Advent 3 Text: Luke 1: 26-45
I wonder what the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit seek to let loose among us through this very particular story in scripture that we gather around today?!
This poem by Mary Oliver might just offer us some clues for approaching this weird and wonderful story in Luke’s Gospel.
It’s a poem she titles Mysteries, Yes.
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads. 
“Truly,” she begins …
“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.”
It is true, isn’t it? Some things elude our ability to figure out, to make sense of them. As frustrating as that might be to our curious minds, I don’t believe that’s a cop out! I think it’s the affirmation of someone who is deeply in touch with life … who has lived enough to discover the arrogance of imagining or insisting on an answer for everything.
“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.”
I think that’s the affirmation of someone - of any one of us – who has spontaneously wept with awe or known that experience, sometimes painful, of utter bewilderment. Both have their way of imparting a reverence for life.
So what about this story of these impossible pregnancies … one in a body too old, the other in a body too young?
one giving birth to a messenger --announcing the arrival of hope, and the other giving birth to hope himself?
What if we took our lead from Mary and Elizabeth themselves, who wondered, to be sure, but chose the way of astonishment instead of answers, and kept company with each other … who said “LOOK” and laughed and sang, finally bowing their heads, honouring the outrageous possibility that God would bring to birth through them hope for all the world.
What if, in and through the details of their story, we allowed ourselves to hear the Gospel writer announce: “Behold I show you a mystery!” In other words, LOOK! Be prepared to laugh …and to bow your head!
What if, in and through the details of their story we allowed the Spirit to address us … to speak into our story?
Who knows what Mary was up to when she’s visited by the messenger. What we are given to see is that she’s taken completely unawares. Which is how it often goes … we’re minding our own business, when suddenly we’re visited by strength, or insight, or inspiration perhaps. It’s not something we went looking for … it just shows up! In Mary’s case, it’s not at all clear to her what’s happening, but her alarm is met with reassurance … “don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” The language is interesting! We hear similar words at Jesus’ baptism …“this is my beloved son, on whom my favour rests”. It seems to “have found favour with God” isn’t about something we’ve done … it’s about God choosing to be about something in us! In Mary’s case, that “something” would be life-altering, for her and the world around her. AND it’s something she would never have imagined for herself. Those very details, I think, are important for us to notice. …
I well recall a point in my own life when I was completely disoriented by a surprising turn of events. I was moving in a direction I was feeling called to pursue, when suddenly that way closed. I was utterly confused. I thought I was paying attention. How could I be so taken by surprise? In the midst of this time of confusion, I walked one Sunday morning into worship and the Gospel reading that day was this very one we have today … and in an instant it clicked … of course I will be surprised! …our Tradition is shot through with stories of people being taken unawares, called and sent in directions they never anticipated!
In Mary’s story, the messenger brings a wild word. “You will conceive in your womb and bear son … you will name him Jesus … and he will be great and will be called Son of the Most High … (this string of greats goes on and on) … and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” What??!!
Young, unsuspecting Mary! What match is she for something as immense as this?
Except, so often that’s the way … the Spirit moves, calls, and we hear the person –we hear ourselves—say, “but I am too young,” “I’m too old,” “I don’t know how to speak,” “I’ve got bad history” -- in other words, “I don’t have what it takes to do as you envision.” And always the response is “I will be with you … you go, and I will be with you.” “It’s not about having what it takes … I will give you what it takes!! You are my beloved … my favour rests on you.”
As persuasive as that promise may be, it is for Mary -- as it is for everyone of us -- to respond in full freedom. The way is always open for us to turn away as it is for us to cross that threshold from what we have known to what will become of us!
We’re not given to see how Mary found her way to offer her YES … which is some of the beauty of this storytelling … the way the gaps make room for our imagination, for finding our own way.
What we are given to see is that “by the end of the scene, Mary and Gabriel have become partners in audacity! -- his outrageous invitation, her outlandish YES. She consents to this sacred strangeness, opens her heart and being to it, gathers herself around it.” 
Notice, before the messenger vanishes, Mary is told one more thing. “Your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son…” In other words, “you’re not alone in this wild venture.” The next we know, Mary makes her way to the home of Elizabeth where young and old together, they have much to offer each other … not the least of which is a place to affirm the reality of God’s grace and call. Their companionship allows that to deepen and to be strengthened in them.
“God does not want to isolate us by God’s grace,” writes Henri Nouwen (for of course, isolation is a very real possibility when we find ourselves called into new and strange ventures.) “God does not want to isolate us by God’s grace. On the contrary,” he says, “God wants us to form new friendships and a new community ~ holy places where that grace can grow in fullness and bear fruit.” 
This morning, in just a few minutes, Herb and Barbara, Suzanne, Colleen and Steve will take their place up here, and together all of us will enter into this ritual of welcome, as they take this outward step that signifies a desire, a commitment that has been bubbling in them for a while now … to offer themselves to the wild winds of the Holy Spirit within the companionship of the people of this congregation … a place, a holy place, where the grace that is already at work in them can grow in fullness and bear fruit.
It’s the kind of thing Mary and Elizabeth intuitively knew so well and offered to each other. And so what if we imagined them alongside this morning … their joy, their encouragement … their knowing that they are not the only ones called to bring God’s hope to birth in the world … for surely, in one form or another that is the invitation, that’s the astounding ministry that is offered to every one of us!--young and unsuspecting, old and unsuspecting! -- to be agents, partners in audacity, helping God’s dream for the world to flourish.
 Mary Oliver, Evidence, Beacon Press, 2009, p.62.
 Jan Richardson, Advent retreat, 2018, Week 2: By a Strange Road, Reflection 2
 Henri Nouwen, Road to Daybreak- a spiritual journey, New York: Doubleday/ London: Darton, Longman and Todd; 1989, p.101.