What if Mary said, “No”?, Luke 1:26-38

A sermon by the Rev. Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

We are slowly making our way through Advent and now the ship is turning towards Christmas. We have dallied through the last three weeks looking at the promise of God’s coming at the culmination of time; we have spent the last two weeks with the character of John the Baptist and his call for us to prepare for the coming Messiah and that as we prepare, we are to remember that it really is good news, joyful news. Finally, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we begin to hear about those parts of the Story that sound and feel, well, more Christmassy.

Today we are reading from Luke’s Gospel in chapter 1 beginning with verse 26. One of Luke’s writing techniques is that he likes to tell stories in pairs that have similar meanings but with different and inclusive characters.  For example, he will tell a story about a rich person and then couple that with a story about a poor person.  He will tell a parable about a Jew and then follow that up with a parable about a Gentile. We see this habit in his style as early as chapter 1.

Luke begins his gospel in the Temple in Jerusalem. We meet a man who is a Levite and was called to fulfill his duty in helping out with the Temple operations. He was one of many conscripted Levitical priests who would take turns in offering sacrifices up to God on behalf the Jewish people. In the midst of his service, an angel tells him, “Zechariah, you’re an old man and your wife is way past menopause but let me tell you, y’all are going to be parents to a young firebrand named John and he will get people ready for the Lord’s coming!” So, left totally speechless by the angel’s news, Zechariah returns home, gets his elderly wife, Elizabeth, and they go into seclusion for five months due to her unexpected pregnancy.  This is where we pick up with today’s text.

Luke 1:26-38

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[c] 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. [1]

            This is the Story of the Annunciation, i.e. the Announcement from Gabriel that Mary will bear a child of and from God. Our Catholic sisters and brothers use the words from Gabriel as the foundation for the beginning of their prayer, “Hail Mary, Mother full of grace!” In some Christian traditions, Mary is portrayed as a larger than life, almost other-worldly figure whose face is often depicted in art with painted lines of deep sadness and pain in her expression; there are not a lot of smiling portrayals of Mary out there. Being the Mother of God is serious business, you know!  We Protestants, on the other hand, see Mary’s role much more simply; she is the pure birthmother of Jesus because every baby that’s born must have a mother; it’s a practical thing.  Church tradition has painted Mary as the archetypical spiritual woman who is obedient, works hard, and nurtures new generations of God-followers. She hears the angel’s words and she obeys.   

She’s a good girl.

Unfortunately, we get so wrapped up in Mary’s purity and virginity that we fail to miss the point that it’s her virginity along with Elizabeth’s postmenopausal barrenness that point to verse 37 where Gabriel declares, “Nothing is impossible with God!” and that God is coming to do a new thing.

History has made Mary this passive, submitting, demure figure who just goes along with whatever is told of her. I wonder if we rob something from Mary when we do this to her. Even more, I wonder if we rob something from God at the same time.

Beloved, the power in John’s opening Stories is that God comes and calls the nobodies to be the vehicles for doing great, world-changing things for “the everybody’s”!  Let’s not forget that both Elizabeth and Mary never set out to become spiritual giants of the Bible. In her life, Elizabeth failed in her duty to bring progeny to Zechariah’s Levitical family line. In her life, Mary, possibly somewhere between 13 to 18 years-old at the time, was more than likely set up in an arranged marriage with Joseph after her dad negotiated with Joseph or his father to take her as a wife.  We forget that Mary is a young girl who had her own dreams. She had personal feelings of joy and sorrow. She experienced anxiety and doubts. And in all of this glorious Christmas preparation, we tend to forget that Mary has a voice. Mary had a choice whether or not to be a part of this grand Story! And the Good News in that is that you and I do, too!

Have you ever thought about the fact that Mary could have said “no” to what the angel was saying? Gabriel was painting a future for Mary that  she could’ve said ‘no’ to living into. I like what Princeton professor Eric Barreto says, “Perhaps the angel needs Mary to say yes. Perhaps because the angel came bearing a question more than a command. Thus Mary responds with full voice in verse 38, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.””  Professor Barreto goes on to say,

Mary chooses to embrace this call, to become a prophet who will bear the Savior of the world in both voice and body. In Luke’s narration, Mary’s consent is an act of radical faithfulness, belief, (and) discipleship. In accepting this promise, Mary becomes the first to believe the good news of Jesus…when her body nurtures a baby who will turn the world upside down.”[2]

Mary had a choice. “Do I say “yes” to this radical proposition, or do I pass on it?”  If she said, “No, I’ll pass” then God would be brokenhearted, but being God, would and find another woman that would follow the invitation in faith and trust. Mary’s potential refusal cannot overpower God’s sovereignty and will. Yet we see that God loves Mary enough to risk the refusal of the question. God takes a risk by having Gabriel approach this teenaged country girl. That, in and of itself says quite a bit about the character of God! You may say, “Well, God already knew what Mary would do!” and I reply back, “Sure enough, but God loved her enough to let her make it her decision!”  God took a risk in having Gabriel ask the question and Mary took a risk in replying, “Here am I.”

Being the romantic guy I am, when I proposed to Kelly back in the early-eighties on Thanksgiving Day, I took a post-dinner walk with her near my mom’s subdivision. I led her out into this vast cow pasture with evidence of the cows all about us, and I knelt down and asked her to marry me.  I had a feeling she would say “yes” but I still needed her to say it for herself.  I couldn’t force Kelly to live happily-ever-after with me as that would be abusive.  I had to trust her enough, love her enough, to answer the question on her own. There was a risk in my asking her to marry me because she might say ‘no’ but there was also a risk on her part if she said yes! Ha!

Our biblical text today reminds us God sends Archangels and messengers to ordinary folk like you and me. God see opportunities in your life and mine that we cannot see because of where we are. And Mary reminds us that in this season of new birth and new beginnings, God is sending us messengers asking us to step out in a call or in faith to a task that may seem impossible to us right now but if we only said, ‘Yes, Lord, here am I!” we could turn the world upside down by bearing Jesus into the world in our own small way.

Listen! Just as God called Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary to do the seemingly impossible, God is calling you to do the same. Today is not just Mary’s Annunciation, it’s ours as well. What is the Ancient of Days asking of you? What is your answer to that call?

Pray with me…

© 2020 Patrick H. Wrisley, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 1 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (Article by Eric D. Barreto, pp. 138-139). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition. 

About patrick h wrisley

A Mainline Presbyterian Orthodox Evangelical Socially Minded Prophetic Contemplative Preacher sharing the Winsome Story of Christ as I try to muddle through as a father, friend, head of staff, colleague, and disciple.
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