December 20, 2015 – Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year C

Rev. Jill Komura

Prayer: God of the humble Shepherds; God of loyal Zechariah; God of faithful

Mary—help us, as we read your Holy Word today, to see beyond our own fears and

doubt to reach out in relationship with one another, singing in wonder and in grateful

celebration of your love– in this season of Advent, and every day of the year. Amen.

 

In our ongoing Advent tour through the traditional characters of the

Christmas crèche, today we turn our attention to Mary, mother of Jesus. She’s

usually referred to just like that: “Mary-Mother-of-Jesus.” That’s largely to

distinguish her from Mary Magdelene, the other famous Mary of the gospels, who

appears later in the story of Jesus’ adult life and ministry. In referring to Mary-

mother-of-Jesus as if there were hyphens between each of the words of her title,

history has both reduced and amplified Mary by defining her solely through the

relationship with her most famous child. Relationships can do that. They can

reduce us and they can amplify us. They can corrode us and they can heal us.

They can damn us and they can save us.

Relationships are expressions of our faith and our fear. Here in America,

in the waning days of 2015, you could argue we have been too often relating to

one another more based on fear than on faith. A large part of the population is

fearful much of the time. Scared of being diminished and humiliated, we lash out

to prop up our hollow sense of pride. We flash quickly to anger, as if being mad

will allow us to re-assert our sense of being confidently in control over events that

we can see are really beyond our control. We balk unhappily at the increasingly

fast pace of social and technological change, refusing to learn new language and

new technology, and fall increasingly out of touch with the world around us. We

tremble helplessly at the thought that anonymous cybercrime has made our

credit, and even our identity, a commodity to be compromised and stolen. We no

longer feel assured our society is civil enough for our personal or family safety,

since houses of worship, holiday parties, movie theaters, road races, and even

schools are targeted for mass murder. We begin carrying weapons to feel safer,

though that has the effect of making others around us more fearful.

What can the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, teach us about

remaining in faithful trusting relationship in the face of our very human fear? I

think her lesson is in the maternal relationship that has made her famous. Of all

 

the human activities I can think of, raising children may be the biggest leap of

faith there is. Who of you, here, could tell me a story (or two or three) that might

support that statement?

This first chapter of Luke’s gospel sets out two of his central themes. First,

he’s writing about a God who will favor the powerless and the vulnerable.

Second, this God will send salvation, but in ways that are both surprising and

challenging. In the first part of this chapter, which we didn’t read today, we

learned that, instead of picking a mighty and high-born set of parents for the

messenger, John the Baptist, God chose the humble, faithful temple priest

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth.

The contrast between old Zechariah’s response to the Angel and young

Mary’s response illustrates the degree of her innocent young optimism. The

angel Gabriel shows up to talk to Zechariah in the middle of worship at the

Temple, at a moment when Zechariah is going about his priestly duties, and had

gone into the back room of the back room and was alone with the Holy of Holies.

If, after decades of trying unsuccessfully to have a child, an angel appeared to

you at work and announced that now, you could not only expect a son, but that

he would be the God-appointed messenger clearing the way for the messiah,

how would you respond? Fear? Anger? Suspicion? After Zechariah gets over his

original terror at Gabriel’s appearance, he is openly skeptical about how he and

his wife, at their advanced age, are going to become pregnant. The angel is so

annoyed by Zechariah’s doubt, he takes away the priest’s voice until after John

the Baptist is born.

Contrast that with Mary’s response to the annunciation by the angel

Gabriel that she has been chosen to be the mother of the messiah, and through

her, God’s promise of salvation to the people of Israel will be fulfilled. Other than

one rather practical question about how she’s supposed to get pregnant if she’s

never been with a man, she seems quite placid in her response to this stunning

angelic Annunciation. Many of us would be frightened and overwhelmed. Was

the girl simply too shocked and humble to respond otherwise? By the time of

today’s text, when Mary visits her cousin, the by-now-pregnant Elizabeth, Mary

 

can no longer contain what is obviously overflowing wonder and delight. Her joy

pours out in the words that become the lyrics of one of Christianity’s oldest

liturgical canticles, The Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord! For you have

looked with favor upon your lowly servant, and from this day forward all

generations will call me blessed.”

In Mary’s celebration, we hear the echoes of that first theme of Luke’s

gospel. Instead of selecting a powerful and wealthy queen to bear and raise the

savior, God singles out an unwed young woman engaged to a carpenter from a

small village in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. That “elevating the

lowly” symbolism alone has made Mary the inspiration and heroine of many

radical movements for justice among the marginalized and oppressed in the

years since. But the second theme of surprise and challenge may also be lurking

here. As the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor has written, “At least part of what

[we] need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way [we] do.

What if the gravel of a parking lot looks as promising to God as the floorboards of

a church? What if a lost soul strikes God as more reachable than a lifelong

believer?” Makes you wonder what young, starry-eyed Mary has in mind about

the outcome of this divine pregnancy when she sings with joy. She was probably

familiar with the traditional language about God’s salvation promise, language

like we heard today in the passage from Micah. If so, Mary assumes that her

first-born son is destined to grow up into a conquering shepherd king, sweeping

aside Israel’s enemies with drawn sword. If that was her expectation, how on

earth did she cope later on when Jesus became instead a wandering miracle-

worker and preacher, and was eventually crucified alongside bandits?

The choice of Mary as Jesus’ mother ensured that Jesus’ first primary

relationship would not be with a nanny, and he would not grow up surrounded by

servants, but would probably expect to serve others. Even more importantly,

having Mary as his mother meant that the person with the most early formative

influence on Jesus would be someone with no choices to sustain her and her

children’s hope other than her enduring faith. Mary, whatever spark of hope was

stirred in her by the angel’s initial announcement, had to raise Jesus with no

 

illusions that she in any way controlled her own destiny. She had no knowledge,

no wealth, no social status, and no physical prowess. She had none of the

traditional attributes of “power” that might lull her into the false belief that her

destiny was in her own hands, beyond the limited scope of her childrearing and

household duties. Chasing personal self-determination or personal fulfillment was

not anywhere within her horizon of expectations. There could be no pretentions,

so there was probably deep humility. She was free, free as any believer to

choose her response to her situation, but her cultural and socioeconomic location

meant that her choice was very basic: she could despair bitterly in the face of an

often scary, difficult existence, or trust in God, work to love and care for her

family, and hope for the best.

It was this woman Mary, who became the mother of Jesus. It was this

Mary who encouraged him first to stand and then later, to walk. It was Mary who

modeled patience amidst the inevitable travails of potty training and sibling

squabbles; Mary’s firm perseverance during his temper tantrums, and Mary’s

bedside tenderness when he was sick. As he grew, she probably shared the joys

of his bubbling enthusiasm and laughed at his precocious childhood antics.

Jesus may have been the son of God, but he was also the son of woman. Mary

was the mother of Jesus, but Jesus was the son of Mary. The relationship

defined them both.

Mary largely drops out of sight after the early chapters of Luke’s gospel,

but her appeal to us does not diminish. Maybe it’s simply our mammalian instinct

to be drawn to mother figures; maybe it’s our need for a divine feminine; or

maybe we sense that knowing Mary better might help us know Jesus better, too.

Whatever it is, at some point, we are compelled to acknowledge that Mary’s role

as the “mother of God” went well beyond being merely a temporary holding

space in her (immaculate) womb, and included the influential power of her

extraordinary human faith.

We know Mary raised more children than just Jesus, and it must have

been a long maternal journey of faith from Mary’s song of praise at her cousin

Elizabeth’s house to the events of Good Friday, thirty-odd years later. The writer

 

of Matthew’s gospel describes Jesus, at one point, bluntly rejecting his earthly

family’s claims on him, in order to pursue the cause of his ministry. You wonder if

Jesus felt comfortable saying that, though, because he knew Mary would

understand and forgive him, and extend to Jesus the grace that he had always

been raised to know. Like all loving parents whose children grow up and go off to

fulfill their dreams and their destiny, Mary probably prayed for Jesus’ safety and

well-being all the days of her life. And, if Mary was there in Jerusalem among the

Passover crowds, watching her eldest child, beaten and bleeding, stumbling

along beneath his crown of thorns, and dragging his own cross up the road to

Calvary– you know she must have wept.

“O Emmanuel,” begins a prayer by the UCC liturgist Maren Tirabassi,

“Come to us in all our fears, so they do not define us.” Judging by the way Jesus

conducted himself in the relationships of his adult ministry, we will assume Mary

did her best as a mother, and that was good enough. Mary, the mother of Jesus,

imbued her son with the most basic lessons about what it means to cling to trust

and faith in a brutally frightening world—to find ways to love, to risk being

vulnerable, to accept the other, and to forgive. Mary’s gifts to the world through

Jesus were the best lessons of her humanity. Like many mothers, she received

no credit for this; the writers of the canonical gospels, all non-mothers, were far

more interested in chronicling the divinity “power” tricks like Jesus walking on

water and feeding the five thousand. In this Advent season though, (the only time

we talk about her), I would like to give a “shout out” to Mary, the mother of Jesus-

– for teaching her boy some human tricks, as well.

Amen.