On the Edge of Certainty
December 12, 2021
Isaiah 61: 1-4
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
Luke 1: 26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a fascination with the small things. I am drawn to the cases full of tiny treasures in any shop I visit and I’ve spent an embarrassing number of hours lying on the forest floor looking at moss and all the teeny tiny creatures that live in, what is to them, a forest. There is now way to know what came first, my love of small things or my nearsightedness, my myopia, that makes things in close range so much more appealing than the blurry objects in the distance. Myopia can be a gift; for instance, if anyone in my family gets a splinter, I’m the one they come to to remove it. I think my myopia also helps me to stay focused on my immediate surroundings and whatever task is at hand. I can not help but wonder how my nearsightedness may be limiting me in other ways, though. Is that why I like to stay close to home instead of traveling? Would I have led a different life if I had been far-sighted? Perhaps. Surely we are all shaped by what we are able to see clearly in the world around us, for that defines our sphere of certainty, but how we react to what is beyond our sphere of certainty is equally as revealing. How do we cope with not knowing?
The Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti writes, “One is never afraid of the unknown; one is afraid of the known coming to an end.” So imagine what it must have been like for Mary to find herself caught up in the unfolding of a holy drama that turned her life completely upside down. Now you may wish to circumvent such consideration by discounting the story of Jesus’s conception and birth as a myth, a fairytale, an impossible narrative. That would be a convenient shortcut, but that would also be confining ourselves to what Martin Copenhaver calls “the myopia of certainty.” We can choose to stay within the comfort zone of our certainty, fortified by what we know to be true and what we can prove, but that provides us with a rather short-sighted view.
There is no way to know what really happened way back when in Nazareth, no way to know for sure just how immaculate a conception it could have been; that is not within our scope no matter how far-sighted we may be. What this story offers us is the same thing every narrative offers, the chance to imagine what it must have been like for Mary to face such uncertainty, to live with unanswerable questions and to accept being chosen as the one to bring Jesus into the world.
So let’s not be myopic as we consider the magnitude of what was required of Mary. Mary was raised in a temple from the time she was three years old. Her uncle, Zacharias, was the chief priest of the temple and he would later become the father of John the Baptist. A life of service was all that Mary had known, but still, to conceive a child through a holy mystery would be impossible to explain and even more impossible for others to believe. Yet Mary’s reply that we have in the scriptures are the following words: “let it be.” Courageous, yes; trusting, yes; faithful, yes. “Let it be,” she says.
We need to spend some time here, here at this precise point where Mary, in essence, empties herself of her own will and, in doing so, creates sacred space for divine action. This point where who we think we are drops away and we are then little more than empty space for goodness, for God-ness, to find expression…this point has a name. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton named this “point vierge [the virgin point] that exists at the center of his being, ‘a point untouched [by sin and] by illusion, a point of pure truth . . . which belongs entirely to God. . . .”
This point vierge, this virgin point, this point is where who we are now breaks free of every limitation and we become more. This may happen gradually or dramatically or not at all. That part is up to us. We have what feels like, at times, to be too many choices. I like to think it was the same way with Mary. The story is written as if she instantly answered in the affirmative, without a moment’s hesitation; only Mary knows what really happened.
I love her for her courage. I love her for her vulnerability, her humility, and her willingness to empty herself so she could be filled with the Holy Spirit. I can not imagine a more perfect way for God to, literally, break in to the world of humankind than through an act of a woman offering her life, her all, to create a body that would be the temple for the infinite spirit of God.
The prophet Isaiah described for us in today’s reading the work of the one who would come through Mary, the one who would “bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes, a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness…they will repair the devastations of many generations.”
You may remember that when Jesus was grown and had been preaching and ministering to the Hebrew people he returned to his hometown and it is written in Luke chapter 4 “On the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”
Certainly Mary was there in the synagogue that day. Certainly she heard her son read the words from the prophet Isaiah and she also witnessed him being run out of the temple, his very life threatened for daring to claim that he was anointed by God. Mary knew who Jesus was. I imagine she was both sad and fearful that the world was not willing to receive him. I fear we are still not altogether willing to receive in fullness what Christ offers. Friends, it is our call as Christians to ready ourselves each moment for the light of Christ to break through. It is our call as followers of Christ to be open to what Christ’s love is calling us to do, even though the future is terrifyingly uncertain.
When children are not safe from gun violence in the classroom and on the streets, and when our democratic ideals are compromised more and more each day by deliberate and calculated falsehoods, it is far too easy to give in to the paralysis of fear and uncertainty. Uncertainty is an ever-present antagonist in the story of our lives. Uncertainty can paralyze us in our ability to change, to trust, to learn, and to love. Uncertainty undermines our confidence and our security and makes it so easy to say, “No.”
What if Mary had said no? Did she have a choice? We are constantly faced with choices, too many choices at times, and our tendency is to play it safe, to not venture too far out beyond the known. There is a place, though, on the very edge of our certainty, where the light of our knowledge and experience grows dim enough to see light beckoning to us from other places, places beyond us or places within us, places we have never been. There, on the edge of our safety, on the edge of our certainty, we are poised in a place of possibility where the love of God can work in and through us. Mary found this place. And we are invited to find this place in our own lives.
In closing now, and as we prepare to receive the love of Christ this Christmas, let’s take these last few moments to appreciate the magnitude of what was required of Mary. In the face of what must have seemed like insurmountable uncertainty, she took one step toward the light of promise and possibility. May we all be blessed by the example of the deep faith of Mary this Christmas. Let it be. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer: In the stillness of winter, we open our hearts to the love and the light that is Christ. In him, God offers us all that is most precious- all the unseen, the invisible…the sadness that deepens us, the compassion that connects us, the unexpected joy that restores us, the pain that humbles us, and the divine love that knows no bounds. May we take this moment to give ourselves back to God, back to the source from where our spirits come. I pray that in that holy re-union, our uncertainty gives way to trust and to love. All this I ask in the name of Jesus who taught us this prayer…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
Benediction: I leave you with these words from James Paul McCartney:
When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be. For though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see. And when the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me. Shine until tomorrow, let it be. I wake up to the sound of music, Mother Mary comes to me. Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.