Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Dates don’t always converge for us quite this beautifully, but what a great week to talk about Mary’s “here am I” to the angel Gabriel, when on ordination / installation Sunday we’ll soon be celebrating a group of new officers who’ve said “here am I” to the call to serve our church in the new year.
We’re focusing on angels this Advent, prompted by this beautiful new angel banner that was unveiled for the first time last week. Its design, visually tied in with the hills of Bethlehem over on the right hand banner, reminds us of the connection between angels’ pronouncements and really all of the important action in the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel.
We began last week with the story of the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah while he served as a priest in the temple. Gabriel comes bringing good news from God: Zechariah and his wife, who have for so many years longed for a child, shall have one. Advanced age is no problem for the God who works wonders and brings hope to hopeless places. Zechariah naturally has a bit of trouble believing the angel’s words. And he’s struck speechless for the duration of his wife’s pregnancy – a really odd piece of the story – but the angel’s promise comes true. Elizabeth and Zechariah become parents for the first time, late in life, and onto the scene comes baby John, who will later be known as John the Baptist.
Today we read of Mary’s encounter with the same angel. Once again Gabriel appears on the scene with big news, coupled with those familiar angelic words of comfort: “Do not be afraid.” The big news here is that young Mary, a virgin, will conceive a son, and his name will be called Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.
There are so many things that could be said, and have been said, about Mary’s angel story here in Luke. This particular time through it, I’ve been most struck by the three-part movement of her response to Gabriel.
First, “how can this be?” Young she might have been, but Mary’d clearly been told where babies come from. This was hardly the usual way! Her “how can this be?” in verse 34 seems to continue her confusion back in verse 29, where she is “much perplexed by [Gabriel’s] words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Sometimes God’s promises surprise and startle us. Sometimes God seems to work in our lives in really strange ways. Even if none of our particular surprises from God ever reach the level of magnitude of Mary’s, it’s natural to wonder sometimes, when we sense God at work: “how can this be?” Fair question, Mary.
Next, having received what we’d have to admit is rather minimal explanation of the particulars from the angel Gabriel – “the Holy Spirit will overshadow me? Um, ok…” – Mary moves on with impressive courage and resolve to her famous answer: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” While there is still much she does not understand, she does understand this is an important calling, a mission from God, and she responds with a willing faith. “Let’s do this, God. I’m in.”
Frederick Buechner captures the instant just before her response beautifully, in his description of the encounter between Mary and her angelic messenger:
"She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”
In the illustration that accompanies this entry in Buechner’s book, Peculiar Treasures, he shows Gabriel crossing his fingers, behind those great golden wings. An awful lot hinged on her answer! But Mary bravely said yes to this remarkable challenge. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Though as the story continues, she actually does far more than say yes, doesn’t she? She sings this beautiful song, recounted for us in verses 46-55, making clear she understands that the mission she’s just accepted isn’t just about her.
She’s honored to have been chosen to play such an important role in God’s story, and certainly that leads her to rejoice – a poor, young woman whom from now on all generations would call blessed! Zechariah and Elizabeth at least had impressive credentials, both being from priestly houses. Who was Mary, to be given such an important role to play? But young Mary somehow also knows that even this is only the beginning of the amazing good news to come.
And so she sings. She sings of tremendous role reversals coming one day, when the proud and powerful will be brought low, and the poor and lowly raised up. She sings of the hungry being filled with good things and of the rich being sent away empty-handed. A whole new world order is about to be brought into being, with the birth of her child, and it’s such good news for those who struggle and suffer, for those who can barely scrape a meal together, for those with whom polite society would never deign to share a table. I just love that no sooner has she celebrated her own good news, than Mary looks around her to see how many others can benefit from God’s promises.
I pray that our new officers – and all of us – will find inspiration in Mary’s example. In what sorts of situations might God be inviting us to move from a wondering “how can this be?” to a brave “here am I,” a willingness to serve God, questions and all? And where might we be called to move beyond even the “here am I” to noticing who else could benefit from God’s promises? Who around us is struggling, is hurting, and how might we play a part in God’s lifting them up?
Granted, Mary’s song can make us a little uncomfortable, we who are warm and cozy, we who have safe homes and plenty to eat. No need to upset the social balance on our account, God, thanks all the same. But it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to think of places where Mary’s words would be received as tremendously good news. In refugee camps in Africa and Europe and the Middle East, for instance. Among flood victims in India. Or in Tent City 5 just down the hill.
The lovely thing about being called to do God’s work in the world is that it doesn’t require us to have all the answers. “How can this be?” is something we’re all going to wonder at times. Questions come with the territory, in our life of faith. But to serve God all that’s really required is a willingness to say “here I am, Lord,” and to put ourselves to work. Looking around and asking: where is my story with God about more than just me? Where might there be an invitation to bring others in on God’s good news? Who else gets in on these promises?
With brave young Mary, let’s sing like people who know God cares for all God’s children. And let’s look around for ways to live out our songs. God’s kingdom is coming, after all. God’s work is already underway. It’s just a question of whether we want to be part of the excitement.
So, what do you say?
How about: Here are we, the servants of the Lord. Let’s do this, God! We’re in!
 Frederick Buechner, “Gabriel” in Peculiar Treasures, p. 39