Sermon – December 23, 2018 – Fourth Sunday of Advent


Mary’s call

“it’s you I like, that deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive: love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.… So it all that you do, and all that you do, I wish you the strength and the grace to make those choices which will allow you and your neighbor to become the best of whoever you are.”

That is an excerpt from a commencement speech by Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, that was included in a moving and beautiful documentary of his life that I saw earlier this fall. It told the story of this awkward man, this lanky, self-conscious Presbyterian minister whose message  to children of love, self-worth, peace, and reconciliation launched a media culture that sustained these values for a generation of children. He was an unlikely messenger whose stories penetrated cynicism and doubt and derision.  I think what Mr. Rogers got, even though I don’t know that he ever articulated it so, was that, like Mary, his call was to magnify these essential purposes of God for the sake of the world.

Mary was no likely vessel. God had something to accomplish, and God chose a peasant teenager, someone not laden with the baggage of status or position, someone without credentials. God chose the Virgin Mary for the sake of bringing into the world God in flesh.

Now all perspectives of this story have to acknowledge that this was a miraculous event, the coming of God among us through these simple means.  Luther says there were three miracles in Christ’s nativity:  the first was that God became human; the second was that Mary conceived, and the third was that Mary believed.  Of all of these, in Luther’s mind, the greatest was the last. . . . Mary’s faith.

We don’t know much about Mary.  There is very little actually attested to her in Scripture.  But we know everything we need to know.  What is significant about Mary in the Annunciation was her answer, yes.  Yes to God, yes to this perplexing proposition.

Zechariah earlier in the story received similar news. An angel came to him saying his barren wife, Elizabeth, would conceive and bear a child destined for great things, John the Baptist, the herald of Jesus.   Zechariah’s response was to challenge the angel and doubt.   He was a priest in the temple, a man, credentialed; yet he was unable to bear the news.  Mary was almost the opposite, simple, a woman, uneducated, uncredentialed, but the difference was that she said yes.

Mary could have said no.  This was not something she sought, nor was she compelled. But in faith and obedience, Mary said yes.

I think maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, may have hit on a fourth miracle in this narrative.   And it is the proclamation she made in what we know as the Magnificat that we sang this morning.  “He has scattered the proud. . . brought down rulers from their thrones . .  lifted up the lowly . . .  filled the hungry . . . and sent the rich away empty.”. Mary’s yes was yes to magnify, proclaim, bear into history and humanity these great purposes of God.  Bonhoeffer called the Magnificat, “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”  That hymn was proclaimed into a culture where about 97 percent of the people were poor, lived a subsistence life.  What great news for them!  That revolutionary ring of the Magnificat is confirmed by the fact that some in people in power see these words as dangerous.  At one time or another India, Guatemala, and Argentina have banned the reading of the Magnificat in public or in liturgy.The Messiah that Mary anticipated is the Mighty One who was to challenge power, scatters the proud, and unmask the rich, even as he is mindful of the lowly, exalts the humble, fills the hungry with good things, and fulfills the promise to Israel

In other words, Mary anticipates that the Messiah will bring about “wondrous reversals” in the world,


This was Mary’s call, to Magnify, to say yes to this revolutionary proclamation of the wideness of God’s mercy and the depth of God’s love, that we have come to know in Jesus Christ,  and she would accomplish that in her motherhood of the Savior.  She was to make it possible, as all things are possible with God.

Mary’s encounter with the angel, I think, was Mary’s call.  And as is often the case with a call, it leaves us somewhat perplexed as we are bid to enter into the unknown.  And that makes us somewhat afraid.  No surprise there, no criticism, either.  All of us experience the opportunity to tune into a call from God, to do the work of the gospel, to bear into the world, the promise of Jesus’ love and forgiveness. All of us experience the opportunity to enter into a vocation of faithfulness and obedience, one ordained and blessed by God.  Luther’s gift to our understanding of Christian vocation is that it can be lived out in whatever job we do or talent we are blessed with.   And that we don’t necessarily need the credentials of the church to do so, and sometimes, in fact, that is the least thing that we need. We can live our lives and express our talents and do our jobs in celebration of God’s goodness, and in faithfulness to God’s word.  We magnify.

That is what call is about, and of course, we object sometimes because the call might come to us in odd or inglorious moments, or when we realize that whatever it is to which we are called as believers, it is to, like Mary magnify these gifts of God.

Mary received that call and she said yes.  And we in the Protestant church who have kept Mary at arm’s length because of the some excesses in Mary piety, have much to learn from her when we feel the promptings of the call of God’s Spirit. As I said, we don’t know much about Mary, but we know enough.  ,. .. Enough to learn from her humility, her faithfulness, her obedience, her courage and we learn from her story the character of God that does not defer to status or credentials, but seeks an open heart to do the work of the kingdom.

As a pastor named John Stendahl wrote in the Christian Century magazine some years ago, “Mary’s ‘yes’ transfigured the story.  All of history, the salvation of the world, hangs on this one young woman’s answer.”  I would add that the hopes of history, the assurance of the prophets had now come to this point, and Mary said yes.  She answered the call and left the details to God.

The calling of people into the proclamation of Christ, the bearing of the word is the primary way that God changes the world.  And it doesn’t work unless somebody says yes.

Consider your own calls, brothers and sisters. Consider the way that God has spoken to your hearts. Consider the promptings you have felt for witness, for prayer, for intercession, for mercy, for love, for justice, for forgiveness. That is how God speaks to us.  This is how God changes the world.

And as you consider how you might respond, remember the example of Mother Mary.  Humble, faithful, obedient, willing to leave the details to God. Remember that Mary’s yes changed the world, and that this doesn’t work unless we continue to say yes.  Let’s be reminded that we all have a little of Mr. Rogers in us.

Mary was no star, no likely candidate, just a simple woman with an open heart.  Yet, in Mary’s time all of history and salvation hung on her answer.  Imagine that God is waiting for your answer, too.