December 21, 2014
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Let me ask you a question to begin out time together: for those of you responsible for the naming of a child, did you struggle with what to name your child?
Lara Davis, our weekday school director, asked the staff that question this week as she was leading the devotion at our weekly staff meeting. And the answer for most of us was yes. There is power in a name, some might even say there is destiny in a name.
So we try to come up with a name so that our children won’t get made fun of. Can we ourselves make fun of it? If so, it is off the table.
At our staff meeting our secretary Pat said that at her last place of work they called her “Ginger” – her last name is Snapp.
And special thanks to Shaun Galang for coming up with the name “Ocean” for my first child, so that would have been “Ocean Spray.”
We think of names that connect us to the past, to our families. Maren Sonstegard was my great, great grandmother who traveled to this country in the 1860s from Norway. There are several of us with this unique name.
We think of names that make our child unique. I read an article recently about the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who was getting nowhere in his career when he took the stage name Benedict Carlton, when his agent suggested he try his real name, to which he said something like, “but even I can’t pronounce it.”
We have to figure out how to spell the name the way we want since there are many ways to spell a name, and many of us will spend our lives having our names misspelled or mispronounced.
Do we want our child to have a nickname and what will it be?
We consider what the initials will spell.
There was a study published in 1999 in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, that found that males with positive initials (like ACE, ICE, JOY, VIP, CEO, GEM, FLY, FOX, HIP, WIT and WIN) lived 4.5 years longer than a control group of males with neutral initials, while males with negative initials (like DIE, ZIT, PIG, DUM, RAT, GAS, BAD, BUM and SIN) lived 2.8 fewer years. That study has been challenged – but names still can have a powerful influence over us.
And then there is the meaning of our names. Jennifer our bookkeeper discovered in our staff meeting that her name means “white enchantress” and her last name is White.
And that brings us to Mary. Mary and I share something in common. My name, Maren, is the Norwegian or Germanic form of Mary – and it means most likely “sea of bitterness” from the Hebrew word for bitter.
In Exodus the wandering Israelites comes to a place where the water is so bitter that they cannot drink it, and so they call the place, “Marah.”
Naomi, when she returns to Bethlehem with Ruth, as an impoverished woman who has lost her husband and two sons, tells the people she meets, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.”
What do we know about Mary? Not a whole lot. She appears a handful of times in the stories of Jesus’ life. Luke describes her the most.
In Mark, her most memorable appearance may be the account in which she and her other sons come to take Jesus home, hearing from others that Jesus is out of his mind.
In Matthew’s account she is mentioned only at the birth of Jesus and at his death. John never mentions her by name and Paul makes no mention of her at all.
Some years ago a vandal attacked Michelangelo’s Pietà with a hammer, seriously damaging the face and arm of the figure of Mary. A magazine article writing on the incident suggested that the act was symbolic of the misuse of Mary by the church – by the Catholic tradition which has given Mary a lot of attention, while our own tradition has perhaps ignored her too much.
There have been times in history when she has been raised to the level of “Mother of God” or medieval theologians used to speak of a “quaternity” instead of a trinity. Accusations of Mary worship have been thrown around.
We know that she was young, married off by her father to a likely older man. During the first year of her engagement she would have lived at home with her family, after which her husband would come retrieve her and there would be a weeklong wedding celebration. In the account we read this morning, the wedding hasn’t happened yet.
We picture her in our minds as beautiful, meek, holy, gentle.
But what if it was not so. What if she was a sea of bitterness or rebellious (as another meaning of the name Mary implies), as a young teenager, maybe 12 or 13 bonded in marriage to a man she barely knows, forced away from her family, angry and isolated.
What if she wasn’t gracious and grace-full?
What if she was angry, scared, rebellious and bitter?
Let’s take this in light of what happens in the story. The angel Gabriel appears to her and says, “Greetings favored one. The Lord is with you.”
And then we read, “But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
So far the angel has said nothing shocking or miraculous, but you notice that Mary is baffled, not by the angel (which we would probably take as the part that is baffling and miraculous), but by his words.
“Highly favored” means “to grace,” or to be the object of grace, translated elsewhere in the New Testament as “accepted.”
What if his greeting is the first miracle? That God would enter into our bitterness and rebellion and call us favored. That is the first miracle and that is what Mary struggles to understand. She hasn’t really done anything. She hasn’t sought out this encounter – God seeks her out.
Karoline Lewis, who is a preaching professor at Luther Seminary, shares the story of being a Lutheran preacher’s kid at a Catholic high school, and when she hears the passage we read today it brings her back to the celebration of Annunciation Day in High school.
She writes “I remembered being amazed and even surprised when I first attended an Annunciation Day mass at San Domenico School for Girls. I had some sense that as a Lutheran this was neither an event nor day that we acknowledged or celebrated. I was perplexed and considered the rationale for and reasons behind why our classes would start an hour late that day. But the primary image that came to my mind is being surrounded by girls, by my friends, and thinking, God has looked with favor on us. The feeling that I remember from that day in the midst of unfamiliar ritual and religiosity is that God had regarded me.
It is no small thing to be regarded, to be favored, especially when you are exceedingly aware that you should not be.”
It is no small thing to be regarded especially when you are aware that you should not be. That’s Mary.
So what we find in our text this morning is a string of impossible things, miraculous things, but it begins here, with this idea that is played out in the Bible and in our lives.
This is the Biblical story – the whole big arc of the story tells us this one thing: that God regards us, seeks us out, and we are keenly aware that we should not be. The glorious, miraculous announcement of Jesus’ birth, that God will be with us, that is part of the same story. It fits right into the miracle that God calls us “favored,” that God is with us – that is the beginning of the miracles.
The final piece, the final miracle, is that Mary says, “Let it be.”
In his book “Here I Stand,” Roland Bainton writes that Martin Luther saw three miracles in Christ’s nativity: God became human, a virgin conceived, and Mary believed. In Luther’s mind, the greatest was the last.
Luke’s account of Mary paints a picture Christian discipleship – like Mary, we discover to our immense surprise that God has favored us, that God is with us.
Why? We are screw ups, we hurt other people, we hurt ourselves, we damage our planet, we are selfish, sometimes our marriages fall apart, sometimes we cannot bear our parents or our children, we get stuck on things that we just cannot let go of, we are afraid and anxious, we are so distracted by our lives that we barely give a thought to God, we are bitter, we are rebellious. It is impossible for God to love us – most of the time we don’t even love ourselves. It is impossible.
And yet, God announces to each of us, through Jesus Christ, “I am with you, favored one.”
And Mary’s response is the model for our response, “Let it be with me according to your word” so much like what Jesus says towards the end — “Not my will but yours be done.”
Luke wants to make sure we know why she is favored and blessed.
Her relative Elizabeth, who has also been visited by an angel about a miraculous birth says, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord.”
So Mary is not blessed because she is going to be the physical mother of Jesus, but because she believed what God said. She was open and willing to walk the road with God in humble trust.
This is a good place for us to arrive at in this fourth week of Advent. What have all these weeks of preparation meant?
Hopefully our time of mindfulness and self-reflection and repentance and walking in darkness has brought us to this place of humble trust in God.
The road ahead of us is unknown. What God will do next is unknown.
There are impossibilities staring us down: Can we break through this addiction? Can we mend this friendship?
Can we remain in communion with people with whom we strongly disagree?
Will we finally find out way out of this depression, will our child, will our parent, will our friend?
Will we figure out what to do with our lives?
Will this bitterness ever leave our hearts?
Seemingly impossible things.
When the Angel appears to Mary we learn that the impossible becomes possible – that with God, the impossible becomes possible. Let it be.