We say, Here am I, Lord. In this season of waiting and wondering, we open ourselves to you. We open ourselves to your Word risking that we might be changed in hearing and trusting you. Amen.
I know it’s not good practice for a preacher to tell stories about her or his children from the pulpit. But, today I just have to.
When our daughter, Sophie, was three-and-a-half years old, a friend of mine and I took her to one of those wacky family style zoos called Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg, Florida, which was where we lived. This zoo (of sorts) had alligators, exotic birds and petting animals. Much to our surprise, inside there was a modest wax museum depicting in about eight scenes the story of Jesus’ life. Clearly, the owners of Sunken Gardens were Christians. (What better way to bring people to Christ than at a ‘gator zoo?)
My friend and I were walking around the diorama, taking in the life-sized wax figures, and we lost track of Sophie. Then we heard her little voice shout to us, “Look, Mommy, it’s the ‘Nunciation!”
We looked over; she was standing in front of the figures of the angel Gabriel and the young Mary. I asked her, “What did you say?”
She repeated, “It’s the ‘Nunciation!”
Now I promise you…if my friend Brian was not there, I would not have believed that she said it. I have no idea where she heard that term. Admittedly, our kids have parents who are a bit odd given they have a clergy mom and a religion professor dad, but I swear we do not sit around and quiz our children on theological terminology!
But as a result of Sophie’s declaration, the scene of the Annunciation, or the “Nunciation,” took hold in my heart that day. If that story could capture the imagination of a three-year-old girl, it certainly was worth pondering for me.
“Annunciation” means “Announcement” – the announcement of the angel Gabriel to a poor teenage girl from an unlikely family, from an unlikely village called Nazareth in the north hill country of Israel.
This announcement came with no pomp or circumstance. No trumpet. No town crier. Just a quiet appearance of an angel, a “messenger of God.”
Let’s start by asking: Who was this angel, Gabriel?
The same angel appeared in Luke’s gospel just a few verses earlier, and about six months earlier, bringing an announcement to a priest named Zechariah. Zechariah was in the Temple taking his turn offering the incense. Gabriel appeared to Zechariah while he was alone, and the visit terrified him. Gabriel’s annunciation or announcement to Zechariah was nearly as radical as was his message to Mary. Nearly, but not quite. The angel told Zachariah that his wife, Elizabeth, barren and longing for a child, would conceive and bear a son and name him John. They had been praying years upon years for a child, and now their prayers would be answered.
For Zechariah and Elizabeth, the announcement that they would bear a son was an improbability. Too wonderful for them to imagine or for the old man to trust. Zechariah, being a priest and therefore a rational man, asked, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife… is getting on in years.”
Gabriel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” vs. 1:18-20
When Zechariah came out of the Temple, just as Gabriel said, he had no voice.
“Nothing is impossible for God!” we are told by Gabriel’s announcement. Older women get pregnant. Men are silenced. Special children are born.
What was Gabriel’s announcement to Mary?
In Nazareth today, the large, modern Basilica Of The Annunciation is erected over an earlier Byzantine Crusader church marking the traditional site Of The Annunciation. The interior of the Basilica enshrines the sunken Grotto Of The Annunciation, which are thought to be the actual remains of the 1st century home of Mary and her family. There is a small well enshrined there, venerated as the site Gabriel appeared unannounced to young Mary.
Frederick Buechner, in his book Peculiar Treasures, wrote this about Mary:
“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. And 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.”
God does not force our consent. We are free to say “No” to God’s invitation to take risks. Mary could have refused. But instead she courageously began with a question.Honestly and curiously, she asked, “How could this be for I have not known a man?” The angel assured her that God had that piece of the mystery of the “impossibility” worked out.
Mary considered – pondered – this invitation, and then stepped into the RISK of her life. Saying “Yes” without certainty – but with courage – is always the first step toward following God. Only eight verses later in Luke, she is the same woman who will sing one of the most politically subversive and dangerous songs in the Scriptures: The Magnificat.
Just like so many prophets before Mary – Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah and Jeremiah – she stands in a long line of witnesses who were brave, or ignorant, or joyous, or adventurous, or grateful, or obedient enough to say to God’s request, “Here am I; I am the Lord’s servant.”
The word for servant spoken by Mary is interestingly “doula.” Some of you know this term. “Doula comes from the Greek word for the most important female slave or servant in an ancient Greek household, the woman who probably helped the lady of the house through her childbearing.” A doula was a helpmate to a woman in childbirth. (Klaus, Kennell and Klaus, Mothering the Mother)
Mary offers herself not only as the one who will carry, bear and raise the child of God; but she offers herself as the one who becomes the helpmate, the doula, to the very birthing of the child. It’s as if she is, at the same time, the mother and the handmaid to the Divine Mother who is doing the birthing.
Unlike Zechariah who lost his voice, Mary found her voice. Unlike Zechariah who had stature and power as a priest, Mary was a small town girl with no power. The inverse had taken place. Through the angel’s invitation to take on the impossible, and her willingness to say “Yes,” Mary found her power.
What is The Announcement to us today? And, what is our response?
The film, The Visitor, was a wonderful film about taking risks and saying yes to small annunciations. An older professor named Walter taught in a New England College. Walter’s love of life dried up after the death of his wife. The loss of his beloved, and the grief and loneliness that ensued, hung heavy upon him. His creativity left him. He was caught whiting out the dates of old lecture notes and exams to reuse them. He stopped socializing with friends. Most significantly, he stopped going to the small apartment in New York City that he and his wife owned in order to indulge their love of urban culture. It was too painful for Walter to be there without her. The day came however when he was forced to return to the apartment because he could not get out of attending an academic conference in the city.
Much to Walter’s shock, when he arrived, he found a young immigrant couple living in his apartment. The apartment had been rented to them illegally, and after the confusion was cleared away, the young Sudanese woman and Syrian man humbly left the premises. Walter, though, when realizing it meant the couple would be homeless, was faced with a decision that took great risk. He could have recoiled, but instead he invited them to stay with him. You can imagine the plot. Walter was changed by the chance he took; his visitors became the messengers of new life.
Walter opened up his life, his heart and his home, to the possibility of change. His decision in that moment didn’t come easily. He was afraid and suspicious and moved cautiously. But in his heart, a space grew that allowed the strangers in. By offering what he had, new life was born in him.
When we’re least expecting it, an annunciation just might come to us. A messenger of sorts might announce that what we considered our impossibility has actually become God’s possibility.
But we have to accept the risk.
There’s a marvelous poem by Denise Levertov called Annunciation, and I will read an excerpt of it:
Annunciation by Denise Levertov
‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos Hymn, Greece, Vic
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –
but who was God.
~ The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes (New York: NewDirections Books, 1997)
Levertov challenges us: do we want to cling to the ordinary life, the life we know, in all its safety and security? Keep doing business as usual? Or, do we dare crack open our lives to an annunciation, of one sort or another, that comes along when we least expect it?
The Advent season invites us to pay attention to small annunciations. Ours might not be quite as extraordinary as Mary’s was. But Gabriel’s announcement to her that “nothing is impossible for God” is still true for us.
Have you recently taken any risks that have engendered in you new life, new energy, and creativity?
Like Mary, are you, am I, prepared to open up space within for something new and unexpected? Like Mary, can you or I hold back fear and trepidation in order for God to do the impossible?
It’s our decision. God waits for our Yes.