26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 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. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." 34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 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. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God." 38 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.
We Protestants, as a rule, have not done so well in dealing with Mary. There is probably a long and storied history of both fascination and fear with how our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers have treated her, but that can wait for another day. Suffice it to say, that in sensing the danger of turning Mary into something that she does not appear to have been, in not wanting to make of her a quasi-divine, eternal monument to purity, we have sort of just kept silent. We shrug nervously at her and suddenly gaze at our shoes in her presence. Yes, we can tell you all that which we do not believe about Mary, but ask us to say what we do believe, and, well, things get a bit quiet. In not wanting to say too much, we have instead said nothing at all. Yes, we instead settle for some over sentimentalized version of her, a Mary who is just sort of happily pregnant and not at all upset or scared or confused by the fact that the Holy Spirit has conceived of the Son of God in her womb while she is engaged to be married. Yes, in not having a particularly clear picture of Mary, we have allowed her to be overtaken by the warm cheer of the Christmas season, mapping out our own hope and sentiments about this season on her and her life. And certainly, good Christmas cheer is wonderful, laudable even, but it is just not the point of today’s story.
As in all things, God’s version of the story is entirely more compelling, and it begins not with a “hallmark-Scrooge-and-the-Grinch-learned-the-true-meaning-of-Christmas-type-cheer.” Instead, it begins in a religiously impure and backwater town and a young girl with few prospects, and that right there is a scandal that we moderns have a hard time relating to. That God’s coming in the flesh will begin with a woman, and a woman not of any education or social standing, that would be enough to get the Biblical-literalists of Mary’s time all sorts of fired up. Yes, one of low-estate Mary will call herself, meaning that she probably did not get on the honor roll nor was she expecting any scholarship offers to good schools. Instead, that she was engaged to be married to a hard-working carpenter, and they, hopefully, would be able to eke out a living; this was basically all one could anticipate, and though it might not have been a lot, it was to be received with gratitude.
So, it is into this entirely ordinary existence, this cautionary tale of a life for those with the dreams of the upwardly mobile, that this incredible story of God’s coming in the flesh begins. “Rejoice you that have been graced,” says Gabriel. And even, then, he has some explaining to do. What after all, is an angel doing talking with a woman, to say nothing of a woman of little social standing and no power? What is an angel doing in Nazareth, a place long considered God-forsaken? Mary is right to ask what kind of greeting this might be, for what might it mean for God to come to one such as this? And as he proceeds to inform Mary of what is going to happen to her, things become not more clear but muddier still. For in this particular case, being grace by God, having the Almighty look upon with that earth-shattering care, well, for Mary this means that she will have a child, and not just any child, but the very Son of God. To this woman, this woman of no repute, of virtually no social value, this woman who would remain invisible if not for divine conspiracy, yes to this woman will be born the son whose glory will garner him any number of titles. The contrast is stunning. To a woman with no social standing will be born the Son of the Most High, the heir of David’s throne, the ruler of Jacob’s house, the one whose kingdom will reign from everlasting to everlasting.
Yes, if Mary is perplexed, if she has a few questions, that should strike no one as out of place, but there is none more dangerous a question than “how can these things be?” What Mary is asking here is about more than human biology. Instead, she is asking a question of her safety. Yes, to be found with child, as the saying goes, while engaged to another man, well, this is more than a bit scandalous. Instead, the more morally rigid of Mary’s community could rightly stone her to death. So, yes, we ask with Mary, how can these things be? How is it that God will choose to enter the world in such a downright scandalous fashion that could land this woman in very deep trouble, indeed? How can it be that God has seen this woman, observed her in her depths as Luther put it, and from her, from this woman on the edge of society (as all women were in those days), God will birth the one who will render the judgment and redemption of all things? With what sort of reckless, unpredictable and bizarre love are we dealing?
And the answer, oh, that answer, that is even better than the infinite questions that could prompt it. In beginning to sketch out an answer to how these things could be, we are driven to seek the mischievous God who stands behind them. How can these things be? They can be because, as Gabriel says, with this God, nothing is impossible, and please, dear people of God, heed the specificity of these words. The impossibility that is to be overcome is not some abstraction problem from an intro to philosophy class. Rather, it is the impossibility of our pride and despair, that impossibility of our mistrust of God, the impossibility of our fears of those who look and behave differently, these are the impossibilities that must be overcome. And for all these, there is an answer, an answer that will take on flesh and blood, and be born amongst scandal to two, devote Jewish folks who just might be in a bit over their heads. That answer will cry in the night, will play at his mother’s lap, will get bruised knees and skinned elbows, and will make his parents swell with joy and pride, as parents tend to do. Yes, this answer, this one whose coming we anticipate, he will grow, and his very being will shimmer with a sublime love that will heal lepers, a love that will name outcasts as beloved children of God, a love that will peer deep into human darkness and tell us, even in that place of decay, we are loved. And, yes, there will be consequences for answering the question as he will, impossibility is a formidable foe, after all. He will suffer greatly, and even conquer the impossibility of death to save us poor sinners who tremble at the grave, but fear not, for in due time, even the fearsome roar of that last impossibility will be hushed into languid song as he himself is raised from the dead.
“Nothing will be impossible for God,” says Gabriel. Not the impossibility of a virgin giving birth, nor the impossibility of a young woman on food stamps discovering that she is utterly loved by God. Nor the impossibility of God reclaiming and restoring a world that has gone mad with greed, despair and suspicion. No, for all of these impossibilities are about to be met by a God consumed with love. And it is to this God that Mary gives witness, it is in this God that Mary will find her value and worth, and it will be this God that she will bear to the world. And in that, in birthing God’s beloved Son, in trusting in God’s goodness, no matter the scandal it may cause, that we can see in Mary an example to be followed. Yes, the God that will do wondrous things to and through Mary, that God has promised good to you, as the old hymn goes. And this promised goodness will light your way even through the darkest night of doubt, fear or self-loathing. For you, too, have found favor with this God, even and perhaps especially if you were not exactly seeking it out. For the same God that Mary bears is the God that has come to make you his own, so that you, too, may bear him to the world by serving all of God’s beloved people. Let it be according to Christ’s good will. In Jesus’ name, amen.