In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Today we observe the fourth Sunday of Advent, which means that it’s one week away from Christmas. It seems that the season has gone by remarkably quickly and you probably find yourselves in various states of preparedness. Some of us are all ready to go, with all the I’s dotted and all the t’s crossed. Some of us are shocked at how quickly time has gone by and wish (or will wish) that we had just a few more days. Regardless of where you find yourself, the truth remains that Christmas will be here whether you’re ready for it or not.
I imagine that Mary was quite unprepared for the message she received from the angel. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like for her to receive the word that she was going to have a baby when she was still a virgin. Did she have any way of understanding what the angel said, that her baby would be called the son of the most high? That he would have the throne of David? Did she have any way of connecting this with the prophecies of the Messiah? We know from the following verses that she understands this pregnancy, this child, to be a cause for praise and rejoicing to God. But did she have any framework for understanding what this might mean?
The Bible doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Mary, mother of Jesus. We have the story of Jesus as a young boy in the temple; we get the story of her interaction with Jesus at the Wedding in Cana; and we know that Mary was present at Jesus’ crucifixion. We are led to understand that Mary was in some way a disciple of Jesus. But this story is perhaps the most information that we get about Mary proper. So what, perhaps, can we understand from this story and what does it have to do with Advent? (besides the obvious point that Jesus’ birth is near)
One of the things that strikes me in this passage is that the angel’s announcement to Mary is not an invitation. There doesn’t seem to be anything that suggests God is asking for Mary’s permission. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be anything to indicate that Mary could refuse. As usual, I don’t want to overstate the significance of this, but it reminds me that redemption, salvation, is fundamentally a matter of God’s sovereignty. Remember the call to Abram in Genesis 12.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
In the story of Abraham, one of the things we see is that Abraham is chosen to be part of God’s work of redemption, not because he is particularly godly, not because he is particularly good, but because it is God’s will that it should be so. Abraham is successful, for his part in the plan, not because Abraham is Abraham but because God is God. This is a theme that we see over and over in scripture. God will redeem the world. He works in and through you and me, but it is God’s work.
Nevertheless, (though it is purely God’s work) Mary’s response is appropriate. When she hears the words of the angel, she responds:
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”…
Even though God’s word here (and everywhere) is sovereign, there is a sense in which Mary’s willingness matters. But it’s not a kind of willingness where, if Mary had somehow refused, somehow the plan would have needed to change. Neither do I think (and this is purely speculation on my part) is it a purely passive willingness or a kind of defeated willingness – i.e well if God’s going to do it, I guess there’s nothing I can do about it. Rather, I think it’s an obedient willingness. A desire to be part of what God is doing in the world.
Very often, this is where we run into difficulty on the Christian walk. On the one hand, we believe that God is God and that he is doing what He is doing. On the other hand, we have a desire or a need to do something. This desire to do something comes from several different places, I think.
Sometimes, we want to do something because of a need to be needed. Sometimes it’s a desire for significance or power. We want to be someone or something that people can rely on – that people turn to in times of need. We want to be seen, to be noticed. We want to be great in the kingdom of God.
Sometimes, we need to do something because of a misunderstanding of the relationship between God and us. We think that God is essentially hand-cuffed until we get involved. We believe that things aren’t happening (in the way that we want or think they should) because we’re not working hard enough or doing the right things. We can become impatient or demanding. We can claim that this is merely being passionate or having a “vision” (and maybe sometimes it is), but the danger is that the vision becomes our god. We serve it – which, in truth, is serving ourselves – instead of serving Christ.
And sometimes, we feel the need to do something simply because we always need to be doing something. In our culture, it is exceedingly difficult to define ourselves apart from what we do. We have very little concept of what it means to simply be. As Eugene Peterson has frequently said, we are human beings, not human do-ings. But we simply don’t know what that means.
Now, as we’ve already indicated, this does not mean that we are to do nothing. The distinction is in separating our doing from God’s leading. In other words, our activity stems from response to what God is doing, rather than our doing becoming the impetus or necessary cause for God’s redemption. I think this is what we see in Mary, here.
Mary is alerted to the fact that God is moving in her time and in her life. Mary is told, though she may not recognize it as such, that God’s redemption is at hand. The only appropriate response she can give is – “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
Now what does this have to do with Advent? What does it have to do with what we’ve been talking about?
In Advent, we remember Christ’s birth – His first coming – and anticipate his return – the second coming. But it’s not just anticipation – it’s preparation. It’s not just waiting – it’s looking ahead. But, paradoxically, the looking ahead is lived in the now. It’s what we call having an eschatological view. In other words, we live in this in-between time, with the full knowledge of God’s victory for us in Christ which will be fulfilled when He comes again.
What I’m hoping that we understand is that we are called, we are invited to participated in what God is doing in His plan and program of redemption for this world. But we are not called to redeem the world. We are called to proclaim and to demonstrate (to live out) what God has done and what He is doing. But we are not asked to do the work that only God Himself can do.
So What Now…?
What this means for us as the people of God are several things (of which I will only mention a couple):
It does not depend on us. We are saved by grace and we likewise go forth in grace. It’s not about our ability, our ingenuity, our strength, or our cleverness. It’s entirely about what God is doing. Therefore, we can be free from fear or doubt because we don’t have to be all things to all people. We don’t have to worry if we are doing every little thing right or if we could do every little thing better (of course we can, but we always can – but it’s not about that).
At the same time, it also means that we need to pay attention. We need to pay attention because the temptations of the world (the worldly ways of being and doing) are always around us. We need to pay attention to whether we are doing things for God’s kingdom or whether we are trying to build our own. We need to pay attention to whether we are seeking God’s glory or whether we are trying to lift up ourselves.
It’s for this reason that we seek to be continually steeped in and molded by scripture. As scripture is the word of God, and it is by God’s word that all creation is formed, so it is by the word of God that we seek to be formed.
It’s also why we do this in community. Because we almost never see ourselves as clearly as when we try to be ourselves in the midst of others.
We’re not really good at paying attention. Most of the time, we’d much rather be the one doing the talking. We’d much rather be doing. In order to pay attention, in order to listen, we have to pause. And we’re not good at that. But if we want to be a part of what God is doing – rather than just doing our own thing “for God” – we need to learn how to pay attention.
Mary doesn’t seem to have had her own agenda. We can only speculate as to how Mary could have responded if she were a different kind of person. She might have responded with pride or arrogance. She might have had thoughts of ambition knowing that she was going to give birth to a king. She might have responded with doubt or anxiety. But she only responded with humble obedience, paying attention to the word of God given to her. She seems to have wanted to be part of what God was doing according to God’s redemptive work.
As we live in this in-between time; as we anticipate and prepare for the second coming of Christ, I hope we want to get in on God’s work. Let Mary’s words be our words:
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”