WHY NOT ME?
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
December 20, 2015, 4th Sunday of Advent, Year C
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55

“And blessed is she who believed that there would be
a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Luke 1:45

I ran across a little three-line poem, written by a pastor from New York. It’s called, simply, “Virgin”:

It seems everyone wants at least 3-5 years experience.
Except God, that is.
He looks for the one willing to try something new.

Never were words more truly spoken than these, applied to Mary, that little slip of a girl from Nazareth. Of all the people God could have chosen to bear the messiah, he chooses her.

What do we know about Mary? Not much, really. A peasant girl, of peasant stock: just one of millions upon millions of human beings over the centuries, who lived and died without a birth certificate, or a Social Security number, or a “digital footprint” on the Internet.

Were it not for the one remarkable fact about her life — that, one day, she gave birth to a baby boy named Jesus — we would not even know her name. Her life would be a cipher, her long days of fetching water and baking bread lost in obscurity, her earthly remains buried in the ground, her bones long since absorbed into the earth.

Mary bore other children, besides Jesus — the Bible tells of a son named James, Jesus’ brother — but we have no way of knowing whether James or any other kids in turn produced grandchildren, transmitting Mary’s DNA down through the generations, to become part of the human gene pool.

Her place in history is secured by what happened to her on that one particular day when, out of nowhere, Mary had a visit from an angel.

The scriptural account in Luke — from the verses just before today’s reading — is sparse:

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.”

Did you notice how Luke begins the story — “in the sixth month”? As many years as I’ve read that passage, I’ve never noticed that little detail. In a story so lacking in detail, Luke takes pains to tell us what month of the pregnancy of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, the Annunciation happened. If you do the math, it tells you that John the Baptist — Elizabeth’s son — was three months older than Jesus.

Luke never reveals what Mary was doing when the angel appeared to her: doing household chores, or wandering the countryside, or lying in bed before going to sleep at night. Neither does he tell us how Mary experienced the angel: whether as a ghostly apparition beaming heavenly light, or a soldier of the Lord clad in gleaming armor, or an ordinary person with an otherworldly gleam in his eye.

Gabriel says: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

What does he mean: “favored one”? Is he saying Mary has been chosen because, of all the young women on the earth, she’s a real standout: especially faithful and virtuous?

I don’t think that’s it. I think the angel calls her favored because of the remarkable role God has chosen for her to play. The initiative, here, is entirely God’s. It’s God who chooses, for inscrutable divine reasons, who is going to bear the holy child. And for this reason, the angel describes Mary as favored.

But is she? It would hardly seem so, to most people of that very traditional society. They had strong and rather rigid ideas about the ethics of pregnancy and childbirth. Women were typically married off as young as twelve or thirteen, it’s true — so it wasn’t Mary’s age that was the issue. Plenty of other young women were getting married and giving birth at roughly the same age as she.

It was, of course, the fact that she was not married — and would soon turn up pregnant, with no explanation other than this cockamamie tale of an angelic visitation — that would cause her no end of difficulty. True, Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but their marriage had not yet been solemnized — let alone consummated. In a few short months, the little round lump in her abdomen would be cause enough for Joseph to call the whole thing off (and who could blame him?). That would lead, in turn, to Mary’s swift fall from respectability into lifelong disgrace. “Favored one,” indeed! (God, of course, has different plans for Joseph, but that’s another story.)

God’s idea of “favor” and our own are radically different. We tend to think of favor as something like a “party favor” — a little prize given in exchange for showing up. But Mary didn’t need to show up. The angel seeks her out. And that baby is going to come whether she likes it or not.

No: favor, here, is all about God’s choice, not Mary’s benefit. The Greek word is a variation of the word for grace — and what about grace has anything to do with our initiative?

Roman Catholics (and former Roman Catholics) will recognize this line as the first part of the Hail Mary (“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”). The second part comes later, in the verses that are our Gospel lesson for today.

Mary displays not a hint of indignation — although she probably is afraid. We know that because the angel tells her not to fear. Earlier, Luke’s told us she’s “much perplexed by his words, and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” So, she’s baffled by all this — and no wonder!

After the angel tells her what sort of child this is to be — the Son of the Most High, who will reign forever on the throne of David — Mary does finally voice a question. But it’s not the question you might expect. “How can this be, since I am still a virgin?” Mary asks.

A reasonable question. In light of the amazing announcement the angel has just made, it’s not surprising she would ask, “How?”

What is surprising is the question Mary doesn’t ask. She doesn’t ask “Why?” or “Why me?” Instead, her response seems to be, “Why NOT me?” Or so we can infer from the fact that she moves directly to the “How” question. There never seems to be a chance that Mary wouldn’t say yes. She’s just curious to know how God’s going to do such a remarkable thing.

That’s not the question a great many of the rest of us would ask, if an angel showed up out of the blue and told us God has chosen us to do a very important but very dangerous work, that will likely lead to our being shunned and ridiculed by our community, maybe even cost us our lives. No, I’m quite sure most of us would be all about the “Why me?” rather than the “How?”

But Mary’s not built that way. It’s not long at all before she’s graduated from “How can this be?” to “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

*****

Fast-forward, now, to today’s passage. At the time of the Annunication, Gabriel had also informed Mary that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant, likewise with a special child. In the manner of expectant mothers everywhere, Mary goes off to visit her. Given the difference of time between their respective due dates, Mary may be going to help her older cousin with the heavy housework: Elizabeth will reciprocate by sharing her wisdom and knowledge of what to expect in the months ahead.

The greeting between them is touching — especially the way the infant John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb when the unborn Jesus comes near. But Elizabeth’s words are significant too: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

This — Roman Catholics, present and former, will also recognize — is the second part of the Hail Mary. The first line is spoken by the angel Gabriel, and the second by Elizabeth.

It’s here that we finally encounter the “Why me?” question. Only it’s not Mary who voices it. It’s Elizabeth: “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

In Elizabeth’s case, the “Why Me” has to do with receiving a special blessing. Elizabeth is saying “Why me — why am I so fortunate to have this woman, the God-bearer, come visit me?”

Elizabeth sums it all up with this statement that is our sermon text for today: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

There we have it, the reason Mary is so blessed. She’s blessed because she believes. She believes all along that God’s promise will be fulfilled. She never questions the truth of the promise (at least, not that we can read about). Her only question is “How?”

That’s the reason Mary never asks “Why me?” Her question, instead, is the implicit one: “Why NOT me?”

*****

That’s a very useful and important question for you and I to have at our disposal, as we go through this life of ours — especially its more difficult passages. When something bad happens, we’re tempted at first to ask the “Why Me” question. We’re only human, after all. But, do you know something? The “Why Me” question is one that freezes us in place, that guarantees — as long as we keep asking it — that we’ll never make any forward progress in learning to live with that situation.

I’m reminded of the story of Rachel Oxhorn, a young New York City woman who, at the age of 24, was diagnosed with cancer: Hodgkins’ lymphoma. The diagnosis hit her like a lightning bolt: it was the last thing she had expected would ever happen to her. She was young, strong, healthy (or so she thought) — the world at her doorstep. But then came the shortness of breath, the unexplained back pain, the swollen lymph nodes in her neck.

The clinic doctor thought it was just an infection. But she didn’t get better. She went to another doctor, who read over all the results and referred her to an oncologist. Sitting there in the specialist’s examining room, she watched him look over all the reports from the other doctors, after which he carefully examined the swollen lymph nodes. Here’s how Rachel herself describes what came next, in the blog she began writing to record her experiences, a blog she calls The Perseverance Diaries:

Within one minute, he leaned back into his chair and calmly stated with absolute certainty, “It’s lymphoma, most likely Hodgkin’s”. I insisted he must be wrong, that he was jumping to conclusions without considering the fact I’d be totally freaked out. Somehow I thought I could prove an expert wrong about his diagnosis. I was in a state of complete shock, the tears began to pour out of my eyes as I attempted to convince him that “it can’t be cancer, it must be something else”. I had Googled enough diseases within the past few months that are similar to lymphoma to debate this with him. “But wait, can’t it be that sarcoidosis disease thing?… Can’t it just be an infection in my lymph nodes, maybe a bad case of mono? Maybe it’s from stress…I don’t sleep very much. I don’t know, maybe it’s asthma….

I was waiting for my alarm clock to start beeping to wake me up from a bad dream, but as the minutes ticked by, the reality sunk in — I just turned twenty-four-years-old and I had cancer. I was going to end up bald. I would have to put my life on hold and go through all of that creepy, scary chemotherapy. I needed to get a port placed under my skin to make the chemotherapy ‘easier’ to receive. My life could possibly be taken away from me at any time.

Do you hear what she’s saying? Behind all the denial, behind all the alternate explanations Rachel tries out, then discards, is the question, “Why me?”

It hardly seems fair — and it isn’t fair. But who said the universe is fair? Who said God treats us “fairly,” if by that word we mean our life is going to be at least as good as everybody else’s, and very possibly better? Look around the world: you’ll see that some people have a different level, and different types, of burdens to bear. Do you seriously believe this is because some people are better than others, and God rewards the good people in this life, and punishes the bad? If you or I consider ourselves one of the good people, and something unexpectedly bad happens, then isn’t there something in us that naturally wants to cry out “Why me?”

Sometimes, though, we live with a tough situation long enough that — after enough prayer and reflection and walking with the Lord through the valley of the shadow of death (whatever that means to us) we come out the other side. Our fundamental question changes. No longer do we ask :”Why me?” Instead we ask, “Why not me?”

Back to Rachel Oxhorn’s story. As she moves through her diagnosis and treatment, with all the struggles that entails, she comes to the point where she is able to write this:

Many times during and after treatment I couldn’t help but think “stupid, stupid cancer. You almost took my life. You took my hair. I still feel like crap sometimes, probably from all of the chemicals I’ve been exposed to. You made me vulnerable. It could come back again. Forever I will have to get scans and be reminded that I had you in the first place”.

This is why I have chosen to forgive cancer. There are many sayings out there about how harboring unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping your enemy will die. It does no good to hold onto bitterness, to have a grudge weighing you down. Cancer is sad, it is grueling and terrifying, but it has been a phenomenal teacher that I have loved to hate and then learned to accept. Every day is a fresh start, a new beginning. I am excited to see what adventures lie ahead. I have learned that you never know what can happen within one short year. Thank you, cancer, for challenging me, scaring me, and showing me just how much of a badass I can be. Even when I feel weak, I remind myself of how tough I was. So cancer, I forgive you.

It’s an unorthodox way of writing about such a terrible experience, I know, but it certainly is honest and it certainly comes from the heart. You can vividly see, here, the spiritual journey Rachel made — from “Why me?” to “Why not me?”

There are lots of other stories of people who have made similar journeys, as they learn how to live with situations they never imagined they’d be able to deal with. I think, for example, of the parents who give birth to profoundly disabled children, and spend years caring for them. They don’t love their child any less. Being parents of a special child is the life God’s given them, and they come to accept it, even welcome it.

There are countless other examples. I’m sure you can think of similar stories of people you know, whose lives haven’t turned out as they expected, but who’ve learned to love and be thankful for the life they have. Maybe you’ve had such an experience yourself.

The remarkable thing about Mary, in our biblical account, is that she seems to move so directly to “Why not me?” without pausing even for a moment at “Why me?” Mary, at that young and tender age, seems to know intuitively that life itself — any life — is a gift from God, and that God is good to us even in the struggles we sometimes have to face. One day, not long after, she and her husband would flee with their baby to Egypt, just one step ahead of Herod’s murderous soldiers. Somehow, I don’t think she ever asked “Why me?” on that occasion. Another day, far into the future, she would stand at the foot of a cross, looking on as her beloved son died in agony. Did she ask, “Why me” then? I doubt it.

Three days later, of course, she and the other women would see him again: nail marks in his hands and feet, but more alive than ever they’d seen him. Her question, I expect, was still the same:
“Why not me?” Throughout her life, Mary of Nazareth embodied that question.

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That’s what she said. That’s what she always said. May you be so blessed — whatever ups and downs you may encounter, whatever trials and heartaches life may bring — that this will become your question, too!