Ron Adams is pastor of Madison Mennonite Church. This piece was originally published on December 12, 2014.
– – – – –
Have you ever wondered what God was thinking when coming up with the plan for the incarnation? I think you have to admit the entire concept is pretty out there. God coming to earth in human form. Sure the Greek and Roman gods had done the same. Of course, they chose to put on human form in order to entangle humans in their Olympian conflicts, usually leaving several bodies in their wake. As precedents, their antics leave a lot to be desired.
So, what was God thinking? Why incarnation?
Now, lest you think this is going to turn into some heavy theological apology, let me hasten to say that what raises the question for me is not theology. I’ve read some books, so I have some inkling of what the Church believes. I have no quarrel with most of it. And I am in awe of a God who would would become human for our sake, rather than for God’s sake. Our God broke with precedent in that way. It is no hardship at all to celebrate that each year, and give voice to feelings of wonder and thanksgiving.
What raises the question for me is reading our text for today. Not from a theological or even pastoral perspective, but from the perspective of practicality. It’s as if God went out of the way to make things complicated and inexplicable.
A young woman, a virgin, is minding her own business. Maybe doing the laundry. Maybe making her bed. Maybe sweeping the floor or preparing a meal. She was minding her own business and doing her daily routines, maybe humming a tune or thinking about her soon-to-be-husband. And God spots her and decides to send an angel to disrupt the young woman’s life, leaving her pregnant and with an impossible explanation for it.
This scene has become so overgrown with tinsel and snowflakes and wrapping paper that it’s hard to see how outrageous it was. God acted as only God can do when seeking to make the divine will be done on earth as it is in heaven. God created a miracle, a one-of-a-kind miracle, a miracle to end all miracles. The Holy Spirit would descend upon a young woman, and she would become pregnant, and her child would be called God’s own, and his birth would mark the beginning of the saving of us all. Only God can do something like that, and it’s a good thing God did. It’s a good thing God behaved in a God-like way and created a miracle for the saving of the world.
But here’s the thing. God’s miraculous and God-like plan? It relied entirely on a young woman behaving heroically. God was God. But Mary was extraordinary. Mary looked the angel Gabriel in the eye and said, Yes. Yes, I will play a part in God’s outrageous scheme. Yes, I will accept the consequences of playing that part. Yes, I will risk everything, my reputation, my betrothal, my family’s honor. Yes, I will bear God’s own child. Mary said, Yes.
And I can’t help but wonder: why this way? Why didn’t God come to earth fully-formed and adult, beautiful and powerful and altogether awesome? Why as a baby born in obscurity to a young woman not yet married whom no one would have asked or expected great things from?
Then again, maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Or asking the question of the wrong character in this drama. Maybe I ought to be asking why Mary said yes. Maybe that’s the more relevant question. Why did an ordinary young woman make an extraordinary commitment to serve God’s saving purpose? Why would she surrender everything for the sake of saying yes to an angel?
God is God, and no one can fathom God’s mind, no matter how biblically literate or theologically sophisticated they are. The best we can do is guess and then say thanks be to God. If God chooses to act in ways that don’t make sense to us, well that’s God’s prerogative.
And if that nonsensical action leads to a new creation, then we ought to shout Hallelujah and leave it at that.
But Mary, she raises a more difficult set of questions. Because we can say Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. And we can lift her up and make her larger than life and place a halo on her head and in every way imaginable beatify her. But Luke reminds us that once upon a time there was a young woman named Mary who wore no halo and worked no miracles and was in every way ordinary. And it was to her that God came. And she said, Yes.
Which leaves me wondering. I’m an ordinary human being. I have no halo, and no miracles on my resume. My guess is that we could all say the same about ourselves. Like Mary, we are ordinary.
So, what will we ordinary folks do if and when God sends an angel to call us to do something completely outside our theological and social comfort zones? What will we ordinary folks do when God calls us to lay down our reasons for maintaining the status quo in order to more fully reflect the wideness of God’s mercy? What will we do if we are called to something never imagined by the writers of the scriptures or even the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective? What will we do?
It seems to me that we’d do well to ponder these things in our hearts. And, who knows? Maybe we will someday find ourselves doing something extraordinary. Maybe we will say yes.