Of today’s gospel lesson, Frederick Buechner, in his book Peculiar Treaures, wrote:
“She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. And as he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”
The whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl. Imagine all the angels gathered around, looking down, holding their collective breath. “What will she say? Will she do it? C’mon, Mary, say yes!” Because they all know the way God works is only by allowing people freely to answer “yes.”
Freedom of choice, the exercise of free will, has always been at the top of God’s priority list when it comes to interaction with human beings. God would never force a “yes” from anyone, would never trick anyone into a response of love, would never make obedience the best choice if people didn’t truly have the option of disobedience as well.
That’s the way God has been from the beginning. God would even allow people to continue in their own disobedience, turn them over to their own ideas of how to make their own way, to get their own way, to find themselves in the prison of their own designs, hit bottom if necessary, if only to give them a firm place from which to say, “Okay, yes. Your will be done.”
God respects our freedom – has, since those days way back in the garden. If it weren’t so, God wouldn’t have to come up with new ways to reach out to people, to ask them again and again to say yes – freely say yes to God. And now those ways had culminated in this moment, when an angel stands before a girl, answering her questions, his knees knocking together, trying to keep the quiver out of his voice, as he and all the angelic host and even God wait. Will she do it? Will she say, “Yes”?
We know the answer Mary gave: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
Here am I, the servant of the Lord. With this answer, all the heavens rejoice, and the plan is set in motion that would cause a new light to shine in the darkness, new hope, new peace, new freedom. And Mary’s answer gives words for us too. These are words that change everything.
During Advent, we hear about how to prepare for the coming of the Lord, how to become more and more the disciple – the follower of Christ – you are called to be. We hear about Advent’s gifts to us: a time for self-examination, a time for repentance, for turning away from things and people and ways of life and behavior that keep us from drawing close to the God who is always rushing to meet us, whether we acknowledge that God and God’s open arms of love for us and the whole world or not. Today’s Advent gift is the gift of commitment, of turning toward God and making the commitment to offer ourselves as no less than the servants of God, to say, along with Mary, our own “yes”: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” These are words that change everything.
Mary wasn’t the first to say these words. She stands in a long line of witnesses who have been brave, or ignorant, or joyous, or adventurous, or grateful, or obedient enough to say to God’s request, “Here am I.”
Noah said, “Here am I,” and God told him to build a floating zoo and told him that he would spend the next forty days feeling seasick and wondering about God’s sense of humor in making this his reward for being righteous.
Abram said, “Here am I,” and God told him to get his wife, pack his things, and go sight unseen to a land God would show him.
The boy Samuel said, “Here am I,” and then began a long career of speaking truth to the powers that be, King Saul in particular, and being the bearer of the unpleasant news that Saul had done wrong in God’s sight. Samuel had no way of knowing if he would still have his head, let alone his job, in the morning.
And Mary, this young girl, probably just old enough to bear a child, ponders and asks and wonders, and then says the words that change everything: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”
And she would give birth to the one who would make service, even service unto death, the way of life. She would give birth to the one, in the words of our Prayer Book, “in whose service is perfect freedom.” The name of Mary’s baby was Jesus. In Hebrew, his name is Yeshua, which means, “Yahweh/‘God’ liberates.” God brings freedom.
When we are willing to serve God and do what God asks of us, it is freeing. When we can stop asking, “What’s in it for me? How does this help me? What can I get out of it? What have you done for me lately?” then we will know freedom.
When we are freed from all attempts to be self-important and self-serving, we can be truly freed – freed for service, for purpose, for meaning.
When we present ourselves as God’s servants and are open to hearing what it is God asks of us, we will take our places in a long line of faithful people who have done just that. Then we will find ourselves set free to perform both small acts of care and compassion and large ones. We will be made available for the adventures God has in store for us, for the work God needs us to do, and the work God has designed us, uniquely, to do.
That’s the beauty of it. Even though you may never have thought about what God is asking of you, it doesn’t mean that God hasn’t been preparing you to do it. Or that God doesn’t need you, and you in particular, to do it.
Mary has already taken care of giving birth to the Divine Word Incarnate, so God isn’t asking you to take that on. But don’t think the angels aren’t all holding their breath to hear your answer when God approaches you with a task. And don’t think, just because you can’t hear it, that all the heavenly hosts aren’t singing, “Alleluia!” when you say, freely, “yes.”
God works with groups this way too. God asks particular things of particular communities, gives them particular gifts and opportunities, and only asks that we answer “yes.” But don’t get distracted thinking that someone else is taking care of things. Sometimes it’s through a group like the church that you will be asked to help a group answer “yes” to God’s call.
Either way, you don’t need to find new words. These will do: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”