“How Can This Be?”
A Sermon on Luke 1:26-38 for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year B; preached December 21, 2014, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
“How can this be?” How can this be? Those are the first words Mary speaks to that ol’ angel Gabriel. The first words in response to the flattery of being called “favored one” and the announcement that the “Lord is with [her].” First words in reply to the news that she will “conceive in [her] womb and bear a son.” First words… “How can this be?”
You’d be forgiven for thinking ‘maybe Luke tamed this one down a bit’. “How can this be?”… it sounds so innocent, so pious, so Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. I for one wouldn’t be surprised if Mary’s first words after Gabriel’s annunciation were a little more pointed and a little less fit for polite company. But, alas, such would be mere speculation. The gospel writer’s account is what we have.
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary says in that account, objecting by way of a question. And it’s a fair-enough protestation. After all, the basics of biology haven’t changed that much these past 2,000 years, and bearing a child while being yet a virgin would have been as surprising then as it would be now.
Mary’s is not the first surprising pregnancy in the Bible, though. Old “father” Abraham and his wife Sarah, they had angelic visitors tell them she’d be pregnant, too. “How can this be?” we can imagine her asking, but her difficulty was that she was old, not that she was a virgin. A woman named Hannah, she prayed and prayed for a child, even to the point of bargaining with God, offering up a first born child to the temple, if only she could have that child in the first place. When the good news finally came, “how can this be?” might have rang through her mind, but Hannah’s difficulty was that she was barren—or so she and everyone else thought—not that she was a virgin. And even right here in the gospel of Luke, the story opens with Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her unexpected pregnancy that leads to the birth of John the Baptist. “How can this be?” is not too far from what her husband Zechariah asked, but not because Elizabeth was a virgin.
With Mary, then, something was happening that on the one hand was quite in line with ways God had acted in the past, and yet on the other hand was completely and utterly different. The “same yesterday, today, and forever” and yet “Behold! I do a new thing.” How can this be, since I am a virgin? Indeed, how can this be?
And yet, the mere lack of intimate relations on Mary’s part—even if it is the only thing we hear Mary ask about—it is not the only reality in this story that defies expectation. We have heard also this morning of the promise made by God to King David, of an everlasting ‘house’ for him, of the offspring that would come from David whose kingdom and throne would be established forever. And here in the gospel story, Gabriel is telling Mary that this throne of her ancestor David will be given to her child, “and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” How can this be? She is only but 13 or 14 years old, and about as common and ordinary as you can get, for that matter. So common, in fact, was her name ‘Mary’ that together with the name Salome, these two make up about half of all Jewish women whose names were recorded in this era. Moreover, how was this kingdom supposed to get started? It had been more than five hundred years since the Israelites controlled their own nation, free from the rule of outside empires. As one writer asks, “Which of the promises Gabriel made on God’s behalf one morning long ago in Galilee would prove hardest to keep? That a virgin could conceive a child without a husband’s usual participation? Or that God could put someone from David’s line on the throne in Jerusalem and establish his reign forever?” Or in other words, how can this be? How can any of this be?
The truth, though, is that despite our best and strongest efforts, we aren’t in the end in charge of everything about our identities or our fates. “The awareness that we are not fully in charge of our destiny,” one pastor points out, “[it] ebbs and is revived repeatedly throughout our lives. Startling news—whether joyful or sorrowful—frequently evokes the question that Mary voiced when she was told that she was to bear a child who would be the ‘Son of the Most High’…: ‘How can this be?’”
Whether news of tragedy or sorrow—the sudden passing away of a friend with whom you just ate lunch yesterday, the gruesome attack on some public place by gun violence or terrorist measures—or news of joy and healing and progress—the cancer tumor that shrank against all odds, the award received unexpectedly for your work—any of it can raise the exclamation, “How can this be?”
But you see, my friends, the true wonder, the true miracle in this story of the annunciation to Mary happens before Mary can say “yes” and “let it be with me according to your word”… and, in fact, even before she can raise the question “How can this be?” The true wonder is that before she can say “yes”, she is already blessed. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you”: it comes before the questions and before the response. Bless comes before yes.
Whatever Mary imagined herself to be, and whatever she imagined herself capable of, the Word from God comes to interrupt and surprise and upend her limited notions. Some readers of this story object to the fact that it seems like Mary has no agency, that she has no choice about the matter at hand. But in at least some sense, that may be the point. We don’t get to choose whether God will bless us, and we don’t get to choose the true self God calls us to be. “Christian believers…” one writer offers “Christian believers might consider how God’s call does violate the selves we imagined ourselves to be—transforming us from ‘virgins’ who are unable to bear God to the world, to creative agents for whom, with God, ‘nothing is impossible’.”
A creative agent, called to bear God to the world… that’s who you are, my friends, too. This day and every day. “How can this be?” you might protest, but objection or no objection, this blessing and call is true nonetheless. You are the “favored ones”, “called and commissioned to hear, believe, and respond to God’s blessing wherever [you] are.”
And so I want you this morning to take just a moment or two with me right now to do something. I want you to close your eyes for a moment. Take a breath in, then out. And now, start imagining where you will go this week. What will you do? Who will you meet? [pause] And now, look at how, in each of these circumstances, God is noticing you and blessing you… so that you might be a blessing to the world.
And now, sisters and brothers, hear this:
“Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and plans to do great things through you.”
Say now back to me, “How can this be?” (“How can this be?”)
“Whether at work or school, whether at home or in the world, the Holy Spirit is with you and will guide you in all you do and say, so that you may be a blessing to the world.”
And now, say back to me, “Let it be with me according to your word.” (“Let it be with me according to your word.”)
Indeed, my friends, let it be with you according to God’s word, according to God’s call, according to God’s blessing.
 Tal Ilan, “Notes on the Distribution of Jewish Women’s Names in Palestine in the Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods,” Journal of Jewish Studies 40 (1989), 186-200; cited in R.T. France, Luke, Teach the Text Commentary Series, ed. Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 14.
 Frederick Niedner, commentary for 21 December 2014 (Fourth Sunday of Advent) in Sundays and Season: Preaching, volume for 2015 (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2014), 31.
 Ashley Cook Cleere, pastoral commentary on Luke 1:26-38 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 94.
 Cynthia L. Rigby, theological commentary on Luke 1:26-38, in Feasting on the Word, 96.
 David J. Lose, “Advent 4 B: Be Blessed Like Mary”, Dear Partner in Preaching (blog), …in the Meantime (davidlose.net), 15 December 2014; accessed 20 December 2014 at http://www.davidlose.net/2014/12/advent-4-b-blessed-like-mary/.
 This paragraph through the conclusion based on a suggestion in Lose., ibid.