"Mary's Answer"
Scripture - Luke 1:26-38
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Annunciation - the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary - has been painted countless times, and each painting depicts the artist's interpretation of Mary's reaction. Some show Mary with her head tilted down and arms folded across her chest, as a demure and humble maiden submitting to what is being asked of her. Others reveal a startled Mary; presumably stunned by the sudden intrusion of one of God's messengers and alarmed by the news. Botticelli portrays Mary leaning away, with her palms out. She seems to be trying to stop the flow of words from a down-on-his-knees pleading Gabriel.

Artists interpret the scene differently, because the biblical text leaves it up to the imagination of the reader. Perhaps the gospel writer hopes to tease out from each of us how we would respond if a messenger from God encountered us with such shocking news.

Luke informs us that the angel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth to a virgin named Mary. And the angel said to her, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."

How did she respond to this mysterious visitation? The New Revised Standard Version interprets her response this way: "She was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be." Frankly, that sounds a bit tame to me. For my money, I'll take the Message translation which says: "She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that."

Immediately, the angel perceives that Mary is not taking the news too well - he can spot it in her eyes - so he quickly adds, "Do not be afraid."

Easy for him to say! He must be trying to calm her before he hits her with the news that would send most young girls fleeing in panic.

Gabriel says, "Mary, God has a surprise for you! You are going to have a baby and name him Jesus. He will be the Son of God, he will be given David's throne and his reign will last forever."

Curiosity covering her face, Mary replied, "Are you sure you have the right address?"

Actually, the text does not specifically say that, but how else could she respond to such mind-boggling news? Think of all the questions that must have been exploding like fireworks in her mind. Will Joseph cast me aside? Will my parents ever believe my story? Will the neighbors run me out of town, or worse, invoke the words of Deuteronomy and stone me on the spot?

Internal upheaval, alarms blasting, all systems on high alert. It is hardly any wonder why Gabriel said, "Do not be afraid." Although, Frederick Buechner has an interesting twist on this business of fear. He writes, (Mary) struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he'd been entrusted with a message to give her and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. €˜You must not be afraid, Mary,' he said. As he said it, he only hoped she would not notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a (teenage) girl."1

Buechner's comment reminds us that Mary could have backed out. She could have said, "No way! Wrong person! This is not going to happen!"

Some say, "God could have made it happen whether or not Mary wanted to comply." I'm not so sure. For one, the encounter between Gabriel and Mary climaxes with Mary's response. Gabriel urges, if not begs Mary to give her consent. Initially Mary balks at the suggestion, saying, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"

Gabriel comes back, "Don't worry, God can take care of that."

Then, Mary signals the go-ahead. She says, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Had she been an unwilling participant in this business, what kind of mother would she have been to her child? Would she have raised Jesus in such a way that he would trust God and seek to be faithful?

Second, God does not coerce us into compliance. God encourages, but we have the freedom to embrace or reject God's offer. God seeks partners in edging the world ever-closer to God's vision. God works not by manipulation, but by the persuasive power of love.

The tragedy of the human condition is that too often people reject God's ways and are lured by greed, anger, jealousy, lust and fear. If God exhibited strict control over the world, we would not be assaulted by the endless stream of news about terrorism, torture, racism and injustice. As it is, God encourages us to live in ways that expand rather than limit the breadth of God's kingdom. But, it is up to us to decide whether or not to act in harmony with God.

And third, if Mary were merely a pawn in this arrangement, if she were not anxious about the outcome and did not have to struggle with her choice, we cannot relate to her. She would not be a real person mired in the confusing mix of the human condition as we are. But if she feels ambivalent, if she fears how events will unfold, if she has to muster her courage and take a deep breath and say, "I will try my best," then Mary is a real person who is subject to the same forces that persuade us.

There is another piece of this passage that bears examining. God's messenger calls Mary "favored one." What exactly does it mean to be "favored" by God? Does it mean a life of ease, prosperity and security? In Mary's case it meant a scandalous pregnancy, a 75-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem probably by foot and donkey while very pregnant; it meant seeing her son rejected by their Nazareth neighbors, and then watching him suffer a shameful and violent execution at the hands of their occupying oppressors. "Favored one" is a dubious title.

However, ultimately Mary would be vindicated for putting her trust in God. Her courage, her determination and her faith that God ultimately triumphs over darkness was rewarded in the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection gave birth to an unquenchable hope that God loves us and seeks the best for us in this life and the next.

A colleague tells of a church in Durham, North Carolina that "offered a €˜Saturday Fun Day' for kids from a rough section of town. It was similar to Sunday school on a Saturday, with songs, games, lessons and snacks. Twenty children came for the fun day, but the congregation had not really made any deeper connections with the children's neighborhood. Some people from church decided Christmas caroling might help. It went about as you would expect.

Strangers walking door to door were not particularly welcome in a place characterized by poverty, drug dealing and occasional bursts of deadly violence. More people looked out through a slit in the draperies than actually opened their front door."

"Given this cool reception, the group was surprised when a woman in her bathrobe opened the door and walked down her front steps to join the group of singers in her driveway. They sang:

"Silent night, Holy night,
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin, mother and child,
Holy infant so tender and mild;
Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace."

"When they sang the words €˜Sleep in heavenly peace,' the woman lifted her arms and turned her hands up to heaven with tears streaming down her face. The carolers finished the song. She thanked them and they walked on to another driveway. What they did not know was that just two weeks earlier, the woman's son had been shot dead in the driveway where they sang, €˜Holy infant, so tender and mild; sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.'"

"His mother knew [his birth, his brief life and his death]. Her baby was gone, her longing for him ever-present. But she heard in the carolers' song the news that God's own heavenly peace was his."2

As we celebrate Christmas with family and friends, as we give one another gifts, and as we gather for worship, we remember that our celebration is all tied to a special birth - the birth of hope and promise of peace.


  1. Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1979)
  2. Mary Hinkle Shore, "Across the Miles," Journal for Preachers, Advent 2014, p. 30-31.


Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton

O God in whom love shines brightly, knowing that you will never leave us, and that in you, life is everlasting and free, and knowing that you are the peace our hearts are seeking, we join together this day in song and prayer. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we lift up to your care those who find little joy this year...those who struggle to understand acts of senseless violence and brutality, those whose hearts are shattered due to the death of someone dear, those who live in fear of what tomorrow will bring, those whose daily lives are influenced by racism or impacted by hatred.

Knowing that nothing is impossible with you, we pray for peace when and where it seems impossible...for peace in the middle east and peace here on the streets in Wilmington. We pray for love wherever hatred spews forth its venom; we ask for love to fill the hearts and habits of those whose bitterness or fear or self-centeredness leads them to hurt others. We pray for hope where it seems as if hope itself has dried up and blown away...for those who live in abject poverty in our community, in the Congo, in Guatemala, in Ethiopia, in Syria; for those who desperately seek employment but who find doors to their future livelihood closed; for persons who have been victimized by those in whose care they have been entrusted; and for those who struggle with a significant relationship that seems to be coming to an end.

As the clock ticks toward Christmas, help us to journey in our hearts and in our meditations toward Bethlehem as well. When Christmas comes this year, help us to be ready to welcome anew the love that you give, the hope that you bestow, and the peace that you offer. Remembering your love shown to us in Jesus, we also remember the prayer he taught: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.