The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the LORD,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
A special assembly, they called it. Just for girls. They kicked the boys out of our fourth grade classroom and out onto the playground for extended PE and rolled a large television cart into our classroom. A visitor joined us in the classroom, and before we knew what was happening, we were talking about “the change.”
Now let’s be clear. I was 10. I had no idea what she was talking about. All I cared about was the little pink and purple “pencil case” covered in quotes by famous women that she gave to each of us, at least, I thought it was a pencil case. It was full of strange objects that I had only glimpsed in my mother’s bathroom cabinets.
That woman in my classroom—neither her nor my teacher Mrs. Datlow ever really said plainly what she was there to talk about. Or maybe she did, but we didn’t really know how to understand what she was saying. All we were certain of by the end of our special assembly was that something was coming, that it would make us different, and that when it happened, we would need these bags. And Abstinence. That too.
So I kept that bag in my backpack (for years I kept it!), waiting for that moment when I would need it. Waiting for the day when I would finally understand what it all meant.
At home, I would pull out that little pencil bag and read the quotes printed on the outside. I remember the one by Eleanor Roosevelt the best: “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” I loved that quote. Later I would learn that Ms. Roosevelt had a lot to say about women—she was once quoted as saying that “women are like teabags. You don’t know how strong they are until you put them in hot water.”
It occurs to me that this certainly could describe our Gospel lesson today—for this morning we are introduced-reintroduced, really-to a woman whose story starts out with her in hot water, a woman whose encounter with God teaches her just how strong she will have to become. The only problem is that she isn’t really a woman yet—Mary is, by today’s standards, a child. Many scholars think that she might have been anywhere between ten and fourteen years old when the angel first arrived at her door.
Which, these days, would make a fifth-7th grader.
It turns out that Mary wasn’t all that different than I was when I sat in that classroom what seems like a lifetime ago, pondering a messenger’s confusing words.
And I don’t know about you, but knowing that—knowing that Mary was a child, really—changes the story for me. To be reminded that Mary wasn’t a woman—she wasn’t fully grown, wasn’t fully anything yet—she was still a little girl when the angel brought the news to her that she would bear the savior of the world.
I wonder: Did she understand what that meant? Could she possibly? Can any of us imagine what that must have been like for her?
And maybe it is just my age, but these days I find myself wondering what it must have been like to be Mary’s parents in the days after this glorious news. For us, this news is glorious—for them, it must have been terrifying. In a culture where virtue is everything, this news has the power to destroy Mary, to destroy her reputation, to ruin her life before it even begins. Should we be surprised, then, that her first act after the angel’s visit is to run away to a distant cousin’s home? Back then, I wonder whether it was really possible to see this child for the blessing that He was?
And of course, I wonder what it must have been like to be Mary herself. I can’t speak for others, but for me being a preteen was often quite painful. I was growing so fast that my brain couldn’t keep up. I was trying to figure out who I was and what that meant. I always felt awkward. I still liked playing my little ponies, but I also was starting to think that boys were kind of cute too. I wanted so badly to be cool, but every time recess came around, I found that being cool and playing games, ie running around the yard pretending to be a horse, or a mermaid, or a princess, or a monster, were often mutually exclusive. And I wanted adults to take me seriously, but I struggled to understand what they wanted from me. When I was a tween, I was slipping notes under the door to my parents proclaiming that I was almost a grown up, and that they needed to start treating me like one and letting me stay up until 10pm if I wanted to. I wanted so badly to be grown up, but I didn’t know how.
And I think of this when I imagine Mary these days. Classic art often depicts Mary as this beautiful, peaceful, utterly calm and still young woman. How many 10 year olds does that describe for you?
If we were to imagine this story today, perhaps it might be more accurate to picture Mary curled up under the covers collecting cats on her iphone, wearing her favorite flannel pajamas covered in cartoon foxes. Perhaps we should imagine this fiercely independent child clutching her beloved stuffed animal, even though she would never be seen outside the house with it. Her hair mussed on one side, her teeth wrapped in braces, the first signs of acne on her forehead.
And here is what is amazing to me—when the angel of the Lord speaks his promise into Mary’s life—when he asks this child of God to bear the savior, Immanuel, God-with-us, into the world…. she is not afraid.
Perhaps she is too young to be fearful. Maybe her parent raised her to be respectful to other adults. Perhaps the excitement of being chosen, being set apart, overcomes any reservation. But Mary chooses to embrace God’s promise of hope. “Let it be according to your Word,” she replies. In a world that is dark, and fearful, she imagines freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, hope for the hopeless. She is faithful to the God of promise who guides her.
Does she know the desert she is about to enter? I wonder. But just as God promised a way through the desert for the Exiled people of Israel in Isaiah 35, so God will provide a way forward for this brave little girl who has embraced a very big task. A task that she will only come to appreciate as she grows in wisdom and knowledge. God will be with her when her child is born in the darkness of a stable rude. God will be with her at 24, when her child disappears in the city of Jerusalem and she cannot find him for days. God will be with her at 45, when her baby is executed by the state for proclaiming a kingdom not of this world, for suggesting that the way to make Israel great again is not through strength, not through force, not through violence, but rather by seeking out and saving the lost and the broken.
I wonder what might it mean for us, at this midway point in Advent, to remember that God’s Good News for the world can come in the most unexpected packages—for our God has a fondness for surprises like preteen girls and homeless prophets. That in fact, God rarely chooses the most dignified and deserving of us for the biggest tasks—the Good News, more often, comes to us from lowly, forgotten, humble places. The corners of the world from which we tend to hide our eyes.
Might it change the way that we pay attention to the world around us? The way we listen to our own children, our own neighbors? I wonder, would we be willing to accept a God whose salvation is found in the desert places of this world, places where all hope seems lost, where life has given up the ghost? Would we be willing to listen to a God who speaks justice out of the mouths of today’s preteens, today’s homeless, today’s oppressed people?
Because that is the God we worship, friends. A God who shows greatness in the least expected places. A God who strengthens weak hands, makes firm feeble knees, breathes strength to the fearful heart, and grants sight to the blind, movement to the lame, words to the speechless, sound to the deaf, and water to the parched places. Can we imagine?