Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2011
In light of recent news-breaking events, I’d like it to be known that I personally know RG3—i.e. Robert Griffin III, recent Heisman winner and Baylor University celebrity. At least he has spoken to me: once.
He was a freshman, and I was an employee for Student Athlete Services at Baylor. I have to admit, my first impression wasn’t a good one. It must have been a bad day for RG3 because that large grin was missing, and he wasn’t all that nice to me. He mumbled out a “sorry” to me, and that was that.
So when he started getting popular, I was skeptical at first. I warmed up though, and three years, two winning seasons, and one Heisman later, he’s completely forgiven. And, bonus: now that he’s a nationally-known figure, I have a claim to fame. Robert Griffin III once apologized to me.
Have you ever noticed how those of us who are not famous grope after breadcrumbs of renown? Hoping to touch the hem of the garment of a celebrity, as if it had the power to change our obscure lives?
Feeling like we’re near a celebrity creates such a buzz. Why do you think all the tabloids in the check-out line at the grocery store stay in business? Reading those juicy stories makes us feel close to people of influence—people who don’t have a clue who we are or what our names are.
Today’s passage lays out a bunch of details right from the beginning, and not a one of them sounds juicy. (Except maybe the virgin part, but we’re not even supposed to know that she’s pregnant yet.) All we read for starters is: The sixth month. The angel Gabriel. The region of Galilee. The town of Nazareth. A virgin, engaged to a man. A man named Joseph of the house of David. Her name was Mary.
None of these details make for an eye-catching headline. They are details we’ve heard a million times. It’s the part of the story I often skip. I don’t want to read about the boring set, the familiar scenery.
But imagine you are standing in line at the grocery store, glancing at the tabloids, greedy for the latest celebrity update. And that’s when you see it—your name and your picture right on the front of a magazine.
That’s what the Christmas story is like—someone perfectly ordinary, unknown, and unsuspecting gets noticed by God. That means the set and the scenery—the time, the place, the individuals, the details—make the story in this case, because every small and specific detail is a reminder that the God of the universe gets that intimate with the world—specific time, specific people, specific places. Galilee. Nazareth. Joseph. Mary. Someone Really Big knows our names.
Imagine Mary’s shock when the angel appeared to her.
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
As far as I can tell, there is nothing particularly startling or threatening about Gabriel’s greeting. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be shocked if an angel showed up on my porch with a message from God, but the words themselves don’t sound all that alarming. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Some of us would give anything to hear a word from the Lord that He is with us.
But Mary is not comforted, amused, or pleased. Maybe it would be like wondering how on earth a picture of your face ended up plastered on the cover of People. Only certain kinds of people end up in People, and you are not that kind of people. There must be some mistake.
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you,” the angel says in my NRSV translation.
“But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” The TNIV says “Mary was greatly troubled at his words.” The Living Bible calls Mary “confused and disturbed.” The Message says she was “thoroughly shaken.”
“Do not be afraid, Mary!” Whew, what a relief, Gabriel stepped in to fix her. In the world of angels, I don’t know how they qualify gender, but Gabriel is most definitely a man. “Just don’t feel that way, Mary.”
Yeah right. That approach didn’t work, which doesn’t surprise us women, so Gabriel fumbled on . . . “you have found favor with God.”
Which is what he said the first time—the very thing that set Mary off in the first place, and Gabriel repeated it. I’m not thinking Gabriel’s such a genius at this messenger business, but you’ve got to give him credit for improving. When Zechariah expressed apprehension, Gabriel struck him mute for nine months.
With Mary, he simply continued, “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.”
And I imagine this is the part of the story where Mary went from anxious to terrified. Sure, bearing children in that culture was an honor. If. You. Were. Married. Bearing a child out of wedlock? Unthinkable, unbearable.
Gabriel couldn’t stand to look Mary in the eye for the rest of his delivery: “And (gulp) you will, you will name him, J-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 your ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end . . .” Gabriel peaked at Mary . . .
“How can this be . . .?” The strangeness was palpable. The confusion in the air was so thick that Mary and the angel were holding their breath.
“Well . . . 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.”
Gabriel stopped, and there was a long and terrible silence. How could he bear to return to the heavens if Mary said no? The whole redemption of the world rested on the success of this message, and her response. Yes, he fully believed that nothing would be impossible with God if Mary said yes . . . but what if she didn’t? What if it was back to the drawing boards? She looked so scared, so distraught . . . or at least, that was how she had looked last, when Gabriel’s eyes were still open. What if all that God had planned and hoped for the world was not yet to be . . .
He heard Mary shift and clear her throat. He shielded his face with his hands and peeked.
Her voice came out like a whisper, but it was stronger than any human voice he ever heard: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Gabriel was so excited he forgot to reply, and he darted away without another a word to make the announcement to the heavens: “She said yes!”
The angels threw a loud and rambunctious party that night. Mary sat at home in the quiet and pondered these things in her heart.
It is a mystery to us and to the angels what happened inside of Mary on that day—not just the holy conception, but also what caused the shift from anxiety to bravery. She grew a baby, and she grew courage, and I suppose the Holy Spirit was culpable on both accounts.
Perhaps Mary quit thinking about what this would mean for her, and was able to get a glimpse of what this would mean for the world.
Perhaps the coming of God into the world is too big of a thing to say no to, no matter how ill-equipped you may feel for the task.
Perhaps the coming of God into you is too bizarre and well, delightful, of a thing to reject, no matter what people might say about you.
The whole thing is just crazy enough to keep getting our attention year after year. And no matter what kind of year it has been, we arrive at this season, and call it what you will but something like the Spirit of God comes to us and we grow courage. Amen.