December 21, 2014
William G. Carter
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 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. 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.
I love this story. But I wonder how much more there is to it. The storyteller doesn’t go into much detail. We get the summary without much more information. We learn who, what, where, how, and why. Who: a maiden named Mary. What: a male child who will be named Jesus. Where: Nazareth, a village on the edge of the hill country in Galilee. How: by the Holy Spirit. Why: to rule over us like his ancestor David, and to do so forever.
That’s the summary, and it goes as planned. Mary is realistically curious, but she does not push back. The angel Gabriel gives her the most remarkable news. She only asks, “How?” She receives a holy answer, not a biological one. Then she agrees to it all, saying, “Let it be with me, according to your word.” Her level of trust is amazing.
At the beginning of a book filled with people who come to faith, Luke describes her as the very first one. She will also stick around to the end. When Luke names those who gather in prayer and praise after the resurrection, he mentions “Mary, the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:14).
Today we hear how it all began. We have the short version. Long before the miracle of the birth, there is the miracle of the mother who trusts the word of an angel. That’s the miracle I want to know more about. How does Mary come to trust? That’s the miracle that I ponder.
Can you remember when you first learned to trust? I spent some time yesterday with the man who taught me to ride a bike. He didn’t simply point to the two-wheeler and say, “Get on it.” There was a three-wheeler long before it. And when I wanted a bigger bike, he pointed to the lawn mower and said, “Earn the money.” When I got pretty close to the financial goal, he announced, “I can see you’re serious about it.” So we got in the paneled station wagon and traveled to a shop where there was a genuine imitation of a Schwinn for us to take home.
Back in our own garage, he took out socket wrenches, installed a couple of training wheels, held the bicycle upright, and said, “Let’s give it a try.” Those were the days before helmets, you understand. He got me started, then he ran alongside. If I wobbled, he helped me catch my balance. If I tipped, he was there to catch me. And we kept at it until I was strong enough to do it myself. That’s how I learned to trust.
So we take the leap: how is it that somebody comes to trust in God?
Mary is promised a child. The little boy will be a small miracle and a major commitment. If children come into your life, you know it’s a lot more than rescheduling your yoga lessons and scaling back on your tennis games. The child rearranges your life. And Mary says, “Yes, let it be.”
She had a good man, a man named Joseph. It wasn’t clear he would keep her after hearing the news. The announcement would be difficult and awkward, especially since the marriage had not yet taken place. She could tell him, “It’s from the Holy Spirit,” but would he raise an eyebrow? Or slip away in embarrassment? Could Mary trust God even with the ambiguity of what might happen when Joseph got the news?
Luke doesn't say. He doesn't fuss with the details. What he says is what she did. She said yes to God.
I am going to guess she practiced trust like some people practice the trumpet. It’s not something you merely think about, it’s something you do. She kept at it. The trumpeter plays the scales, exercises both lips and lungs, tries out some notes when nobody is around. We get better at the things we practice, and trust is like that. If we develop a habit of saying yes to God in the small things, when the really big matter comes, we are prepared to say yes for that too.
Picture the young Jewish woman in the small village. Every Sabbath, she goes to the synagogue. She sits with the other women, and stays out of sight as was the custom. She sings the psalms, listens to the promises of God, joins in the prayers, and goes home to light the candles. Every week she does this. It shapes who she is.
Within the home, she learns the commandments of God: love the neighbor, gives alms to the needy, do justice, walk humbly. When she sees the beggar on the street, she reaches in her pocket to find a coin, and offers it with her blessing. It is a small thing, but it shapes her character. She sees the value of living like this.
So it isn’t entirely out of the blue that the angel comes with an enormous assignment. It’s mostly out of the blue, but not entirely, for Mary already knows how to trust. She has kept the commandments. She has lived as God instructed. When Gabriel says, “You shall carry a child, and bear God's Savior into the world,” she knows the announcement comes from God, the baby comes from God, and if this wild, unimaginable assignment is ever going to work, it’s because it carried, in no small part, on the shoulders of God.
So Mary says, “Let it happen.” That’s her way of saying yes. That’s her way of trusting what she cannot yet see. She offers a simple yes, in spite of all the coming complications. And do you know why? Because her “yes” is her decision to go along with what God is already doing in the world. It’s the same sort of “yes” we are invited to speak each day.
Let me say it straight: God wants to rescue the world. Not abandon the world, but to rescue it. That is heaven's mission. We can ignore this, or we can obstruct this, or we can say yes because we want to be part of that. It's just that simple and just that important. Each day God rolls up the Divine Sleeves, and begins again on repairing the world. It’s long and tedious work, made worse by so many people running amuck. But that’s what this is all about – the mission of God aimed toward the earth.
The Jewish mystics had a phrase they used: “tikkun olam.” It is a wonderful phrase. It means “taking the world in for repairs.” When we say “yes” to God, it affirms our trust that this is what God intends to do: to fix all that is broken, to restore what has been twisted out of shape.
If we trust there is such a God, we can trust that God wishes to heal all that is ill, that God ceases all that destroys, and promises to mend all that has been torn apart. The same God who keeps sending babies into the world will send Mary’s child to all of us. That Little One will grow up to teach us that every child is to be regarded as our neighbor. He will show us how every child of God is to be given respect and encouragement. And he will run alongside all who trust him until they keep from wobbling, ever ready to also catch them if they fall.
This is the kind of God we have. We know it because we light the candles, sing the psalms, listen to the holy promises, and care for those in need. In the thick of it all, we learn what God really wants to do: to rescue the world, one skinned knee or one bruised heart at a time.
We can be part of this, just as Mary was part of it. All she did was to say yes. Yes to God, Yes to all God wishes to get done. Yes to the Holy Child who comes among us. Yes to him as he leads us on God’s way. So we have the one word that unlocks the human heart, the one word that enrolls us in the work of heaven on earth. It is the single word where trust begins and faith takes root.
Keep that word close at hand. Speak it when you sense you can be an emissary of heaven and a force for good and let it be a life-changing word for you. Don’t be afraid. The word is “yes.”
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.