“If you think you can find God in the comfort of your bedroom,” wrote St. John of the Cross, “you will never find him.” Tell that to Mary in her room in Nazareth! God comes as the original alien invader. “Do not be afraid,” the angel tells Mary.
Easier said than done.
I don’t share this often, but it seems appropriate today. I was in my bedroom on our farm west of LeMars, Iowa. It was Christmas break in 1978, my senior year in college. A few weeks before, I had failed to take the Graduate Record Exam. That was required for me to apply for the doctoral program in my future. The application deadline had passed. I hadn’t made any conscious decision. I simply forgot.
To this day I cannot imagine how that happened. I can remember the day with relative clarity, but I cannot see how I could have missed such an important appointment. Others have suggested over the years that Divine intervention was the cause. I’m not willing to write off my own sloth, lack of organization, and subconscious resistance (perhaps) as God’s work. Instead, I’m grateful that God could take such shoddy material and create a life of meaning, purpose, and joy.
In any event, there I sat in my room, wondering what to do with my life. I was engaged to be married. I was going to graduate with degrees in history and philosophy—highly unmarketable majors. I hadn’t told anyone except my fiancé about my failure—not my parents, not my friends, not my advisor. There was no comfort in that December bedroom for me.
Late one night during that lonely Christmas break, I heard a voice that said, “Go to seminary.” Speculate if you will whether it was a real voice — whatever “real” means in that context. Wonder about my mental stability at the time. I certainly did (and have never really left off wondering). Debate whether this came from vocation or desperation. It makes little difference.
My first question was, “What did you say?” My second question was, “Are you sure you have the right number?” Of course, somewhere in there was the factual question — What’s a seminary?
I didn’t hear the voice again, but the voice vexed me. When I got back to school, I really had to make some sort of decision. One morning, I called my home pastor. I said, “I think I’m supposed to go to seminary.” I waited for the laughter on the other end of the line. He said, “I’ll be there by supper time.” He drove the five and a half hours to see me and hear my story.
Before long I visited Wartburg Seminary, registered for my New Testament Greek class, and the rest, as they say, is history. I did not find God in the comfort of my bedroom. Instead, God decided to make my bedroom a very uncomfortable place indeed. That hasn’t changed much in forty years.
Because of my experience, I have a special place in my heart for Mary, the mother of our Lord. This week, we read the story of the Annunciation—the angelic announcement that God had big plans for this little girl. She did not find God in the comfort of her bedroom. Instead, God decided to make her bedroom a very uncomfortable place indeed.
This announcement is about Mary’s vocation. Her first question is, “What did you say?” Her second question is, “Are you sure you have the right number?”
God comes to us — where we are, whether in bedrooms or boardrooms, in faith or in doubt, in comfort or in crisis. That is the heart of the Christmas message. Strip away the tinsel and trees, the parties and presents, the elves on shelves and hooves on housetops. God comes to us. And as a result, nothing can stay the same.
God comes to Mary with a call. That’s always the way with God’s coming. She is not qualified. She does not apply. She doesn’t even know there’s an opening. God’s grace comes first. “Greetings, favored one!” the angel declares. “The Lord is with you!” In response to this announcement (and after the questions), Mary sings a song of praise that we call “The Magnificat.”
God sees Mary in the depths of life and calls her to the heights of faith, hope, and love. She puts her trust, according to Luther, not in the gifts but rather in The Giver. She loves God for God, not for what God will produce. She can do that by the Spirit’s power because she is loved “for nothing” rather than for what she can produce. This love, which is the fruit of faith given by the Spirit, is the only source of real peace for the believer.
The Magnificat begins with that mystical experience of God’s unconditional regard, but it does not end there. The result of that experience, as Lois Malcolm puts it, is Mary’s “prophetic witness to God’s great transforming work of justice in history” (page 171). This witness issues forth at precisely the moment when Mary is at her “lowest,” just as the great work of Life issues forth precisely when Jesus dies on the cross.
“The Magnificat does not tell a tale of God meeting a prideful sinner,” Malcolm writes, “Rather, it tells a tale of God meeting a woman whom society has seen as insignificant and giving her a new status…as well as a new sense of agency in God’s coming reign…Far from recapitulating the dynamics of her previous life,” Malcolm argues, “Mary was transformed and entered a new beginning” (page 173).
God comes to us. That Christmas message is for you as well. Greetings, favored one! You—beloved of God, marked with Christ, sealed with the Spirit—the Lord is with YOU! You are not qualified. You need not apply. You may not even realize there’s an opening. God comes to you in Jesus. You have found favor with God. That is true even, and especially, when we find ourselves at the lowest points of our lives.
God comes to us – especially at those low points. This is the heart of the Christmas message. God comes to you and me with a call. Now we can return to that opening quote from St. John of the Cross. “If you think you can find God in the comfort of your bedroom,” he wrote, “you will never find him.”
When we need God’s comfort, God will indeed bring it. But mostly we want God to give us a life that is undisturbed and pain-free. That’s not something God will do. Because that sort of life is not worthy of those who bear the image of God in Creation. We are not called to be boring and mediocre.
God comes to us. And when God comes, God turns our lives inside out and upside down. The Holy Spirit turns our focus from inside ourselves and out into the world. The Holy Spirit turns our worldview from a race to the top of the heap to a love for the least, the lost and the lonely.
Our God does not come as a theological therapist. God comes as the Divine Disruptor. Our God is not nice. Our God is not safe. Our God is not comfortable. Our God is good and loving and merciful — and destabilizing.
God invades our sanctuaries and changes our lives. And our God has big plans for those who are called to bear Jesus to the world.
Just ask Mary.
And then look to Mary as a model of faith. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she says. “Let it be to me according to your word.” We can relax into self-satisfied serenity. We can resist the call and run the other direction. Or we can surrender to the call of the Holy Spirit and find true comfort and peace.
That surrender will involve struggle. It will require sacrifice. It will produce pain. I tell people that I have spent almost forty years trying to run the other direction. But there is no joy in fleeing. There is only joy in accepting. Accepting God’s call makes us bearers of God’s presence in the world, just as Mary has led the way.
The revelation of the Kin(g)dom of God is not reserved for spiritual savants or religious rulers. It does not happen only in temple precincts or pastoral pulpits. The Holy Spirit is not an endowment limited to the privileged few or regulated by academic or ecclesial authorities. As John reminds us, the Spirit blows where it will. Age or gender, status or ethnicity, position or power – these are not factors in determining where the Spirit works and through whom the Spirit speaks.
God comes to us where we are. These are the last words of the Advent season. God comes calling in Jesus. How will we respond?
References and Resources
Boesak, Allan A. “The riverbank, the seashore and the wilderness: Miriam, liberation and prophetic witness against empire.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 73.4 (2017).
Croy, N. Clayton, and Alice E. Connor. “Mantic Mary? The Virgin Mother as Prophet in Luke 1.26-56 and the Early Church.” (2011).
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Malcolm, Lois E., “Experiencing the Spirit: The Magnificat, Luther, and Feminists” (2010). Faculty Publications. 275. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/275.
Skinner, Matthew L., “Looking High and Low for Salvation in Luke” (2018). Faculty Publications. 306. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/306.
Wilson, Brittany E. “Pugnacious precursors and the bearer of peace: Jael, Judith, and Mary in Luke 1: 42.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.3 (2006): 436-456.