Updated: Aug 5
The other day the children and I were talking about shopping for Christmas presents – and how our shopping habits tend to reflect our personalities. “Katie,” Nick said, “always gives you things that she thinks you might like but they never make sense to anyone but her.” “Dad,” said, Katie, “gives you what he wants to get himself.” “And Aunt Sidnie,” I said, “buys you what she thinks you should have – like “Introduction to the Apocrypha.”
Finding gifts for other people is a difficult proposition – one which, I suspect, has been keeping many of us up nights lately. It’s hard to find the perfect gift – and it hurts when someone rejects a present that we have spent a lot of time picking out. That’s the situation David finds himself in in today’s Hebrew scripture. As God’s chosen king, David is “settled in his house” and decides that he should build a nice temple to repay God for all of her help and support. It seems like a great idea. After all, why should God live in a tent when the king is living in a mansion? But God rejects David’s proposed gift. In fact, God actually takes offense at David’s offer. It’s like that moment on Christmas morning when your child takes the finger baby puppet you waited in line for ten hours for and throws it into the fireplace – except times ten thousand. What went wrong?
Well, “according to the text, both king and prophet have misjudged the mind of the Lord…David and Nathan misconceive the character and purpose of the One they worship. In our own day there are examples aplenty, from both political and religious realms, of those who have no doubt as to God’s purposes and plans. This text serves as a warning against such a confident reading of the will of God.” Over and over our scriptures tell us that God doesn’t think like us – and there is nothing in the bible to suggest that any one person – or religion – has the ability or right to tell others what God wants. David – perhaps with the best intentions – decided that he knew what God wanted – and he was wrong. That’s what happens when you do not give God a choice.
Our scriptures are filled with stories of God – and human beings – making choices that we can’t anticipate -and often don’t comprehend – choices like the one God makes in Samuel’s story to live as a homeless person in a tent rather than a tabernacle; choices like the ones Jesus often makes to eat with prostitutes, foreigners, and contagiously ill peasants; and the choice made by a teenaged girl in the last year before the Common Era in a small province in an occupied land in the Middle East – the choice made by Mary when she encountered an angel.
People are fascinated with angels, and there has been a fair amount of argument about what angels actually look like. Biblical scholarship suggests that there are several different types – or “ranks” – of angels and that they differ from one another in both power and appearance. Of course, we don’t really know, but what we’re pretty sure of is that angels are not chubby little children with little wings and halos. What we do know is that angels are God’s foot soldiers – so they may or may not be beautiful, but they are definitely terrifying.
Angels appear four times in the Christmas story – once to John the Baptist’s father Zechariah; once to Joseph, once to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, and once to Mary. In most cases, the people the angels approach are described as being completely terrified – but not Mary. Today’s gospel tells us that Mary’s first reaction to seeing Gabriel is not fear but confusion. She is “perplexed.” She wonders at his greeting. And when he gives her the bizarre and unthinkable news that she will become pregnant with a Saviour who will be great and called the son of the Most High – a son who will be a king as great as David and who will reign for ever -she doesn’t cry or scream or argue – she simply asks how this can possibly be true. And when she is told that “nothing is impossible with God,” she accepts her fate as God’s will – because she has faith in him.
In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, Mary’s acquiescence is interpreted as simple and admirable obedience. In these traditions, the figure of Mary is viewed as the ultimate example of Christian – and more specifically female – piety. She is revered for her seemingly timid submission. All you have to do is look at artistic images of Mary (as we did at our recent Faithful Forum) to intuit the lesson you’re supposed to learn from her. She is gentle and passive – peaceful and empty. She is a mere vessel for the will of God.
But if you look more closely at what Luke’s gospel says, this view doesn’t hold up. First of all, Mary has the chutzpah to actually question the angel – which is more than we can say for Joseph and the shepherds, who are too busy cowering on the ground frozen with fear to say anything. And not only does she question Gabriel, but Gabriel demonstrates respect for her by giving her an actual answer. Notice that the gospel passage does not end with the angel’s pronouncement of Mary’s impending pregnancy. The angel departs only after Mary accepts God’s call. It is Mary who gets the last word.
The point is that Mary had a choice. Not, perhaps, of whether she would be the vessel of God’s earthly incarnation – but certainly a choice in how she would live out that role – and Mary chose to accept her role not with docile subjugation, but with courage and joy – with so much joy that she sang about it. The visit of an angel is the very definition of “awesome,” meaning that it invokes both dread and wonder. Every single person in the nativity story who received a visit from Gabriel had the choice of focusing on the fear or reverence that make up “awe.” Each had the option of cowering and attempting to defend themselves against it- or embracing it as a gift from God. Mary chose to see her perilous situation as a gift – as grace.
Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us that the revelation of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ was a mystery that was disclosed in order to bring about the obedience of faith – not obedience by law or by threats or by fear. Mary didn’t accept God’s grace because she was afraid of Gabriel. She did not agree to God’s life-changing “favor” because she was too passive and meek to refuse. Mary accepted God’s favor because she trusted in God – and that is why she is a saint.
“Christians can find authentic meaning and goodness in our lives only to the degree we trust in God’s promises.” Believing is our choice. The Bible tells us that every stranger we encounter may be an angel in disguise – and maybe that’s why we are so often afraid of those who seem different than us. After all, angels are scary. But what if we, like Mary, approached our lives – all of the unknown people and unopened packages– with wonder instead of fear? What if we chose to believe that God knows what is best for us even when we don’t understand it? What if wake up on Christmas morning and – no matter how terrifying it might seem – choose to accept the gift of grace that God has picked out just for us? I can’t help but wonder if that’s the gift that God would choose for us – and for himself. AMEN.
Eugene C. Bay, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 76.
Cathy F. Young, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 90.