How Can This Be? {An Advent Reflection}

I think I know what you meant” my teacher wrote.  One word, in my own handwriting called humiliation to quick attention. Like a delinquent soldier before an outraged Sargent, my face beamed with every shade of red.

It was your average seventh grade history test. On it the students were asked to record the name of the state of the first American colony. Simple. Everyone knows that. I would use my boldest, proudest penmanship on this easy, peasy answer.

Except when you have severe test anxiety, easy, peasy is never just that. Instead of Virginia, I wrote the name of a female body part beginning with the same letter of the alphabet and equal syllables.

It still makes me blush a little inside thinking about my teacher reading that. Did he bust out a chuckle? Did he show it to his wife? His children—oh guy, I went to school with his children! Did he tell the other teachers in their Lounge? Did he attempt to cover my foible or did he make sport of it?

I have never destroyed a piece of paper so quickly or so hurriedly exited any room. I felt completely turned inside out; it was embarrassment embodied. I’d like to say the silliness of that event would be my last brush with humiliation, but it wasn’t. My life is one awkward string of embarrassing moments.

***

When I read the story of the unmarried Mary learning she is with child, my heart blushes with her social discomfort.

Turn your attention to Mary for a moment. She is wrapped up in the dreams of every first century Jewish young woman; she comes from a respectable family and is soon to marry a respectable Jewish man and they will live happily ever after. They will work hard. Make babies. Tell the stories of their people and their God. Her aspirations likely did not stretch beyond the familiarity of her traditional village. She had good, yet simple plans for her future.

It would be an understatement to say that a short visit with an angel of the Most High God will turn your traditional plans upside down and inside out. God has a reality for Mary she could never dream possible. “How can this be?

How can this be? Can you see Mary scanning the images of her loved ones as she proclaims these words? Do you hear her fiancé, her father, her mother, her siblings, and her entire village echoing her dismay, “What on earth?!How her heart must have sank as she saw her simple dreams give way to the bigger purposes of God. 

No doubt she blushed. What an embarrassing way for God to show up in her life.

Do you hear Mary’s spiritual innocence fall and shatter upon the ground? God can be so wildly unconventional and inconvenient at times. From its very origins the kingdom of God coming to the kingdom of man is disruptive; it is unconcerned with the “it’s way we do things around here” mentality. It troubles the sensibilities; it turns tradition and protocol on its ear. It enters with gasps and alarmed pauses. Equilibrium is lost. When the Kingdom of God enters we are tightrope walkers losing our balance before an audience of a thousand dignitaries, arms a flailing, heart a dropping; we are vulnerable, scared. The future we planned and control free falls.

The Kingdom of God comes without antiseptic for the ego. How often the obedience God asks from us will bring us confusion and other’s criticism. God’s private work in us can be the grounds of our most public humiliation. The Kingdom of God requires the ego to die; it can’t crutch and cobble along and trust God as His big and unconventional ways require.

The Bible doesn’t say, but I don’t believe I’m making too far of a stretch to consider how costly was Mary’s obedience.  You know those villagers talked; the women whispered and the men coughed out speculation. Her parents staring sleeplessly at the ceiling, heavy with doubt. “Did we do something wrong?” her mother barely muttering, needing to say it but afraid of being heard. Friends, with whom she once laughed and lived, becoming conveniently busy, un-confrontational but distrustful and disengaged.

Did Mary ever beg in prayer for the angel to return to Nazareth for a Town Hall Meeting? You know, to let everyone in on the secret of her “humble condition” so that it could be well, a little less humiliating. But the angel never came, and so Mary goes to Elizabeth and stays with her.

Before the Kingdom of God comes to Judea, it first finds a favored woman and does what none of us think should happen to a favored woman–it dashes her dreams. Yes, to be a servant of God is to leave the favor and form of the world and enter into the messy, unpredictable and yet unspeakably beautiful plans of God, the kind of plans that startle us out of our zombie lives, leaving us gasping and proclaiming “How can this be?”

***

 What can we learn from Mary as the Kingdom of God continues to come to us in the most messy and humility-laden ways?

1. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46; cf. Ps. 35:9; Hab. 3:18). We can lament the gravity of our circumstances or we can extol the God who is bigger than them. When problems are big, we must proclaim to our own hearts that God is bigger and better still.

What is the one problem right now that is crushing the life out of our dreams? Right there—praise God.

2. “…because He has looked with favor on the humble condition of His slave” (Luke 1:47).   God sees our condition and he gives grace, favor, for it. Obedience is never required where grace is not generously supplied.  Grace is God’s empowering presence—it is strength, it is mercy, it is acceptance and welcome.

There is grace for you to be who God calls you to be even when in response your spouse leaves, your job fails, your children wander, your friends abandon, or your obedience is noticed and valued only by God–to others it just looks silly. Yes, people will speculate and you’ll be tempted to shame yourself, but don’t. Hear the words of the angel to Mary, “The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28)—they are words for you too. Whatever brokenness you are experiencing, receive it as grace that your other plans were too small for God’s dreams for you.

3. “Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed…” (Luke 1:48b). Look to the future.  This is not the end. The angel assured Mary, “Nothing will be impossible to God” (Luke 1:37). If the virgin birth and the incarnation prove nothing else (although they do), they are evidence that God’s power knows no limit. Let His unconventional ways wow you and birth hope in you.  Believe that the difficulty of your circumstance is the means by which God will make Himself visibly glorious.

How will your future look different if you see God in it?

4. “…because the Mighty One has done great things for me and His name is holy” (Luke 1:49). Remember God’s past work. Recall His deeds. Rehearse His perfect goodness.  On the off chance you can’t think of any, borrow Mary’s (Luke 1:50-55); she borrowed too from from those who came before her (cf. I Samuel 2:1-10; Psalm 89; Psalm 34).

When you believe that God is breaking you, remember the means by which He has built you; name them one by one. Open the Book; be amazed by the mighty and merciful God.

***

I have a habit of pulling Christmas out of a box without much thought. I hang the ornaments, because that’s what we do, along with a whole list of traditions and expectations that have nothing much to do with Jesus. But the Holy Spirit challenges these notions through His account of Mary. He begs us to stop living simple dreams, to humbly look at Jesus–long and steady–and say, “How can {such a wonder} be?”

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