality, it was going to be terribly risky.

It’s rather surprising that Mary doesn’t really ask what the terms and conditions were. Yet while she is described as being greatly agitated, and that in some way she had to process what was being requested of her, she seemed to implicitly trust God.

The Incarnation didn’t happen without Mary’s ‘Yes’. And Mary’s ‘yes’ is very significant. Firstly, it contrasts with the disobedience of the first female figure, Eve.

Her response also contrasts with the unbelief of Zechariah when an angel told him that his wife Elisabeth was going to conceive. Mary’s response has become the model of obedient partnership or fellowship with God.

This episode also tells us something about the nature of God. The Holy Spirit doesn’t come to dominate or impose God’s will on unsuspecting and reluctant humans. The characteristic word used of the Spirit’s engagement with us is ‘fellowship’. It’s one of relationship, dialogue, partnership. It is most certainly not one of domination. God respects our freedom. He would never force a ‘yes’ from anyone.

We can see how this idea of partnership is played out in our weekly liturgy. We regularly say an ancient Jewish prayer: ‘Blessed are you Lord God of all creation, through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made’.

God gives wheat and vine, and we humans work and produce bread and wine. What is quite apparent in these words is cooperation, a partnership.

This is what is going on with Mary. It’s a partnership that respects who we are, but it also recognises that we need the help and the perspective and the power of God if we are to grow as human beings. Far from threatening who we are, the Spirit enables us to be more fully ourselves. Far from impinging on our freedom, it’s the Spirit who enables us to be truly free (Mike Lloyd).

Theologians have discussed this for centuries – referring to the relationship between nature and grace. Thomas Aquinas: ‘Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.’ (Summa Theologica, Part 1, 1:8). And this is what discipleship means. God takes who we are, he takes us as we are, in all of our brokenness and imperfections, as well as our abilities and gifts, and he enables us, through his life-giving Spirit, to become more fully our true selves, the people who God created and intends for us to be.

Out of Mary’s openness to God’s calling, out of her her ‘yes’, comes a birth which is also a birth-giving, an act of liberation and response that changes, renews and transforms. This is a model for our relationship, our partnership with God. Let us be stirred this morning by Mary’s ‘yes’. Because it is through us that God works to bring about peace, justice, integrity of leadership, dignity, healing, reconciliation. God continues to act in the world in and through the cooperation, the partnership, of those who are faithful. With Mary, God invites us into relationship with him. God invites us into partnership with him. This is at the heart of what it means to be Christian, and how we are to be as the Church. And this all depends upon our openness to listen and to respond to God’s grace as Mary did, with a resounding ‘yes’.
Holland Park Benefice