Our Awful and Wondrous Yes

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December 24, 2017

Mary, an ordinary young woman, chose to be obedient to the Spirit of God.  To the surprising initiative of God, Mary said, “Yes.”

Mary said “yes” to the awful realization of being vulnerable.

Mary said “yes” to being courageous in the awful face of fear.   

Mary said “yes” to God’s wondrous intent to dwell in human flesh.

Mary said “yes” to being held in God’s wonderous Grace while she set out on her journey.

Mary’s calling went something like this:

God sends someone named Gabriel to say to Mary: “The Lord is with you.”  This is a blessing, is it not?  To say that the Lord is with you is a blessing.  But we also know that throughout biblical history, being blessed can be as painful as it is peaceful.  To be blessed is to be used by God to bless the world.  That is our constant calling—to bless the world, to bless the world in our own unique way.

Mary is thoroughly shaken by the holy presence, and she wonders what it all means for her.  We can sense both fear and awe, intertwined, in her first reaction.   There is a Hebrew word that has no equivalent in our English language that describes such an experience.  For us, our language implies two separate experiences, you either experience fear or you experience awe.  But the Hebrew term, yirah, combines both to describe one experience.  Moses’ experience at the burning bush, in the presence of God, might be one example.  Another example of yirah is my own experience standing at more than 10,000 feet above sea level looking across the Western Highlands of Guatemala.  It was toward the end of my 10-day pilgrimage, and I had traveled almost 500 miles with a prayer on my lips: Lord, I want to see with the eyes of my heart, so I can see the hope in my life’s purpose.  I did see with the eyes of my heart, and it hurt.  I did see the hope in my purpose, and it shook me to my core.

“Do not be afraid,” the messenger said to Mary.   I think Mary was experiencing yirah.  And in her heart she knows to savor yirah, to recognize the type of fear she feels and to work with it, lean into it knowing that she is touching sacred ground within.  “Perfect love casts out fear” we are told.  Perfect love casts out fear.  And perfect love, drawn from our very center, blesses the world.

Think about Mary’s awesome experience.  She is being invited into a radical, life-transforming experience to have a part in the fulfillment of God’s saving purpose in history.  Through tangible, physical realities of her life, the kingdom of God would become a tangible reality in this world.

“How can this be,” Mary asked.  From a human point of view, it is a very practical question.  The messenger from God explains, and then, he gives Mary an example of another person, Elizabeth, in whom God is working to make the impossible, possible.  This may very well be an important point of the story that we have likely missed.  It says to us today, there are others, look at the others, connect with the others who are also giving birth to the hope that nothing is impossible with God.  I think this is a critical point of Luke’s story because it was only when she hears about Elisabeth that Mary moves forward with her own response.

“Here I am,” Mary says.  It is like saying Amen which means, I agree, let it be so.  It is a common response from folks who recognize their calling to God’s common mission to bless the world.  You have heard it from the lips of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, Jeremiah, Ananias.  Now, you have heard it from Mary.  The question for today is:  Has our Lord heard it from us?

Luke’s story about Mary wants to launch us into a new way of living that lasts our whole life long.  It challenges us to put our trust in our Creator.  It challenges us to practice living in what God has done and is doing in Christ. It challenges us to respond, “yes,” when God calls out to us to allow the seed of God within each of us to bless the world.  Mary’s story is a story of a God who makes impossible things possible by demonstrating extraordinary power in the lives of ordinary people.  It is the story of the way God intersects our human limitations with unlimited grace. 

In the Magnificat we heard this morning, Mary is rejoicing about her calling.  She sings about how her calling fits with God’s agenda and how God remembers promises made.  She sings about Christ’s upside-down ministry, upending the world’s assumptions about strength and power:  those who are hungry will be fed, those who are empty will be filled, those who acknowledge their weakness can experience the power of God.  Mary sings about these things as if they have already happened.  She is rejoicing in song—offering her heart and lifting her voice in praise to God.  This is a song that will remind her throughout her journey—hard times and good times, especially hard times, about the radiance that came when she gave her awful and wondrous “yes.”  [i]

We would usually have longer to reflect upon Mary’s calling.  But this year, Advent IV and Christmas run together on the same day.  At 4 o’clock this afternoon, you will move into a celebration of the results of Mary’s YES.  We have just a few hours more to reflect on Mary’s calling, our calling—yours and mine, before we again celebrate God becoming flesh.

Drawing from the poetry of Ann Weems, remember this:

Angels still appear to those ready to receive blessings
in spite of the barren impossibility of their lives. . .

Blessings still come to those who believe that nothing is impossible
in the hand of God.

Mary still gives birth, not just every Advent, Mary still gives birth each day to this
Child who advents into hearts, unexpectedly and forever. . . [ii]

May God be a felt experience for us as Mary felt it.  May we respond to God’s message to us with an awful and wondrous YES, claiming Mary’s heartfelt song of praise and hope for ourselves.

[i] This concept of an “awful and wonderous yes” is drawn from Jan L. Richardson’s poetry.  It was a synchronistic moment when I discovered her poem, A Blessing for After.  I had recently said my own yes to my calling to the diaconate and was still feeling the terror and the wonder of it.  This poem brought it all together for me.  I have since read some of her books, and I recommend them all.  Here is a link to her website: http://www.janrichardson.com/index.html


[ii] Drawn from:  From Advent’s Alleluia to Easter’s Morning Light, by Ann Weems, Angels Still Appear, page 29.