In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her. “Do not be afraid, Mary, For you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel of the Lord answered her and said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will over shadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And 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. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then 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.
What do you think Mary’s story was before Gabriel came to see her that day? We might can suppose that Joseph, her betrothed or fiancé or promised husband, was amassing enough wealth to be independent and pay her father the agreed upon bride price. Likewise, Mary and her parents were working hard on a dowry. Some conversation had happened between Mary’s father, and Joseph’s father, Jacob-Heli. A price had been struck, a date had been set, and now the households were simply awaiting the proper season for the two households to make the proper exchange. Mary had surely seen plenty of cousins, siblings, and neighbors go through the rituals of betrothal and the ceremony of marriage, and the every-day-ness of family life. Couples got married, had babies, built homes and businesses, and married their babies into other households. Each generation watched the one before and expected the one to come to act in similar fashion. Mary and Joseph both had been raised as very faithful Jews. And we know that they are honest, compassionate, and generous people. I think we would have liked Mary and Joseph very much, if we had known them. They would have lived in a rather poor part of town. Joseph, often referred to as a carpenter, was generally speaking, a handyman. He made an honest living, but they were by no means wealthy. They lived in Nazareth, which wasn’t a wealthy town, and like other small lower middle income towns, everybody knew everybody. They took care of each other, but they also probably gossiped more than they should. Other couples had been warned of the danger of getting things out of order, but not Mary and Joseph. They were good, trusted, a true example of Yahweh’s people. Mary’s family even had a priest in the family! Zechariah belonged to the order of Abijah and Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin was a direct descendant of Aaron!! Mary looked up to her older cousins, revering their dedication to Yahweh and hoping that her life could be as pleasing to Lord as theirs. Except, she wondered at what caused Elizabeth’s womb to be closed. Everyone knew that they were blameless, after all Zechariah was a priest! And yet the Lord chose not to give them even one son. Mary hoped that wouldn’t be her fate! She hoped to give Joseph many strong boys to help with his work. The days were long for Joseph, and it wouldn’t be long before his strong hands and back were as gnarled and bent as the older men of the community. And Mary also hoped for some sweet girls to help her make their house a home. Her work was nearly as back breaking as Joseph’s! Hauling water, building fires, tending gardens, preparing animals for cooking…more hands would make lighter work for sure! And while she knew the practical reasons why she wanted a quiver full of children to give to Joseph, she also dreamed of which one would have his nose or her chin. She had chosen Joseph to be her husband. Her father had made a good arrangement for her, and Joseph had a wonderful reputation for being both upright and kind. She didn’t fear being hurt by him like some women were by their partners. And she longed to be the kind of wife that Ruth was to Boaz, bringing him honor even in his old age. I’m sure that Mary had plans.
Mary was probably approaching her 14th birthday, Joseph had maybe just turned 17. They had been betrothed, that is a document promising marriage had been signed when Joseph had turned 16 and Mary was about 12 ½ . As was customary for all the people of their time and culture, now that their bodies were able, it was time for them to contribute to society and the temple by having children of their own. Their hopes and dreams would have been closely tied to the customs and expectations of their time. They knew what to dream about because they knew what to expect.
Then an angel of the Lord came to Nazareth one day.
Now, let’s pause there. First, let’s shake off how uncomfortable we are with a 14 and 17 year old getting married and having a baby. It’s what was expected. Instead, focus attention on a couple of other dynamics. We will talk more about this next week, but the other custom was the severity against a betrothed individual becoming pregnant. Betrothal meant that she was fully his, but they were not to consummate their marriage until a certain time period had passed and the bride price had been paid. So to discover that you are pregnant when you know that you have not broken the bonds of your betrothal would be incredibly confusing. I think she asks a very good question here. “How can this be?”
I don’t think she’s arguing as much as she is just bewildered. After all, this only happened once in all of human history…and it’s happening to her. The angel promises that it is good news. The angel promises that this is God’s plan for her because she is highly favored. The angel promises that God is with her, in a way that God has never been with any other human…she is to be overshadowed and filled with the very Son of God.
And before we get to her response to this *news*, what would you think? Not what do you think about Mary getting this announcement. We love her story! No, I mean, when your story gets retold, what is your response? When you find out that the Holy Spirit is changing the trajectory of your plans, when what you’ve expected takes a dramatic turn, how does your heart respond to God.
We like to sing a song that repeats, “You’re a good, good Father. That’s who you are. And I’m loved by you. That’s who I am. You are perfect in all of your ways to us.” And when I held my first beautiful baby in my arms nearly 16 years ago, I could have sung this song with every fiber of my being. But I wasn’t an unmarried girl being told by an angel that I was going to be impregnated with the Son of God and be known as the mother of the Lord, the Messiah. And my point is this. I want to know how Mary gets from the place of hearing this angel tell her that her entire life is about to take a complete exit ramp from normalcy to “I am the hand maiden of the Lord. May it be to me as you have spoken.” How does she do that? And can I? When the story that I’ve imagined for myself, the plans I’ve made, the expectations I have, the hopes and dreams I’m banking on just don’t work out like I want, can I say with sincerity, “May it be to be as you have said. I’m just here to serve God.” Is my song on those days, “You’re a good Father, and I am loved by you, and you are perfect in all of your ways to me.”
Maybe some of us have already come upon this test. Now, of course no one in this room has been asked to give birth to the Son of God. Some of our children may think this… (kidding!) But some of us have had a moment of realization that God is changing the script. Maybe it comes via really good news, like a promotion or a miracle. Maybe it comes via really bad news, like a job loss or a death. Or maybe it just comes as a really confusing message. And the best question we can think of is, “…but, how can that happen?” We aren’t arguing. We just don’t understand how we get from point A to point … is that a…. Q? And maybe our responses were varied. Some of us were up for the adventure (sure, I’ll give birth to God sized dream!) and some compromised a safer approach (uhm, how about I’ll be godparent to a God sized dream!) and some are still running from that angel (if I can’t see him, then he can’t see me!)
But I think whether or not we’ve passed such a test, we can be sure that we will encounter more of these invitations from God. At least, that’s how I understand this life of faith. We find out where God is working, we hear him invite us to join him, we have a crisis of faith wondering if we can, we submit to his authority, and we join him. The crisis of faith part is the part I want us to zero in on here. The Gospel writer depicts Mary’s crisis of faith as very short lived. Maybe God had already been preparing her, and she suspected this day was coming. Maybe she agonized but Luke spares us the details, after all the story really isn’t about her. No way to know. But I have had my share of faith crises and I have counseled quite a few people through their own. And I want to offer just a word of encouragement to carry with you as you negotiate your current crisis of faith, or the one that’s coming down the road.
I think the secret to believing that God is good and we are loved and all of God’s ways are perfect (even when it feels bad and we feel rejected and it seems awful) is to fully implement a Proverb that I learned as a little girl. And I’d like to think that Mary had this one memorized too. Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.
I wonder if as mary’s heart and mind swirled with questions, she recounted this truth to herself. Don’t lean on your own understanding, Mary. The angel just reminded you that with God all things are possible! Trust God will all your heart, Mary, even the part that longs to love Joseph as a wife and live quietly in Nazareth forever. Acknowledge who he is, Mary. He is the Lord, the Mighty One of Israel. If he can open Elizabeth’s womb, if he can rescue his people from Egypt, then surely he can direct a simple girl like me.
Mary used a particular word in reference to herself. She calls herself a “doule” or a handmaiden, a bond servant. She is saying she is bound to a King and will serve faithfully. Of course, that King is God. Interstingly, this is the word we use to talk about the person who assists in a birth, a doula who is there not for her own glory, but only to serve. Mary is saying yes, I will assist God in giving birth to the Savior. So can we see that analogy in our own crisis of faith? Can we imagine assisting God, not insisting on our own way or forcing God to come to our terms, but just being a servant of God’s dreams. Do we trust God like that? Is He really good? Does he really love? Is he really perfect?
One other place this Greek word is used. In Acts chapter 2 God is giving birth to the Church. (Ah, the beautiful intricacies of Luke’s authorship…so much to say here!) In verse 18 Peter quotes the prophet Joel and says that God is about to pour out His Spirit on his ‘doules’, his servants, men and women. So I’m thinking, if I want to experience being filled with the Holy Spirit, if I want to walk in fellowship with the Resurrected Christ, then I better get into the category of ‘doule’ because THAT seems to be who God is meeting in some powerful ways.
Are there any doulas in the room? Is there a Mary in the house?