One morning a few months ago, I had just woken up. My coffee wasn’t yet made. My eyes were half-shut. I was zoning out, staring at our kitchen sink when Brie ran in and stuck a long, skinny piece of plastic in my face with a look of joy and disbelief in her eyes. The piece of plastic had dots or a screen, maybe some different colors, I can’t really remember what it looked like because I wasn’t awake yet. I didn’t know how to read it, but I knew what it was.
I knew it was a pregnancy test, and I knew it must be positive for Brie to be so excited. But I didn’t know that false positives are almost unheard of. I didn’t know that this was a for-sure thing.
But when I did realize that it was a for sure thing I wasn’t shocked, I was very happy. We wanted to have a baby, we were hoping to get pregnant. While Brie running in and putting a pregnancy test in my face before I’d even had my coffee was surprising, the fact that she was pregnant was not.
Mary, on the other hand was probably much more surprised than me in every way. We were trying to get pregnant. Mary, on the other hand, if she’s and Joseph were anything like young couples today, was doing everything she could to not get pregnant. And since she clearly says she’s still a virgin, it seems like she’s probably on the right track…or so one would think.
I had seen pregnancy tests before, I knew that that was the most common way for people to find out they were pregnant. Mary on the other hand finds out not by way of a piece of plastic, but by way of Gabriel, an angel of the Lord. I doubt any of her friends found out they were pregnant that way.
The most Brie and I can know about our baby is its sex, and we had to wait a few months for that. But Mary doesn’t have to wait, and she gets more info than just the sex. Gabriel tells her, “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (vv. 30-33). How’s that for a birth announcement?
All this is, understandably, a shock to her. At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond to Brie that morning a few months ago. I can only imagine how Mary felt when an angel of the Lord appeared to her out of the blue to tell her she was going to give birth to the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. How does someone respond to that?
She begins by asking how this is possible, biologically, since she’s a virgin. This seems like a fair question. The angel explains, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…For nothing is impossible with God” (vv. 35, 37). I feel like that would just open up a whole can of worms if I were Mary. There are still a lot of unknowns. For me that would not be a completely adequate answer. I’d probably have more questions after that.
It may seem to us that Gabriel just showed up and told Mary what would happen without giving her any say in it, but Mary’s response – “May it be to me as you have said” – shows that this is meant to be a question from God. This plan of God’s is contingent on Mary’s participation – on Mary’s “yes.”
Now, can we just take a minute to notice that before the Creator-God of the universe, the One who made her and knows her better than anyone, impregnates Mary an angel shows up and checks with her to make sure she’s on board. If the God of the universe asks permission before touching a woman’s body, who do these perverted men in power think they are to harass, touch, assault, and degrade women’s and girls’ bodies? If God waits for Mary’s yes, every man should also wait for a yes. Can I get an amen?
God’s plan is dependent on Mary’s participation, as God plans are often dependent on human participation throughout Scripture. God’s work in the world is always this weird, sometimes confusing mash-up of God’s work and our work. In the words of Ephesians 3:20, God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to [God’s] power that is at work within us.” According to Ephesians, God can do immeasurably more than we can think or ask, but God does it by working within us – through us.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of Mary. When Gabriel appears to Mary, he explains to her the plan of God for bringing salvation to the world, and it is, indeed, “immeasurably more than” we humans could think or imagine. A young woman is going to give birth to the incarnate God? God is going to come and live as a human? And God isn’t going to show up as an adult but is going to enter into the world the way humans do, through the messy, dangerous process of biological birth? God will actually spend 40 weeks in the womb of a normal, everyday woman?
Talk about the “power that is working within us.” The power of God was literally working within Mary’s body, creating a Salvation that wasn’t abstract, but one that grew arms and legs and a heart, an embodied Salvation that was fed and nurtured by the body of a young woman. Somehow, the body of the Creator was being formed within the body of the creature. That’s some mind-blowing stuff. That’s the power of God doing immeasurably more than we can think or imagine.
Mary has, unfortunately, become a controversial figure in Christianity, mostly between Protestants and Catholics. Within the Catholic church, Mary is highly revered, making some Protestants uncomfortable, because they feel that she is, in some cases, being equated with God. This is a misunderstanding. That’s not what Catholics are saying. At the same time, I will admit that when Brie and I went to Rome we were surprised at just how prominent Mary was in the Catholic churches we visited. Mary was very central, in a way that we were not used to.
But in an attempt to distance ourselves from any kind of “Mary worship,” (once again I don’t think that’s a fair characterization) many Protestants have down played Mary to the point of invisibilizing her, taking away her agency, and relegating her to some kind of empty vessel for the Divine, the way women today are so often invisibilized. What a shame. There are too few women in Scripture, and we must make the most of those who show up, chief among them is Mary. Mary deserves at least as much respect as Abraham, Moses, King David, Peter, and Paul. She responds with faith that puts many prophets and priests who came before her to shame. The Early Church gave Mary the title Theotokos, God-bearer. She is unlike anyone else.
And yet, she is so much like everyone else. In a sense, what makes Mary so exceptional is how ordinary she is when the angel appears to her. We know nothing of Mary’s lineage or her background. She is probably a poor, young girl, living a carbon copy life of most poor, young girls in Israel at that time: engaged to a working class man, looking forward to a life of child-bearing and child-rearing. As far as we know, prior to Gabriel showing up, there’s nothing that sets Mary apart from anyone else.
What makes Mary so significant is God’s power, to quote Ephesians again, “at work within her,” and her willing participation in that work. It’s in God’s invitation to Mary and in Mary’s “yes” to God.
Mary will exclaim in her famous Magnificat, “[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. [God] has filled the hungry with good thing but has sent the rich away empty.” This is Mary’s personal story. She was lowly, but she was lifted up.
Mary was just like you, just like me – she was ordinary. She was an everyday person, going about her life in the usual pattern: working, going to church, getting engaged, then, all of sudden, she became unlike anyone else. She became the Theotokos, the God-bearer. There has never been and never will be another God-bearer. Mary stands, apart from all others, as the one and only person who carried the physical presence of God within her own body.
None of us will ever have that opportunity, but we are, throughout our lives, also presented with chances to participate in the new work God is constantly doing in the world. We live in a world that is constantly changing, growing, and adapting, and God is here, in this world. Our lives are pregnant with the hopes, dreams, and possibilities of God. God comes to us – in admittedly less dramatic ways that God came to Mary – to ask us if we will participate.
One of the ways we’ve been asked by God to participate in God’s work in this city is to become a welcoming and affirming place for LGBTQ Christians, which is why we joined the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. This isn’t the only thing we care about, but it certainly is one of the things we care about. In the past year we’ve become excited about the possibility of being a safe place for our LGBTQ siblings. We’ve discerned that this is something God has asked of us, and it’s something we’ve said “yes” to.
This past week we faced a bit of backlash for our decision. Not everyone is as excited as we are about this new thing God is doing in our church.
It would be good for us to remember at this time that despite the wonderful, exciting role Mary got to play in God’s salvific work in the world, it brought a great deal of hardship for her. Participation in God’s work is always accompanied by suffering.
Mary would forever be to her community the woman who got pregnant before he marriage – which was much more shaming then than it is now – and then had the audacity to claim that God did it. This was either the height of insanity, or the height of blasphemy. She was surely ostracized and maligned, possibly even threatened as her neighbors watched this unmarried woman’s belly swell.
While news of Brie’s pregnancy is always met with smiles and exclamations of joy, Mary’s was certainly met with dark faces, shaking heads, and insults. To be the God-bearer was to be an outcast in her community.
And that’s just the beginning of her hardship. When Jesus is only 8 days old, Mary and Joseph go to the temple, and Mary is told by an old man named Simeon, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35). Simeon predicts the pain Mary will feel when she watches her beloved son be mocked, tortured, humiliated, and crucified on the cross.
Paintings and statues of Mary weeping at the feet of the crucified Christ or holding his lifeless body in her arms come to mind.
Mary surely knew that her “yes” to God’s unfolding plan would mean hardship, even if she didn’t know all the details. She knew she’d have to explain to her fiancé why she was pregnant, and she was probably sure that he would disown her – and he would have if an angel hadn’t appeared to him in a dream and confirm Mary’s story. She probably foresaw the ridicule she would receive from her community. She probably knew that no one would believe her.
But she also knew that this was a huge blessing. God was coming to save God’s people, and she would be the one to give birth to God’s promise made flesh. As she says in another part of her Magnificat, “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me.”
Being the church God calls us to be is also a blessing. It’s a blessing to open our doors to all people, to tell our neighbors that we welcome everyone with no caveats. Sure there have been and will be some bumps along the way, but that’s par for the course. That’s the story of Mary and Joseph, and Jesus, and the disciples, and Abraham and Sarah, and David, and Esther, and pretty much everyone who responded with a “yes” to God’s invitation.
In Jesus’ own words, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
I would like to encourage us today to follow Mary’s lead. She didn’t focus on the hardships that would result from her “yes,” but instead she focused on what a blessing it is to be invited into God saving work, and responded with those beautiful words, “May it be to me as you have said.”
There will always be obstacles to doing what is right, but we must remain faithful to the good work God has called us to.
Brie and I have been told, again and again, that our lives will never be the same now that we’re expecting. We’ve been told that parenthood can be both the greatest blessing and the greatest heartbreak. We have, at times, caught ourselves dreaming of all the wonderful possibilities that lie ahead for the little nugget in her belly. And, at other times, we’ve caught ourselves fearing all that could go wrong, the many ways we could fail, the dark roads they could go down. The future’s uncertain. One thing’s for sure, there’s no way we can guess what the rest of our lives will look like. There’s no way we can know what that little sea-monkey is going to become in their lifetime.
That’s also what it means to be a church who responds to God’s invitation with a “yes.” We don’t know where the path will lead us. We don’t know what blessings and hardships await us.
All we know is that God has invited us into the beautiful work of Salvation, and all we can say in response is, “May it be to us as you have said.” Amen.