Being Open to the Spirit’s Call

She said, “Yes.” In the scripture from Luke it goes like this, “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’” But distilled to its simplest form she said, “Yes,” and that made all the difference.

An Advent Sermon on Luke 1:26-38.

Oh, it’s a cautious yes, certainly. “Here am I, servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” But can you blame her? As theologian Ashley Cook Clere suggests, “Living in a remote village far from the busy religious center of Jerusalem, she had no hint that she was destined for a singularly distinctive role.” And yet, her she was being greeted by the angel Gabriel and being much perplexed by it all. Clere continues, “The selection of Mary to be the mother of Jesus is an occasion to spur Christians to exit the realm of predictability and open themselves up to the unexpected and unimaginable.”

Which is a hard thing for many of us to do. Because we like to plot and plan and figure things out and have it all set in our minds, whatever “it” happens to be. Like making Christmas lists, for instance, because we want to be helpful to those giving us gifts, and so we know what we’re likely getting under the tree tomorrow. Or high school juniors who’ve mapped out their entire college career including where they’ll do their doctorate before they’ve even filled out the Common App. Or checking out new houses in the area of the country where plan to retire five years from now because you never know, they might be back on the market then. 

What God’s asking from Mary—and perhaps from us too—is to be open to the moving of the Spirit for the unexpected and unimaginable. To not be so certain that we know how things will play out in our lives that we refuse to listen to that call.

In his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller describes an encounter he had with a friend named Jason. Jason’s teenage daughter had been having a difficult time and had put up a wall, ands so he wanted to do something about it. He went online to do some research and found out that there was an organization building orphanages around the world. He called the organization and found out it took $25,000 to build one of their buildings. The family had just taken out a second mortgage and didn’t have that kind of money, but still he couldn’t shake the feeling that they might be able to do this. That they were called to do this.

So he called a family meeting. Jason recounts it this way, “I didn’t tell my wife first, which turns out was a mistake. But I told them about this village and about the orphanage and all these terrible things that could happen if these kids don’t get an orphanage. Then I told them I agreed to build it.” It didn’t go well that day. His daughter, Annie, stormed off furious because they would have to be living on a stricter budget, and his wife couldn’t believe he hadn’t mentioned it to her.

But it didn’t take long for his wife to forgive him for not talking with her first and to say as well how proud she was of him. And soon after that Annie climbed into bed with them one morning—like she used to when she was a kid. She told them that they all needed to travel to the village in Mexico to take photos of the kids to help them raise the money. They agreed. They all began living into that new call together, uncertain of where it would lead, but feeling led to do that work.

Far too often we think of callings from the Spirit as being only for those of us who are ordained and seen as religious professionals. Even the language of being a “lay person” promotes that belief. “Can you put that in layman’s terms?” we might ask of the mechanic when the car won’t turn over. “I’m no expert,” we tend to say, “I’m just a lay person. I’m not certain what all this is about.” In other words, certainly God won’t call someone like me to partake in God’s mission in the world.

Yet look at Mary. A teenager living far away from everywhere important, and yet visited by an angel and called by God. “How can it be?” she asks Gabriel. It’s not possible. Surely you were meant to go to someone else and lost your way? I’m not anything special. And yet Gabriel is clear, and direct that it was Mary who found favor in God’s sight. That she had been faithful and God had chosen her for this endeavor. 

I’m reminded of the phrase given by one of my bishop’s: “God doesn’t choose the equipped. Rather God equips the chosen.” Or, putting it in Luke’s phrasing, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Think you’ve got some characteristic that disqualifies you from being used by God? Think again. God used Moses the stutterer to proclaim eloquently before the Pharaoh for the release of the Israelites. God called Paul who had people stoned to death for their belief in Jesus to become an apostle who faithfully proclaimed the good news and ended up in prison. And God chose a young woman who wasn’t yet married to carry a child in her womb that would bring salvation to the world.

It’s notable that Mary’s yes doesn’t come until after she hears about her relative Elizabeth. Notice her progression: she’s perplexed, afraid, and uncertain. That’s when Gabriel finally tells her that the Holy Spirit would come on her just as the Spirit came on Elizabeth in her old age, and she had also conceived even though she was considered barren. And that’s what seals the deal for Mary, causing her to respond with that yes. Because she knows that she will have a companion on the way, another woman who is going through something similarly unexpected and can provide her with the support and care she needs. As Dr. Raj Nadella puts it, “For people at the margins facing difficult situations, what matters most is someone who will share in their experience, stand with them, and walk with them.” Additionally, he adds, “that’s also the story of incarnation in this [lesson]. Not simple assurances that God cares for us but the fact that God will share in the human experience and journey with us in our everyday lived contexts.” 

Which gets at one of the greatest heresies of our time: our belief that our faith and our lives are ours alone. That we don’t need others. That as long as we think we’re okay with God, nothing else matters.

Pastor Isaac Villegas tells the story of his time volunteering over eighteen months ago at a shelter for migrants in Tijuana, Mexico. While he was there, a pregnant woman arrived from Guatemala who was just a few weeks away from her due date. She needed a new pair of shoes for the last leg of her journey. In the room where donations were kept, they discovered a mound of high heels and platform shoes generously donated by the people of Southern California, causing them both to giggle. “They hadn’t quite thought through what it might be like to cross the desert in stilettos,” he told her in Spanish. He found her a used pair of Nikes that looked to be about her size and gave them to her. Later that evening, a long-term volunteer came to see if there were any clothes for a newborn so they could throw a shower for the woman.

Villegas sorted through bags of clothing, pulling out onesies and other things that would be appropriate for a new little one. While doing so, he wondered “how the world ha[d] come to be the way it is, where the best option some people have for survival is to leave their ancestral land, their family and community, and risk everything at the border.” 

The next morning, some of the staff chipped in money for a cake and party supplies. He writes, “That night there was a celebration, with all the newly arrived guests gathered to offer gifts to a woman they’d never met as she prepared to welcome a child in the shadow of a society that couldn’t care less about her life or her child’s. But there, in that Tijuana shelter, among strangers from everywhere …, we had a party with balloons and streamers, cupcakes and hot chocolate, music and dancing.”

He concludes, “The Christmas gospel is this: despite it all there is joy, there are celebrations, there are baby showers in shelters and people who look out for each other and strangers who do what they can with what they have. This world is held in God’s care, every life held by God.”

And it’s when we say yes to what is seemingly impossible that God let’s us in on that party. When we think “How can this be?” and God responds, “Let me show you,” and we open our hearts to God unsure of what might come to be. It can only happen if we say yes to those promptings of the Spirit. If we risk our lives for that deep love God has for every person in our world.

Image by Aritha from Pixabay.

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