I think it is interesting that Mary’s first reaction to the angelic visitation is fear. For some reason most people’s first reaction to the Divine is fear. All through Scripture, whenever God appears or an angelic representative of God appears, the first reaction of those who experience the encounter is fear. So the first words typically spoken by God or the angel are, “Do not be afraid.”
Have you ever wondered why this is? Maybe it’s because we have a common tendency to project our fears onto God. It is hard for us to imagine that God would actually like us, let alone love us, just as we are, with all our flaws and blemishes.
The angel declares, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” This greeting of favor is not because Mary is exceptional, though she has been chosen for an exceptional service. But Mary is not seeking God; God seeks Mary.
In the Gospel Of Luke Mary appears not only as the mother of Jesus, but as a model disciple. So she is an example, a demonstration of faithful discipleship. This is how God comes to each of us. God offers God’s self to us even before we invite God into our lives. Our part is to be open and receptive——to welcome the grace that God bestows.
Repentance and the change it brings is certainly part of our faith journey and an essential component in our character development and spiritual growth. And Luke has a lot to say about repentance in this Gospel. But God doesn’t require repentance or conversion before a relationship can be established. I believe that we are all in a relationship with God whether or not we realize it. God doesn’t say: If you do this or believe this or repent of this or live this way, then I will love you and welcome you. Before Mary said anything the angel said, “You are blessed, you are graced, you are loved. The favor of God is upon you and the Lord is with you.” And that can be said about every one of us in this place.
There’s a lot of Christianity today that claims to believe in God’s unconditional love, but when we really scrutinize it we discover that it’s not unconditional at all. If one has to believe certain things or do certain things in order to be accepted by God then it is not unconditional. If one has to believe or do certain things in order to avoid being cut off and cast off from the presence of God, then it is not unconditional.
I remember during the Presidential debates a minor point was raised in one of them about whether the President or Secretary of State should meet with other national leaders without preconditions. Now, whether the President should or should not meet with other world leaders without preconditions may be a subject for debate, but a God of unconditional love meets with persons all the time without preconditions. There is nothing in the text about Mary’s worthiness. God comes to a lowly peasant girl and favors her. This is how God relates to each of us. God may have other tasks for us to do, but God does not set boundaries and limits on grace. If God did, then it wouldn’t be grace.
All through the Gospels we see Jesus exuding God’s unconditional love; we see Jesus welcoming tax collectors and sinners, embracing all sorts of folks as they are. Jesus does, however, call disciples and the challenge of discipleship can be, well, challenging——like when he told the rich official to sell all his possessions and give away all his wealth and follow him, or when he told the man who wanted to make funeral arrangements for his father to let the dead bury the dead and follow him. That’s pretty radical isn’t it? Jesus could offer some challenging invitations, which, I suspect, many of us would decline. But never once did Jesus make God’s love conditional on the basis of discipleship. I believe that it is through discipleship to Jesus that we discover fullness of life in God’s kingdom, and I believe that through discipleship to Jesus we learn how to love like God loves, but God’s love is not withheld if the call to discipleship is rejected.
That doesn’t mean that God is a push over. Jesus didn’t sidestep the prospect of judgment. Jesus spoke of judgment. In fact, some of his pronouncements of judgment initially sound harsh, but they presuppose God’s love. God judges because God loves. God wants the best for all God’s children. Judgment grounded in love, however, is not punitive or judicial, it is not retributive, it is not vengeful. It is the judgment of a gracious, compassionate Father/Mother. It is restorative and disciplinary and corrective and redemptive. It is not a tormenting fire, but a refining fire——which is why I believe there is hope for every single person.
I had been pastoring in Maryland for about a year when I received a call to do a funeral. I had started to develop a friendship with the funeral director so I told him I would. It was a difficult service. A handful of people were present. The deceased man had drank himself to death. He had no religious affiliation and was known for his belligerence. The only family member present was a sister.
I didn’t put him in hell, but I came awfully close. After the service the sister confronted me. She said, “Do you not hold any hope for his redemption?” She caught me off guard. Honestly, I don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure it was not very comforting. I can still see her face. We all have regrets, and that funeral service is one of mine. I wish I could get a “Do over” because I would preach that sermon so different today. I could give her hope for her brother’s redemption. Because today, I believe in a God of unconditional love. I didn’t then. I may have claimed to, but I really didn’t.
We have a beautiful picture of God’s unconditional acceptance in the parable of the waiting Father in Luke 15. In the case of the younger brother who spurned and despised the Father, taking his inheritance and leaving——the Father waited patiently for the son’s return. When the father saw him at a distance, he ran to him, and before the son could say a word . . . he kissed him and embraced him, showering him with grace. That’s how God is. And when the elder brother, bitter and self-righteous, refused to join the celebration, the father sought him out and told him, “All that is mine is yours.” That’s unconditional love.
The angel delivers a startling message that leaves Mary breathless. She will have a son, and not just any son . . . Mary wonders and questions: “How will this be . . . since I am a virgin.” The story leaves us wondering and questioning as well——as it should. One Scripture text calls the Christ Event, the coming of God in Christ, “the mystery of godliness.” And indeed it is a mystery. We should have never tried to reduce this mystery to a creed or doctrinal formula.
I love the story that Philip Gulley shares about the eight year-old girl who was having misgivings about Santa Clause. She told her mother that she needed proof. Her mother asked, “What kind of proof?” She wanted a photograph of Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer. Apparently she had given this a great deal of thought.
Before Gulley had even learned about this, he and his wife were downtown, and there standing on the street corner was an elf with a real live reindeer. They didn’t know what the elf and reindeer were doing there. There were no other elfs or reindeer present. Santa was nowhere around. Gulley says there was just this one elf, standing on the street corner next to his reindeer, kind of like he was lost, like he’d gotten off on the wrong bus stop and gotten separated from the other elves. He was just standing there, holding a rope in his hand, with the reindeer on the other end of the rope. That’s when his wife took a picture.
Now, when this mother asked his wife, “Where in the world am I going to find a photograph of a reindeer?” well, his wife said, “I’ve got you covered.” She had the picture developed and gave it to this mother, who showed it to her daughter, who scrutinized it, and then pronounced it the real deal. So the grand tradition of Santa Clause was safe for another year at least.
I think most of us can relate to the girl wanting proof. Some Christians take the all or nothing approach to matters of faith the way this girl did with Santa Clause.
For quite a few years I took this approach with the Bible. I thought that if the Bible could not be trusted in one area, then it couldn’t be trusted in anything, which, when you really think about it, is a very simplistic and naïve approach isn’t it? This is not how we actually live. If you were to ask me about some theological position——What does a reformed Calvinist believe?——something I know something about, you could expect a fairly reliable response. You could trust what I tell you. But if you were to ask me some mechanical question about your car, you couldn’t trust a word I say. The Bible is a book of diverse sacred literature, written by diverse human beings, who were limited in their understanding and flawed the way we are flawed. The biblical writers were human beings like us.
But in those days I felt that if there was one thing in the Bible that proved false or wasn’t true, then it all couldn’t be trusted. I felt like I had to defend it. So what I did was this: I either ignored the contradictions and inconsistencies, or I tried to explain them away. Why did I do that? I’m not sure really, though I have asked myself several questions:
Was it because I was so indoctrinated into this position? If the only people you are around preach this, then most likely you are going to believe it. This was what was ground into me by all the people I respected, so I suspect this was lot of it. But I have asked other questions: Was it because I needed to be right? Was it because I needed or craved something that was certain? Most of us need something to hang on to, especially when life is so fragile and unpredictable. Was it because I needed to be in control? Did pride have something to do with it? I’m not completely sure.
But I do think that the human condition being what it is, most of us need something that we can count on. My problem was that I had made peripheral things the most important things. I drew too many lines and set too many boundaries. We all need a foundation and we all need some boundaries, but the critical question is: What’s that going to be? I had focused on the wrong things and had become way too confident, having hunkered down in my little fortress.
Thankfully, I have learned and am continuing to learn how to live with the contradictions, and how to live with the mystery and the ambiguity. I’m not nearly as certain these days about a lot of things, but I am a lot more humble (my wife may take exception to that, but I think that is true, at least when it comes to my faith). The one thing I do bank on is the unconditional love of God. That’s my foundation. The question I would ask you is: What’s yours?
I think that the more we experience God, the more we realize how much we don’t know about God. So the more we experience God, the more we learn to live with the mystery. I heard about this self-help guru/motivational speaker who had a Ph.D in psychology and one of the talks he was known for he called, “The Ten Commandments for Parents.” After he married and the first child arrived he changed the talk to, “Ten Suggestions for Parents.” When the second child came along he changed it again to, “Ten Helpful Hints for Parents.” After the arrival of their third child, he gave up the talk altogether.
This comes out of my own faith journey; I say this because this was my experience: It seems to me that those who are most sure of themselves or shout the loudest, may be the very ones who have had the least experience of what they are talking about. It was true in my experience and think it is true of others as well. The more I have come to experience God, to taste the Divine Love that is at the heart of all reality, the less sure I am about a lot things I once held with certainty, and perhaps even some arrogance. I was quite inflexible regarding my beliefs about God when I had practically no experience of God. The more I grow in God and experience God, the less certain I am about so many of the beliefs about God I was taught.
And I no longer feel any need to try to regulate or control what others believe, which is very liberating. I do think there are some beliefs that are unhealthy and detrimental to a transformative faith, and I am passionate about helping Christians embrace a faith that is redemptive and holistic and inclusive (that is the passion that motivates me to write), but I do not feel a need to dictate or control what others believe.
Mary did not grasp all that was happening to her and she knew that this would complicate her life. And while this was a great blessing, in other ways it would make her life much more difficult.
What does Mary do? She surrenders to the mystery. I love verse 38: “‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May it be to me according to your word.’”
If Mary is a model for us——perhaps we can do no better this Advent season than to allow Mary to lead us into the mystery of it all and to teach us how to surrender to the Divine Love and Goodness that names us and claims us and comes us to us again and again with greetings of grace. Hail, O favored one. Greetings, O blessed one. That’s God’s word to you and me.