This is the third sermon in my Advent series on Doubt and Wonder. We are exploring the doubts some of us may have about the Christmas stories, and how we might be drawn into the wonder of what God is doing, even in the midst of our doubts. This sermon is about the story of Mary. Last week we talked about Zechariah, a powerful person who had a voice and lost it. Mary is different. Mary is one we might assume does not have much of a voice, but in this story, she finds her voice—and invites us to find ours.
Mary is probably the first to come to mind when it comes to things we doubt in the Christmas story. We’re not sure what to make of the “virgin” Mary. Do we need to believe that part? In this sermon I’m going to spend some time thinking about what we need to believe about Mary, and why.
When it comes to the virgin Mary, we ought to be clear about what we are talking about, for this is one of the most misunderstood topics in all of the Bible. A translation called the Common English Bible states the situation quite clearly. When the angel says to Mary that she will conceive and bear a son, Mary replies: “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man.” This clarifies what we are talking about and what we are not. We are not talking about what you may have heard called the “immaculate conception”—that is a Roman Catholic doctrine indicating that Mary herself was free of original sin from the moment of her birth. This is also not a story of perpetual virginity—that Mary persisted in her virginity during and after her pregnancy. Some ancient writings support that point of view, but it is not what is argued here. It is also not supported by the Bible’s own witness (in Matthew 13:55) that Jesus had brothers, by the names of James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. So if the story isn’t those things, what is it? This is the announcement of a mysterious and wonderful pregnancy, and that is a repeated theme in the Bible. It puts Mary in good company with Hagar, Sarah, Rebecca, the mother of Samson, and Hannah the mother of Samuel in the Old Testament, and now in the New Testament, Elizabeth. Mary’s story becomes the most miraculous of them all. Something extraordinary is about to take place, and all of those other traditions about Mary, while they may be hard to believe, have been told and retold to reinforce that point. Something extraordinary is happening—pay attention!
Because the Bible has gone to such lengths to tell us that Mary’s story is extraordinary, I think we should be cautious about making it less extraordinary, just so that we can be rationally comfortable. I have read translations, and textual arguments, and I’m sure some of you have as well, indicating that the Greek word that is used here for “virgin” can also be translated as “young woman.” I do not dispute that scholarship, for many Greek and Hebrew terms are translated into English in multiple ways. However, I will caution you about some of the conclusions that are drawn from these translations. If Mary is merely a young woman, what do we make of her response to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” It is nonsense. More to the point, though, we ought to be careful insinuating that there was nothing special going on here, for that abandons the whole point of the story. If Mary is going to have a baby, but there’s really nothing special about it, why then would an angel show up to give her the news?
None of that is to say that I know how it happened or how much of it is true—I do not. And I do have my doubts. That puts me in good company with Mary herself, for by saying to Gabriel, “How can this be…?”she expresses doubts of her own. I should add that it is not at all “postmodern” or “forward-thinking” to suggest that Mary had her doubts. John Calvin, the 16th century father or Presbyterian theology, suggested the same thing himself. In fact, writing about Mary’s journey to visit her relative Elizabeth—the story we referenced last week, Calvin said there’s a good chance Mary had her doubts about what was going on, and went seeking reassurance.
The doubts are okay. They are not heretical. So let’s have our doubts and let’s talk about them out loud, rather than just mumbling our way through this reading every year. I would simply add this: let’s not be too eager to remove all the mystery from the story and try to reasonably explain it away. Leave some room for things you can’t explain. Leave some room for wonder. In so doing, you might come closer to understanding what Mary herself might have felt.
Let’s take a few moments to wonder about what Mary might have felt in this story. Here I’m following the work of New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine, who I’ve referenced throughout this series. In the Gospel of Luke, when the angel Gabriel greets Mary, he says, “the Lord is with you.” These words are chosen deliberately; close Bible readers will recognize that angels have used them time and again. It is a blessing and an affirmation, but there is always a catch. When the Lord is with you, the Lord has plans for you. What, Mary wonders, might God have in mind for me?
In the very next breath, the angel uses another familiar heavenly greeting: “Do not be afraid,” and continues “for you have found favor with God.” Cleverly, Luke does not tell us why Mary has found God’s favor. We have no reason to believe it is because of any of her past actions, or because she is particularly holy or pure. It is a reminder that God can choose anyone: a fisherman, a tax collector, and even you or me.
The angel goes on to tell Mary that the child will be God’s own son. Luke is hinting at the genealogy of Jesus he will provide just two chapters later; it ties us all back to Adam, calling us all children of God. The promises of the angel are not just for Mary, but again, they are for you and for me.
The angel continues, telling Mary of the pregnancy of her relative Elizabeth, the story we spoke of in last week’s sermon. The angel tells this story to Mary so she will know: “…nothing will be impossible with God.” This is a real turning point in understanding the story of Mary, for this statement might cast some serious doubt. For me, this is the really challenging part of the story. I quote AJ Levine: “[T]he idea that nothing is impossible with God can be a difficult statement because it can give the impression that God could have acted when we needed healing or rescue [but did not].” Where was God in the tornadoes this weekend? What about when children are abused and neglected, when refugees spend years stranded in camps, when innocent people find themselves in the path of war. Choose your instance of suffering—where is God? The fact is that the our world, as well as the world as the Bible portrays it, is full of tragic and unresolved suffering. What are we to think? Levine continues: “The biblical story is less a matter of miraculous rescue than it is of human response to situations for which rescue is needed: the response to slavery, to exile, to genocide…” (and I would add natural disasters). (Levine, Light of the World. 70) In this story, Mary is called to respond. The bold affirmation that nothing is impossible with God is not meant to make me speculate about moving a rock with my mind. But it is meant to make me wonder about God’s power to change lives and restore hope. And because this story happens to a nobody like Mary, I should never count myself out from participating in God’s story.
You begin to see how many times I am calling attention to the idea that this story about Mary is not just about her, it is about all of us, it is meant to arouse awareness of how God is coming into our lives in the coming of Christ. God is calling us to consider how we will allow our lives to be instruments of God’s love flowing out into the world. Having heard all that the angel has said, Mary sets the example for us in her response: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” She does not call attention to herself because she is the one who will be honored. We are to look to her because she is a servant; she allows her life to be lived in service to God and the world.
All of this is the backdrop for Mary’s song, the words of what is traditionally known as the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings. Mary sings of the work that God is doing in the world: The Lord shows mercy toward all who stand in awe of the Lord. God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. In Mary’s world, she is showing those who hear her voice the sharp contrast between life in worship of the Emperor of Rome, and life in service to the Kingdom of Heaven. The ways in which that story might come to life among us are countless, and we are invited to participate.
Every time we find our voices as people of faith or help someone else find theirs, we participate in this story. It happens each time we help someone in need, any time we speak out against injustice, every time we suggest an idea ourselves that we know others will think is impossible. We participate in this story when we correct injustices of the past, and when we repair relationships that have been broken. We participate in this story when, with God’s help, we find our way to new life out of addiction, or grief. God is present in these things. I do not believe they are holy accidents; they are signs of wonder.
The point of Mary’s story is not to get caught in the how of her pregnancy—that may sound like some sort of a cop-out on my part, but I promise you I am just paying attention to the story. Read the story for yourself: Luke doesn’t write about any of that, and he obviously doesn’t care. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it. But the point of the story is not to dwell on Mary’s pregnancy; the point is to get caught up in Mary’s response and to hear it as a call upon our own lives. The wonder it should arouse in us is wonder about how we are participating in the world as God sees it, full of grace and love and possibility.
How much do you need to believe about Mary’s story? I don’t know for sure. I suppose the answer to that question is different for each of us. Here’s my own personal belief, at least at this stage in my faith: I need to believe enough about Mary’s story, to think that change is possible in my story. And I need to believe the same thing about others. I need to see in myself and in my neighbor a person in whose life can be shaped by God, not because of their own worthiness or holiness or giftedness, but because like Mary, we are all children of God. I wonder what God wishes to do in your life? Amen.
 See, for instance, Pearce, “Debunking the Nativity: The Mistranslation of “Virgin” at patheos.com. December 2016.
 See Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke. ed. Torrence and Torrence, 1972.
 See Levine, Light of the World: A Beginner’s Guide to Advent. (65-71)