One of my very favourite proverbs of all time is “We plan, God laughs.” I don’t think that God laughs at our plans in a mean-spirited way, or that God thinks we are foolish or silly for making plans. I think that the proverb is about how God is amused by our best efforts to come up with a “good plan” for what makes most sense in our lives and in the world. Usually while not paying attention to what God is telling us about what is good in our lives and in the world.
I think that this is exactly the situation that David finds himself in throughout the reading from 2 Samuel today. He’s concerned that God doesn’t have an adequate home. David is worried that the ark of the covenant is being carted around and stored in a tent while people are living in homes built of cedar which are comfortable and lovely. God, who is more important to David, is left covered by a few pieces of canvas. So, David is going to build God a temple worthy of living in.
God appreciates David’s efforts, but also expresses that this temple is not what God wants at this point. God assures David that he and his descendants will be thought of as a people richly blessed, but building a temple or palace right now isn’t the thing that needs to happen for this to be true. God also reminds David that some of this blessing and some of the results of participation in this great work is not going to be evident until after David dies. Not an entirely appealing prospect. But, David makes lots of plans and God laughs. God sends the prophet Nathan to say thanks, but no thanks to the temple; other things are more important right now.
And then we hear this gospel reading: The Annunciation. One of my favourite gospel readings and, I believe, one of the readings that people first think of when they think of scripture in Advent and Christmas. Mary was having a perfectly normal day. In Medieval art she is often shown reading a book or spinning yarn. Entirely unexpectedly, the angel Gabriel shows up and delivers to her the famous invitation: “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1.28)
Mary responds differently to the angel than many people do when angels—or prophets for that matter—show up with messages from God. In the case of prophets, they’re often met with hate and run out of town because people don’t appreciate the messages they bring with them. In the case of angels, people are almost always surprised and afraid. We know this because nearly every record of angelic appearance begins with the angel saying “Don’t be afraid, I am here with good news from God.” Angels are, after all, otherworldly, frightening, and have a way of appearing when people do not expect them.
Even people like Mary’s cousin Zechariah, who is the husband of Elizabeth and the father of John the Baptist, is disturbed by his encounter with an angel. Zechariah is a priest of the temple in Jerusalem. He was in the holy of holies when it happened; he might even have been expecting an angelic visit. But he is so surprised by the appearance, and by what the angel has to say, that they get into a dispute. As a result, Zechariah’s voice is taken from him until his son is born. Be wary of arguing with messages from God.
Mary, on the other hand, ponders the angel’s greeting. The angel says:
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. Luke 1.30-33
Mary doesn’t seem especially surprised or scared of the angel, but she is confused by the greeting, and rightly so. Some of what Gabriel says does not seem to add up. Mary comes back with the completely practical question of “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1.34) She has done none of the things necessary to produce a child. Gabriel explains that it will work because, with God, all things are possible. Mary considers this and, at the end of this gospel passage, agrees. Yes. She will participate in God’s plan.
I think that the comparison that is set up between David’s and Mary’s situation is quite deliberate in the readings for this Sunday. David is a powerful man, accustomed to getting his way, who makes a great plan for God. God’s response is to send a prophet who informs David that this is not what God has in mind at the moment. David must wrestle with the disappointment of having to put his own desires aside and find a way to respond faithfully to God’s message. David will not get to build a great temple but, instead, will cooperate with God on work whose full benefits will not be seen until long after he is dead. It’s probably not an appealing prospect to David, working on something that won’t be fully realized in his lifetime.
Mary, unlike David, is nobody important when Gabriel visits her. She is a young woman from a family of no consequence. Her husband-to-be, Joseph, is one of David’s descendants but is a carpenter, so clearly not from the branch of the family that inherited well. Mary’s cousin Elizabeth is from a family of high status and her husband, Zechariah, is a priest of the temple. But Mary is none of these things. When the angel appears to Mary, she has a thoughtful conversation with Gabriel, rather than an argument as Zechariah does. Mary considers the angel’s message carefully because Mary is probably not accustomed to having her plans, her wants, her opinions matter very much. She is a young, unmarried woman of the first century. Few people have less status than she. So Mary, with very little to lose and little to be disappointed about, considers this invitation to a sudden change to her life’s plan. But Mary is also a faithful woman who realizes that this is a genuine call from God.
In addition to being willing to listen, Mary also knows the tradition of her people about angels and prophets and messages from God. Mary hears Gabriel’s message and realizes it as a moment just like Moses and the burning bush, Hagar in the wilderness, or Hannah and her fervent prayers for a son. Mary knows that the people who are recognized as faithful and holy people are those who say “Yes” when God calls upon them. They are people who, even when it is disappointing, lay aside their own plans and their own ideas to turn toward the paths to which God is calling them. Even if it will not be finished or they will not see its benefits in their own lifetimes. In Mary’s case, she will see the outcomes of this work. She sees her son’s life, his Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. But this is not part of Gabriel’s invitation and she responds with a “Yes” because of her faith.
For us, in this season of Advent, where we talk about waiting and watching and discerning God’s call to us; where we talk about being ready both for our celebrations of the first coming and anticipation of the second coming, we now hear Mary’s story as part of that tradition of people who respond faithfully to God’s call. She is to us as Hannah was to her. Mary responds faithfully to the call to cooperate with God’s plan even though it seems difficult, uncomfortable, not what she had planned, or perhaps like the payoff was indistinct. We remember Mary and all of these others as good and holy examples of life in relationship with God. People who ponder faithfully in their hearts and reply to God’s invitations: “Yes.”
Preached for Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Winnipeg.