Title: Waiting for what?
Date: December 21, 2008 (4th Sunday of Advent)
Texts: Luke 1:26-38, 47-55
Author: Isaac Villegas
What are you waiting for? Think about it. What are you waiting for?—a new job, a child, friends, a paycheck, love, a restored relationship, forgiveness. Or maybe you’re simply waiting for the end of my sermon. What are you waiting for?
For the past few weeks, each of the preachers has reminded us that Advent is about waiting. This is a season when we take time to remember how to wait. Today we turn to Mary and learn from her waiting.
I want to tell you two stories about waiting. Story #1:
It was a few weeks before my 16th birthday. I got home from soccer practice one evening and my mom asked me what I wanted to do for a party; your sixteenth birthday is a big deal, after all. “Well, mom,” I said with a smile on my face, “I’ve always wanted a surprise birthday party.” I thought I was making a joke since it doesn’t make much sense to suggest for someone to throw you a surprise birthday party—then it’s not really a surprise. But my mom took me at my word. “Ok, let’s plan a surprise birthday party.” She was completely serious. We sat at the kitchen table; she pulled out her calendar, checked some dates; then she got a notepad and started asking me who I wanted to invite. Completely crazy. I sat there with my mom and planned my own surprise birthday party.
When the day came, my mom told me to go out for a couple hours with my dad so we wouldn’t ruin the surprise. So we did. We drove to some store, hung out, then came back two hours later. We parked in the driveway and walked up to the front door. As I opened the door, everyone yelled out, “surprise!” I did my best to look shocked. Little did they know that I planned everything.
This kind of waiting is the complete opposite of Advent. I knew the party was coming: I knew the day and the hour, I even knew who would be there and what we were going to eat. Everything happened according to plan—I knew what I was waiting for. That was not the case for Mary in our story from Luke’s Gospel. The angel Gabriel shows up out of the blue and completely disturbs Mary. The Greek word Luke uses to describe her reaction means something like: profoundly unsettled, agitated, disturbed, or terrified. She is, basically, completely freaked out.
And we can’t blame her. Angels aren’t cuddly creatures with glowing halo’s playing the harp. No. Angels are terrifying and powerful, wielding swords, ready to smite the enemies of God. It’s not necessarily a good thing to be visited by angels. They can bring good news or bad news. Mary is not sure what the appearance of this angel means. That’s why Gabriel’s word of reassurance is so important. He says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (v. 30). Don’t be afraid, Mary, I won’t strike you dead.
All this to say: Mary doesn’t wait for Advent in the same way that I waited for my 16th birthday party. I knew what was coming when I opened that front door. I planned my surprise. I mean, it wasn’t even a surprise. But Mary, she had no idea—caught off guard and terrified, trembling, confused. She had no idea she was even waiting for something. Advent just happened, without warning—like a thief in the night.
Ok, time for story #2. I’ve told this one before, a couple years ago. But I think it’s perfect for Advent so I have to do it again.
When I was three years old, my mom was pregnant with my sister. And the way my parents prepared me for the birth of Cynthia, my sister, was to tell me that from my mom’s belly would appear a friend for me. Of course I was excited. Now I would have a friend to play with, and I wouldn’t even have to leave my house. So, I got all ready for the day when my friend would arrive. And when my mom and dad brought my sister back from the hospital, they put her in a crib, and I went to work getting ready for hours of endless play.
I got together all my hot wheels—those little toy cars—and lined them up all along the edge of the crib. I was prepared for my new friend to play hot wheels with me. But nothing happened. She just laid there. Nothing. She wouldn’t respond to my attempts at friendship. Completely rude. So, I took my cars and went across the street to my friend Matt’s house. Obviously I didn’t understand my parent’s announcement, nor did I understand how to prepare.
Now that is Advent—waiting for something that we don’t know how to receive, waiting for a guest for whom we know not how to prepare, waiting for a savior who arrives in the most unexpected place—the womb of a young, poor, unprepared, and terrified girl.
Mary doesn’t believe the news at first. She doubts; confusion and doubt come first. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (v. 35). Mary makes a good point. She knows her biology. Sex comes first. Everyone knows that. Gabriel’s announcement is absurd. The Messiah isn’t supposed to come from her belly. Not her. She comes from the wrong side of town—that slum called Nazareth. Nothing good comes from Nazareth. It is one of those dumps that doesn’t even make the history books. Mary exemplifies insignificance and weakness; she is a replaceable part in the machine, from a village of disposable people. But that’s exactly where God shows up; that’s where the Messiah comes from; that’s where salvation is born; that’s where good news begins. The light shines in the darkness.
Now, what does this mean for us? It means that as hard as we try, we don’t know how to prepare for God to show up. God happens in ways that we least expect, and at times when we feel least prepared. You are like me at the age of three, waiting to welcome my sister, but not knowing how to prepare. But she came anyway, despite my failed attempts at understanding what was going on. That’s the way God works. Jesus comes anyway, despite our preparations. Jesus comes anyway. And that’s called grace.
The question for us is this: what do we do when we hear the news of Christ’s advent? What do you do when you hear that Christ is about to show up? How do you go on when you know that God can arrive at any moment?
Grace means that Jesus comes anyway, even if you don’t want him to, even if you don’t think you are ready. Jesus comes anyway, even if you don’t think it makes any sense, even if you doubt. Jesus comes anyway, even if you are terrified, even if you can’t muster up the gumption to believe. Jesus comes anyway.
Mary doesn’t believe at first. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” She doubts that Gabriel’s news can really come true in her life. She isn’t ready; she has not met the prerequisites for this news to happen. But the messenger from God doesn’t ask for Mary’s permission—which, I think, is one of the more scandalous details of this story. The angel doesn’t ask, “Will you do this, Mary?” No. Gabriel simply announces this wonderful and terrifying news. This will happen.
And Mary’s response? She says something incredible. She’s terrified, completely surprised, this is the strangest news ever heard, and she says: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word” (v. 37). Let it be done to me. Mary surrenders control; she welcomes the mysterious workings of God; she embraces God’s plan for the world, even though she doesn’t know how all of this will turn out. It’s a risk.
Mary’s story is now our story. We are like Mary. We’ve heard the good news of the Messiah’s coming. And our response is like Mary’s: we aren’t sure how this good news can take shape in our lives. With Mary, we have our excuses: How can this be since… (fill in the blank). We think to ourselves, maybe we’ll be ready next year. Once we get this part of our lives figured out, then we can start learning how to welcome what God is doing—once we finish school, once things at work settle down, once we fix that relationship, once we conquer that sin, once we find the right job, once we start a family, once we become more spiritual, once we find a place to settle down.
But that’s not how God operates. Advent is much more scandalous than that. This is where Advent sounds a little offensive: God didn’t ask Mary’s permission, nor does God ask for ours. God doesn’t wait until we think we are ready. Why? Because God knows that we always already have all that we need. That’s what grace means, God has already given us all that we need to welcome God’s new life. So God announces and waits with us.
Yes, God waits with us—that’s an important part of the good news. Advent is also about the way God waits with us. Advent shows us the patience of God. Think through the story of Mary with me. Pretend that you are God—which is usually a bad idea, but try it with me for a moment. If you are God, and you’re trying to save the world, 9 months of gestation in a poor woman seems like a bad idea. I mean, the situation in the world is pretty bad, and God thinks it’s important to wait in Mary’s womb for a while!? Seems like a terrible plan, irresponsible even.
And it’s not just that God waits, but that God waits in such a risky place. After Gabriel’s visit, Mary doesn’t get to drive around in the protection of the pope mobile, nor does she get Obama’s secret service agents to make sure she makes it until the big day. No. Mary doesn’t get any of that kind of security. Gabriel doesn’t stick around or call for back up angels. The last line of our passage from Luke has an ominous ring to it: “Then the angel departed from her.” The angel leaves!? Now what? She has the savior of the world in her belly and she has to fend for herself in a land occupied by enemies! Abandoned by God, yet God in her womb. Strange.
In our waiting, God waits with us.
So, what are we waiting for? I know that you are waiting for a lot of different things; and it’s hard to wait. But to have faith is to recognize that our waiting is a time of pregnancy; with Mary, our waiting is our labor. It’s not that God only comes to those who have faith—that’s not it at all. Our faith isn’t the permission God needs in order to get involved in our lives. God doesn’t wait for our faith. God doesn’t ask for permission. That is the scandal of Advent. Instead, to have faith is to know that God waits with you, to acknowledge that God is at work, to recognize that this labor, this waiting, is the coming of God. Your travail is the coming of God. You are overflowing with God, whether you believe it or not. God’s new life, God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s redemption is always about to happen, even when it seems impossible given the circumstances—even when it seems absurd given the darkness, given the chaos, given the despair.
We can believe this good news because our God is in the business of creation. The story of creation reverberates in Mary’s womb. The waters of Mary’s womb echo the very beginning of the Bible, the very beginning of the story, Genesis chapter 1. “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God hovered over the waters” (Gen 1:2). The same Holy Spirit that hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation, now hovers over the waters of Mary’s womb. In the beginning, at God’s word, darkness becomes the site of new life. And here, at the beginning of God’s new creation in Jesus Christ, God forms life out of the waters of Mary’s womb.
But that’s also our story. We entered those same waters at our baptism—those dark waters of chaos. And when we emerged, we entered into God’s new life. But there’s more to baptism. I think it was Martin Luther who talked about how all of life is baptism. We are always submerged in the waters of meaninglessness, and we are always being created anew. All of life is our baptism into new life. We are tossed here and there, floating bubbles of foam on a stormy sea (William James). And God forms new life from these waters. Our life is travail, the labor pains of new life—which is our baptism.
Where does Christ arrive? Where does the advent take place? Where does God’s new life happen? God comes to us in and through the mess and waits with us. And what exactly is God waiting for? God is waiting for us to pray with Mary, “Be it done to me according to your word.” Once we let this prayer shape our lives, then we can begin to see how God is already at work transforming chaos into new life. God comes to us in and through the mess, and gives us a chance to receive new life, profound life, re-created life, eternal life.
The trouble for us is that it’s hard to believe that the messes in our lives are where God’s new life happens. It seems impossible. It’s absurd. That is why we must listen, with Mary, to Gabriel’s last words, just before he abandons her. He says, “For nothing is impossible with God” (v. 37). Nothing is impossible with God.
Christ is always coming to us, whether or not we think we are ready. Christ is always re-forming our lives into the kingdom of eternal love, whether we believe it or not. And so, in our travail, we pray the words of Mary: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word.” That is the prayer of Advent, which takes a lifetime to learn, since all of life is our baptism. All of life is birth. Behold, all things are made new.