SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D ALLAN B. WARREN III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 18, 2011, THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

“And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to thy word.’” (Luke 1:38)

Someone said it to me last week, I can’t remember who: “Man proposes, but God disposes.”  And most of us, I’m sure, have heard that saying from time to time.  It’s a rather stately aphorism which has entered into popular speech, and is often pronounced with pomp and piety when talk has taken a fatalistic turn.  “Man proposes, but God disposes.”

I looked this up once in a dictionary of quotations and discovered, much to my surprise, that it was Thomas à Kempis who coined the phrase.  It comes from The Imitation of Christ, a book which for the past seven hundred years has been one of the most widely read in the Christian Church.  And it sounds good, doesn’t it:  “Man proposes, but God disposes.”  (It’s even better in Latin: homo proponit, sed Deus disponit.) 

There is a problem, though, and the problem is this:  from the standpoint of the Bible it is only half true.  Perhaps Thomas à Kempis should have known better, for - you see - it is the other half of this truth - its opposite, in fact - which is crucial and which is the unique Biblical insight.  Oh yes, of course, God disposes: creation, the world, its history, these are in his hands, and his will is ultimate.  And yet it is the view of the Bible that God wills to exercise his sovereignty not over, but with humankind.  And he wills this to such an extent that, as outrageous as it may sound, it is not at all untrue to turn it all around: God proposes, but man disposes. 

Fiat mihi.  Be it unto me according to thy word.

Of course, that’s outrageous!  But then, the God of the Bible is outrageous, and his love and his yearning for humanity are also outrageous.  We must never let a kind of religious common sense blind us to this truth.  God overturns our pious expectations and does what he will do.  And again, what he wills is to enter into a relationship of freedom and love with his creature.  The Bible’s image of God is as much that of a suitor in a romance as it is that of a king in his court.  It ought not then to be surprising that a lush evocation of sensual love, like the Old Testament Song of Songs, should come to be understood to have as its deeper meaning the love affair of God with the human soul.

This began, of course, with the Jews.  God chose them to be his peculiar people and to be the means of his revelation to other peoples.  They were chosen and singled out for a purpose, but it was a choosing proposed by God, not imposed. The Old Testament is about a covenant.  It is about an agreement between God and his people.  As the Bible sees it, the Jews were not forced to be God’s people, they agreed to that particular destiny and entered into a covenant with God.  God bound himself to the Jews, and they bound themselves to him.  And that binding, that covenant became their story.  But the deep meaning of that story is this: that through the Covenant God made his Sovereignty and His Providence dependent upon that people.  It was through them that these, His Sovereignty and His Providence, would be realized.  The history of the Jews was made to be the focus of God’s dealing with the world.

In the Gospel for today, my brothers and sisters, we see the focus becoming even narrower in the person of a young Jewish girl from the country, and we see as well the outrageous condescension of our God.  God, it seems, will not force himself upon anyone.  God wants freedom from his creatures and he wants response - which means nothing less than that he is yearning for our love.  He did not force himself upon the Jews, and, as we saw in the Gospel this morning, he did not force Himself upon Mary.  He did not impose his will upon her even when his plan, his Providence, the realization of his Sovereignty, mankind’s salvation, all these depended upon her response.

God proposes through Gabriel his agent: “Hail, O favored one . . . you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and call his name Jesus.”  And Mary responds. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.  Be it unto me according to thy word.”

And we must never forget that a real implication of that action of proposal and response is just this: she could have said “no.”  You and I say “no” to God all the time.  We turn him down.  Mary could have done the same.  But no - thank God! - she didn’t.  God proposed and Mary disposed.  “Let it be.”

Mary spoke for herself, but because it was God who made the proposal, she spoke as well for the whole human race.  And in God’s Providence it all depended upon her response.  That is how it was determined.  That is how God willed it to be.

And later on in the Gospel, Mary would be declared by her own son even more blessed in her responding than in her giving birth:

And a woman cried out to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps that thou hast sucked.” But he said, “Yea, rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.” (Luke 11:27,28)

Mary heard God’s particular word spoken to her through Gabriel.  And she said “Yes” to that word.  “Fiat mihi” - Let it be.  And she kept it.  And because of her “Yes” the Word of God, His eternal Son, Jesus our Salvation, came into the world.  In the wisdom and well-pleasing of God, without her “Yes” it could not have been.

There are those who have named Mary the Virgin Co-Redemptrix of the world.  Others recoil from such a title.  It seems to them to say too much - disastrously too much - about the one who declares herself only to be the handmaid of the Lord.  It seems to claim for her the prerogative of our Lord Himself.  But perhaps this is not so.  Perhaps indeed she is Co-Redemptrix of the world, just as you and I are co-redemptrix and co-redemptor of our own worlds when we say “yes,” “let it be” to God.  Perhaps her “Yes” is only the first and supreme and enabling example of the “Yes” to God, which is the meaning of our faith and the purpose of our lives.  Mary said “yes” to God and Jesus was conceived in her womb.  You and I say “Yes” to God, and He will be born spiritually in our hearts.

And so, good people, let us join with Mary and say “yes,” “let it be” to God.  And let us join with Gabriel and greet her.  And let us offer prayer and praise, as well, to the one through whom salvation came into the world:

Hail Mary, full of grace.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death.

Amen.