By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 1:26-38
Vulnerability is a tough and risky thing. If you’ve ever rescued an abused or neglected dog you know what I mean. Yet, if the stray or injured animal is unable to be vulnerable to the human seeking to rescue it, that animal will likely die eventually. Only if it can take the risk and be vulnerable one more time will it discover that vulnerability can result not only in pain; but it can also result in food, clean water, medicine, safe shelter, and the connection all living creatures yearn for. Vulnerability is a tough and risky thing.
And humans aren’t much better at it than stray or wounded animals. If a child’s formative years involve abuse or neglect, they are likely to keep their guard up; to build a protective shell around what is soft and vulnerable within them.
But vulnerability is the foundation of the Christmas story. It proclaims and affirms the good news that vulnerability and openness provide an opening for God’s presence and God’s saving grace. When we seek to control and manipulate our environment and keep up our walls of defense, we build barriers that also hold God’s Spirit at bay.
As 21st century Americans Christians, we take for granted the story of the birth of the baby Jesus. We hear the story every year; we’ve romanticized it, even normalized it. But the message that the God of the universe would come as a vulnerable human baby would have been absolutely absurd to the ears of an ancient person. In fact, it would probably sound absurd to us were we to hear the story for the first time.
In the ancient Eastern world, other religions told stories of gods who created humans 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 and distinctive in his approach to his people. He desired fellowship with them. He revealed a character that was kind, generous and gracious. The God of the ancient Israelites was a God of abundant grace with a unique affection for his people.
And yet, nothing 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. God’s grace doesn’t come down like a sledge hammer. Rather, the grace of God seeks a vulnerable, humble, open space… like the virgin womb of a young peasant girl. 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 took the risk of entering into human history in the most intimate and vulnerable fashion: by taking up residence in the womb of a young, unknown, Jewish peasant girl.
It is almost impossible for us to grasp from our postmodern 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 conceived out of wedlock, a fact that would have placed her in tremendous jeopardy because the punishment for adultery could be as drastic as stoning to death. And to this kind of astonishing and dangerous news Mary responds, “Here am I… Let it be with me according to your word.” 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 and redefines her status. By saying “yes” to the angel’s message, she is no longer an unknown, 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 for herself when she sings a hymn of praise we refer to as her Magnificat. We find her song of praise in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. Mary affirms that God has graced her, his lowly servant. And now, throughout the generations, throughout all of history, she will be considered “blessed.”
“Blessed?” There’s an odd take on things, right? I mean; pregnant out of wedlock in a culture where such behavior was a capital offense; she declares her vulnerable position as “blessed?” Mary’s understanding of blessed is a long way from our modern use and understanding of the term.
This brand of blessing, this understanding of grace, carries with it enormous risk and danger. This type 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 and not terribly attractive. 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. She recognizes that – through her – God has fulfilled his gracious purposes.
It is a unique understanding of “blessing;” one that sounds peculiar to us. After all, in our culture when we speak of God’s blessings, we often reference things like a new job or a new car; a personal “gifting” for our individual good or advancement. Televangelists have taught us that blessed people drive nice cars and wear fancy suits. Even in ordinary churches, 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… like buying a piece of prime real estate.
But the biblical witness of Mary provides a somewhat different perspective. We discover in Mary that receiving God’s grace – God’s blessing – means not only receiving it for ourselves, but releasing it back out into the world, as well. We discover that vessels of God’s grace don’t need to be shiny, happy people; portraits of success by the world’s standards. God’s blessing can come to dwell in the most peculiar forms; in the most humble settings. So one might say, metaphorically, God desires to plant his seed of grace within us too, 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 even though it placed her at great personal jeopardy; she welcomed the angel’s message with a clear 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 in a culture where infant mortality was common and children weren’t cherished and protected as they are in our culture. Under these most precarious of circumstances, this child would live out the mission proclaimed by the angel Gabriel: to be Savior, King and Son of the Most High.
Friends this story of the incarnation is a revolutionary call and invitation for all of us to reconsider what it means to be blessed by God; to reconsider what it means to say “let it be” to God’s call; to reconsider what it means to embody God’s grace for the sake of others. Mary said “yes” despite the huge risk; despite the potential danger.
This story should radically transform our understanding of Christmas giving and receiving. We don’t say “yes” to God’s grace simply in hopes of receiving lots of good stuff for ourselves; grace is not merely for personal comfort or advancement. We are invited to say “yes” to God’s grace for the salvation of others as well. God’s grace is not a gift we tuck away for safe keeping like a “get out of jail” free card in Monopoly. God’s grace is for everyone and God invites each of us to be vulnerable and open; an invitation at odds with our culture.
Friends, I don’t imagine that the embodiment of God’s grace will come again as a baby born in Bethlehem. But God’s grace is still continually coming into the world, even today… through any that are willing to be a servant of the Lord; when we embrace our vulnerability; when we say as Mary did “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. To say, “Let it be” takes remarkable courage. But openness, a willingness to embrace our vulnerability, a readiness to submit to God’s purposes brings new life.
Well-known preacher Fred Craddock tells the story of his visit to a little church. He arrived for worship early and watched as the sanctuary began to fill up. Then he saw the preacher. He was a very large and awkward looking man. Craddock admits; he put him in mind of the hunchback of Notre Dame. He limped, dragging one foot; his arms just seemed to dangle helplessly at his sides. Cloudy eyes were hidden behind thick glasses and when he began to preach, he had to hold his bible and manuscript right in front of his face. But as he preached, Craddock could feel the power of his words and the grace that flowed out from this unattractive preacher and back again from his congregation. It was astonishing and not at all what one would have expected; a beautiful and surprising cycle of grace. After the service, Craddock hung back and watched as congregants exchanged greetings with the pastor on the way out of worship. He heard one woman say, “I wish I could know your mother.” (Craddock wondered if she was having the same difficulty he was; comprehending this study in contrasts: such an awkward, lumbering man embodying such an elegant love.) The preacher replied, “My mother’s name is Grace.” When all had left the sanctuary, Craddock approached the preacher: “That was an odd response you gave that woman,” he said. They sat in a pew and here is what the preacher said: “When I was born, I was put up for adoption. But, as you can see, no one wanted me. I bounced from foster home to foster home. When I was about 16 or 17, I saw some young people going into a church. I wanted to be with them. So I went in, and there I met Grace: the grace of God. My mother’s name is grace.”[ii]
Friends, the saving grace of God seeks a virgin space – humble, open and vulnerable. May the grace of God abide within you and be birthed into the world through you this season. Amen.
[i] Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. Plough Publishing; 2001. “Yielding to God” by Philip Britts, devotional for Dec. 9.
[ii] Adapted from story shared in Craddock Stories by Fred Craddock, ed. Mike Graves and Richard Ward; Chalice Press; 2001; story found on pp. 49-50.
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