There are many and varied traditions around the Sundays of Advent. The contemporary themes of hope, peace, joy and love are familiar, but a more ancient tradition focuses on “the last things”: death, judgment, heaven and hell. It’s possible to read Luke 1:26–56 with bifocals: the dual lens of love and hell, the ancient/contemporary themes for the fourth Sunday of Advent.
In this story, Mary was most likely a teenager in that complicated transition from child to adult. It’s a season of life when we begin to be aware of the story we tell about who we are.
The stories we tell ourselves
I remember becoming aware of a story I was telling about myself in junior high. It was a year when I grew rapidly, suddenly becoming one of the tallest kids in the school.
One day, the coach of the girls’ basket-ball team stopped me in the hallway and asked me to come to the tryouts. But I had already begun to tell myself the story, “I am not good at sports.” Experienced through the filter of that story, I thought the coach was making fun of me. I turned beet red – and never showed up for tryouts.
The story we tell ourselves about who we are begins early and gets shaped by our version of events. It’s the script we use to interact with the world.
So it was with Mary until one day a messenger from God appeared and said to her, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you” (v. 28).
God’s story for us
Another definition of the gospel is that it’s God’s version of our story confronting our own version. God’s version is completely honest – no sugar-coating. And at the same time, God’s version is exuberantly liberating.
God’s version of the story of our life begins with the sure and certain truth that God loves us. In spite of the brokenness and failure we know well, God has made peace with us.
The story continues with an invitation. Because of God’s version of our story, we are now invited to live without guilt, without shame, blame or anxiety.
Mary had a choice: hold onto her version of the story of her life or accept God’s version, a version that seemed utterly impossible. The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the child to be born will be called Son of God (v. 35).
Just as it was for Mary, so God’s messenger comes to each of us and says, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”
Just as it was for Mary, so God’s version of our story is utterly impossible when seen from the narrow perspective of the tiny story we all start out with.
Just as it was for Mary, so following the story God has for us is not a way to avoid suffering. (See Luke 2:35.)
And just as it was for Mary, so God fills our stories with enough. God’s stories are overflowing with life and always, always rooted in love.
Choosing the story
We make an initial choice of which story to live by. And then we make daily, sometimes hourly, choices of which story to follow. This choice and these choices have consequences.
Hell is refusal to trust God’s telling of our story. To reject the good story that God tells of our life is a form of punishment all its own. God’s very essence is love. And to resist love, to deny or avoid love will inevitably bring the opposite reality.
God has no desire to inflict pain, but refusing love will, by very definition, develop an increasingly unloving hellish reality. Hell is a reality. It radiates outward and extinguishes the love around it. Eventually, it even begins to extinguish the life around it.
Mary chose to trust God’s telling of the story of her life. She immersed herself in the great account of grace and love that God was telling about the world and about her.
As a consequence, the inevitable happened. Mary radiated blessing, the power of life flowing through her to others. The baby in Elizabeth’s womb stirred and leapt at Mary’s greeting. Not once, but three times, Elizabeth called Mary blessed. And Mary burst into song; she couldn’t keep quiet about the joy and the justice of shared life at the heart of God.
We’re all living in the tension between two strong pulls on our life. Hell on one side, love on the other. Between those two big realities is Gabriel bringing us the message, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”
—Mary Anne Isaak is pastor at River East MB Church, Winnipeg.