A couple of years ago, the obituary of one Judy Lewis, 76--a clinical psychologist who specialized in family and child counseling—was published on the front page of The New York Times. Needless to say, to have one’s death notice printed on the front page of perhaps the world’s most celebrated newspaper is not an honor usually reserved for mere mortals such as you and me. Rather, you had to have been a pretty famous individual, which this person clearly was NOT- I certainly had never heard of her. But what had made this woman’s death particularly noteworthy was not for anything she DID but rather who she WAS. You see, more than a psychologist and part-time actress, she was actually the secret “love child” of actors Loretta Young and Clark Gable, two of the most famous matinee idols from Hollywood’s Golden Age. At the time, Young was 22 and unmarried while Gable was 34 and married. It was while they were both on location for the 1935 movie “The Call of the Wild” that they had a brief affair which resulted in Young’s pregnancy. Showing how times have changed, had news gotten out about it, it would have SURELY ended BOTH their careers, and for Young--being a devout Catholic--an abortion was simply out of the question. She was able to keep her pregnancy a secret from the Hollywood press by hiding out in Europe throughout much of it.
When Judy Lewis was almost two years old, Loretta Young announced through the gossip columnist Louella Parsons that she had adopted the child, and this was how she was raised. Up until the time she became an adult, she had no idea who her biological parents were. In a 1994 memoir, Lewis described feeling a powerful sense of alienation growing up. She wrote that “It was very difficult for me as a little girl not to be accepted or acknowledged by my mother, who, to this day, will not publicly acknowledge that I am her biological child.” After the memoir was published, her mother refused to speak to her for three years afterward. Young never publicly acknowledged being her mother but she DID agree to acknowledge it in her authorized biography “Forever Young” and ONLY on the condition that it be published after her death which occurred in 2000. When Lewis was asked if she had ever fantasized about the life she MIGHT have had if her parents had married and brought her up, she replied, “I would have liked them to have. But that is just my dream, you know. Life is very strange. It doesn’t always give us what we want.”
I couldn’t help but think back to this New York Times account as I reflected on our New Testament lesson for this morning. Today, seven out of ten 18 to 29 year-olds say sex between an unmarried man and woman is morally acceptable while most women in their early 20s who give birth are now unmarried. This is a far cry from the social mores of 1935 when an out-of-wedlock birth would have been hailed as scandalous and instantly DESTROYED one’s career. But it is an even FURTHER cry from the social conventions of JESUS’ day where it would have led to much HARSHER, more DRASTIC consequences- it could have resulted in one’s DEATH!
Let’s look at our text. Six months into the pregnancy of Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, a Temple priest, the angel Gabriel appeared to her much younger cousin Mary to inform her that Jehovah has chosen her for history's greatest honor- to serve as the mother of the Son of God. Where Elizabeth was already an older woman and had been praying for years that God would bless them with a child, Mary was only a YOUNG GIRL, approximately twelve years of age. It would seem that the LAST thing Mary needed at this time, ESPECIALLY since she wasn't even married yet, was to be told that she would be having a BABY!
Now I had always assumed that in this particular passage--traditionally called "the Annunciation”--Mary had been SPECIFICALLY chosen by God to bring his only-begotten Son into the world, that from among all the women in Jewish history she ALONE was to be the special means by which the Messiah would enter the world. It was as if she had just discovered she held the lucky ticket to the weekly Powerball drawing and that she was now a hundred million dollars richer for it. Who could possibly say "no" to an offer like THAT! However, as I did some further research on this account, I discovered that it was anything BUT a "winning the lottery" moment. In fact, it was a dreadful encounter in which a young girl, without support or guidance of any kind, was forced to make the most FATEFUL decision in all of history.
You see, after reading and reflecting on this account for perhaps the tenth time, I saw something I had never seen before. I had always assumed that when the angel Gabriel announced she was going to be pregnant with God's son, that she didn't have any choice in the matter, that God said this was the way it was going to be and THAT WOULD BE IT; Mary would just have to accept it. It never even occurred to me that she might have had a CHOICE in this matter, that she had been given the OPTION to possibly say "no" to this “high honor.” After all, who can turn God down when God tells you to do something as spectacular as THIS.
Well, if you believe that Mary DID in fact have a choice, then it completely CHANGES the way we look at this text. In the process of writing this sermon, I consulted a number of commentaries and they all basically said the same thing, that God was not simply giving Mary the ORDER to bear his son but rather asking her out of her OWN freedom whether she WOULD, that an act of DIVINE/HUMAN CO-OPERATION was involved. For instance, Bishop Fulton Sheen, in his classic biography of Christ, says that as humanity's fall into sin was an act of free will, so too did the redemption of humanity have to be free: "What is called the Annunciation was actually God asking the free consent of a creature to help Him to be incorporated into humanity." Another writer insists that God needed Mary's freely given "Yes" to God's gracious invitation to become the Mother of Jesus, that the mystery of Incarnation could not have taken place without Mary's wholehearted "Yes." And that "Yes" could not have taken place without Mary's unbounded trust in God. Still ANOTHER commentator says that for us to infer that Mary is commanded by God to bear the Son of God as though she didn't have any choice in the matter is to completely miss the whole point of the narrative. Luke is bringing the reader to the climactic moment when Mary finally responds and gives her consent: "Here am I," she says, "I am the Lord's servant; as you have spoken, so be it."
If these writers are correct, and I believe they ARE, then God through his emissary--the angel Gabriel--was NOT issuing Mary a direct command as is so often supposed. Rather, he was announcing that were she to completely submit to his plan, she would then be given the HIGHEST honor ever accorded to any woman. Of course she could say "no" and that would be within her right. However, if she said "YES," she would then have the opportunity to become what no other woman ever had- to become the MOTHER of the Son of God.
Yet, such a proposal was not without great risk. It would place her in an extremely difficult and even DANGEROUS position that could quite possibly cost her her LIFE. You see, to be betrothed, as Mary was to Joseph, had the same force as being married in that culture. In Deuteronomy, as in the Gospel, the betrothed girl is called the "wife" of her fiancé, since that was what she actually was. She was expected to conduct herself as though the marriage had already taken place right up until the time of the ceremony. Thus, if she proved herself unfaithful in ANY WAY during her betrothal period, she could be punished as an ADULTERESS which included being STONED TO DEATH. We see an example of this in the story of Jesus' encounter with the woman caught in adultery. Even TODAY, in some parts of the world, women are STILL executed in this way because of the dishonor she is considered to have brought upon her family.
Thus, Mary is confronted with a major decision here which involves much MORE than bringing a child to term. If she accepts this offer, she will then have to explain to Joseph, her family, and to all her friends, that not only has she NOT been unfaithful to Joseph, but that the father of the child is none other than GOD HIMSELF. And what person in his or her right mind is going to believe such a crazy story as THAT! For Mary, her LIFE as well as her REPUTATION are at stake here.
As I think about this account, I have to wonder HOW MANY young girls Gabriel might have approached before he encountered someone crazy or naive enough like Mary to say "yes"- five, ten, perhaps TWENTY! I mean, if someone had approached ME with such a strange and dangerous idea, I'd have responded with a few choice words which can’t be repeated from this pulpit. I surmise that Gabriel may have spoken to ANY NUMBER of young ladies before he arrived at Mary's dwelling that night, some perhaps even BELIEVING what the angel had to propose, but because the risks were far too GREAT, they were simply UNWILLING to say "yes" to God's proposal. After all, no one ever wants to be a scandal, an outcast, a pariah to one's family or community!
Look at some of the obstacles one's faith would first have to overcome. First the person would have to believe that the individual before her actually WAS an angel, an emissary from God bearing God's message. Then she would have to believe that this angel was being TRUTHFUL when he says that she would become pregnant by none other than God himself. And if that WASN'T crazy enough, she would then have to accept the extraordinary claim that the baby she would bring into this world was no ordinary child but the LONG-AWAITED MESSIAH. If you were to put yourself in Mary's shoes, I think you would have come to the very same conclusion that I did- that you would have to be either an IDIOT or NAIVE FOOL to believe such nonsense as this!
But the remarkable thing was that Mary DID believe! And I don't think it was because she was an idiot or a naive fool but because she knew something about the nature of faith that many of us have never understood, and that is that REAL faith incurs great RISKS, that there is NOTHING SAFE about being a follower of God. There were probably LOTS of women in Galilee who COULD have been the mother of the Messiah, but Mary had this honor because she said "YES" to Gabriel's message where so many others may have said "NO!" The Bible says, "Many are called, but only a few are chosen," which means that only a FEW ever choose to say "yes" to God's summons.
Years ago, I was offered a permanent job by the vice-president of a major New York City bank. I was then a young college student and had been working there during my summer and winter breaks to make some extra money for the up-coming semester. It was a generous offer and it came with great opportunities for career advancement- he had hopes that I would eventually become an officer in that bank. I had to reject his promising offer, informing him that God had called me into the ministry and that I wanted to remain faithful to that call REGARDLESS of where it would take me or the lack of financial security involved. He shook my hand and told me he was sorry that was my decision. He thought I was making a big mistake, that I was letting a great opportunity slip by that few others would pass on.
Well almost twenty years later, I was walking down Lexington Ave. in midtown Manhattan looking for the bank I once worked at. I stopped a policeman to enquire what had become of that historic institution which had served the residents of New York City since the 1840's and he said, "Oh, it closed several years ago. It was bought out by another bank and now the building is used to house an assortment of boutiques." I smiled and thought to myself, "Yes, faith DOES have its risks, but I'm sure glad God helped me make the right decision!"
We see that same faith and all the risks attendant to it in the life of Jesus HIMSELF. Just as his MOTHER was willing to take the risk of bringing Jesus, the Son of God, into the world in spite of the possible scandal it posed or the consequences it could have led to for herself, so was HER SON willing to become a scandal, an outcast, a pariah HIMSELF, so MUCH so that it eventually cost him his LIFE. Likewise, if WE claim to be followers of Jesus Christ OURSELVES, then we TOO have to be a people of real faith. We have to be willing to exhibit a commitment which involves great risk at times, a faith that calls us to make hard decisions and real sacrifices on his behalf. We have to be willing to say "YES" at times EVEN when everyone else says "no."
The fact is that our world is FULL of annunciations, that God is ALWAYS creating opportunities for us- if only we would OPEN OUR EYES to them. They're often as surprising and unexpected as MARY'S was. They may even seem IMPOSSIBLE, or at least slightly crazy. But if we open our eyes to the ways God approaches us and asks US to bring Christ into the world, we then must be prepared to ALSO respond. Like Mary, WE can say either yes or no- God will never force or compel us.
I wish to close with a poem from Guidepost Magazine that one of my elders shared with us during a Session meeting several years back. It seemed to sum up for me the very essence of what that this text is all about. It's by Gina Bridgeman and it's called "Say 'Yes' at Christmas":
And Mary said, "YES" when the angel came,
not knowing all it would mean.
For "yes" was only the BEGINNING.
"YES" to giving birth in a cold, dark stable,
while cows and sheep looked on.
"YES" to a sword that pierced her soul, as her
Son died on a cross, while she looked on.
And Mary said, "YES, let it be."
But do I? Do I say, "Yes" when God calls to ME?
Oh, not through an angel who comes in the night,
But maybe a pastor
who asks if I'll lead Sunday school class;
Or a former friend
who calls to mend our broken relationship;
Or a stranger
who wonders if I might spare some change for food.
And for a moment as I ponder what to say,
does God's purpose flicker like a flame
in a sudden breeze,
to be snuffed out by "NO,"
or to burn bright with the power of "YES"?
For "yes" is only a BEGINNING.
"YES," I'll give my time to sharing God's Word.
"YES," I'll end a quarrel by forgiving another, and myself.
"YES," I'll share what I have with one in need.
For somehow I know that even to the SMALL questions,
God needs to hear MY "yes"
as much as He needed to hear MARY'S.
Perhaps that's why Jesus comes to the world a baby,
a baby full of questions, needs and desires.
When He asks to come into MY heart this Christmas,
will I say, "YES"?
Let us pray...
Gracious God, thank you for the example you have given us today of Mary, the Mother of our Lord. What a woman of courage, what a model of faith she is. She shows us that if we are willing to demonstrate a SIMILAR faith and courage in our OWN lives, if we, like HER, bring Christ into our OWN worlds by the way we live out the gospel, then we TOO will find such favor and be "blessed" in your sight. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.