Sermon for Advent IV, Year B
Based on Lk. 1:26-38
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Contrary to how Mary is depicted in some works of art, she was not a White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP), or Roman Catholic for that matter! Mary did not have white skin. Nor did she likely have blue or green eyes. Rather, she had olive-brownish skin and, most likely, brown eyes. Nor did Mary wear Avon or Mary-Kay cosmetics, as some artists portray her.
According to the customs of her day and age, we have very good reason to believe that Mary was not a woman at the time that she wed Joseph, but a girl in her early-to-mid teens; since it was quite common at the time for young teenage girls to be betrothed and married.
Down through the centuries, Mary has been a popular figure in Christian art. This has proven to be, at best, a very mixed blessing. On the downside, a real and accurate picture of Mary has been totally distorted, romanticized, mythologized, and idealized. In these portraits of Mary, she is neither a young girl, nor Jewish, nor living in Palestine, wearing the common clothing of her day.
If it's true that a picture represents one-thousand words, then what are some of these paintings communicating about Mary? Are such paintings that depict Mary as non-Jewish really an expression of subtle ~ or maybe not-so-subtle ~ antisemitism and anti-Judaism? Are such paintings that give Mary a halo and royal attire trying to tell us that she was superhuman or divine?
On the positive side, some of the artists have attempted to provide us with an accurate biblical representation of Mary. At any rate, on the positive side, some of the paintings of Mary are very powerful, and loaded with theological insight. They point out to us that Mary was quite human, like the rest of us; that she was God's humble servant, like you and me; that in her humanity, and in her servanthood, she struggled with her fears and doubts ~ which eventually led her into a deeper faith in God and God's purpose for her life, also very similar to you and me.
Our gospel today points all of these things out to us. We are told of Mary's first response ~ fear, in verses 29 and 30, which read as follows: "But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God." No doubt Mary's initial fear was well founded; after all it's not everyday that a stranger would come up to Mary and announce God's good news to her!
This, indeed, was no ordinary expected event for Mary. It was quite extraordinary and unexpected. Mary was not familiar with or prepared for this unexpected event. What was she to do with the unfamiliar, the unexpected, the unprepared for? Was she to scream, yell, run away and convince herself that this wasn't really happening to her, but merely a dream or an illusion, or a fictitious musing? Or, was she going to face her fears head on and attempt to come to grips with them?
You and me also have fears like Mary. We like to live with the ordinary, expected, familiar and prepared; because these things make us feel and believe that we are safe and secure. Deep down inside of us, there's a fear of the unfamiliar, and extraordinary, the unexpected and unprepared for.
How do we respond to these things when they inevitably crop up in our lives? Do we scream, yell, run away and convince ourselves that it's not really happening to us, but merely a dream or an illusion, or a fictitious musing? Or do we face our fears head on and attempt to come to grips with them? If we face even our greatest of fears ~ whether they be fears of ourselves, others, the world, the church, or God ~ and attempt to come to grips with them; will God not help us and be with us just as God was with Mary and helped her, when she faced and struggled with her greatest fears? Indeed, as scripture assures us, there are no fears which we cannot face with God, since the power of God's love is greater than all of our fears.
After Mary faced her fears, then she had to deal with her doubt. Mary expresses her doubt in verse 34, when she says: "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" Her doubt, like her fear, was probably well-founded; since in that day and age, it was taboo to bring a child into the world out of wed-lock. To do such a thing would mean that she was an unclean outcast and avoided by most respectable people.
No male would wed such a person; which likely meant that the woman probably had to raise the child under endless hardships. Furthermore, in some severe cases, the woman might even be stoned to death. Thus, Mary's doubt raised a very legitimate question. However, it is important for us to note that her doubt was not ignored or shunned, nor was she left with her doubt. No, instead, her doubt is listened to ~ the angel answers her question and Mary moves from her doubt by taking a leap of faith and trusting God.
After hearing the message of reassurance from the divine messenger, Mary responds with a leap of faith and trust in verse 38 and leaves behind her doubts: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Mary is able to place her life in God's hands by trusting God's promise to her and her offspring, the Christ child.
We too are like Mary in the process of moving from fear, to doubt, to that leap of faith and trust in God. Sometimes, God calls us into a task which, like Mary, we wonder what we're getting into, and if we're capable of accomplishing God's will in our lives. We have doubts and our questions sometimes, just as Mary had hers.
However, God doesn't leave us with our doubts and questions, they're not ignored or shunned. Rather, God comes to us, listens to us and speaks to us with words of reassurance and comfort, just as God spoke to Mary.
After wrestling with and sorting out her fears and doubts, Mary is led into a much deeper faith in God. It was only after she realized that she could never do God's will by her own understanding or efforts that she "let go and let God." In her letting go and letting God, Mary has become a classic example of true faithfulness and servanthood.
What wrestling with and sorting out of our fears and doubts do we need to face and come to grips with in order to lead us into true faithfulness and servanthood, just as it did for Mary? As we come nearer to the end of our Advent journey, may we too be able to prepare our hearts, minds and lives for the coming Christ child by saying ~ or maybe even singing! ~ "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
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