Second Sunday in Advent
The Rev. Ryan Slifka
Second Sermon in our Advent sermon series “There’s Something About Mary.”
Today we continue with our Advent sermon series “There’s Something About Mary,” starring Mary, the mother of Jesus. Last week we heard from the book of Revelation chapter 12, about the woman of the apocalypse—clothed in the sun, standing on the moon, crown of stars on her head. She gives birth, a cosmic dragon tries to destroy it but fails. And is thrown down to earth. Not something you see everyday.
This week, we drop down from the cosmic vision of Revelation back down to earth, to a little backwater town in Galilee called Nazareth. Off the beaten path.
Here an Angel visits, a heavenly messenger. The messenger tells Mary that she’s going to give birth to a child, Jesus. Even though she’s never been with a man. Note that it doesn’t say that God will impregnate her like the Greek God Zeus, as if you could do a test to detect divine DNA. But notice the angel says that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, and she will carry this child. The Holy Spirit, God’s life-giving, universe-creating power will generate within her a child,[i] a royal child, and a future for her people. All without a male donor. She’s terrified at first, but ultimately says “yes.” And the rest, as they say, is history. Or theology. Or both.
Now, the whole scene that plays out represents one of the most popular obstacles for many of us when it comes to Christianity: that Jesus was born of Mary, a virgin. The objection goes like this: “I know how human biology works. Reproduction requires one sperm and one egg. One of these two is missing from this whole procedure.” These are usually intelligent, thoughtful people, using their God-given reason. And unfortunately it’s often the case that when this little Jenga block’s removed, the whole tower of faith tumbles to the ground.[ii]
Personally, I get it. In fact, I shared the same doubts for a long time—on the day of my baptism at twenty and beyond. As time’s gone on, though, I’ve had less and less trouble. Not because I think there’s some kind of airtight argument for it. But I’ve become much more content with simply resting in the mystery, trusting in the deeper truth of the thing beyond simple scientific investigation. And besides, in comparison to other much more incredible miracles, a virgin birth seems like relatively small potatoes of believability.
Having said all of the above, though, concentrating on the question of the Virgin birth actually tends to take us away from an equally important part of this story. There’s something equally—if not more miraculous—than the birds and bees question.
What I’m talking about here is what Mary says at the end of our passage:
“Here I am,” she says. “The servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Now that doesn’t seem like a big deal. I was reading a children’s Christmas book this week, and it paraphrased Mary’s words like this. “Mary smiled,” it said, “I’m glad to do whatever God needs me to.” Makes it all sound like a happy, lovely thing.
There are a couple of things in this text that suggest otherwise, however.
First of all, all the woman in Mary’s culture are generally engaged and married around age 10, 11, 12. Meaning, not only is she young, she’s never been pregnant before.
I’ve never been pregnant before either. But I have lived in very close quarters with a pregnant person and been present at three births. From observation I can tell you that this is not a fun nor easy thing. Combine that with the fact that for Mary there are no morning sickness meds, no epidural, no modern medicine of any kind, and you have an event that’s not just easy obedient smiles and sunshine. So I think it’s safe to read some anxiety into Mary’s voice. A little at least.
That’s the first issue. The second issue is probably the bigger one, though. The issue is what this new baby will do to her life.
The writer Philip Yancey tells a story about a young woman who once had the courage to stand up in front of their relatively conservative church congregation. She stood to admit something that everyone already knew: “We have seen her hyperactive son running up and down the aisles every Sunday,” Jenkins writes.
“Cynthia had taken the lonely road of bearing an illegitimate child and caring for him after his father decided to skip town. Cynthia’s sin was no worse than many others, and yet, as she told us, it had such conspicuous consequences. She could not hide the result of that single act of passion, stuck out as it did from her abdomen for months until a child emerged to change every hour of every day for the rest of her life. No wonder the Jewish teenager Mary felt greatly troubled: she faced the same prospects even without the act of passion.”[iii]
We tend to skip over, or forget, the fact that Mary’s engaged to Joseph when she becomes pregnant. Engaged, not married. Which you’ll likely know was a scandalous thing, even in our own culture until only a few decades ago.
Even if she were able to get her fiancé Joseph on board, which the gospel of Matthew suggests, the “I swear it was the Holy Spirit” explanation would probably meet the same kind of disbelief then as it would now. Like the woman in Yancey’s story points out—pregnancy’s the kind of thing Mary could hide for a while, but would have to come out. She could hide it for a while, but morning sickness and an extending tummy would eventually give it all away. Everybody would know soon enough.
One writer says, tongue-in-cheek, something to the effect of, no wonder they skip town to have the birth in Bethlehem, instead of Nazareth: “I’d say they were glad to get out of town,” he writes, “given the months of whispering from the neighbors.”[iv]
The virgin birth may be a difficult thing to get our heads around. But there’s perhaps an even more astounding miracle in this text. It’s the fact that Mary says “yes.” Because none of this happens without her “yes.” She consents to the Spirit. It’s remarkable, not only because it would change her life for good--which any child would. But, most remarkably that it would also cost her everything else.
“Greetings, favoured one!” says the angel. Makes you wonder about God’s enemies, if this is what happens to “favoured ones,” like Mary.
But in saying “yes,” Mary’s agreeing not only to the physical and emotional toll of pregnancy. She’s agreeing to the possibility of denunciation by her neighbors and friends, ostracization from her family. In saying yes, she gives in to the likely heartache of rejection, and the certain shame of a ruined reputation.
That’s perhaps the more astounding miracle here. That she said “yes,” in spite of the all the implications. In spite of the fear. In spite of the uncertainty it would mean. In spite of the potential loss, the possible shame.
And she does it all based on the presence of the Holy Spirit, and a simple promise from God. “The Lord is with you,” says the angel. “Don’t be afraid.” A promise that everything she would be put through for this baby, all of it would be worth it in the end. Even if she didn’t get to see it with her own eyes.
That’s what we miss, I think, when we see biology as the only question. And this is the important thing that we miss, but need to hear.
We often see blessings in life in terms of good outcomes. Prosperity, happiness, comfort. Smooth sailings and soft beds. But this whole scene with Mary suggests otherwise. It suggests that God’s blessings, God’s work, and God’s purpose in our lives is more like carrying and delivering a baby. The early church saw Mary as not only the mother of Jesus, but the paradigm, the first example of what it means to follow Jesus. Her saying “yes” is cross-shaped. Meaning that the new life that God promises us will be amazing, transformative, deeply joyful. But, like any child, it’ll take deep discomfort, worry, and stepping out of our comfort zones. It’s gonna cost us. It’s gonna change us. Maybe that’s why we focus on the conception instead of the gestation. Because that’s the easy part.
It’s something that we’ve been willing to trust as a community of faith, actually. Because becoming a church that’s open and drawing different people, we’ve had to have the courage to give up other important things, things that brought us comfort. It’s taken courage, it’s taken faith. It’s even cost members. These are contractions, birth pangs. But we’ve seen the new life with our eyes. And heard the racket of the Lord in the form of hyperactive children.
And that’s one small taste. Like welcoming a new baby into our lives, if we want to gain life, life in the full, life eternal, life that lasts… we have to be willing to say “yes, let it be with me according to your Word,” over and over again. It’s having the courage, like Mary, to have our lives completely rearranged to make room for Jesus in our midst. Whether as a church, as families, or as individuals. To have our own wills, plans, dreams overshadowed by the will, the plans, and leading of the Holy Spirit.
Like Mary, God’s call in our lives can mean sacrifice, suffering. Even shame. And, like any other child, it means giving up control of the ultimate outcome. Faith when we don’t see the other side.
But the good news is that like with Mary, the God who calls us to new life, this God has promised to be with us and for us. No matter how big the obstacle, no matter how difficult or terrorizing the call may be, we can say “yes,” knowing that we’re not alone. And we’ll be given all the strength we need.
So let’s all look to Mary for courage in our own calls, no matter how big. No matter how small And even more so, let’s look further beyond her pregnancy to Christ who not only calls, but gives us the strength to answer them. “Here I am,” she says. Let every heart prepare him room. And let it be with us, as with her, according to God’s Word.
[i] Karl Barth points out that this is an act of creation rather than simple paternity. “In the Old and New Testaments the Holy Spirit is God Himself in his creative movement to his creation.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.2, ed. Thomas Torrance and G.W. Bromiley (Peabody: Henrikson, 1977), 333.
[ii] Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jurgen Moltmann, are both theologically quite orthodox yet do not believe that the virgin birth is an “essential” Christian belief as the scripture passages are only from two gospels and seem to be more theologically rather than historically focused. Like I said, I’m good to live with the mystery, and it’s an important one at that. But I do not think it’s a “deal breaker.”
[iii] Philip Yancey, “The Visited Planet,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Farmington: Plough, 2001), 256-7.
[iv] Frank G. Honeycutt, Marry a Pregnant Virgin: Unusual Bible Stories for New and Curious Christians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2008), 31. Honeycutt’s interpretation of this passage is what this whole sermon is built on. I give him full credit for the inspiration of this sermon.