When the angel calls Mary God’s favored one, she’s rightfully confused and afraid about what this greeting will mean for the life she has known. With Mary, we must decide: will we throw up our defenses when we feel uncertain, or will we stay open to God?
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Second Sunday of Advent, year B
Texts: Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:46b-55
She had a plan for her life. Whether or not Mary was excited about her path, she knew what it was going to be. She was about to be married, with children soon to follow, just like generations of mothers before her, and generations of mothers to come. It wasn’t going to be anything special – she calls herself lowly, this world rarely lets lowly people live extraordinary lives – but at least it was a familiar story.
But then the angel tells this ordinary woman that she is God’s favored one, and her familiar world spins off its axis. Is there anything so terrifying as hearing that you have found God’s favor? God’s favor might sound nice in theory, but most of us just want to live in quiet control of our lives, making our humble contributions to our world. How many of us want to be swept up in something greater than ourselves, something vast and wild and overwhelming? Because that’s what God’s favor really is. As Mary’s people had long known, God’s favor isn’t innocuous. You can’t passively receive it, then go on your way. God’s favor makes terrible and wonderful demands of God’s chosen servants. God’s favor kept Noah and his family safe in the ark while the world flooded around them. God’s favor carried Joseph from his home to a prison cell to a king’s right hand. God’s favor raised up Moses to lead his people out of Egypt and into a new land, a new law, a new way of being. God’s favor never lets people stay put.
And so when Mary hears the angel call her favored, we read that she is much perplexed. That’s the nice way of putting it. We could also translate that word, “perplexed,” as troubled, agitated, distressed. She’s worried, deeply worried about what this greeting is going to do to her life. She’s conflicted about what it means to hear God calling her. And it’s not because she’s a coward, or weak in faith. It’s because she knows her people’s story, and she knows her God. She knows that God’s favor means that nothing is ever going to be the same. What is God’s favor going to demand of her? Where is it going to take her, and how is it going to change her? Gabriel’s encouragement not to be afraid isn’t coming out of nowhere – the angel knows that he bears unsettling news. God wants to overturn everything that Mary has ever expected from the world. Her entire story could be rewritten. That would be enough to worry anyone.
When we have our understanding of our place in the world challenged, our instinct is to defend ourselves. We naturally pull back and close ourselves off to the threat. That’s why it’s so difficult for us to talk meaningfully with people who hold opposing views, why it’s so much easier for us to shout at each other than it is to listen. It’s hard for us to take in information that challenges our worldview, and so easy to discount different perspectives as falsehoods. We don’t want to consider the possibility that we could be wrong. We don’t like to change our minds, and we definitely don’t like to change our plans. When we’re unsure and nervous, we often just want to retreat to a place of certainty and safety. We throw up our walls to protect what we know and love.
And that’s just the effect that other people have on us. If we seek safety and certainty in our human relationships, then how much more do we long for those things from God! We want to be certain about how God is acting in our lives, to point to the clear and confident movement of the spirit through history. We want God’s plan to be transparent. But that’s not how God works. God’s story brings us down long and dangerous paths through the wilderness before we see the Promised Land. We encounter God’s grace in turmoil and overturning, in difficult transformations and times of trial. In the Magnificat, Mary sings that God’s promises are kept when God upends the world, casting down the proud and mighty and lifting up the weak. When the spirit collides with history, it shakes things up. It shakes us up. Salvation is not serene, and it’s not safe. We say we want God in our lives, but we can be quick to shut ourselves off to the work of the spirit, because God wants to change us, and we rarely want to be changed.
I confess I have felt this in my own life in recent weeks. I know what it means to celebrate the movement of the Magnificat – to rejoice at the casting down of the mighty – until it suddenly hits too close to home. When the comic Louis CK was taken down by allegations of sexual misconduct, I cheered. I’d seen the rumors online for years, so when all those whispers grew into a shout that could topple a giant, it felt like such a victory. I thought of all those stories in scripture that tell of God rising up to create justice where it looked like justice was impossible, and it felt like I was watching one of those amazing moments where God was breaking into history to set things right. When the same thing happened to Al Franken, I cried. It was so confusing, and so sad, to watch this movement I believed in turn its wrath on a person I admired. And as I watched other people on the political left also go through this confusion, I saw their defenses fly up. People who had days before proclaimed, “believe women,” were now calling Franken’s accusers lying right-wing operatives…and other, far worse insults. They were happy to see powerful men being taken down, so long as it didn’t make them lose anyone they cherished. When I read and heard these kinds of comments, I was sickened their hypocrisy – but there was a part of me that also found them satisfying. I wanted to believe that they were right. They opened the tempting possibility that nothing about my world would have to change, that God’s unsettling of history would only touch other people. When the world felt fearful and perplexing, there was something in me that just wanted to retreat to the safety of the way things used to be.
But Mary, she stays open. When the angel greets her and calls her favored, she’s confused. She’s scared. She’s not sure she’s ready for whatever God is going to ask of her. But she keeps listening. She pushes back, asks questions, but she doesn’t close herself off to God’s possibilities. She doesn’t retreat, and she doesn’t shut down. And in the end, in spite of her perplexity and fear, Mary says yes. She wants to be a part of God’s plan because she knows that, whatever turmoil she is going to experience, whatever pain and loss and fear, whatever uncertainty about what God is doing – God has something better in store on the other side. God’s favor is going to take her from her ordinary life to the foot of the cross where she will watch her son die in agony, but that same favor will bring her to the empty tomb, and to a place of glory among the saints. God’s path for her and her son leads through fear and hurt and despair, but in the end, it saves us all. Mary doesn’t know what’s in store for her, but she is certain in the faith that God is transforming the world, and her, for the better.
What awaits us on the other side of our fears is better than anything we could build on our own. The world that God wants for us is more wonderful than the world we have, more wonderful than even the world we could imagine. Life in the resurrection is fuller than the life we could make for ourselves. God peace is more complete than the peace this world offers – but the uneasy compromises that we call peace must be shaken up for the peace of Christ to break through. It’s hard to let go of the things we know, so that we might live into the things that God has planned for us. Until our new world takes shape, we will be perplexed, much perplexed about where God is. We’ll question if and how God plans are possible. We will fearfully wonder at our place in God’s work. But with Mary, we can hold all these things in our heart, and still say, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And in that moment, Christ will grow within us, and nothing will ever be the same.