26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[a] 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[b] 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Last week Sunday, at Pastor Rob’s commissioning, I preached on the first part of this story which ends with Mary agreeing to the plan that Gabriel has announced to her. I began that commissioning homily with these words: “Mary said, ‘yes.’ An unmarried adolescent girl, betrothed to Joseph, a man her father had chosen for her, Mary said “yes.” Without consulting her father, without checking in with Joseph, without asking the angel Gabriel for a couple of days to think through the ramifications, Mary said, “yes, here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”
After the service, my brother-in-law Daniel, who was there—himself a minister in the Reformed Church for forty years—Daniel said to me “it never occurred to me that Mary didn’t have the right to say “yes” all on her own. That she didn’t have the right to make this decision without input from her father and fiancé Joseph.” I was surprised that my brother-in-law hadn’t ever thought about this. He knows well the 1st century patriarchal context in which Mary lives. But it hadn’t occurred to him that Mary didn’t have the right to say “yes” all on her own. His comment is a great reminder that what Mary does here is profound, extreme, way out of bounds. With her independent, not at all hesitant “yes,” Mary has “stepped out of her place” as history says of women who don’t follow the rules. Mary has acted against the grain, she is swimming upstream, she is defying the status quo.
Now, I know that for some the whole “virgin birth” makes a great story, but is not understood as an actual physical thing. Personally, I don’t struggle with it. I take it as both mystery and miracle. I take it as part and parcel of who God is. In the beginning of time, the Spirit of God, the breath of God, moves over the deep, hovers over the chaos and the emptiness, and over eons coaxes the universe into being, calling forth all of the potential that exists there. And now the Spirit will overshadow Mary, hover over her, breathing and conceiving in her a new creation in which divine and human being are intricately woven together in a perfect, unbreakable unity.
It is the reality of God as Creator that the gospel writer Luke is tapping into here. God loves materiality. Loves and blesses bodies. God loves the creative and pro-creative power of all creatures, including human beings. God is grieved by the grief and the suffering that accompanies created reality. And God is engaged in the great drama of creation, and intent on bringing all that lives and moves and has being to its full potential—human beings, us, all people included. Which means that God is also invested in the re-creation, the transformation of the not-so-beautiful, the chaotic, broken societies we create. What we see in the story of Mary and Elizabeth is that God is moving against the grain of the social order, doing an end run around the religious and patriarchal structures. Through Holy Spirit, God is conceiving in Mary’s womb a holy child, the son of God, a new creation, without the aid of a male person.
Now, it is one thing for God to behave like this. God is completely free. God is not bound by any human strictures—not by our dogma or our structures, not by the thoughts we think about God, or the rules we make. But, it is quite another thing for a 1st century teenaged girl to con-spire with God and do an end run around male power and prerogatives. So I ask again the question I asked at Rob’s commissioning: How can it be that Mary so quickly says, ‘yes’ when the social and religious structures do not grant her the power to do this on her own?”
Prior to the sudden arrival of God’s messenger Gabriel, we know very little about young Mary except that she was raised in the Jewish faith, she knows the stories of God’s liberating power. And we know that when Gabriel says: “Greetings favored one, God is with you,” Mary is perplexed, confused, confounded, afraid. She doesn’t say it, but she’s probably thinking: “You talking to me?” How can it be that Mary moves from this state of puzzlement and fear to saying “yes” in a fairly short amount of time?
We played around with this question in Bible Study and came up with lots of possibilities. Maybe Mary is one of those special people who is spiritually attuned and even as a child was highly receptive to God. Maybe the Spirit has been preparing her for this. Or maybe Mary is just incredibly brave. Maybe she has a bit of adolescent rebel spirit in her. Maybe she has always had a mind of her own and is in the habit of pushing against the grain. Or maybe, in that moment, she wasn’t thinking straight at all.
We don’t know who Mary was before this moment when God breaks into her life.
What we do know is that the angel of God addresses her as God’s favored one, God’s blessed one, and declares that God was with her. And maybe before that moment, Mary was just an ordinary first century Jewish girl, well-socialized to stay in her place, not given to go against the grain, content to become wife and mother, to fulfill her assigned duties and meet the expectations of her social and religious world. But in this moment, when Gabriel calls her God’s favored one, maybe these words of affirmation, this divine recognition, this holy presence and embrace, this precious naming—maybe in this moment, the Spirit births Mary into her own true personhood and potential. Maybe in this moment when Mary hears God’s “yes” to her, she is empowered to step into the place that God has prepared for her. She says “yes” to con-spire—literally, to breathe with God—and to co-labor with Holy Spirit to bring forth a new creation through which the whole creation would reach its potential.
In the days immediately following Gabriel’s visitation, it appears that Mary doesn’t share her secret with her parents or with Joseph. Instead, she goes to be with her relative Elizabeth, who after years of being barren, in her old age, has also become pregnant. Elizabeth too has been taken up into the Spirit’s labor of birthing a new creation. When Mary enters the house, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps and she herself is filled with Holy Spirit. Suddenly there is an exuberant Spirit fest going on in the entry way.
And now Luke, who has pointed us back to the beginnings of creation when the Spirit hovered over the deep, the emptiness, the chaos, now Luke points us forward to the wild outpouring of Holy Spirit on all flesh at Pentecost. On young and old, male and female, all people of every kind are gonna feel the Spirit moving in them. God’s original “yes,” God’s original blessing spoken at creation’s dawn, now reverberates in the wombs of Mary and Elizabeth on the way to re-birth the whole blessed cosmos. God’s “yes,” God’s favor, God’s love, God’s life, God’s Spirit is an unstoppable power poured out to re-birth you, and me, and everything that lives, and moves and has being.
Mary said “yes” all on her own although, by any human measure, she didn’t really have the right. She should have checked with her father and Joseph. But she didn’t. She stepped out of her place into the place that God had prepared for her because in the face of her fears, God’s “yes,” God’s Spirit made Mary brave and empowered her to become the person she was created to be. Mary’s “yes” will bring her joy and sorrow. It will cause her to sing and to weep. From beginning to end Mary’s “yes” is a beautiful, difficult, risky business. It is a beautiful, risky thing to say “yes” to God’s labor of re-birthing us, the societies we create, and the cosmos we live in.
It is a beautiful, risky thing to live against the grain. To do justice, to practice kindness, to be peacemakers, to create beauty, to be incredible lovers born from God’s love. Mary knows it. Elizabeth knows it. John the Baptist knows it. Jesus knows it. And by the grace and favor of God, we come to know it too. As day by day we wake up in the Spirit to say “yes” once again to God’s new creation kicking within us and emerging all around us.