It's a strange scene to be sure. How well thought out does this plan seem? How weird does it strike you that God's plan of salvation should depend upon the willingness of a young woman living in an obscure village of a remote province to trust a vision that tells her God wants her to conceive a child?
Does it strike you as at all odd that Mary's response was to ask the troubled question: "How shall this be?" It's not the way anyone would have imagined it. We know about Rome; we even know about Jerusalem; but what and where is Nazareth? We know about Augustus Caesar; we even know about old King David of ancient Israel; but who are this Mary and this Joseph? They are nobody special from nowhere in particular-why they're no more important than you or me!
And that is exactly the point. God acts through ordinary human beings like you and me, ordinary human beings that trust God enough to undertake extraordinary missions beyond their capabilities or imaginings. But we don't want God to act this way. We want God to appear in person, unmediated by anyone else, even by angels as awesome and terrifying as Gabriel, "his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame." But that is not how God ever does anything. God seldom comes to us directly, except in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and even then it is only as God incarnate, God in human flesh and being, so that he was criticized for being a nobody himself. God always comes to us through creation. To us God comes through the water of baptism, through the bread and wine of the Holy Communion, through the hand of a loved one, or through the hand of a stranger. Mostly, God comes to us in ordinary ways, through ordinary people. It is even true in the case we have this morning. Although God chooses the extraordinary means of sending the Archangel Gabriel, God still announces that the divine plan is to come to us for our salvation through the body of a peasant girl from Nazareth. Of course this plan will work only if she is willing that it be so; only if she can find the courage to surrender to God's will; only if she can find the faith she needs to trust God's preposterous plan.
What a weight hangs in the balance there. What immensity depends on the faith of a young peasant woman? What tremendous secret waits upon the answer, hangs upon her word. And what trust God must have in her. Mary has lived her life in the community of people who believe there is a special relationship between God and them. They have affirmed that the word of God is for them, that the action of God in the world is for us them. They believe that their story, the story of this community, day in and day out, through slavery, wilderness, kingdoms, and exile, is the story of God's working through them to accomplish the divine purposes on earth. God is trusting God's people to have raised Mary in the right way, to have taught her the story of faith, taught her to recognize God's hand at work in her life. Gabriel has made the proposition. The great archangel has announced God's purpose, the heavenly messenger has posed the question-and the girl clearly is troubled. Now heaven and earth wait.
Mary doesn't understand what is going on; the archangel's reply to her question, "How shall this be?" is a mystery. Gabriel only assures Mary that God will overshadow her in the Holy Spirit. But Mary senses the kind of terror that comes from being in God's presence (rather than the horror that comes from being in the presence of evil). She surrenders her assured future as the wife of a carpenter named Joseph to play the unknowable part God wills for her as Mother of the Savior.
How many times must we hear this basic Gospel truth to learn it? We have been waiting for so long for God in our lives. We have sung many hymns praying for the advent of God in our lives. But have we yet learned that the word of God addressed to Mary through the Archangel Gabriel, is the same word God addresses to us: "Hail favored one, the Lord is with you." How many of us understand that God is waiting for us to say "Let it be to me according to your word," just as God waited for Mary to say it?
Like Mary, we cannot understand what is going on. Like her we can only remember that we are members of a community of faithful people whose life story is the story of God's action on behalf of the whole world. Like Mary, we cannot foresee what our future will be if we accept God's will. Like Mary we can only know that because we are members of the body of Christ, God has no other hands and hearts and minds in the world but ours. Like Mary we can only know that if God's will is to be accomplished in this world, we must play our part in this preposterous plan.
"Hail favored one, the Lord is with you." For the next week, as we go about our workdays, taking care of Christmas plans and errands, as we go about our daily responsibilities, let us keep Gabriel's greeting in our minds and hearts. Hear Gabriel greet us with these terrifying words of hope and salvation. God is waiting for the Holy Child of Bethlehem to be born in us, and he cannot be born in us unless we are prepared, like Mary, to give over ourselves, our souls and bodies, to him. The Holy Child cannot be born in us unless we, like Mary, find faith and courage.
"Hail favored one, the Lord is with you." Heaven and earth wait.