Mary’s Reward (Advent 4)
December 20, 2020 (Advent 4)
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: Luke 1:26-38
There are days I think the angel Gabriel did one of the best sell jobs in history. He pops into Mary’s life out of the blue, tells her all about finding favor with God, all about this child she will bear – a child who will be called Son of the Most High, a child who will inherit the ancient throne of King David, who will have an everlasting kingdom. The child’s father will be God himself, whose divine spirit would overshadow her, implanting the divine self within her. “Here am I,” Mary responds. “The servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
I wonder how long it took for Mary to realize Spirits of the Most High don’t change diapers. Mary’s words of consent bring only hard conversations with her parents and exile to her relative Elizabeth’s until a deal can be reached with Joseph. As for kings and kingdoms - heirs to the throne of David deserve palaces, not stables. Everlasting kingdoms come with power and wealth. Those who inherit them bring honor and glory upon their families. Jesus would spend his years wandering the country with a scruffy band of disciples and die as an enemy of the state. Mary doesn’t even get any grandchildren out of it.
Tradition says Mary lived out the end of her life in the Turkish port city of Ephesus, a center of the early church. She lived with John, the beloved disciple, one of the few of Jesus’ inner circle to escape martyrdom. Within her lifetime she would become a revered figure. In death she would become a near goddess, her statue gracing church yards and alters over the world.
Yet I wonder if, at times, as she reflected on that moment, that meeting, with the angel, she wondered what might have happened if she said “no.” If she wondered if it was all worth it.
When I was a kid a young woman named Pearl lived with us for a year. Pearl was a student at the school where my mother taught. She was from South Africa and her family was heavily involved in the fight against Apartheid. According to my parents Pearl came from a long line of African royalty and her parents were engaged in an active plot to overthrow the South African government. They’d sent all their children abroad to get educated so they could come home and take positions of power in the new government.
I have no idea if all of this is true. I do know Pearl wanted no part in whatever her parents were up to. She didn’t want to be in our house. She didn’t want to be in the United States. She wanted to be home, in her village, with her boyfriend, having babies. The sacrifices her family called her to make were not worth it to her. As far as she was concerned there was nothing in it for her.
How often do we ask, “what’s in it for me?” We’re transactional by nature. If we’re asked to give we expect to get even more. If were asked to serve we’d appreciate a tangible reward. I’ve found myself watching the negotiations over another round of COVID relief with only one focus: will I get another check; will the church be able to get another check. Its not like I need a check. The church will survive financially without one. But I want my share, my reward, my piece of the pie.
Mary never asks Gabriel “what’s in it for me.” Instead she says “Here am I , the doula of the Lord.” Today a doula is a woman who walks with another woman through the birthing process. In Mary’s time a doula was a slave, a woman held by someone else with no freedom to their own will. What’s in it for her doesn’t matter. Her will is to do God’s will. Her purpose is God’s purpose. To find favor with God she will become the least of these. She will accept the hard conversation with her parents. She will accept exile from her family. She will accept birth in a stable, accept rejection by others in her community, accept her son’s death on a cross.
Doing the will of God is never easy. Tangible rewards are often in short supply. If we earn money we’re expected to give it all away. If we gain power we’re expected to use it to strengthen the powerless. We’re expected to be slaves to God, slaves as Mary was a slave, slaves as Christ was a slave. “Let each of you look not to your own interest,” the apostle Paul would tell the Philippians, “but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” If you wish to achieve greatness, Jesus tells his own disciples, “you must become like a slave to each other.”
To empty ourselves. To take the form of slaves to each other. To serve without thought of reward. My parents put up with Pearl for a year. They were not zealots for her family’s cause – in fact I think they thought her parents more than a little crazy. But Pearl was a long way from home and needed a place to live so they opened our home to her. We live to serve. We become slaves to one other.
Mary finds favor in God’s sight. In response she offers herself up to the divine. Gabriel offers nothing except the privilege of being part of God’s divine plan. No riches, no glory, no earthly honor. Mary would, in fact, receive the opposite. But still she offers herself up – because that’s what we do, that’s what God did, and as people made in God’s image, that’s what makes us whole.