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December is the favourite month for many. It is the close of the year when things are winding down and there is much excitement and anticipation as we look forward to Christmas…all the lights, warmth, cheer, family and friends gathering to celebrate and reconnect. Other than preparing for parties, presents and feasting, Advent is also the season of preparation that looks forward to Christ’s arrival. That’s what Advent means – arrival of someone or something special.
Advent is a time of reflection as we prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ. Not just celebrating and remembering Jesus’s first entrance into our world 2,000 years ago, but also a time of preparing for the second coming of Christ. So this Advent period is a time of preparing our hearts, as well as preparing the way.
Traditionally, the four weeks of Advent centres around these themes:
Week 1: Hope (or promise)
Week 2: Preparation (or waiting or prophecy)
Week 3: Joy (or peace)
Week 4: Love (or adoration)
As we ponder and prepare for Christmas, I would like to delve into the story of one of the significant persons in the Christmas story, and explore how she prepared the way. Her name was Mary.
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.”[b] 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?”[c] 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[d] 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.
This passage begins with “In the sixth month..” It is clear there is a story flow here and we are reading about this situation in the middle of a larger story. “In the sixth month” refers to in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. So right before this passage about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, Gabriel had visited someone else and this person was a priest named Zechariah and Elizabeth was his wife. We also find out that Elizabeth is Mary’s relative so these two angelic visits were obviously not coincidental. In fact, these two visits have interesting parallels as well as contrasts for us to glean on. To understand Mary’s story better, we need to understand what was happening with Zechariah too.
5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
So what are some of the parallels and contrasts in both stories? Firstly, it is the same angel, Gabriel, who visits both Zechariah and Mary. And Gabriel has what seems to be unbelievable news for both of them. Both are promised the miraculous birth of a son. The birth of a child seems humanly impossible in both circumstances — Zechariah and Elizabeth are barren and beyond the age of childbearing years while Mary is a virgin. And Gabriel explains how both babies have their own special purpose that God has planned. Those are the parallels in these twin stories.
But that is where the similarities end. There are probably more differences than similarities in these two stories and I find the contrasts very interesting. Firstly, Zechariah was old, male and in the respected role of a priest, and the angel appeared to him while he was serving in the Holy of Holies – the most sacred place in the Temple. Mary was young, female, an ordinary peasant girl with no special role or status, who was at home when the angel visited. Even though it wouldn’t be completely shocking to see an angel in the Holy of Holies, Luke mentions that Zechariah was so terrified that fear overwhelmed him. Ad he doubted what the angel was telling him and he is struck dumb.
Why was Zechariah struck dumb and Mary wasn’t? Luke says when Zechariah questions Gabriel about the possibility of conceiving, the angel makes it clear that he is silenced because he “did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Luke 1:20). As for Mary, Elizabeth states clearly in verse 45, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” In Mary’s encounter with the angel, there was no mention of fear, just a sense of confusion and perplexity over what the angel was telling her. Like Zechariah, she had her questions but she seemed to come round much more quickly, accepting what the angel said, especially when you consider the content and implications of what was being told to her.
You see, in Zechariah’s case, if what the angel said was going to come true, it would be an occasion of great joy and there would be no shame, suspicion, or stigma around it. In fact, Elizabeth getting pregnant would be mean the end of the shame, disgrace and stigma they have received over the years due to their barrenness, and the community would celebrate with them in great joy and gratitude. It would be a win-win situation. Mary, on the other hand, had a lot more to worry about than Zechariah. The angel’s news for her was both joyful and laced with much cause for fear and uncertainty. If what the angel said was going to come true for Mary, it would mean a lifetime of shame, suspicion, and stigma – how could a virgin suddenly become pregnant? “She must have secretly done something really shameful! What a disgrace she is to our family and community!” And there would be no way for Mary to prove otherwise. So her perplexity and questions are valid and understandable. All kinds of thoughts must have crossed her mind: what would happen to Joseph, her betrothed, and her family? What would happen to her? Would they all refuse to believe her, and end up condemning and abandoning her? Her community would not celebrate with someone like her getting pregnant out of wedlock. She would be lucky if they didn’t stone her.
As I lay out these parallels and contrasts between both stories, please don’t misunderstand that I’m trying to pit Mary against Zechariah. It’s not a competition. I didn’t mean it to be a competition of faith between male and female, old and young. What I would like to highlight is that people prepare for Christ in different ways, even today. How do you prepare for Christ’s arrival? Some like Zechariah, begin from a place of fear and doubt, and as they listen and observe in silence, they come to a place of full acceptance and praise God with all their hearts. Others like Mary, begin from a place of perplexity but come to accept quite quickly the good news that God brings to her but the preparation period is long and arduous, and the birth of Jesus was just the beginning of many challenges along the way.
Given this context, if we really think about it, what did Elizabeth mean when she said Mary was blessed? In Luke 1:41-45:
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[e] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
What do you think being blessed looks like to Mary? We usually use the word “blessed” a bit differently. We would say: “I’m thankful that I’ve been blessed with good health or she’s been blessed with a promotion at work or he’s been blessed with three children.” But for Mary, it wasn’t so clear-cut. Did she feel blessed when she had to tell Joseph or her family that she was pregnant out of wedlock? Did she feel blessed when the possibility of being abandoned or stoned to death for something she didn’t do was looming and real? Did she feel blessed when her belly was growing under the gaze of a disapproving community?
Probably not. But perhaps Mary saw and understood something much bigger and deeper. What does being blessed mean to you? Sometimes life is not so clear-cut and it take a prepared heart to trust and recognize what God is doing around us. Mary understood that being blessed means being able to trust and recognize that God is at work even when we can’t see, imagine or understand what’s going on. And there was no way she could completely grasp what this bigger plan is because this bigger plan, the good news, was about God choosing to enter fully into our world and be Emmanuel, God-with-us. She couldn’t fully comprehend what all this meant but she knew God was at work, putting into motion something much bigger than herself.
Do you continually prepare your heart so that you can recognize and trust what God is doing in and around you? Do we as a community continually prepare our hearts so that we can recognize and trust what God is doing in and around us?
Mary was described as blessed because even though her surrounding situation didn’t seem ideal in human eyes, she was able to recognize God’s leading and trust that God is at work doing a bigger thing even though she couldn’t see or fully understand it.
Have you experienced something similar in your life? Have you ever sensed God leading you a certain way and like Mary, you asked God, “How can this be possible?” I had an experience that’s kind of similar to this. It was nothing close to the extent of what God was doing in and through Mary, and definitely nothing to do with a virgin birth. But my experience gave me a glimpse as to how God continues to work in ways that we may not fully understand but it’s a call for us to trust that God is at work, creating something bigger than ourselves.
About 19 years ago in the year 2000, I was serving in Japan as a missionary and at that point, I was still struggling with reconciling my faith and sexuality. I remember praying about this one day and I sensed God telling me, “I am okay with you, and you are okay with me.” I remember my response at that time was, “But Lord, how can it be? Rationally, when I read the Bible, especially passages like Romans 1, it seems like there is no way around this. And everyone around me seems to think it’s wrong.” This was before I went to bible college and had the opportunity to learn more extensively about the interpretation of the Bible and the importance of translation and historical contexts. At that time, I genuinely was asking God, “How can you be okay with me, and how can I be okay with you?” I couldn’t make sense of it in my mind but a deep inexplicable peace descended into my heart and soul. I knew without a doubt that God was somehow okay with me, completely okay with me, even though I couldn’t explain it. I thanked God and told God that peace was enough and I trusted that God will lead my steps ahead. That was the beginning of the long road that led me to where I am today – fully reconciled, able to tell my story out loud in the hopes that others will find love, freedom and reconciliation in Christ. But that is not the end to my story. It continues to be a long and sometimes arduous journey. There is much joy and there are also many challenges. The question that I asked you earlier still holds true for me now: how am I continually preparing my heart so that I can recognize and trust what God is doing in and around me?
Mary didn’t say yes to God because it was easy or because being blessed means she will only get good things. In fact, she was well aware of the difficult challenges that lay ahead of her. Even so, she replied, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In other words, she was saying, “God, I’m yours. Let’s do this together.”
What about you? Are you ready to say, “God, I don’t understand what’s going on and I know my life probably won’t turn out the way I imagine but I trust that you are at work in all of it. I know that to be called blessed means being used for God’s purpose rather than getting what I want or having an easy life. So God, I’m yours. Let’s do this together.”
The yes Mary gave was not a feeble yes, it was a fierce yes!
When we think about the situation she was in, I hope it gives us pause and helps us realize that Mary wasn’t just some mild and docile girl who naively said yes. Often in some Church traditions, Mary is seen as a vehicle for Jesus: a holy womb, a meek, compliant and obedient girl. But contrary to this image, the real Mary was not meek or mild or quiet. In fact, if you study the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55, it sounds more like a revolutionary song! Mary is more like a rebel intent on seeing God change up the systems of our world and this passage is significant because it is the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament.
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Mary sings of God’s dream for us. She sings about this God who entered so fully into the broken mess of humanity and turned all our expectations, hopes and experiences right side up. She sings about the ushering in of a new reality where God has become one of us so that we might become children of God. That is the gospel!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”
The text in her song would have been recognized by the first century readers as revolutionary and they would see its references to the heroines of Israel. In modern day, we have lost the original impact of this song because especially in the evangelical world, the role of Mary, and her song, has sometimes been devalued to the point that she has almost been forgotten as anything more than a silent figure in the nativity scene.
“Why has this song been forgotten, or trimmed, for so many people who grew up evangelical? It could be a byproduct of the Reformation, which caused Protestants to devalue Mary in reaction to Catholic theology. Or a lack of familiarity with liturgy, and an emphasis on other texts. Or perhaps the song doesn’t sound like good news if you are well fed, or rich, or in a position of power and might — or if you benefit from systems that oppress. How does the Magnificat feel if you aren’t one of the lowly, if you aren’t as vulnerable and humble as Mary?”
D.L. Mayfield, Mary’s Magnificat In the Bible Is Revolutionary
God is still at work in you in much the same was God was at work in Mary. Christmas isn’t about getting what we want, or giving others what they want. To experience Christmas is to trust that God can again be born in us and in this broken mess of a beautiful world.
In the 4th century, St Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “What was achieved in the body of Mary will happen in the soul of everyone who receives the Word.”
“We are all called to be mothers of God – for God is always waiting to be born.”
Meister Eckart, 13th c. German mystic.
Like Mary, we are called to carry God into this world. Like Mary, each one of you is also blessed and filled with God’s grace. May the God through whom nothing is impossible help you to say yes to carrying the gospel into this hurt, broken, messy and beautiful world. The gospel where God has become one of us so that we might become children of God.
In this Advent season leading up to Christmas, we remember how Jesus came to prepare the way for us. We are also called to prepare the way for Christ coming again.
“A voice of one calling:
‘In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”
However God is leading you to prepare the way, however God is leading you to carry the gospel into our broken world, may you say yes, whether it is a fierce or quiet or timid yes. May it be with us all according to God’s Word. Amen.
1. In what ways have God shown up for you this year?
2. How are you continually preparing your heart so that you can recognize and trust what God is doing in and around you?
3. In what way is God asking you to prepare the way?
One of the ways we are called to prepare the way and carry the gospel into our broken world is to help end discrimination and stigma in communities that are marginalized. Last week during our World Aids Day service, we invited you to wear the red ribbons this past week and initiate conversations around you. I hope you had meaningful experiences and I pray you will continue to initiate many conversations on behalf of many groups of people.