When I was a child, schools had playground equipment that I’m sure is no longer around due to safety issues. But I’ll try my best to describe one to you. There was a tall pole fixed to the ground. Coming out from the pole were handles that could rotate around the pole as you moved them. Picture this in your mind as a suspended carousel, OK? Now, once you got four or five kids holding on and running around that pole, you picked up momentum and your feet could actually come off the ground if you gathered up enough speed.
Now, keep that picture in your mind as I describe my unfortunate encounter with this particular piece of playground equipment. I vaguely recall that my class had gotten to recess earlier than the upper grades. (Mind you, it was a small country school covering several grades.) In some moment of stupidity, I asked one of the bigger kids to lift me up so I could swing from this suspended carousel. Note: I needed no momentum for my feet to come off the ground. That’s how they started out. Very soon, however, a lot of big kids began to take hold and run around that pole and before I knew it, I was swinging through the air fast and furious and my little arms were getting very tired. Now here’s the part where I was really foolish. When I could take no more swinging, I simply let go. But, before I let go, this was the sequence of thoughts running through my head. I thought to myself: “I wish they’d stop so I could get off. But, they won’t stop. They’re big kids and I’m little. They’re older and I’m younger. They’ll never stop for me.” And so, convinced of my vulnerability, I just let go and today I have the scar from the six stitches to show for it.
Vulnerability is a risky thing. It can go either way. If you’ve ever rescued an abused or neglected dog you know what I mean by this. By suffering abuse or neglect, the dog has learned that being vulnerable to human beings results in pain. So, they become skittish and sometimes fearfully aggressive. And yet, if they are unable to be vulnerable to the human who is seeking to rescue them, they will likely die soon. Only if they can take the risk and be vulnerable one more time will they discover that vulnerability can also result in food, clean water, medicine to get rid of the bugs on the skin, in the ears, and in the belly, shelter that is safe and warm and dry, and the affection that is yearned for. Vulnerability is a risky thing.
And that is the wonder, one might even say the scandal, of the Christmas story. As 21st century Americans we take for granted the story of the birth of the baby Jesus. We run the danger of “incarnation” being nothing more than an impressive theological term. We hear the story every year; we’ve romanticized it, even normalized it. But the message that the God of the universe would send a Savior as a vulnerable human baby would have been absolutely absurd to the ears of an ancient person. You see, in the ancient Eastern world, other religions told stories of gods who created human creatures to be their slaves, like pawns in a cosmic game of chess. They believed humanity was at the mercy of the gods’ often unpredictable, capricious moods. And so, the God of the Israelites was peculiar in his approach to his people. He desired fellowship with them. He revealed a character that was kind, generous and gracious. He revealed it to Abraham and Sarah, an old, dried-up couple, with no children, no land and no hope. God gave them a son, land and descendents more numerous than the stars of the heavens. The God of the ancient Israelites was a God of abundant grace with a unique affection for his people.
And yet, nothing in the Old Testament could have possibly prepared God’s people for the radical news that Mary receives in this morning’s gospel story. The Holy Spirit will overshadow her and she will conceive within her virgin womb God’s Son. It was a risky venture on God’s part. Author Philip Britts writes:
Christ did not spring armed from the head of Zeus [like Athena did]. He came as a child. He was not even born in the protection of a royal court, with soldiers to guard against intruders and physicians to guard against sickness. Rather, he was born in a stable, at the mercy of Herod and the stark elements of cold and dirt.i
Friends, our God’s way is the way of vulnerability. The God we worship and serve, the God we know as the baby Jesus, was not some aloof, transcendent being enjoying isolated celestial bliss. The God we worship and serve entered into human history in the most intimate and vulnerable fashion: taking up residence in the womb of a young, insignificant, Jewish peasant girl.
It is also impossible for us to grasp from our 21st century vantage point just how vulnerable Mary would have been. She was young in a culture that had little use for youth. And she was a woman. She would have had no value or worth at all until she married and produced male heirs for her husband. In her culture, that was the very best she could ever hope for. So just imagine when she receives the news that she will bear a son; a child born out of wedlock, a fact that would have placed her in tremendous jeopardy because the punishment for such infidelity could be as drastic as stoning to death. And to this kind of astonishing and dangerous news Mary replies, “Here am I… Let it be with me according to your word.”
And so, the fact that Mary said “yes” to this angel, this messenger of God, is absolutely astonishing.
But, equally astonishing is the fact that this remarkably risky mission Mary embraces transforms her human condition. It redefines her status. She is no longer an insignificant, vulnerable peasant girl. No, now she is God’s “favored one” or “graced one” (they are the same word in Greek). This is Mary’s new identity: graced one. Mary affirms the title herself when she sings a hymn of praise we refer to as her Magnificat. God has graced her, his lowly servant. And now, throughout the generations, throughout all of history, she will be considered “blessed.” “Blessed?” Pregnant out of wedlock, she counts herself “blessed?” At risk of stoning, she considers herself “blessed?”
This brand of blessing, this definition of grace, carries with it enormous risk and danger. This brand of blessing, this definition of grace requires vulnerability. This brand of blessing, this definition of grace, necessitates submission to God’s purposes. The words of the angel and Mary’s hymn of praise share an understanding of grace we, no doubt, find peculiar. Mary considers herself graced because God has embodied his grace and placed it within her womb and, in doing so God has drawn her in to his mighty plan for salvation.
Think about it, friends; when we speak of God’s grace, we often speak of the personal reception of grace for personal benefit: the forgiveness of our individual sins for the purpose of receiving an individual, personalized relationship with Jesus that guarantees our spot in heaven when we die.
Now I do not in any way mean to demean this experience; but my intent is to expand our thinking of grace so that it more accurately reflects the grace revealed in this vitally important bible story for, we discover in Mary that receiving God’s grace means not only receiving it, but releasing it into the world, as well. One might say, metaphorically, God plants the seed of grace within us so that it might gestate and grow and be birthed into the world through us. Mary welcomed the embodiment of God’s grace within her womb with the very obvious understanding that her child would be birthed into a real, not imaginary, culture and context – she would give birth to a first-century, Palestinian Jewish child living under Roman domination; this child who would proclaim the saving grace of God to those around him.
Friends this story of the incarnation is a revolutionary call and invitation for all of us to embody God’s grace for the sake of others. Mary said “yes” to that, despite the huge risk; despite the potential danger.
This story turns our common assumptions upside down. We don’t say “yes” to God’s grace merely for our personal comfort. We are invited to say “yes” to God’s grace for the salvation of others. God’s grace is not a gift we store away for safe keeping. God invites each one of us to be vulnerable and open and that is not something our culture encourages. Our culture teaches us to be risk adverse and admonishes us to be hell-bent on keeping ourselves safe and secure from any known or even suspected danger. But if this story teaches us anything, it boldly proclaims that is not the way God’s grace enters the world.
Friends, I don’t imagine that the embodiment of God’s grace will come again to dwell with a woman’s womb. But God’s grace is still continually coming into the world… through us when we courageously submit to God’s purposes; when we embrace our vulnerability; when we say “Let it be with me according to your word.” Even today, God’s grace can find a home and come to life through us if we are willing to submit to God and his purposes.
You know folks, there is so much fear in our world right now but fear and grace cannot occupy the same space. Fear and grace don’t co-exist. And fear is a horrible way to attempt to live. Remember my opening story of the rescued dog. Fear leads to death, my friends. But openness, a willingness to embrace our vulnerability, a readiness to submit to God’s purposes brings new life. Grace is not a stagnant thing. Like a stream of living water, it flows among us. We can embody God’s grace and pass it on to others if only we can find the courage to say, “Let it be with me according to your word.”
i Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. Plough Publishing; 2001. “Yielding to God” by Philip Britts, devotional for Dec. 9.
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