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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

Third Sunday of Advent

December 11, 2016

 Mary’s Story

Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:26-38

            On the first Monday in December, Connie and I did what we only do these days out of sheer necessity: We ventured out to a shopping mall.  And on this Monday morning, we found ourselves heading to Cool Springs Mall, specifically to the store called American Girl.  With two granddaughters at the ideal age, Connie’s younger friends advised her that this would be the perfect place to shop.  We arrived early, a few minutes before opening, and I was surprised that while the rest of the mall was empty, a line had already formed outside American Girl.  I thought to myself, “This can’t be good!”  The store opened and the young mothers entered the store as if on a mission.  As we started talking to a helpful sales clerk, I realized quickly that we had not just entered a store – we had entered a whole world!  (American Girl is run by marketing geniuses, who market wholesomeness!)  Eventually, we found what seemed like the perfect place to start – a small doll for each granddaughter, a hair brush and some clothing.  But I realized as we left that what we bought was only a start – that we will likely enter into a long, expensive relationship with American Girl, hopefully to the delight of our granddaughters for years to come.

            As we left the world of American Girl, I found myself thinking of another girl, far more international – you might even say world-renowned.  I am thinking of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is arguably the most recognizable woman, surely the most revered woman ever to walk the planet.  In churches across Europe, you encounter Mary’s image or likeness in stunning beauty.  In art museums around the globe, Mary is omnipresent.  I still remember the hush that came over me at The Hermitage, in 2012, as I stood before Da Vinci’s painting of Mary and her baby.  And this time of year, wherever you go, you are reminded of Madonna and Child – of Mary, the Mother of God.  And like my realization upon leaving American Girl that I was only starting my relationship with them, Mary has a way of drawing you in as well, and taking you places you never imagined you would be led.

            Let me say right off the bat: I am one Protestant who adores Mary.  I am taken by her utter humility, her candid response to the uninvited intrusion of God into her life, her courageous acceptance of what she could not have fully understood, and her ultimate trust in God that has made Mary the most venerated, admired, recreated woman in all the world.

            Part of the power of Mary’s story is found in how much like us she is, and yet how singular her encounter with God is.  In 1898 a brilliantly gifted American painter named Henry Ossawa Tanner painted this morning’s account in Luke, The Annunciation.  If you have never seen this painting, trust me, you need to!  Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburgh in 1859, the son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister father and a mother who had been a slave, and escaped north on the Underground Railroad.  Tanner went to study at the Philadelphia Academy of the Arts, the first African American student they would welcome, and there he came under the influence of Thomas Eakins, who found in Tanner one of his all-time favorite students.  To escape the pain of racism he experienced in my home state of Pennsylvania, Tanner went to Paris, where he grew as a painter, especially a painter of powerfully spiritual works that spoke of his own vibrant faith, a faith he learned from his parents.

            In The Annunciation, Mary sits upon a simple bed, while Gabriel is depicted by an intensely bright column of light on the left side of the canvas, that forms a cross with a high bookshelf on the wall.  Mary is bathed in a radiance beyond human experience or understanding.  The Holy One bursts into her world at a particular time and place, as Luke tells us, to bear a very particular message to young Mary.  It is a reminder to us all that we can never anticipate or control the ways that God will break into our world – or even into our lives.  The angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary reminds us that we do not create our own salvation, nor can we ever fully imagine the ways of God.

            John Calvin said that “the full sum of wisdom,” that is, “true and godly wisdom,” consists of two things: “the knowledge of ourselves, and the knowledge of God.”  Which comes first, Calvin says, is hard to know.  There can be no real or true knowledge of who you are or who you are to become apart from the Triune God, the God we came to know more fully in Jesus Christ, Mary’s child.

            God comes to us all in ways we will never control or command.  Like Mary, we encounter God on God’s terms, and if we are wise, we receive God, we respond openly, and like Mary, we allow the light to shine upon us and guide us.

            We are told by Luke, actually by the angel Gabriel (one of only three angels actually named in the Bible), that Mary is “favored” by God.  Twice in our annunciation text does Gabriel tell Mary that she has “found favor with God.”  It is a strange and mysterious favor, as God’s favor upon us so often is.  God does not just come to us in the ways we want or wish God would.  I doubt that Mary wanted this incredible, life-changing, shocking pregnancy – yet it turned out to be the most blessed birth the world would ever know.

            God’s favor is upon us, upon each and every one of us.  We remember this every time we baptize a baby or an adult.  But this favor is not always obvious or what we expect or would choose for ourselves.  Mary was “much perplexed” by God’s favor.  She “pondered what sort of greeting this might be,” just as we rightly and wisely look for God in the midst of our own hopes and fears.  What I have learned is this: God often can be found in what frightens or frustrates us, even in what hurts or disturbs, and God’s favor often begins in unlikely places and unexpected ways.  What started as the most intense loneliness and despair I had ever known led to a love and a life I could never have imagined for myself.  I am no different from you on this count.  God comes to us in ways we would never ourselves guess.  This is because “in everything God works together for good with those who love Him, who are the called according to His purpose.”  God’s favor is upon you, dear friends!  Like Mary, we need to open ourselves to receive it, to trust in it.

            Finally, let us learn from Mary’s response to this surprising, unexpected visitation.  “How can this be,” she asks, “since I am a virgin?”  Mary is not a passive recipient of this awe-full favor God is doing for her.  She responds honestly, actively, a willing partner in this holy disruption of her life.

            “Mary’s obedience is neither optional nor forced,” says theologian Cynthia Rigby.  “Mary acts freely when she offers herself as a servant of the Lord.  To embrace her identity as the Mother of God is the only choice that is true to her calling, because it is consistent with who she actually is.”

            Don’t you get it?  Mary trusts in God.  She says, “Let it be to me according to Thy word.”  Mary trusted that God was at work for good in her life, and the rest is the greatest story the world has ever known, the best story we have to tell.  It makes me wonder: Where is God calling you to listen, to trust and to follow?

                                                                                    Amen.

 

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