Sermon: “Let It Be with Me According to Your Word” (Luke 1:26-38)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Let It Be with Me According to Your Word” (Luke 1:26-38)
December 21, 2014
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Imagine that you are a young woman from a small obscure town. You are engaged to be married, and your mind and heart are engulfed by the whirlwind of emotions that accompany being engaged. You are simply going about your business one day and a mighty angel named Gabriel suddenly appears right in front of you. What would you do? How would you respond?

In Scripture every time an angel appears to a human being, the response is one of fear, and Mary was no different. And yet Gabriel’s first words to Mary immediately communicate the one thing Mary needed, the one thing all of us need, grace from God—favor from God. “Greetings, favored one!” Gabriel tells the scared Mary, “The Lord is with you.”

Mary was confused by this. “She was much perplexed by his words,” Luke writes, “and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” And apparently Mary was also still scared, because Gabriel continues, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Gabriel assures Mary that she had already (past tense) found favor with God, that God had already given her grace.

We too need grace from God our whole life through, grace from God to help us in the places where we, like Mary, may be scared and confused. This hope for grace from God never goes away.

One evening last week while I was grilling dinner for our family I watching a Youtube interview on my phone that C SPAN did back in 2001 with the late Southern writer Shelby Foote. (Every guy does that while grilling, right? ☺). The interview took place in Shelby’s home in Memphis. It was fascinating to watch as Shelby gave a tour of his personal library and study, as he showed the desk where he wrote many of his masterful works by hand with an old fashioned dip ink pen. It was equally fascinating to listen to him discuss the various writers he admired the most—Faulkner, Chekhov, Proust, Fitzgerald, and others.

At one especially poignant moment the interviewer asked, “Now you’re going to be 85 in November?” Right, Shelby responds. “What’s it feel like to be that age?” Chuckling he replies, I can’t associate myself with anybody 85 years old. It amazes me in the first place. “Do you still write?” Yeah, of course, I’ll stop when they let me down. But nearly all my friends are dead. My closest friend, Walker Percy, has been dead for eleven years. That’s hard to believe. But that’s the way it goes. Then Shelby looked at the interviewer and in one brief sentence described the life experience of so many of us: You take it as it comes and you hope for some form of grace.

You take it as it comes and you hope for some form of grace.

Several months ago I spent a day in Liverpool, England, and had the opportunity to visit the childhood home of Paul McCartney. McCartney lived on Forthlin Road with his parents Jim and Mary and his brother Mike in a modest government-built townhouse that was constructed after World War II. It was surreal standing in the little family room where he would hang out with his family listening to the radio and where he would begin writing songs with his fellow teenage friend John Lennon.

It was while the McCartney’s were living there that Paul’s mother Mary was stricken with cancer. Paul was fourteen years old. In his biography Paul McCartney: A Life, Peter Ames Carlin describes what happened as Mary reached the end of her struggle with cancer:

“Jim went home to Forthlin Road and told the boys they could visit their mother, but first they had to put on their school uniforms. Jim knew what was happening, it was all he could do to keep himself together on the drive back to the hospital…Paul and Mike were walked down the corridor and led through the door into Mary’s room. She leaned up on one elbow to greet them… Both boys kissed her face, and she reached out for their hands…They talked for a while, a few minutes. There were more kisses, a quick good-bye. Paul and Mike touched their lips to their mother’s face one last time and were taken home…Mary turned to her sister and whispered, ‘I would have liked to have seen the boys growing up’” (18).

Of course Mary’s death broke the collective heart of the family. Carlin continues:

“Mary’s absence made the little house on Forthlin Road feel cavernous. The rich smell of her scones no longer filled the morning air. The reassuring clatter of dishes in the sink, the perfume of her tea and cigarettes, the melody of her voice calling up the stairs. It was gone, along with her cuddles, the secretly proffered treats, the gentle strength of her arms when she pulled them close…The tragedy shook the foundations of everything they had once taken for granted. Their father, once the model of quiet, working class strength, now faltered visibly” (19).

In other words, Mary’s death left Paul and Jim and Mike scared and confused.

And again, it is in the seasons when we are scared and confused that we need assurance of the grace of God, the favor of God—that God is for us, not against us, that we are fully known, fully forgiven and fully loved—and that yes, in the end everything will turn out alright.

Back to Mary for a moment…as Gabriel continued to speak to Mary he revealed a form of grace God would give the entire world, a form of grace God would give all people for all time, a form of grace in the Person of the One Scripture tells us who himself formed the heavens and the earth—Jesus Christ. “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son,” Gabriel told Mary, “and you will name him Jesus.”

Do you know what the name “Jesus” means? “Yahweh saves.”

Then Gabriel tells Mary, “He will be called the Son of God.”

In Jesus Christ God gives us all the form of grace for which we all hope.

There are various ways we can respond to the form of grace God has given us in Jesus Christ. We can dismiss it (It’s a nice story but too good to be true), we can reject it (It’s all bah humbug!), we can qualify it (God’s grace is only for some people, not everyone), we can minimize it (God’s grace is fine but we have to do our part too). We can even try to disqualify ourselves from it (I don’t deserve it).

But how did Mary respond to God’s grace?

Mary did not dismiss it, or reject it, or qualify it, or minimize it—she certainly did not try to disqualify herself from it.

Instead, Mary simply received it. “Let it be with me according to your word,” Mary told the angel. “Let it be with me according to your word.” That’s it.

Later Luke records that during her visit to her relative Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist, Mary sang a song in which she praised God for the grace given her, the grace she had simply received—“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (1:48).

Back to Paul McCartney for a moment…Paul never got over his mother’s death. (And I would guess you have things in your life that you have never gotten over—that, like Shelby Foote, you take it as it comes and you hope for some form of grace). But one night in his late twenties Paul unexpectedly experienced a very special form of grace. He had a dream in which his mother, peaceful and beautiful, walked up to him and reassured him: “It will be alright,” she said, “let it be.”

Paul responded by simply receiving that grace—and based on that experience he wrote the following lyrics to a comforting song you all probably know:

“When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be.’”
(From the title track of the last album by The Beatles, Let It Be, 1970).

The good news of the gospel is that you have already been given grace by God; you have already found favor with God. God has given you the ultimate form of grace in Jesus Christ, through whom Yahweh saves all of us.

“Let it be with me according to your word”—that was Mary’s response to the grace of God. And the baby Mary later bore would himself bear a cross for you. Jesus the Son of God “walked down the corridor” of the Via Dolorosa, “faltered visibly,” and died for you. But as you know, it did not end there, for as the angel Gabriel also told Mary, “of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Mary McCartney’s word of grace to Paul is God’s word of grace to you: “It will be alright. Let it be.”

Amen.