Draw Near … and Be Surprised
by Louise Westfall
A reading from the good news according to Luke in the first chapter. I’m going to read it in sections. Appropriately for a sermon on surprise, the sermon will be only partly delivered by me. YOU’LL have the opportunity at several points to discuss your interpretation with a few people around you. In this first part of the reading, beginning at verse 26, please suspend judgment on your knowledge of how babies are made, and hear the word of God. [Read 1:26-38]
When I was a kid in confirmation class I didn’t really think too much about the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed — only that we had to memorize it and recite it in front of the Session (which included my dad the pastor). IbelieveinGodtheFatherAlmightyMakerofHeavenand Earth,andin JesusChrist, hisonly Son,our Lord,whowasconceivedbytheHolySpirit, bornoftheVirginMary. . . .
So I was caught off guard during a summer internship as a youth director in a big suburban church when one of the sixth grade Sunday school kids raised his hand and asked sincerely “What’s a virgin?” Some of the other kids tittered, and I swear I learned to tap dance on the spot. “Well, you see,” I stalled for time while a whole lot of warning bells went off in my head. “Mary was a very young woman when she learned she was going to have a baby … and she wasn’t married yet … and so it was a big surprise … I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw him nodding encouragingly. “Oh, I get it. A virgin is like our neighbor Rosie. She’s going to have a baby and she’s not married either.”
Oh my. I felt a little bad that I’d kicked the can further down the road to be somebody else’s challenge, but it was the best I could come up with in that moment. And truth be told, probably nothing has informed my understanding of the virgin birth more than that uncomfortable encounter long ago. Because, you see, having a baby without being married didn’t surprise that kid. It happened all the time. That the mother of Jesus was young and single and expecting didn’t shock him — and certainly wasn’t the compelling reason to believe that the Baby born to her was the Son of God.
It’s the grace of God who does great and marvelous and redemptive things through the likes of Mary.
[Discuss with your neighbors: Picture Mary as she is portrayed in this text. Who is she? What qualifies her to be the mother of Jesus? Is her virginity consequential for your beliefs about her son? What is?]
The reading continues in verse 39, as Mary journeys to Elizabeth’s home. [Read Luke 1:39-45]
Though couched in the language of mystery and faith, the blessing of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth is easy to imagine. Post-menopausal woman/teenaged girl, both impossibly pregnant. Mary had to talk about it with perhaps the only other person who could possibly understand her amazement. Though Elizabeth may well have been a trusted wise woman to her younger cousin, in matters of birth she too was a novice — and there are few things more comforting than mutual vulnerability. In my mind’s eye, I see them sitting together at a table, with the desert sun filling the room with warmth, drinking earthen mugs full of whatever hot, non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic drink they had back then, talking and talking and talking.
[Discuss with your neighbors: What did they talk about? Can you describe a time when the understanding and companionship of another person strengthened you? Could these conversations add an essential part of what it means to be “church”? ]
Mary, pregnant with possibility, is inspired to lift her voice in praise to the God of surprises. The good Presbyterian in me doubts that this was a spontaneous burst of ecstatic song. I’ll bet this is how she expressed it later, after she’d had some time to ponder. But no matter how it went down, this is the music of transformation. Notice what she “magnifies” — what is important in this situation — and what is not even mentioned. [Read Luke 1:46-55]
Mary’s song we call the Magnificat (from the Latin translation of its first word) praises the God of surprises. Everything that is reasonable about how to get stuff done in the world is reversed. The powerful are deposed; the humble are elected. The haughty miss it all together, so sure of their privilege; while the insecure and anxious are reassured that God is their strength. The rich are struck by the meaninglessness of their accumulated wealth, and the hungry poor are filled with life. I’ve heard this great reversal described as God turning the world upside down; but maybe it’s more like God coming to turn the world right-side up. Restoring created purposes. Repairing what is broken, finding what is lost. [Connections, Year C, Volume 1, p. 31] And here’s the thing: Mary praises God not because the scales are finally going to be balanced, equitable and fair. This is a song accompanied by laughter, by amazement that the mighty one of the universe has chosen this improbable young woman as the linchpin in the Divine plan of salvation. It’s hilarious. It’s the grace of God who does great and marvelous and redemptive things through the likes of Mary.
And you and me.
Friends, draw near to the Holy One. We are all virgins to the ways and thoughts of God. They’re not our ways; nor our thoughts. But thanks be to God who births new life through us, even us. Surprise!
[Take some time in the silence to ponder what surprises you about God. What might God be calling you to do or become through the song of Mary? After the silence, please join in singing number 100, all verses now at the end of Advent, for the world is about to turn.]