Series: I Don’t Know What I Believe
Sermon #2: Mary’s Bold Uncertainty
By: Anna Hillaker 02/25/2018
We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. We’re grateful for you and the gifts of God that you bring with you into this space this morning. As we gather together as a church we do so in the active presence of God through our worship, community, and engagement with Scripture, which we hope will lead to transformational growth in our everyday life. As a congregation we want to experience belonging, cultivate tangible joy, activate hope, and know comfort as we learn to trust Jesus more and more, enabling us to reflect the welcome and peace of Jesus to those closest to us. We pray that whether this is your first time with us this morning, or you’ve been a part of our community for a while, that you will feel the invitation of the Holy Spirit to join in with our vision.
I. We push past uncertainty, craving a conclusion
During our Lenten season, the forty days of reflection and preparation for Easter, we are tackling the subject of doubt. So often we see doubt as our enemy, and more specifically, as the enemy of our faith. But Pastor Donnell drew out a different, more subtle picture of the relationship between faith and doubt for us last week. Instead of seeing doubt as a barrier to faith, he argued that doubt can actually be one of the many elements included in a robust and authentic relationship with God, and that it can actually exist at the same time as our faith. What does it look like to “consider how our doubts and fears can help us have a deeper, lasting, more fulfilling relationship with God? (Pastor Donnell)”
The way we’ve chosen to explore this tricky topic more fully is by working through the stories of individual people in the Bible as they navigate doubt, uncertainty, fear, and confusion in their relationship with God. Last week, we looked at Abram as he wrestled through the seemingly impossible promises of God. Instead of rejecting Abram’s doubt or being offended by it, God took it upon God’s own self to authenticate the promise made to Abram and to offer comfort and support so that Abram would be able to trust God enough to move forward.
This morning, we’re exploring the incredible story of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Now, before we dive into Mary’s story, I want to propose something. See, I think that those of us who are familiar with Mary’s story, we might read Mary’s story in a particular way because we already know the ending. We can miss a lot of the beauty and subtlety of her story because we want to define her story primarily by its conclusion. There’s a theory in psychology proposed by Dr. Daniel Kahneman called the peak-end theory. Basically, this theory says that we tend to judge an experience by what happens at the climax of the experience and by what happens at the end. The wild thing is that we actually remember what happens differently because of this. We tend to gloss over all of the middle parts, the parts with a wider and more nuanced range of emotions and experience. See, we want to make sense of the stories we encounter, we like to throw a neat label on them so that they feel coherent.
For instance, what if you went on backpacking trip. For the first couple of days, you had fun, but it was difficult getting used to the weight of your pack. But there were moments throughout those days of incredible beauty. The next couple of days are amazing, full of gorgeous landscape and great friends. Then, a day or two before the end of the trip you get caught in a terrible rainstorm. All of your gear is completely soaked because you forgot to bring pack covers. The end of your trip is absolutely miserable. Wet socks, soggy food, blisters, everything smells musty and gross. How are you going to remember your trip? Probably through the lens of the climax (the rainstorm) and the ending (the miserable last leg of the trip.)
II. Faith is the whole process, not just the result
So as we dive into Mary’s story today, I’m going to ask you to do a difficult thing. Let’s try to set our stories about Mary aside, if you have one, and try to dig into the more nuanced and varied details of her encounter. We pick it up in Luke 1:26-38:
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel when to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at this words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him 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 his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on 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. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered, “May it be to me according to your word.” Then the angel left her.
There is so much to unpack in this story, but today, I want to focus on how Mary navigates this incredible call from God. Those of us who are familiar with this narrative often read Mary as this serene, placid, meekly accepting young woman, who when confronted with this shocking invitation is completely trusting and understanding, full of faith, and assents to the proposal right away. But that’s not how I read it, and I’m not sure that’s really how Luke is presenting her. I think Mary faith is being demonstrated throughout the entire story, through the whole complex, unfolding narrative, not just in the decisive action she agrees to at the end.
Let’s take a closer look. Mary is a young woman, from what one commentator called “a nothing town” (Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org), when suddenly she is greeted by an angel declaring her to be “highly favored” and that “the Lord is with her.” And I love her response! It’s honest, it’s not particularly composed or polished, and I think it’s actually pretty funny.
Mary was greatly troubled at this words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. (v. 29)
First, she was greatly troubled at his words. She wasn’t filled with joy, or sitting there with blank and open expectancy, waiting for her mission. Nope. She was “greatly troubled.” Here she was, a young woman in a culture that didn’t prize young women, from a family not even worth a mention in the story, and a town that was “insignificant, despised, [and] unclean,” and the angel of the Lord is telling her that she is highly favored (Joel B. Green, NICNT, p.84). Angels only really show up when something big is about to happen. No wonder she’s troubled! And now the part that I find really funny, she “wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” I think we usually read this as a mild-mannered, “hmmm.” But I read this as much closer to “What in the HECK is going going on here?” or “What kind of way is that to greet an unsuspecting person?” The word here could mean that she debated about it, considered the different possibilities, or reasoned through it. So not only is she troubled, which I read as probably afraid and overwhelmed, but she is also uncertain. And I want to note that all of this reaction is before Gabriel has even told her what God is asking her to do! Mary is bewildered and they haven’t even gotten to the really wild part yet.
Gabriel seems to sense how she’s feeling, that she’s doubtful or afraid, because next he says “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.” He offers her comfort, and reiterates that she is favored by God. I think he knows that she’s feeling overwhelmed, and is only going to become more overwhelmed. Because he’s about to introduce the really incredible task that God is inviting Mary to: “Oh, by the way, God would like you to mother his son who is going to restore everything that is broken in the world and rule over it for all eternity.” This is not an easy invitation to wrap your head around, and I can only imagine the intensity and range of emotion that Mary is feeling right at this moment.
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” Of all the things she could ask the angel, I have to say that I’m a little surprised that this is her choice! On the surface, it almost sounds like a technical question, like “OK, cool. How are we gonna do this?” But I think that there’s a lot more underneath her question that it initially seems. I think it contains notes of “but what does this mean for me?” or even “Do you know what you’re asking of me?” Because a lot was on the line for Mary. Being unmarried and pregnant in her time and culture was nothing to shrug at, as we can see in Joseph’s response recorded in the book of Matthew. Her whole future, her standing in her family and her community, were at stake.
Mary’s question is a loaded one, which we also see by Gabriel’s response to her. He does answer her more technical “how” question, but he also does something else, something a lot like God’s response to Abram that we explored last week. He gives her evidence that God is trustworthy and strong: “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” If Mary was already certain, if Gabriel had already resolved all her doubt, her fear, her questions, why would he offer this? I think Gabriel knows that Mary needs more from God, that she’s looking for something to hold onto in the midst of an overwhelming call. So she is given something tangible, verifiable. Your elderly relative is pregnant, even though she was thought to be barren. And where have we heard something like that before? Sounds a lot like the story of Abram and Sarai, doesn’t it, a story Mary would have been very familiar with. The promise of God to bring pregnancy out of supposed barrenness is peppered throughout the history of Israel, and always when the plans of God are in motion. It is only after this question and answer, where Gabriel not only answers her surface question, but also addresses the uncertainties that seem to linger underneath, that Mary agrees to get on board with God’s plan.
Now most of us probably haven’t had an angel appear to us recently asking us to partner with God in an extraordinary mission to restore the universe. But there are plenty of ways that Mary’s story can connect with our own. This Lent, one of the spiritual practices we’re engaging as a community is to boldly ask God every day for one thing. One thing that has maybe been weighing on your heart for some time. Maybe something you’ve been waiting for or hoping for. Maybe you’re asking for healing, or vocational guidance, or provision of some kind. What would it look like if we took our own stories of waiting, of living in the uncertain middle of a story, as an example as we consider Mary’s story? Because as much as we long for resolution to our prayers, as much as I believe that God cares about those resolutions, we spend so much of our lives navigating the uncertainty of the middle of the story. Mary’s story gives us space to feel the full range of human emotion before God as we wait for resolution. Her story frames faith as an unfolding process, which is, I think, a much more accurate description of how it usually looks in our own lives.
III. Mary’s Assent
Mary’s assent, her radical “I am the Lord’s servant… May it be to me according to your word,” only comes as the result of an unfolding process. In order for her to get here she has been repeatedly told that she is favored by God, she has been told that the Lord is with her (which usually also implies that this person is assured “of divine resources and protection” (Ibid., p. 87.)), she has been encouraged not to be afraid, she has been given evidence of God’s powerful work in the life of her relative Elizabeth, and she has been told that nothing is impossible with God. These steps are not incidental. I can’t imagine that God, represented by Gabriel, would have offered all of this to Mary had she been ready to go right away. And here’s the thing— even with all of this, we are not told that all of Mary’s uncertainty, fear, and questioning has been resolved. We are told nothing at this point of Mary’s state of mind. In fact, we are only told of her choice, and the powerful words that she offers. But here’s the peak-end theory coming into play. We see this moment as the climax, and the birth of Jesus as the end of the story, and we have a tendency to brush past the complexity of the rest of the story. When we do this, we hold Mary up not as a whole, intricate person with the whole range of human emotion, but as some sort of perfect vessel for Jesus.
This reading of Mary’s response is held up in a remarkable way by an echo of her phrase “may it be to me according to you word” later on in Luke. Something similar is uttered by her son Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus, wrestling with the call of the Father himself, to the point where he asks his Father to change his plans, to the point where we is described as being in anguish and sweating drops of blood, says “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Mary’s assent to God’s call, like Jesus’, her radical presentation of herself as God’s servant does not mean that all of her doubts, her fears, her uncertainties, and her questions have been resolved. I think it is more likely that they haven’t been. All it means is that she was able to muster enough trust in God to take the next step.
Because here’s the thing. Mary’s story is far from over. The encounter between Mary and Gabriel not only reflects the biblical stories of important births, it also reflects the pattern of an OT call narrative, when God shows up to ask someone to participate in God’s mission in a particular way. It falls into the same pattern we find when Moses is called. The same pattern as the prophet Isaiah’s call (Mark Allan Powell, workingpreacher.org). Mary’s story doesn’t end when she conceives. It does not end when she gives birth. Mary is being called to a prophetic task. And like most prophets, her work will continue to be fraught with worry, with uncertainty, and with fear. How could being the mother of Jesus entail anything else? Mary shows us that we can live in the complexity of being beloved, reassured, and called, while simultaneously being questioning, unsure, afraid, and wanting more information. What does it look like for us to trust God with the process, rather than putting all of our energy into seeking a conclusion? What does it look like to seek God’s active, loving, guiding presence not just at the peak, not just in the conclusion, but through every twist and turn of the journey?
Greg Boyd puts it this way in his book Benefit of the Doubt,
“…whether your struggle is with doubt, confusion, the challenge of accepting God’s will, or any other matter, the fact that you have this struggle does not indicate that you lack faith. To the contrary, your faith is strong to the degree that you’re willing to honestly embrace your struggle (p. 93).”
Mary is honest. Luke tells us that she is troubled, that she ponders over it, trying to figure out what is going on. She asks a question. She’s not passive, nor is she certain. The strength of Mary’s faith lies in the point where she leans in, musters her courage in spite of her fear, and says yes.
IV. Sitting in the Complex Story
But friends, this is so, so hard. Everything in us screams for conclusion, to a neat and understandable finish to the story. We want to label it, to put a simple frame around it and move on. What does it look like for us to question, wrestle, and doubt, but not to walk away?
- I was going through a difficult time— chronic health, discernment about the future.
- On a break from work, I went to lay down in the grass. I felt God whisper to me “as surely as the ground is holding you up, I am holding you up.” As I lay there and thought about it, I knew that God was not just holding me, but me and all of the things that I myself was holding.
- My struggles were not resolved, but it helped me feel more trusting, more secure.
- What does it look like to trust that God is holding you even when it isn’t all resolved?
I wrote a poem once about Mary’s choice, and I’m going to share it with you at the encouragement of Gina, one of our congregants who is always asking me to share what I’ve written. So this is for you Gina:
I assent to what I do
not know yet, or love
in the posture of Mary—
one hand cupped over
my chest, the other
bent open to receive
I know not what—
may it be to me.
I am full of yearning
and yearning, desires
that well and break.
I cast them upon
the waters and
Change creeps close,
a seed planted deep
full in the silence,
a fig that ripens
I believe that Mary’s choice is made more brave, more trusting, more beautiful because of her uncertainties, not in spite of them. She doesn’t understand it all, how could she possibly? But she comes to a point where she trusts enough to take the next step. And remember, we forget that her story doesn’t end here. Her questions don’t end here. We see that in the very next moment we’re offered. She journeys to see Elizabeth. Why do you think she does that? For reassurance. To see for herself whether Elizabeth is really pregnant. To see for herself that nothing is impossible for God. And it is not until then, not until a profound, affirming encounter with Elizabeth that Mary is shown to experience joy in what is unfolding. Mary’s song, often called the Magnificat, doesn’t take place right after her encounter with Gabriel, as you might think it would. It only comes after she has taken a long, arduous journey (a journey which was very unusual for a young, betrothed woman to take) in order to seek answers and reassurance. Only then does Mary give voice to the prophetic role that has been given to her and voice the song so profound, so earth-shaking that it has been banned in multiple highly authoritarian countries for being too subversive.
It is only then that Mary declares,
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed.”