“Down to Earth Obedience”

Weekly Bible Devotional
“Down to Earth Obedience”
December 22, 2019

Scripture for Sunday: Luke 1:26-38
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.32 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. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 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. 36 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. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 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.

Notes on The Text:
We will look this week at Mary as an example of obedience to divine will. Her people, the people of ancient Israel, had been waiting for someone to redeem and rescue them from the oppression of foreign occupation. Through her obedience, Mary became an agent of God for liberation and renewal.

This story is known as the Annunciation in which the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that it is God’s wish to have her bring into the world the Messiah, the savior and redeemer of Israel. In announcing to her that she will bear a son whose name is to be Jesus (i.e., “Yahweh is salvation”), Gabriel goes on to say, “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” (1:32-33). What is intriguing in this statement is that Gabriel draws directly on the language of II Samuel 7:11-16 and Psalm 89. Gabriel has made a great announcement – that Jesus will be fulfilling once again the process which began in creation and went through many leaders, prophets and kings. Gabriel is declaring that God’s kingdom is about to be made visible on earth through this soon-to-be-born Jesus.

Mary’s vision of the angel and her mystical experience of the news of her call to be the mother of Jesus were motivated by a loving obedience that was deeply rooted in her love for God. Mary was preparing for a wedding. She was preparing to leave her family home to her husband’s home. The plan for her life was all figured out for her. She was doing what every young woman would be doing at that stage in her life in that society. Mary’s biggest “liability” (and of course “gift”) was that she must have had a lifestyle of prayer and an active relationship with God. She had a vision! She heard the voice of an angel who spoke to her words of blessing. As in most cases when we come face to face with the sacred in a powerful way, humans feel scared. When the systems of fear had taken root in us that an encounter with something that we cannot control or understand can really throw us off our “normal” way of being in the world. When our reality shifts and the things we know and have become so familiar to us are infused with an awareness of God’s presence, it can be scary. The first lesson from Mary’s example is her openness to the sacred. Obedience that is not motivated by punishment begins with wonder and openness to mystery. Learning to let go of our control over life in order to allow ourselves to get in touch with the mystery of the divine takes commitment and practice.

The second part of the story teaches us that God’s call on our lives is not always clear. When Mary received the invitation to be the mother of Jesus, she wondered, “How can this be?” The call seemed impossible for her. How many times do we find ourselves saying, “How can this be?” We may be able to be obedient and open to mystery, but it is hard for us to step out in faith based on words we hear in a vision, a dream, or a time of prayer. The answer of the angel was not very detailed. It just gave Mary the big picture that God will be with her on the journey. There were no details beyond that! She had to do this based on faith! Obedience that is driven by our love for God is about trust and knowing that fulfilling our purpose on earth requires that we rely on God to guide us each step of the way. We would rather have a masterplan that we can hang on to for security and control. But that is not how faith or life work! Mary had to trust that things would work out. Even though everything seemed impossible from a human point of view, she had to trust that nothing is impossible with God. Her ancestors Sarah and Hannah (women who experienced special pregnancies) had to trust in the same promise.

Mary’s response was amazing. Mary had a choice! She could have just walked away from all of it. She could have had a predictable and comfortable life. Her obedience didn’t come from a place of fear or needing to please God because she was afraid of God. Her big yes to God came from deep within her. Mary believed that she was to be the one to bring the long-awaited Messiah into the world. She was the one to take the challenge to bring God’s presence to the people of Israel in a special way. She was the one to be an agent of God’s radical transformation of the social structures of her country and of her people. God gave her a message of love and grace that turned her whole world upside down. Mary’s yes was a great risk from the perspective of the world. But from the perspective of faith, her obedience brought her great joy. In another part of the story, Mary goes on to sing and to magnify the greatness and the love of God because obedience to the divine will always bring us deep joy.

For Reflection:
When it comes to obedience, we have to learn to let go of our negative connotations of the word. We often think of obedience in its relationship to punishment, especially when it comes to faith. Most of us learn to obey the rules because of fear of punishment. This is not always bad because we have to have rules in society where people don’t hurt others or live recklessly without consequences. The problem comes when fear becomes the motivation for our actions, especially when it comes to our relationship with God. Much of religion throughout history has been motivated by fear. Our images of God tend to reflect our systems of fear in the world and their punitive nature. That is why when it comes to obedience, we have to do some unlearning of the old systems to allow God’s love to be the motivation of our action.

Richard Rohr writes, “Our carrot-on-the-stick approach to religion is revealed by the fact that one is never quite pure enough, holy enough, or loyal enough for the presiding group. Obedience is normally a higher virtue than love. This process of sin management has kept us clergy in business. There are always outsiders to be kept outside. Hiding around the edges of this search for moral purity are evils that we have readily overlooked: slavery, sexism, wholesale classism, greed, pedophilia, national conquest, gay oppression, and the oppression of native cultures. Almost all wars were fought with the full blessing of Christians. We have, as a result, what some cynically call churchianity or civil religion rather than deep or transformative Christianity. The good news of an incarnational religion, a Spirit-based morality, is that you are not motivated by any outside reward or punishment but actually by participating in the Mystery itself. Carrots are neither needed nor helpful. It is God, who for [God’s] own loving purpose, puts both the will and the action into you (see Philippians 2:13). It is not mere rule-following behavior but your actual identity that is radically changing you. Henceforth, you do things because they are true, not because you have to or you are afraid of punishment. Now you are not so much driven from without (the False Self method) but you are drawn from within (the True Self method). The generating motor is inside you now instead of a lure or a threat from outside.”

There is no better example for obedience motivated by love than the example of Mary, the mother of Jesus. As we consider “Down to Earth Obedience” this week, I invite you to consider your motivations for obeying God’s invitations and action in your life. Let go of fear of punishment to embrace the joy and mystery of aligning your life with God’s vision. This does not make life easy or without any problems. It just means that we are able to live more fully with a rich sense of connection to God that will carry us through all the ups and downs of life. In the season of Advent, as we prepare for the birth of Christ, look at the example of Mary and follow her pattern of prayer and faith.

Annunciation by Denise Levertov:
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.

The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

____________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?

Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.

More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.

Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
____________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child -but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, “How can this be?”
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power-
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love-

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,
Spirit,
suspended,
waiting.
____________________
She did not cry, “I cannot. I am not worthy,”
Nor, “I have not the strength.”
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.

Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.

Consent,
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

 

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