What one-word answers would you choose to fill in the blank if you were asked to finish three simple phrases:
LIFE IS _____
PEOPLE ARE _____
I AM _____
It has been suggested that how we fill in those blanks says a lot about who we are and how we live.
Applying this to the story of Mary in the gospel lesson today, I believe that if Mary had been asked to fill in those blanks immediately after the angel’s opening and surprising announcement, Mary would have answered:
LIFE IS UNCERTAIN
PEOPLE ARE JUDGMENTAL
I AM AFRAID
When the angelic messenger visited Mary her first reaction was not one of hope and joy. Imagine what it must have felt like to be told that you were about to become a single mother in a time and culture where such news meant almost certain rejection and ridicule. Mary could rightfully assume that her community would malign and marginalize her and her fiancé would dismiss her as unfit for marriage. The imagined future story of the years ahead for Mary, a peaceful life raising a family in her little hometown with Joseph, was being re-shaped into a new and troubling story not of her own choosing.
In addition to Mary’s personal story, the story of her people was stuck in a seemingly hopeless chapter. The nation of Israel was under the rule of Rome and there was no clear way out of this oppressive occupation.
Violence was being advocated by some, while others insisted on cooperating with their more powerful captors. I suspect most of the common people, like Mary, wanted to stay out of the spotlight, avoid issues of power and politics, and simply live out their lives in peace. Into this context, the angel visited Mary with the announcement that turned her life upside down.
So how was Mary able to move from the frightened and confused young woman at the angel’s announcement to the woman of faith who three months later boldly declares in the joyous song of power and praise that “from now on all generations will call me blessed?” What transformed Mary’s journey of uncertainty and distress into an adventure of hope?
Mary’s first step toward hope was taken when she recognized the connection between her own life story and the greater story of the saving work of God throughout history. It is not a coincidence that Luke chooses to begin his gospel with the story of the old priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. Of course, their story echoes the even more ancient and well-known story of Abraham and Sarah. Both of these elderly couples had waited for years to conceive a child and, after having given up hope, were surprised by the impossible: the promise of God that a child would at last be born to them.
When the angelic messenger said to Mary, “Do not be afraid…for you will conceive and bear a son,” Mary found herself connected to the larger story of the Jewish people, the recurring story of dreams being disrupted and replaced by whole new adventures of hope in which the impossible is made possible by God. In response to Mary’s initial confusion and fear, the messenger helped Mary to begin the process of imagining a new future even more blessed than the one she feared was lost. As evidence of God’s blessing, the angel revealed to Mary that her elderly relative Elizabeth was already six months pregnant and then concluded this announcement with the words, “For nothing is impossible with God.”
In his book, We Make the Road by Walking, Brian McClaren states that the familiar stories within the Jewish faith which contained the promise of a baby being born would have been well-known to Mary and were “a picture of the experience of the Jewish people.” Mary’s personal story reflected and was shaped by the story of her people: a story of promises made to those who needed a new vision of hope. McClaren goes on to suggest that all of us, not just the Jewish people, share this challenging experience of having to discover new hope when unexpected and unwanted events disrupt our lives. McClaren calls this challenge “daring to hope.”
As with Mary, we can take the first step toward hope when we realize that our lives are connected to the same God who has been doing the impossible throughout history. Whether in our own personal crises or when we hear of tragedies in our world, we dare to hope as we put our trust in the God who never gives up on us or on this world. In the face of all the cynics in the world who have given up on God and on this world, we continue to “dare to hope” trusting that with God all things are possible.
This idea of hope being a daring adventure, reminds me of the difference between waiting and expecting. The season of Advent is not a season of waiting but of expecting. Waiting is a passive word, while expecting is an active word. Let me illustrate. This fall our daughter, Anna, was expecting. She was not just waiting to have a baby, she was actively expecting: buying new baby clothes and a combination car seat/stroller, re-arranging the bedroom and setting up a crib, and many other activities associated with expecting a newborn. Now one of the reasons Anna confidently did all these things is that she trusted her doctor, the same doctor who had delivered Anna’s first child. While there was no guarantee given, at each check up Anna’s doctor assured her that her pregnancy appeared to be moving well toward the delivery of a healthy baby boy. Anna trusted her doctor both because her word had proven true in the past and because of the signs of the present.
As people of faith, we don’t just go through life, waiting and blindly hoping that God will do something. We can live and act with expectant hope because we trust in God’s word and in the signs of the present, signs that God is faithfully at work in our lives and in the world. Like Mary, we today can actively move forward with hope as we remember that our lives are part of a larger story – a story pregnant with expectation, a story built on the trustworthiness of God.
For us Christians the key chapter in this always developing story is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Mary that the impossible would happen: that a Savior would be born who would bring salvation.
Looking back now, we know that Jesus is that Savior, the One from God who experienced the fullness of human life and death and whose resurrection promises new life not only on this earth but in the world to come. When we gather to celebrate communion today, like Mary, we connect our lives to that greater story of promise and, like Mary, we sing songs of hope and power: songs declaring faith in a God who promises to never abandon us, a God who promises new life for us and for the whole world. This is the first step we take on the adventure of hope: in faith we connect our life stories to the greater story of what God’s saving work.
But also important is that we, in faith, connect our life stories to one another. This is the second step in the adventure of hope. In the gospel story of Mary we see that she immediately went from saying “yes” to God to seeking out Elizabeth and Zechariah. These were two people Mary hoped she could count on to understand and support her. And Mary was not disappointed. As soon as Mary’s greeting is heard, Elizabeth exclaims with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” What a reassuring message of love and affirmation for Mary. This message Mary received from Elizabeth was in direct contrast to the messages of judgment, shame and rejection Mary expected to hear from her neighbors if she had remained in her hometown.
Leaning on the care and support provided by Elizabeth and Zechariah is exactly what Mary needed during the time of turmoil and uncertainty in her life. Their hospitality and support allowed Mary to have three months to reflect upon her life, to grow in her trust in God and to have her initial confusion and fear replaced by a new vision of hope. As a result, at the end of her stay, Mary was able to give voice to her song of worship and praise to God, the song now known as “The Magnificat.”
As a faith community, we dare to hope not only in God, but in one another. Connecting our life stories to one another is part of the adventure of hope. We dare to trust that when we share our most vulnerable life moments we will find care and support.
I believe we offer that kind of care and support to one another, the kind described in a narrative written by a woman who discovered the importance of people connecting their lives a faith community. In a recent issue of Christian Century magazine, Nancy Bauer-King wrote:
It took me 45 years to catch on to the value of a faith community. Then one Sunday, halfway through the first verse of the opening song, I got it. I had completed my first year as a pastor and was standing behind the pulpit singing No. 133 in the United Methodist Hymnal: “What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms.” I knew the people well enough to have learned some of their personal histories. I knew the hymn well enough to look out over the congregation as I sang. Ruth and Roger both lost spouses to cancer and then found each other. Bernie’s first husband had committed suicide. Ben and Gloria had buried a two-year-old child. Bob’s wife had been killed in an auto accident. Jim’s son was in prison. J.C. had lost an arm in a farm accident. Sandy had recently joined a support group for survivors of sexual abuse. Then it hit me: they were all singing. How could they sing? How could they experience such tragedies, yet come to worship every Sunday and sing?
I realized that these people had stories to tell, and not just stories of tragedies. They had experiences of faith that transcended their suffering. They might never tell these stories, but by attending worship and singing they were witnessing to their faith in the Christian story of love that overcomes death…On that Sunday 30 years ago, I don’t know who started it, but folks began swaying back and forth, gently leaning against the shoulders of the people next to them as we sang.
May God help us, like these people of faith and like Mary, to keep on singing, to dare to hope: no matter what happens, to trust that God is still at work within our lives and in our world, doing the impossible and to trust each other as we create a community of mutual care and support. That is how we will keep on singing –joining our voice and our lives together with God on the adventure of hope!