Feast Day: Advent IV
Readings: Luke 1:26-28; Romans 16:25-27
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
Most Christians have always held the Blessed Virgin Mary in high regard, loving and reverencing her, because as we heard in the words of Saint Luke this morning, Holy Scripture witnesses to the fact that she is “highly favoured” and “blessed amongst women.”
From the earliest times Christians have loved Mary not only as the mother of our Lord but also as our own mother. For example, consider the words of Jesus himself from the cross in John’s gospel: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home,” (19:26-27).
Setting aside some of the dogmatic statements about Mary that came much later on, which Protestants, sometimes reasonably, are nervous about, I want to say that we ignore Mary to the detriment of our own faith and witness.
Protestants can and should love and reverence Mary because to do so is to grow in our love of Christ. And we should love Mary not only because Jesus himself certainly loved her, and not only because she is our mother too, and not only because it is clearly Biblical to do so, and not only because she had a pivotal role in the Incarnation, but because she is the model for what a human response to God looks like: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” If we want to know what a life of faith looks like, we might contemplate Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and her bold proclamation of faith.
Yet, significantly, our lesson from Saint Luke that ends with Mary’s great proclamation of faith begins with God: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.” This is an important thread that will run throughout this sermon: faith begins with God. It is a gift of God that the Holy Spirit generates within us until it becomes, truly, our own response.
Mary’s response of faith to God’s word is just that, a response of faith to the word of God. In other words, God always initiates, always takes the first step, always condescends to us first in order that we might be raised up to him by faith. Wherever you are, God does not leave you there, he does not leave you alone but sends forth his word that it might generate in you a new life of faith, hope, and love. We’ll revisit this point shortly.
So then, Gabriel came to Mary and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” The word translated here “greetings” is literally, “rejoice.” Rejoice! Because the coming of God’s word to Mary and to you and I is always ultimately cause for rejoicing. That God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible should address us, draw near and make himself known to us in an intimate and personal way is cause for rejoicing. This exclamation—rejoice!—marks the beginning of our new life in Christ.
Indeed, God’s word to Mary generates new life in her, literally: “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” And for the second time in this brief conversation Mary is perplexed. She wants to know just how this is going to happen since she has never had relations with a man. She does not doubt God’s word, but rather asks how God’s promise will be fulfilled.
The conception of this child, says Gabriel, will be a work of the Holy Spirit who will overshadow her womb and create something out of nothing. Evoking, of course, the imagery and language of the Creation account in Genesis where the Spirit of God hovers over the formless void and brings forth life. The new life that will be generated in Mary will have a divine, not a natural, cause.
I think that what Jesus wants us to know here is that God’s power can overcome human incapacity. Our nature as human creatures is stained by sin which means that whatever capacity you have in yourself to love and trust God is severely limited. And yet, for God all things are possible. He is able even to overcome the barrenness of your heart and mind; able to generate faith and love in you where previously there was none.
That’s our story. Once we were alienated from God but now in Christ Jesus he has made us sons and daughters. Once we could not love God but now God has liberated us from the sin that ensnares us and has planted the seed of his love within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. And that seed is watered and grows up by the word of God.
Who do you know that does not yet know the love and mercy of Christ? What friend or family member? Picture just one person in your mind now. What if you committed to praying for that one person every day in 2018? What if you simply prayed that God would send his word to them and that the Holy Spirit would birth faith and love in them? What if you prayed for the power of God to overcome their incapacity, their anger, their apathy?
Or, perhaps you yourself long to grow in faith this coming year. That is my own prayer for you, for us. If you feel that your faith and love for Christ has reached capacity then let us pray that the Holy Spirit would lead us ever deeper into the mystery of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus.
In Saint Luke’s telling, it is only then, after we hear the word of God that we arrive at Mary’s response of faith, her consent to God’s will: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The Church Fathers said that Mary conceived through her ear, via her hearing and obeying God’s word, because it was through such obedience that the word of God became fruitful in her.
The faith of Mary is an example of the sort of faith and obedience you and I are called to as well. Here is what a perfect human response to God looks like. Not rational certainty or the absence of any questions (“How can this be?”) but rather pure trust: “Let it be with me according to thy word.” When you hear the word of God ponder it, meditate upon it, digest it, and give yourself over to it that you yourself might be fashioned into the likeness of the word made flesh, Jesus Christ.
From early on Mary came to be seen as a figure for the Church. So, let me ask a related question. Are we not in a time of need in our parishes, in our diocese, and in our church? Have we not experienced a crisis of faith and are we not facing ongoing moral crises that together have eroded the very fabric of the Anglican Church of Canada resulting in the narrative of church decline that we are all too familiar with? Indeed we are in a time of particular need and I believe that the Virgin Mary points us in the right direction.
If we long to see our churches turn around then that work will begin right here with you. I am absolutely convinced that you can and will lead the way for us. The revolution is not going to happen down at 135 Adelaide Street. Rather, it will happen right here in churches like this one, on the edges of the diocese both actually and metaphorically.
Moreover, the revolution will not come about thanks to a high-gloss Strategic Plan or many millions of dollars pumped into programming, though that all has its place. Here’s how it will happen. It will happen as you yourselves hear and receive God’s word, meditate on it in your hearts and minds, so that it generates faith within you, enabling you, like Mary, to embrace your vocation to be a “servant of the Lord.” This year, more than last, may we grow in our love and obedience to the word of God.
Now may God who is able to strengthen you according to the gospel of Jesus Christ, bring about in you the obedience of faith—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.