Gourock St. John’s
Three Wise Women
13 December 2020, Advent 3 (Blessings of an impossible Christmas)
(NL3-16, first half)
Today we transition from a season of reading from the Old Testament to the New, beginning the gospel according to Luke, which we will read from now until Easter.
The first two chapters of Luke’s gospel are like an overture, setting the scene for the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Luke’s primary themes are all present in the overture, so we have a hint of what is to come.
Luke begins with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are elderly and childless. Zechariah is a priest who receives a visit from the angel Gabriel, telling him that Elizabeth will bear a son and they are to name him John. Zechariah is doubtful, and Gabriel takes away his ability to speak until John is born. Today’s reading from Luke chapter 1 begins at verse 26, six months after Elizabeth became pregnant. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
Every single time I read this story, I think about how much Gabriel sounds like an alien when he greets Mary. Instead of “hello” he says “greetings favoured one” — and she was much perplexed. Of course she was perplexed — who talks like that? Even in ancient Palestine, I’m fairly certain people did not go around saying “greetings favoured one” to each other.
Aside from the strange stilted alien phrase, though, there’s more to be perplexed about. Why does the angel address her as “favoured”? She must have wondered what he was talking about, or if he had picked the wrong girl. After all, she was betrothed but not yet married, likely a young teenager. In Nazareth the tradition says that Gabriel met Mary at the well — a tradition which connects Mary to a long line of women in the Old Testament whose marriages were made at the well, including Rebekah who became the wife of Isaac, Rachel and Jacob, and Moses’ wife Zipporah. While Mary would know those stories, she would never have expected to be part of one! She was a poor teenager from a nondescript family in a town far from the centres of power, in an occupied land. For an angel to address her as “favoured” would be confusing indeed — favoured by whom? In what sense? Not in any of the usual ways.
While she was still pondering this strange word, Gabriel explained that actually, he meant favoured by God. He doesn’t say why, though. What was it about Mary that drew God’s attention? She wasn’t anybody important, just a girl at the well. But she barely had time to think that thought before Gabriel said she was going to be a mother!
So often our pictures of Mary are of a quiet, shy girl who keeps her eyes down and submits to whatever she’s told. But Mary’s first out-loud question proves her to be a bit more practical than we usually give her credit for. She wants to know how this is going to work — the mechanics of the situation. She doesn’t yet live with her husband-to-be, so…what’s the next step?
Gabriel’s answer that she’s going to be filled with the cloud of God’s presence, like the cloud that filled the Temple when it was built, or like the cloud that covered Mount Sinai, may or may not have been very comforting. But as Gabriel insisted that nothing is impossible with God, Mary spoke up again: Here am I, the servant of the Lord.
A lot of prophets have answered God with this same phrase — in Hebrew it’s “hineini”. Here am I. Moses says it, and Samuel, and Isaiah — and all of them said it before God actually told them what he was calling them to do. This is the answer of someone who trusts their relationship with God enough to say yes, even though the fullness of the task is not yet clear to them.
Mary is the first woman to ever be recorded saying “hineini” in response to God’s call. She agrees to carry God’s Son, without yet knowing the full picture of what that will mean — including the risks to her own physical health, to her safety in her family and community, or the challenges of parenting, let alone parenting the son of God! Like the prophets before her, she trusts God, and that will have to be enough even though she doesn’t have a map.
Gabriel did give her a hint, though, when he mentioned Elizabeth. Mary headed straight there, apparently by herself, to get some advice from her older relative. It was a fair distance from Nazareth into the hill country, which is the area that includes Jerusalem and Bethlehem and other surrounding villages. When she arrived, Elizabeth too joined the ranks of the prophets, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking truths neither she nor Mary understand yet. Over the next three months they will have many such conversations, passing knowledge from generation to generation, sharing the experience of growing a world-changing child in their bodies, blessing each other with the companionship of women while the men of the story are silent on the sidelines.
I originally titled this sermon “Three Wise Women” as a balance to the wise men of Epiphany. Those travellers came from afar and symbolise the whole world recognising the Messiah who has been born…but before those wise men can set out on their journey, before the star shines in the sky, before any of the Christmas story can take place, we need the three wise women of this story first! And I can hear you wondering, because there are only two women named in the story. Of course Mary was wise enough to trust God’s impossible word. And Elizabeth wise enough to recognise God at work in and through Mary’s life. And the third….is the Holy Spirit! In the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Aramaic which Mary and Elizabeth spoke, the word for Spirit is a feminine noun, ruach, so would usually use the pronoun “she” or “her”—and even better, in the Old Testament the Spirit is sometimes personified as God’s wisdom, and so the third wise one appears in the story! God’s Spirit fills Elizabeth and she speaks God’s wisdom.
I particularly love Elizabeth’s last Spirit-filled line: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
How often we need this encouragement! From one generation to another, to be reminded of the blessing that is born of trust, even in something that seems impossible. It’s a blessing that only asks we take the next step, even if we aren’t sure what the one after will be. Mary says “here I am” and then visits Elizabeth, and slowly the path begins to unfold before her, one step at a time. And it turns out that what seemed impossible before isn’t really, because with God, nothing is impossible.
Perhaps in this season where so much normality feels out of reach, we too can trust God enough to take just the next step and see what God unfolds after that. Or perhaps this is a season when we are the ones who are called to speak with the Spirit’s voice and encourage those who are struggling with what the next step might be. Whether that’s across the generations or across other divides, can we reach out to one another and find the blessing together?
May it be so. Amen.