This is the second sermon in the DNBA Advent series.
It’s often assumed that I’m a technophile. Based on my age, and the fact that I use a lot of technology compared to many of the people who know me, most people assume that I have this compulsion to explore and understand every new thing that comes across the wire instantaneously. But consider these arguments to the contrary:
-One of my college students set up a Facebook account for me, and I let it sit vacant for eighteen months before I ever logged in.
-My mother-in-law bought me a Kindle for Christmas, knowing how much I loved reading, and I didn’t take it out of the box for…three months.
Fastforward several years, and those two pieces of technology are necessities I can’t live, or don’t want to live, without. But I couldn’t see their benefits because I wasn’t willing to receive them. They were, to coin an Ebay phrase, “new in box.”
Never opened. Never explored. Never received.
How many of us live lives of faith that are potentially “new in box”? How many of us check out the shiny paper, appreciate the bow, even pick it up and shake it like a cat pawing at the shiny thing, and never unwrap it and open it up?
Or, consider it this way: what if when the angel had shown up with this news for Mary, that she had said “no?”
What if when the angel had shown up with the news that she was about to be impregnated by the Holy Spirit, Mary had said, “Um, no thanks. Maybe someone else with more experience, or more knowledge of the Scripture, or someone older, or someone younger, or someone from that family, will do it”?
What if Jesus hadn’t been born in Bethlehem? What if God had met resistance in the first dozen virgins he contacted, and decided that maybe it wasn’t worth it to send his son to die for a bunch of people hung up on -isms, and -phobias, and themselves?
What if Jesus hadn’t come at all?
What if Mary had chosen not to unwrap the gift? What if she had not been receptive to the angel of God, Gabriel, who showed up to speak this gift into her life?
The truth is, we don’t have to play the what if game for long. Mary said yes.
Mary, a teenage virgin engaged to a significantly older man named Joseph, who was descended from David (a man after God’s own heart), said “yes.”
Now, to be fair, it says that when the angel named Gabriel – which means “hero of God” -appeared, the angel called her “highly favored,” or “full of grace,” both from the same Greek word which means “grace.” Words – and names matter here – because they show how one woman could so exemplify those things which we know God is all about. This word for grace in the Greek is used seventy-seven times in the New Testament, not least of when grace describes the heart of Mary.
Mary was full of grace but that didn’t mean she saw this coming.
Mary -or the Theotokos or “God bearer” – was “greatly troubled” and wondered why he’d talk to her that way. The Message translation says that the angel called her “beautiful with God’s beauty, beautiful inside and out!” The angel again urges Mary onward, saying, “Do not be afraid.”
Beautiful inside and out. God knew Mary. He knew her in a way that meant his angel recognized she wasn’t just a “pretty face,” but that she was a woman after God’s own heart. She was faithful, she was true to herself, she was the kind of woman that God wanted raising his son on Earth. Mary could have been afraid that she couldn’t be used by God. But she chose trust.
We know a little bit about what Mary was like because she questioned why the angel would address her that way! She responded humbly, showing her courage under fire. But, it says, the angel proceeds to lay out that she will give birth to a son named Jesus, who will be great, and who will ascend to a throne, ruling a kingdom that will never end. The Message takes it a step further and says that God has a “surprise” for her. [SURRRRR-PRISE!]
In the movie, Harvey, the character Elwood Dowd tells the story: “I started to walk down the street when I heard a voice saying: ‘Good evening, Mr. Dowd.’ I turned, and there was this big white rabbit leaning against a lamp-post. Well, I thought nothing of that, because when you’ve lived in a town as long as I’ve lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name.” Mary has that kind of reaction to what the angel has just said!
Mary doesn’t ask about being descended from David (she would’ve known her family line didn’t work that way); she didn’t ask about a kingdom that would never end. Both of them would’ve been about the end result, the glory and the honor.
No, commonsense-filled Mary, humble yet brave Mary, asked: “How can that happen because I’m a virgin?” Mary is engaged in faithfulness through her heart, her soul, AND her mind. She’s not doubting that God can make it so, but she wants to understand what’s going on underneath the hood. She wants to know.
In one of the few times in the narrative that a person asks a question of an angel and no sarcasm or rebuke is given, Gabriel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and that she will immaculately conceive. And Gabriel tells her that she can check with her much older cousin Elizabeth who (surprise, again!) the angel reveals is pregnant herself.
And the angel closes with potentially the most powerful of pep talks: “For no word from God will ever fail” or “nothing is impossible with God.”
Mary is satisfied, and says, “I am God’s servant, may it be so.”
Every year we look at this Scripture, and I find myself in awe. Sure, I’m in awe of the power and miraculous way that God moves. But I’m in awe of a kid, a young girl, a teenager, and her willingness to receive from God what was the greatest gift and the biggest responsibility.
Seriously, at about thirteen or fourteen years old, Mary agreed to be Jesus’ mom! She said YES! Mary was willing to embrace the gift… even when some of us aren’t.
Maybe you’ve heard the story of the young man who wanted a new car for graduation.
For many months he had admired a beautiful sports car in a dealer’s showroom, and knowing his father could well afford it, he told him that was all he wanted. As Graduation Day approached, the young man awaited signs that his father had purchased the car. Finally, on the morning of his graduation, his father called him into his private study. His father told him how proud he was to have such a fine son, and told him how much he loved him. He handed his son a beautiful wrapped gift box.
Curious, but somewhat disappointed, the young man opened the box and found a lovely, leather-bound Bible, with the young man’s name embossed in gold. Angrily, he raised his voice to his father and said, “With all your money you give me a Bible?” And stormed out of the house, leaving the Bible. Many years passed and the young man was very successful in business. He had a beautiful home and wonderful family, but realized his father was very old, and thought perhaps he should go visit him. He had not seen him since that graduation day.
Before he could make arrangements, he received a telegram telling him his father had passed away, and willed all of his possessions to his son. When he arrived at his father’s house, sudden sadness and regret filled his heart. He began to search through his father’s important papers and saw the still new Bible, just as he had left it years ago. With tears, he opened the Bible and began to turn the pages. His father had carefully underlined a verse, As he read those words, a car key dropped from the back of the Bible. It had a tag with the dealer’s name, the same dealer who had the sports car he had desired. On the tag was the date of his graduation, and the words… PAID IN FULL.
Okay, so maybe that story is true or maybe it’s not. But the view is still the same, isn’t it? God wants to give us something but our arms aren’t always open to receive it. Sometimes we have too much stuff in our hands. Sometimes we’re too busy. Sometimes we can’t believe anyone would love us enough to do what God did, to give us grace for free.
I remember as a campus minister for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the University of Richmond, that we decided to have an event called “Paid in Full” (not to be confused with the movie of the same name!) We advertised, we raised funds, and for one two-hour period on a Thursday night, we paid the tabs of everyone who entered The Cellar, a non-cafeteria eating establishment on campus. We had people read poetry, play music, share their thoughts, in a way that was faith-based but not “churchy.” And we paid for everyone’s food.
But not everyone could believe it. “What’s the catch?” “But I didn’t know about it upfront.” “I’m not in FCA, or even a Christian.”
And every time, the answer was the same, “it doesn’t matter. It’s paid in full.”
We have a hard time with that, don’t we? There’s always a catch… or some fine print. But then we realize that if we receive grace like Mary did, that our world can change in an instant. That God actually has a plan for our good and our future… if we’d just open up our hearts.
(Now, the next time the pastor asks you to serve on a committee or plan VBS, think about Mary and the gift she received willingly. I’m just kidding. No, I’m not…)
But the skeptics out there say, “well, sure, she had to say that with the angel in the room. Maybe she got it later on, but I mean, she couldn’t have really been that faithful…”
Consider what some people call “The Magnificat,” from Luke 1:46-56:
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
Mary opened the gift! She didn’t just check out the tag or explore the outside of the package. She tore it open and embraced the gift, and in the process, embraced the giver.
Mary had a heart to receive what God was offering her. And in the receiving, she became part of the giving, part of the process, part of the transformative power of God’s love in the world. Mary got “it.”
I hope that you will wrestle this week with the experience of Mary. Ask yourself how you would respond if God appeared to you and gave you a gift. Ask yourself whether you would focus on the pressure teenage Mary surely endured as an unmarried pregnant woman, or if you would be like Mary and focus on the way that God had chosen to make you part of his good news shared with all.
Take it a step further: what is God offering you today? Is God offering you the gift of salvation, the good news for all people even you who has done [ ….] that only you know and hold onto and devalue yourself for? Or is God offering you the opportunity to get off the sidelines of faith, to get in the game and to make a difference in the lives of someone else? Is God offering you the chance of a lifetime, an eternal lifetime, and are you politely accepting it but not really opening it up?
What gift is the hardest one for you to receive? Is it forgiveness? Is it membership in a family because your experience of family was so negative? Is it purpose or calling in a way that feels strange and life changing? What questions do you have about receiving the gift?
Today, or the next time you take communion by intinction, think about the way that we say that we “take communion” but that it’s really that we’re given communion. We open up our hands and the server places the bread into our palm. We’re served at Christ’s table where we receive God’s gift of the body of Christ that was given for you, and you, and you.
God gave this gift to Mary, and she chose to unwrap it and participate. To be used by God for the glory of God’s kingdom, that is present and yet to come.
At the end of my life, I hope you are surrounded by thousands of opened boxes, broken bows, and scattered scraps of wrapping paper. I hope you have lived a life that recognized it was “paid in full.”
Because it would be a real shame to leave God’s gift “new in box,” under the cross. Open it up – do not be afraid.