Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
December 6, 2015
Luke 1: 26-33, 38-42
When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”
38Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
39Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry.”
There is a Latin prayer called the “Ave Maria.” It is the inspiration of much great art. We are familiar with it most likely because of Franz Schubert’s musical setting of this prayer, the one you heard beautifully played by Floy earlier in the service. However, have you ever made the connection that this Latin prayer translates into English as what we call the “Hail Mary”? (And I’m not talking about a football play…)
Those familiar with the Catholic tradition know this prayer by heart, but we Protestants are less familiar with its words. But listen to the prayer: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
Does any of that sound familiar? If so, it’s because the first two lines of this prayer come straight out of the scripture reading you heard only moments ago! In his gospel, Luke records four canticles or psalms, which are songs of faith. And he puts them on the lips of people in the Christmas story. These are what might be called the first carols of Christmas, and they reveal to us the amazing, world-altering, life-changing work that God was to begin in his Son, Jesus Christ. This morning, the words we study are spoken by the messenger, Gabriel, and by Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth. They are not one of those four psalms, but overtime, these words become just that, “Ave Maria.”
“Hail Mary, full of grace” is the Olde English translation of the greeting of the angel Gabriel when he approached Mary. “Rejoice, favored one!” And of course, we heard his next words, “the Lord is with you!” Then, when Mary went to see Elizabeth, the baby John leapt in her womb, and she cried out to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you carry.” These words from Gabriel and Elizabeth quickly became a part of the church’s liturgy, and by a little after the year 1,000, the final line had been added and it became the prayer of devotion to Mary that we know now, adapted many times over in art and song.
Indeed, the words of Gabriel and Elizabeth in this account of what is called the annunciation, the announcement of Jesus’ pending birth, are not in the form of a psalm, but what these two people say about Mary tells us a great deal about God and God’s work with his people. So this morning, as we continue our look at the first carols of Christmas, we will use the words from this passage, the words of the “Hail Mary”, to consider what it means to be both “full of grace” and “blessed.”
Much like Joseph, who we considered last week, Mary is of humble origins. She, too, lived in Nazareth. It is most likely that the folks living in Nazareth made their homes in caves. This was not a bustling trade center, it was just a tiny village. The life expectancy in that part of the world at that time was around 35 years. And at the time the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, she would have been only fourteen or fifteen years old; not exactly the “type” of person one would expect to bear and raise the ruler of the world. Still, there was something about this woman Mary that drew God to her as the chosen vessel for his Son. Considering the angel’s greeting as he approached Mary, I think it’s fair to say that the God of all grace saw in Mary a woman full of grace.
But what does that mean? What does it look like to be a person who is full of grace? Well, it’s a bit hard to determine that from Mary herself, simply by virtue of the fact that her appearances and words in the gospels are extremely limited. Still, there are other places in the gospels where stories are told of people who are full of grace. The story of the good Samaritan is probably the most well-known example, but there are many others as well. Just read the stories of Jesus’ interactions with people throughout his ministry. Jesus is grace personified. And there are modern-day examples, too.
This week, our country once again experienced the horror of a mass shooting. The largest one since Sandy Hook three years ago. We mourn the loss of fourteen souls, wonderful people who gave their lives in public service to the very end. As the week has progressed, we have begun to hear the stories of survivors. On Friday, a young woman told the story of her co-worker, who wrapped his arms around her trying to keep HER safe. In his efforts to keep her alive, he died.
Then a few years ago, there was a wonderful story about the police officer in New York City. He was working the second shift in Manhattan, sort of making his rounds one cold winter evening when he spotted a homeless man sitting across the street in front of a shoe store. The officer approached the man to ask him to move away from the store, but when he got across the street, he noticed the man wasn’t wearing any socks or shoes. Suddenly, the officer’s plans changed. You see, it had been bitterly cold in New York for over a week. The highs during the days were only in the mid-20s, and at night, with the wind chill, it fell well below zero. Maybe the homeless man had chosen that spot outside the shoe store on purpose, or maybe it was just where he landed when his cold, tired feet gave out that night. But in any case, it worked out well for the police officer, who went into the store and bought the man several pairs of warm socks and some heavy duty boots. We know this story because a tourist passing by snapped a photo when the police officer came out of the store and knelt down to help the man put on the new socks and shoes. And we remember this story because it is about a man full of grace.
We can imagine that Mary was such a person. One who, though meek and lowly herself, offered help to those in need and showed compassion to those who were hurting; one who showed kindness expecting nothing in return, and forgave even when it wasn’t deserved. These were the same sorts of things her Son did to teach us about the love of the Father. And though Christ is one with God the Father and always has been, he would’ve needed an earthly parent to teach him such grace, too. And Mary was the one.
What about you? As Christians, we are people who are to continually display Christ to the world. How are we doing? Do people see the grace of God in us? We may not be full of grace, but are we growing in grace? Are we more grace-filled this year than we were last year? And a year from now will we be even more full of grace? Our faith is meant to be shown in a changed life. And as those who, like Mary, are bearers of Christ to the world, that means we must exhibit the fullness of grace!
It also means we have to understand what it is to be blessed by God. You know, when Mary found out she was pregnant, she must have been terrified. She knew that, at best, her marriage to Joseph would never happen and at worst, she could be killed for adultery. She was so scared, in fact, that she didn’t go tell her parents or siblings. Instead, she walked ten days’ journey to her Cousin Elizabeth’s home. She needed to get away, she needed someone to talk to, but what she got was so much more. Because when she walked into the house and greeted Elizabeth, Elizabeth knew immediately why she was there, and she welcomed Mary with great love and enthusiasm: “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry.” Could you imagine, when you are fearing for your life and feeling cursed by the world, how wonderful it would feel to hear someone say you are blessed?!? I imagine that those were just the words of comfort Mary needed to hear in that moment.
But here’s what we need to understand: even though that announcement of Mary’s blessedness might have brought momentary relief, the simple truth was that Mary’s blessing was a double-edged sword, and it would be for all of Jesus’ life. It began in that moment when the full realization hit that she was pregnant out of wedlock, and it continued for some 33 years. When Jesus was twelve, he would disappear in the Temple for three days as his parents frantically searched for him. As he began his ministry, Jesus would announce to the crowds that he had no mother or brothers, except those “who do the will of the Father.” Then, Mary would watch as her Son was condemned, tortured, and hung on a cross to die. How many times must she have thought to herself, “How can this be? This is a blessing?” And yet, we know that it was, we know Jesus to be the greatest blessing the world has ever seen.
This is the reality of all God’s blessing; it comes with a price, an expectation. It will not always be easy, but it is always worth it. Theologian William Barclay calls it the “paradox of blessedness.” He explains, “To be chosen by God so often means at one and the same time a crown of joy and a cross of sorrow. The piercing truth is that God does not choose a person for ease and comfort and selfish joy but for a task that will take all that head and heart and hand can bring to it…It is the paradox of blessedness that it confers on a person at one and the same time the greatest joy and the greatest task in all the world.”
Blessing comes with an expectation that the blessing will be passed to others; that means something is required of us, and it may not always be easy. But when we bless others sacrificially, we quickly find that the blessings come back to us, as they most certainly did for Mary. When Gabriel announced to Mary all that was to happen, her response was, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” She recognized God’s blessings, she knew, at least, the immediate consequences, and she still submitted willingly to God’s plan. Are you willing to pray, “God bless me.”?
Advent is about preparing for a celebration of Christ’s birth. But it’s also a time to prepare for Christ’s ultimate return. I told you all last week that I wanted this time each Sunday to be a time when we put aside our worldly Christmas preparations and instead focus on our spiritual preparations. I hope that in the days and weeks to come we will all spend some time focusing on how we are bearing the light of Christ in the world. Are we people of blessing and people full of grace? Are we becoming moreso all the time? This is the preparation we need to be focusing on this Christmas.
God bless you.