You’ve probably heard more than your share of sermons on the Annunciation over the years since your parish church is named after this great event and you will have celebrated it on your Feast Day and also heard the story read again toward the end of the Advent season, around Christmastime each year. Thinking about it this time, in the context of our happily confirming and receiving five new people into the Episcopal Church today, I was struck by how Mary of Nazareth is a kind of model, or paradigm, for the spiritual journey so many of us are on.
First of all, she was a young person. Most scholars think she may have been sixteen years old or so when all this began to happen to her. Adolescence and young adulthood are formative times for us, as we grow up. A time of differentiating ourselves from our families of origin, thinking about what we will do with our lives, beginning to see ourselves in relationship with the wider world. That’s why our ministry to, and with, young people is so important in the life of the Church.
Lots of people make their decisions about a life of faith during those teenage or college age years and the Episcopal Church – for reasons I’ll mention later – is well positioned to be there for those young people at that critical time in their lives. That’s why it’s so important to incorporate our young people, as best we can, into the life of the parish. Listen to their hopes and dreams and expectations of the Church. And try to include them in decisions which may affect our church’s future.
The second thing to note about Mary’s story is that God initiated the relationship with her. Luke’s Gospel tells us that “in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town inGalilee calledNazareth…and he came to her and said ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’” (Luke 1:26, 28). Although we sometimes talk about ourselves as “seeking God” or “finding God,” it’s really more accurate to say that God is seeking, or looking for, us. God finds us rather than us finding God.
Our seeking or finding God really has more to do with opening ourselves to recognize that God is already there, and always has been, than it is “discovering” a God who somehow prefers to be hidden. One of our intercessory prayers in the Prayer Book tries to hold this process together when we “…ask your prayers for all who seek God, or a deeper knowledge of him. Pray that they may find and be found by him.” God is always the initiator of the relationship!
But Mary, like many of us, did not come into a relationship with God easily, or without struggle. The text says that “…she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (1:29). There must have even been some fear there because the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary…” (1:30). Fear is not an uncommon response when we first start thinking about coming into a relationship with God.
Who is this awesome Creator of the universe? What is this God like? What does God want of me? Will I be worthy? Am I going to be asked to do something “holy” (like, become a missionary or something?) Am I going to have to change the way I live my life? Am I going to become weird? Some kind of “religious fanatic?”
Well, Mary is indeed asked to do something great for God. But first she is assured that she is perfectly acceptable to God “just as she is.” “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (1:30). The most real thing about God is that we do not have to be afraid.. The most real thing about God, according to one of our Psalms, is that God is “gracious and full of compassion, long suffering and of great kindness.” (Psalm 103:8)
And apparently that assurance gives Mary the courage to continue to ask questions, “How can this be…” (1:34) she asks the angel. And, of course, who she’s really asking is God? One of the things I always have to convince people of is that it is OK to question God! That’s one of the treasures of the Episcopal Church. It is a church in which it is OK to ask questions, and even to have doubts. And to be open and honest about that, instead of pretending.
God gave us minds to think as well as hearts to love, and most people whose faith endures over the course of a long lifetime have many times questioned God, even been angry with God…and certainly had to wrestle with periods of doubt. That’s really how our faith becomes strong. As long as we are willing to really engage the questions and to do the work necessary to look for answers. You aren’t the first one to wrestle with this particular question in the life of faith. Others have walked this path before you. Be open to their wisdom as you seek answers for yourself.
Which brings Mary to her final steps in this spiritual pilgrimage (abbreviated perhaps by Luke’s telling of the story, but which may have unfolded over some time). She is assured that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” (1:35). In other words, God is indeed asking you to do a great thing. Literally to bear God’s Son into the world. But you will not have to do it alone. God will be with you along the way, and God will give you the strength to bear what you have to bear, and to do what you have to do. That’s apparently what Mary needed to hear for she is now able to say: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (1:38). Mary’s “fiat”…Let it be.
And that’s really what you and I are being asked to say today. These confirmands and those to be received into this church, yes, but also each one of us who will today renew the vows of our baptism. Some of us have walked the way of Mary, in one way or other – we may have begun our walk as a younger person…we may have had times when we lost our way, questioning God or our own worthiness or our own faith…we have all had many questions of God…and some of us still do.
But the fact that we are here today means that, somewhere along the way, God has drawn us here. God’s Holy Spirit has “overshadowed” our lives in some way. And we are beginning to believe that, like Mary, we too are being asked to “carry Christ into the world,” to bring him to birth…in our own lives and in the lives of others.
All that remains is for us to say, with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Pause) And that’s what we are going to do…right now!