Witness

Mary, Practicing Incarnation and Moving into the Neighborhood

Just before Christmas I moved into a new neighborhood.

For some time I have felt God’s nearly inaudible whispers telling me to keep trusting him as he shares his plans with me about growing his kingdom in this community where I am being newly planted. So I have tried to obey, discern and understand this God who speaks softly rather than shouting, a God who reveals his purposes frame by frame rather than playing out a whole narrative before my eyes. In the newness of my context now, everything looks extraordinary and magical. Of course soon, all will appear quite ordinary in my neighborhood, but I’m relishing seeing my environment with virgin eyes at the moment. I love gazing at, exegeting and reflecting on my new place. It’s filled me with wonder, excitement and joy.

However, I have also felt another reaction within me. The more I gaze, the more I reflect and exegete my new environment, the more foreign it becomes. Instead of understanding it more, I begin to find it different, “other” and difficult to understand. Instead of my context becoming more familiar and comforting, it becomes more challenging, distant and causes me to wonder and even to some extent, fear my new environment. Do I fit in here? How can I understand my new place? And following on from those thoughts, I ask myself; How do I embody the gospel in this new place? What does it look like to be the presence of Jesus here? What does inhabiting my new place look like if I want to work with God to build his kingdom here?

Strangely, my thoughts turned to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Mary has weathered many unfortunate interpretations and paradigm shifts through the ages which often reflect more our cultural assumptions, sexism and aspirations rather than the facts. She has been seen as virgin queen, goddess of the domestic sphere and, more recently, the revolutionary who praised God for bringing down “the powerful from their thrones and lift(ing) up the lowly” (Luke 1:52).

But at this season of Christmas and leading into the new year, given my new beginnings, I saw her as a source of inspiration and comfort as I studied her response to the incarnation. As I thought about the new beginnings, changes in my life and I pondered how I would embody and “incarnate” the gospel in my community, I found some encouragement from Mary’s story. I read Luke 1:26ff again and wondered about her response to the incarnation as God chose to embed himself in her womb. If anyone is in a position to understand God’s incarnation in Jesus and responding to it, it is Mary the mother of Jesus.

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Practice God’s favor

Responding to the Incarnation involves not only understanding the favor of God and accepting it, but also practicing it. When I read Mary’s response to the angel in Luke 1:29, it says that she was “much perplexed” and she wondered what the encounter might mean. Even though the angel calls her “favored”, Mary is concerned and worried. However, she accepts the address and then practices that favor by accepting God’s mission granted to her and agrees to carry the “Son of the Most High” in her womb. As the church, favored by God as his own people today, we must “practice favor” rather than simply giving this privilege a polite nod. It is easier to merely know in theory and sentimentalize the favor of God, than to live out that favor on his mission today. What does practicing the favor of God look like? For me, it is about accepting my role on this earth as God’s agent to embody the gospel of good news in my community. It means I will incarnate the gospel through practicing the kingdom value of counter-cultural love in my neighborhood. Mark Scandrette, in Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of God, writes, “In any culture, but especially in one that yearns for holistic integration, the most compelling argument for the validity of Christian faith is a community that practices the way of Jesus by seeking a life together in the kingdom of love.” How do I “practice God’s favor” by living out the radical love of Jesus in my community?

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Showing “hospitality” to God

It might sounds strange to say that we show hospitality to God, but on reading Mary’s response to the approaching Incarnation, I think it is correct to say that she revealed a posture of hospitality towards God. She welcomed God to dwell in her womb so that the Incarnation might become possible. How did Mary feel about carrying the Holy One in her body? Purity meets sinful flesh, perfection encounters imperfection, the infinite chooses to become finite. Again, instead of becoming intimidated, overwhelmed, shutting down or running away, Mary welcomes God that he might live in her. What does it look like to let God “dwell” in me in a posture of hospitality as I embody the good news in my community? It means not being intimidated by the call of God in my life. It means “receiving” him daily. It means knowing that I will fail him, lack discernment, sin and stumble, yet God, the Holy One delights in me and intends to carry out his purposes for the neighborhood I live in through me. This is marvelous yet extremely intimidating!

“Learn the rhythms of unforced grace”

I wonder whether Mary had any understanding about the way that her life was to change after she received that greeting from the angel. Scripture says that Mary “pondered” and “treasured” (Luke 1:29, 2:19,51) in her heart the words spoken to her about Jesus. She must have needed to mull over and allow the confronting, alarming and wonderful words spoken to her about Jesus the God-child she would carry, and be responsible for parenting, marinate in her mind. As the mission and uniqueness of Jesus became more and more obvious to her, her calling became clearer. She became aware that she was no longer leading her son but she was to follow him as her Lord. This slow, gradual realization and coming to terms with the majestic Lordship of Jesus is not unique to Mary. It is a process that I think we are all very familiar with. When I begin to absorb the overarching, all encompassing and embracing pervasiveness of Jesus my Lord, it fills me with a sense of dread and joy. Dread because I wonder if I can trust a God who wants this much of me and yet joy because I know him to be a God of kindness and love so I can surrender my all to him. I love these words, again by Scandrette, about what it looks like to follow Jesus our Lord;

The invitation to follow the way of Jesus doesn’t help us cope with the busy lives we have to support our quest for the American dream. It does offer us a radical alternative to the ways of this world that are making us hurried, weary and tired. We are being invited to discover a way of life, in surrender to the Master, that is more fulfilling and free than any way that we could imagine or make for ourselves.

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Eugene Peterson says that we must “Learn the rhythms of unforced grace” so we daily accept the call by Lord Jesus to dwell in us as we follow him. Only this will enable us to live in Christ rather than merely using Christ to help us live better lives. There is a difference. As we live in Him we reflect him, we embody the good news of the gospel and we then follow him as he works in our respective communities to grow his kingdom. This is what I need to do in my neighborhood where God has planted me. The Incarnation calls for a response from me.

I am led to worship this God-human, and this worship moves me to living a cruciform life in imitation of our servant King.