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wonder, what did Mary dream for herself before her encounter with the angel that night. So often, we picture her as the archetype of the maiden, a perfectly demure young woman. In our collective imagination, Mary wants nothing other to care for her son, Jesus, doting on him and following him around as he grows up and begins his ministry. In Christian expression, she is only allowed two emotions—the pure love of a mother for her child and the exquisite grief of a mother holding her dead son.
It is a tragically two-dimensional depiction that robs us of a better understanding of a woman who had to have been an incredibly complex person with a profound faith. But all of that was still in her future, a future she could not have imagined. On this night, before the angel appeared to her, I wonder what Mary dreamed for herself.
Mary had dreams for herself. She was a young woman on the brink of marriage. Did she dream of running and managing the family carpentry business? Did she hope to fall in love with the man she was arranged to marry? How did she get along with Joseph’s family? Mary lived in a society occupied by the Roman Empire. Did she dream of one day traveling to see the wondrous sights that the empire held, places she had heard spoken in the market square by merchants and soldiers alike. I wonder what she would have thought of Rome. After all, who can stand amidst those impressive buildings and monuments and not be moved?
The excitement of so many possibilities when you are young is almost as exciting as the possibilities themselves. It is enough to keep you awake while lying in bed at night. I wonder if she ever spoke of these dreams to Joseph. Did they dream together, or did she keep them only to herself, her own secret?
But all of that was before the angel appeared to her that night. The angel spoke and told her of God’s invitation to be a part of God’s work. As the angel stood before her, Mary was confronted by a new possibility, one that she had never considered, one that she could never have imagined. After all, God works in ways that are beyond our imagining and when we are invited into that same work, it is never in a way we could have imagined. The angel spoke and offered to Mary a choice between everything she had ever dreamed for herself or a new path about which she knew nothing, a path that God had only just brought into existence.
Much is made of the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid,” and we often treat them as an offering of comfort to terrified people confronted by heavenly beings for the first time in their lives. With Mary, though, I wonder if the angel was instead speaking to the choice she was being asked to make. Our dreams are a part of who we are, and the day that we leave those dreams aside, the day we acknowledge that those dreams will never come true, is the day that we leave a part of ourselves behind. To pursue a new and unknown path in life, is terrifying. It means drastically changing the course of your life. It means giving up control. It mean walking a new path whose destination is shrouded from view.
Mary sat there, faced with an impossible choice, a frightening choice. “Do not be afraid,” the angel spoke to her.
As a friend of mine provocatively asked, I wonder how many people the angel asked before Mary said yes?
I wonder how many people, when presented with the choice, found the momentum of their own lives, the strong hold of what is familiar and comfortable, too strong to overcome? We have jobs to do, we have families to care for, children who make demands on our time and energy. We have pressures from parental expectations to keep, commitments to spouses to honor, and the demands and standards we set upon ourselves to achieve. The angel’s offer is intriguing, but all we can see are the people we are afraid to let down, the commitments we are bound to keep. Perhaps in another time, perhaps in a different life, we could say yes, but we have to say no.
I wonder how many people, when asked to make this choice, wanted their own dreams so badly that they could not say yes? Those dreams that keep us awake at night with excitement are hard to let go of. We’ve put so much time and energy into pursuing them, how could we change our course now? We’re so close to finishing our coursework to become a doctor, or a lawyer, or a scientist, pursuing this new path now would mean throwing out all the work we had done before! We’ve wanted for so long to start our own family; will this new path still allow us to do that? We’re so close to retirement; can we really risk endangering our nest egg, our retirement income, on this uncertain journey? We just closed on that little home near the shore, where we’ve always dreamed of living together in our old age; can we really be expected to pursue this new journey that will lead us far away from this blissful vision? Certainly, there are other people you can ask, certainly there are other people in a better position to say yes.
I wonder how many people, when confronted by God’s invitation, are too busy, too caught up in what they are doing right now, to even notice the angel standing before them. We have to-do lists a mile long. There are errands to be run, places to be, and the traffic is always bad. The children need a full-time chauffer to get from activity to activity, but for now we will have to do. There is family drama, and for some reason it always seems to land in our lap to sort out. And don’t even get started on work, because of course, it’s that time of year when everyone wants a piece of us. We feel our chest tighten when we consider the juxtaposition of all that is still on our plate and the number of hours in a day.
We feel a sudden, gentle tugging on our heart. Something is pulling on us, and for a moment we notice it and wonder at it. But then the litany of tasks and the torrent of harried thoughts wash the feeling way, quickly forgotten amidst the chaos of our lives. The angel stands before us, and though we have eyes, we do not see it. The question hangs in the air, and though we have ears, we do not hear it.
Partway through our trip to the UK this fall, Matt and I moved our home base from Edinburgh up in the north to Cambridge down in the south. It was a full day’s ride on the train, and when we finally arrived at the train station, we still had to walk from the south side of Cambridge, through the city center, to our lodging on the north side of the city. In hindsight, we should have grabbed a cab, but we were optimistic and embarked on the two-mile walk with our luggage in tow.
It was a long journey, made slower by the need to dodge unfamiliar traffic patterns. As we got closer to the ancient center of town, the sidewalks got narrower, the cars were increasingly replaced by great multitudes of bicycles and throngs of students excitedly celebrating the start of the new term. Through it all, we pressed on, dodging bikes and pedestrians with our wheeled suitcases, watching as best we could for the street signs leading us to our destination.
Above all the chaos and noise, we suddenly heard the voice of a man, yelling at a woman. We looked around, trying to spot the source of the screaming abuses, but in the moving crowd of people and bicycles, it was impossible to pinpoint. Then, suddenly, the man appeared, shouting his parting words, as he stormed off through the crowds, and for a moment, there was a parting of the chaotic mix of bodies and wheels, and I saw the woman, the target of his vitriol, sitting in a doorstep, holding her dog, and weeping.
In that moment, I felt a tug on my heart to go to her, to sit with her, to be with her in her pain. The handle of my luggage twisted in my hand, the strap of my bag dug into my shoulder, reminding me that we still had to check in to our lodging. My stomach rumbled, and I remembered that we had not yet eaten lunch and it was quickly approaching time for dinner. A body bumped against my shoulder, the crowd pressing me forward on the path I had already chosen.
God offered me an invitation to take part in the work God was doing right before me, and almost before I even knew what was happening, I had already said no. I had already decided that this was not for me. As I kept walking on my way, I turned to look back over my shoulder, and saw a different woman, another stranger from the crowd, approach the weeping woman on the door step, sit down next to her, and put her arm around her shoulder. In the same moment that I said no, God had already asked another person, and she said yes. For God’s work is done, with or without us.
Yes. I wonder how many people said no before Mary said yes.
God comes to all of us, in moments big and small, with an invitation to a new path, a path that leads us into the work God is already doing in our world. And it is so easy to say no. Our rejection is so reflexive that we almost do it before we realize what we have done. It is enough to fill me with despair, save for one thing—God never stops inviting us.
No matter what lies in our past, no matter what choices we have made in our lives, no matter how many times we have rejected God’s invitation in the past, we are never lost to God. God never stops inviting us. So long as we still draw breath, we continue to be invited into God’s plan for creation. God never stops offering us a choice, a new path, until at last we say yes.
And when we at last say yes, then miracles happen. When we say yes to God, we are set free from the chains that bind us in order that we might walk where only angels once trod. When we say yes, we discover anew that our God leads us in the ways of goodness, and though the journey may lead through the darkness and the unknown, we feel no fear, for God’s own hand comforts and guides us. When we say yes, we find that we are living into God’s dream, a dream much bigger and more outrageous than any we could dream of our own accord.
When we say yes, we walk a new path, a path only God could have imagined. It will lead us to places we could have never imagined. It could lead us, like Esther, to a place where we are able to bring justice and salvation to the children of God, wherever they are suffering. It could lead us, like Paul, to proclaim the Good News from villages, towns, and cities, across an entire empire. And it could lead us to a doorstep and an encounter with a stranger, in the middle of a city, far from home.
My friends, I do not know where God’s invitation will lead you. I do not know where God’s invitation will lead me. And of this I am certain, when we at last, like our sister, Mary, say yes to God, we will bear healing and reconciliation to a broken and hurting world. We will become bearers of Christ to a creation hungering for salvation.
Preached by Adam Yates