Luke tells us how Zechariah, a lay priest, was leading evening prayers in the courtyard of the temple. Each evening, a single priest entered the sanctuary to light the incense offering. Alone in the sanctuary, suddenly an angel appeared to Zechariah who was overcome with fear.
15 months later in the Jerusalem mountains, shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night when suddenly the glory of the Lord shone all around them. They were terrified.
Luke never mentions Mary being afraid when the angel appears to her. The angel offers a standard angelic disclaimer, “Do not be afraid, Mary…,” but apparently Mary was not terrified or overcome with fear. Mary is confused by the angel’s message, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” Mary’s practice was to turn words over in her heart. She wonders what kind of greeting this might be. What does it mean to be called “favored” or “graced” by God? What does it mean that “the Lord is with us?” Worship and wonder both open us to mystery and joy.
Mary chooses wonder over fear. And wondering always leads to questions. Mary asks, “How can this be?” All during this ongoing pandemic, I keep thinking about our spiritual ancestors’ wilderness journey and their exile season in Babylon. Being uprooted or in between “normals” produces deep questions. Moses argued with God: Why? No! How? Would you? How long? In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked, “Lord if it is possible, then take this cup away.” Is a faith without questions faith at all? Before announcing, “Lord, let it be,” Mary asks, “Lord, how can this be?” Asking harder questions about how God’s kin-dom might arrive on earth seems more righteous than a thousand heavenly prayers lacking planning or sacrifice. Mary’s twin prayers, “How can this be?” and “Let it be” are necessary for faithful living.
The angel answers Mary’s “how” question telling her that nothing is impossible with God. The angel is short on details. Mary will have to work through God’s plan step by step, decision by decision, day by day. Faith, hope, love, peace, wholeness and transformation all ask us to move forward without knowing what exactly is next. We open our hearts and take what we believe is the next right step.
Luke does not tell us why Mary journeys to see her beloved older aunt in the hill country of Judea. Perhaps Mary simply went to help out, pick up some tips, and share in the joy of pregnancy with Elizabeth. Maybe Mary needed a refuge from her own family and the potential of honor killings allowed in Deuteronomy 22. Such human “property” laws were , are, and will always be wrong. Let us always be careful when quoting the Bible with regard to human sexuality or reproductive rights. I think Mary fled her hometown. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s deep embrace of Mary may have saved her emotional or actual life. Mary’s aunt and uncle are the human agents of God’s “nothing is impossible” plan. We see God’s plan coming together when God speaks to a heartbroken Joseph in a dream, and Joseph awakens to embrace a pregnant Mary. (Matthew 1) And let us always remember Mary’s “let it be” is at the heart of God’s “nothing is impossible” plan. Could it be that Jesus learned from his mother’s “let it be according to Your will” prayer the prayer Jesus taught us all, “Lord, Your kingdom come; Your will be done on earth as in heaven”?
Upon arriving at her beloved aunt’s house, Elizabeth calls out in a loud voice, “Oh Mary, God has blessed you. Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. Blessed is she who believed.” Elizabeth vocalizes the goodness and Godliness she sees in Mary! “Blessed is she who believes.” Who has spoken faith, hope, and love into you? What keeps us from freely blessing others? Why do we think honor, respect, or love must be earned? Are we not all made in the image of God? What do we gain by holding back our praise? I have come to love folding my hands in prayer and bowing to others during this pandemic. In some faith traditions, the bow means ‘I honor the sacred within you’. Let us honor the image of God in others! Hebrews tells us to practice lavish hospitality for we might entertain angels and never know it! Matthew 25 tells us when we feed the hungry, heal the sick, and care for the incarcerated, we care for Christ. Let us treat our interactions as sacred encounters. Let us take the risk of freely praising others. Let us speak faith, hope and love into others.
We do not know how deeply Elizabeth’s affirmation strengthened Mary. The hardest season of my life came during college. I felt my childhood theology was crumbling under me. A trusted church leader’s broken promise did not help. I was asking, “who am I and what will I do?” I did not know the answers. One bleak December day, I walked across the University of Kentucky’s campus chatting with Christopher Nugent, PhD. We spoke about my seeking a PhD in history or another discipline. This beloved professor affirmed my academic chops and promised to be an ally whatever path I took. As we parted, Dr. Nugent gathered his worn overcoat about him and, almost as an afterthought, added, “Do not forget the church, Paul, you may be cut from the timber of a minister.” I recoiled, for after three years of church work and amid a theology crisis, I did not see myself as a pastor. I also wondered if the phrase “cut from the timber of” was even a blessing. Timber needs planing, sanding, and refining. Others have offered more excessive praise, but Dr. Nugent’s words nested in my heart. We rarely know who desperately needs words of grace, hope, or love. I imagine Mary had her moments of profound doubt. Maybe Elizabeth’s blessing helped Mary believe the angel’s proclamation: “the Lord is with you”? Elizabeth’s greeting surely is part of God’s “Nothing is Impossible”plan!
Perhaps one year, we may simply preach every sermon during Advent about Mary. Even after four sermons, there would still be more to say. Today, I will not say everything I want to say about Mary or her glorious prophetic prayer we call the Magnificat. We have considered two of Mary’s prayers: “How can it be?” and “Lord let it be,” but Mary also composes a more liturgical prayer. Nine verses of her hymn became holy scripture. Blessed is she who believed!
With all my heart I magnify the Lord!
In the depths of my soul, I rejoice in God who saves me.
God looks with favor on those with low status, showing mercy to everyone.
God scatters those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations,
pulling down the powerful and lifting up the lowly.
God fills the hungry with good things and sends those already rich away empty-handed.
God comes to the aid of those who serve God, remembering us with mercy,
and always keeping the promise that nothing is impossible with God.
Mary’s prophetic prayer follows Malachi’s image of God appearing like an abrasive soap and scrub brush, Zephaniah’s image of God’s advent as a day of justice, or Hannah’s hymn in 1 Samuel. Mary knows the Scriptures and likely taught Jesus to read and love them. The Magnificat links God’s kin-dom to justice. Mary tells us that where God is, there is justice.
Mary’s opening line, “With all my heart I magnify the Lord! In the depths of my soul, I rejoice in God,” tells us a lot about who Mary is and why we should emulate her. Mary’s heart is wide open. With a wide-open heart, Mary is not afraid to ask her question “how can this be?” With a soul rooted in worship and wonder, Mary takes agency and says to God and herself, “Lord, let it be.” Mary’s wide open heart magnifies the Lord, she looks for God and amplifies the holy. Blessed is she who believes! An open-heart beats with rhythms of the Spirit: magnifying love, doing justice, making peace, practicing patience, dealing in kindness, lauding goodness, being generous, sticking with faithfulness, gently responding, taking agency, and controlling oneself. (Galatians 5) How open is your heart? Are we fearlessly asking questions? Are we spending time in scripture, prayer and praise? Are we taking our next right step leaning into faith, hope, justice, and love? Is your heart open to God and others? What closes off our hearts? What keeps us from Magnifying God? Jesus warns us that the allure of wealth and possession can suffocate our hearts! (Matthew 13) Paul lists soul crushing and heart closing values: sex without love, corruption, hedonism, idolatry, drug abuse, magical thinking, hate, fighting, always competing, conflict, selfishness, tribalism, clickish-ness, jealousy, escapist partying, and stuff like that. (Galatians 5) A faith rooted in fear and legalism surely kills our spirits. (2 Corinthians 3) Whereas perfect love casts out all fear. (1 John 4) Unforgiveness closes our hearts. (Matthew 6) But hear the Good News, God is with you. God longs to unclog your heart. You are beloved. God wants to use us to bring about Jesus’ nothing is impossible kin-dom! You do not need every answer, or understand every mystery- God simply invites you to take your next best step in faith, hope and love. Greetings, favored ones, the Lord be with you. Nothing is impossible with God. Blessed are you. Blessed is she, is he, is they who believes the Good News. In this occasionally very scary world, let us risk opening wide our hearts to God and one another. Let us ask fearless questions. Let us offer (not yet earned) praise to one another! And let us say with Mary, who Elizabeth calls “the mother of our Lord”: “Lord, here I am, let it be.” Amen.