Love for a child changes you. All of you know this already. There are wonderful, exciting things that can happen. And there are aspects of character development that would seem incomprehensible to your previous self.
I noted this shift in my understanding of self one evening when my daughter was about two years old. She had been sick, I had been flying solo as a parent for a couple of days, and we were looking at a road trip to reconnect with some family members. She had fallen asleep in the back of our ancient Chevy Impala before I had a chance to stop for coffee and a sandwich, and now I was faced with the eternal question: do I stop, and risk waking a sick, cranky baby? Or do I drive on in a caffeine-less hungry stupor?
Duh. You don’t stop. Everybody knows, you don’t stop. But I was hungry. I needed something. And then I saw it. Stuck to the grimy blue fiber of the carpet. It was a tootsie pop of indeterminate color and age. I pried it loose, and examined it. Ariel had already enjoyed some of it, yet the chewy center appeared to be intact. It was nasty…but I was hungry… I was ready to throw it out the window just to get it out of my car, but instead I held the pop in my hand for five or ten miles, observing its fur and overall appearance. There appeared to be no signs of life on the surface. Suddenly, something clicked. Clear as a bell, a voice came into my consciousness: I can do that.
And in an instant, I entered into the legion of you who have done incredibly gross things because in some way, you thought that they would benefit a child you loved. In my case, it was simply driving into the night with a furry lollipop, rather than waking a cranky daughter.
As we finish up our series of sermons on the ways that God calls to people of faith in scripture, I wanted to preach about the call to a teenage girl a couple of thousand years ago that, at least on the surface, seems to be an incredibly unique call – to bear the Son of God, to raise the savior of the universe, and according to some faith traditions, to live a sinless life. That is a heavy call, and there seems to be a lot of pressure there; moreover, when we view the calling of Mary in that way, it is incredibly remote. God will not call me to do that. Ever. I can’t do that.
But then I noticed that in reality, before this is an invitation to bear the eternal savior of the world, it is a calling to be obedient to the first command ever given to a human being. Do you remember the first thing God said to Adam and Eve in the garden? “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth. Have a child.”
And that got me thinking: before Mary became a mother; before she walked with Jesus on the road to Calvary, she obeyed God. She said “yes”. She said “I can do that” to an unpredictable path – but a path that, by and large, was full of days and months and years that were not remarkable. She said yes to looking for God’s presence in splintered hands and in home cooking and in family gatherings and in doing laundry.
When I thought about Mary’s calling in that way, I wanted to say that Mary is a great example to us, not because she is so incredible, amazing, wonderful, or powerful, but because she is willing and able to say “Yes” to God in what will become the mundaneness of life in ordinary time. I wanted to say that Mary was a good person with whom to finish this series of call stories because she was fundamentally obedient – that is, she takes us back to the first commandment in the garden and is obedient. Simply and beautifully obedient. Maybe I can do that.
Think about it. There are so many places in scripture where the powerful and intrusive God calls people in amazingly flashy ways to incredibly difficult tasks. How about when he told old Ananias to go and pray for Saul, who’d been trying to kill Ananias a couple of days before? Do you remember when he appeared to an 80 year-old Moses out of a burning bush and sent him to Pharaoh’s court? Or the time he told a 75 year-old childless man named Abram that his family was going to be huge? I’m sure you remember Isaiah’s vision and the ways in which he was humbled by the splendor of heaven. I mean to tell you, those are some callings!
But this call to Mary seems so simple, so basic, and so profound. And she said “yes”. And when I thought of that, I wanted to tell you that I thought it was a good model for us in many ways, because she was simply obedient.
That’s the sermon I wanted to preach, until I saw that today was Mothers Day. On the one hand, there’s nobody who can carry a Mothers Day sermon like Mary. But on the other hand, if your preacher starts talking about answering the essential calling of God in the same breath as he’s talking about being a mother, well, he’s in a boatload of trouble. Because while such a calling is indeed elemental to our race, it’s surely not within the grasp or the experience of most of us.
All of us are called by God. And most of us do not become mothers. Some of us are too male to become mothers. Others struggle with infertility, the loss of a marriage, or a hundred other obstacles. Not all who wish to be parents are able to become such, and many don’t wish to be parents at all.
Yet God calls all of us.
So I couldn’t preach the sermon I wanted to preach to you about Mary and motherhood. Frankly, this was disappointing to me, because I even wanted to work the lyrics to the Beatles’ Let It Be in there somewhere. But I couldn’t do it because while it was partly true, it wasn’t entirely true to everyone.
But I couldn’t leave this call to Mary alone, either. I kept staring at it and re-reading it. In what way is this singular calling to a remarkable young woman instructive and encouraging to all of us?
And then it struck me. A little word, just four letters in the Greek. The word is “ἰδοὺ”, and it first shows up in our reading in verse 31, where it is translated as “behold”.
“ἰδοὺ” means “Open your eyes”, or “pay attention”, or “look here.” It is a common word in scripture, and in fact it appears three times in our reading from Luke. In verse 31, the angel tells Mary, “Behold, you will conceive…” In verse 36, he continues, “Behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth…” And in verse 38, Mary uses “ἰδοὺ” when she says, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord…”
In fact, “ἰδοὺ” appears six times in Luke chapter 1. That got me thinking. What if the first calling from God is not to make babies, but to pay attention? I went back to Genesis, and in the Greek translation of chapter 1, it’s right there: where our Bibles read “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food,” the Greek word is “ἰδοὺ”.
Isn’t that God’s first word to Moses, to Saul, to Isaiah, to Jeremiah, to people of every place and time? Look! Pay attention! Wake up! Behold! Isn’t that the story of every call in every age?
But if you’ve ever been bird-watching, or fishing, or to an art museum, or babysitting…if you’ve ever been anywhere, really, you know that in most of our lives, we have to learn how to look. We have to figure out how to process the information at hand. We have to learn what to look for, and how to respond.
That’s what the reading in the Psalm is about: “Lord, teach me where to look and teach me how to look.”
People of God: ἰδοὺ! Look around you. The world in which we live is populated by people who say, “Oh, if I only knew what to do next… God, give me a sign…”
We come to church and we read about people like Jeremiah and Esther and Mary and Zechariah who are called by God and we say, “Oh, well, I guess he’s out of that business now. God hasn’t called me in a while…”
And if he were here, the Psalmist would give me a “dope slap” and say, “Look, Pastor Dave, the ‘sign’ that you want is right in front of you. Do you want to know what’s important to God? Do you want to know how to please God? Do you want to know what God wants you to do? Then read his word!”
The person who, perhaps more than any other, can be regarded as the “father of Presbyterianism” was a 16th century scholar named John Calvin. He talked a lot about the things that we notice and the things that we don’t. In one important writing, he said,
For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written, are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly.
In another place, he said,
For by the Scripture as our guide and teacher, he not only makes those things plain which would otherwise escape our notice, but he almost compels us to behold them, as if he had assisted our dull sight with spectacles.
What’s important in the world right now? Well, if my television is an accurate indicator of the issues most pressing on humanity in early May 2015, it would appear as though the legal status of a couple of artificially-inseminated embryos created by Colombian actress Sofia Vergara, or the amount of air in the footballs thrown by Tom Brady, or the name of the youngest child born to Prince William and his wife are the most important issues on the planet right now.
Is this what matters?
Why do we care about these things?
Why do we distract ourselves in this way?
Why is it so easy to say, “Oh, God, please show me what you want me to do…as soon as I finish this game of Candy Crush”?
Oh, beloved…what if we are killing ourselves and those around us by allowing ourselves to be so distracted that we cannot even behold that which is true any more?
People of God, ἰδοὺ! Look at the people with whom you share a home. Look at the people with whom you share a sanctuary this morning, at least half of whom are struggling with some secret sin or deep pain or hidden need, but don’t know what to do about it. Look beyond the cotton candy in our media and hear the cries of those who suffer from violence or abuse or betrayal or enslavement… And to make sure that you’re looking at the right stuff in the right way, look through the Bible. Use the eyeglasses of God’s word to help you see what is really important in the lives of the people for whom Christ died, and those whom he has given you to love.
I guess what I’m getting at in this sermon on the calling of Mary is this: what if we are waiting around for a call from God to do or be something special but in the meantime we are not paying attention to the “behold” moments of life?
Here’s the truth: two thousand years ago, the Lord of life showed up in a Palestinian living room and asked an illiterate, unwed, peasant teenage girl if she was interested in seeing what he had in mind for the world. She said “yes.” And she entered into the grime and pain and joy and hope and fear and wonder that God opened to her. Not because she was so amazingly outstanding. But because she was willing to see what God would show to her.
Can you dare to believe that God is willing and able to enter into the messed-upness of your life? Do you actually think that God can call you toward something better or deeper or higher or fuller or richer than that which occupies so much of our world’s attention right now? Could God be inviting you to a life of maturity, service, and joy?
Can you ἰδοὺ? Can you seek to behold where and how that can be? And then, can you say “yes”?
There is a lot that I can’t do, including being a mom. But ἰδοὺ? Behold? Cracking open the Bible each day, and listening for God’s word, and trying to see God’s world through that word? I can do that. Can you?
 Institutes of the Christian Religion (1560) I.vi.1
 Commentary on Genesis, as quoted in Randall Zachman’s John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian: The Shape of His Writings and Thought (Baker, 2006) p. 196