What if … ?


For the fourth Sunday of Advent this year the gospel reading was Saint Luke’s account of the Annunciation. Here’s what I said.

Luke 1.26-38

Life is complicated. And it’s only human to want to be in total control. And yet, we know that however hard we try life has a habit of not turning out quite how we want it to.

And we end up asking ourselves that question that is all too often unanswerable.

What if … ?

It might be about the past – we wonder if life might have turned out differently if we’d made different decisions, different choices. 

What if I’d worked harder at school and passed my exams?
What if I’d said “yes” when he asked me to marry him?
What if I’d accepted that job offer?
What if I hadn’t drunk too much that night?

Or it might be about fears or hopes that we have in the present:

What if I lose my job and can’t pay the bills?
What if I get ill?
What if I win the lottery?
What if I get that promotion at work?

What if? A question that we all find ourselves asking from time to time. It’s only natural to wonder how life might have turned out had we made different decisions or if different things had happened – and it’s only natural to wonder how things will turn out in the future and to have fears or hopes that events will take a particular turn.

And so we ask: what if?

If anyone had good cause to ask, “What if?” it must have been Mary, the mother of Jesus.  

We have just heard in our gospel reading this morning how the angel Gabriel appears to her and tells her that she has found favour with God and is going to bear a Son. Did the question cross Mary’s mind at any point, “What if I say no … I don’t want to have a baby?” 

And that’s a fascinating question to think about. What if Mary, instead of saying ‘yes’ had said ‘no?’ What if, instead of having heard the angel’s message, Mary had not said ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word’ but had said instead ‘You must be joking, I wasn’t born yesterday you know! Go and find someone else!’ Would there have been no Saviour? Would God have never been born into our world? Had God previously asked other young women who had said no?

Except, of course, that the problem about asking ‘what if’ questions is that you can never know for certain what might have happened – you can only conjecture. We can never know what might have happened had Mary turned the angel away with a refusal to accept what was being asked of her.

Well, as far as we know Mary did not ask the question, “What if I say no?” Certainly no-one could have blamed her for saying no. She could have come up with a whole host of perfectly reasonable objections:

  • I’m too young to start a family and I’m not married yet – at the time marriage always came before childbirth
  • I might get stoned to death for having a baby outside of marriage – a perfectly understandable fear because that was the Law
  • Joseph won’t want me and I don’t want to be a single mother – it was unheard of for a man to marry a woman expecting someone else’s child

What we do know for certain is that she said ‘yes’ and the rest, as they say, is history. As a result of her willingness to do what she was asked God came into our world, born as a baby who was named Jesus as the angel Gabriel had instructed. And as far as we know never once, despite what would happen in the future, having to watch her son arrested, tried as a criminal and crucified, did she ever ask herself, “What if I’d said no? Would life have been better?”

God asked something hugely important of Mary and she said, “Yes”. And what I’d like us to think about this morning is how Mary is a model for the way that each of us responds to what God asks of us. So often we fail to make that positive affirmation that Mary made, and never get any farther than ‘what ifs’ – what if I do this, what if I don’t do that, will God really be bothered that much?

So let us look at Our Lady and see what she teaches us. Now, I call her Our Lady at this point because I’m going to suggest four things for you to remember that begin with the letters spelling LADY.

L is for listen. Listening is pretty important when it comes to knowing what God might want of us. And listening involves prayer. Mary wouldn’t have known what God wanted of her had she not listened to his message, conveyed to her by the angel. If you don’t listen to God in prayer, how will you know what he is saying to you. Just as he had a will for Mary’s life so he has a will for yours. L is for listen.

A is for ask. It’s okay to ask God questions. Mary, we are told, was perplexed – she asks, ‘How can this be…?’ If you’re not sure what God is doing or saying then ask him. God is only too happy for you to ask him to make himself clearer to you. Life is full of uncertainties, and sometimes those uncertainties may be about what God wants us to do. A is for ask.

D is for decide. Having heard God’s message, having asked for some clarification, Mary makes her decision. There’s no ‘Well, I’m not sure – go away and come back next week so I can have time to think about it!’ There’s no ‘Thank you very much for asking, I’m really honoured – but I think Martha who lives next door might do a better job!’ There’s no, “What if I say no?” Mary’s relationship with God is such that she is able to trust him and make her decision. When it’s clear what God wants of you don’t obfuscate or prevaricate. Don’t put off to tomorrow the decision to follow God’s will for you today. D is for decide.

And Y is for yes. Having made her decision Mary’s yes to God is filled with joy. It’s not a grudging yes but a joy-filled, excited yes. Luke goes on to tell us, after the visit from Gabriel with the astound news, Mary goes straight off to visit her cousin Elizabeth to give her the good news, and Luke records for us that wonderful hymn, full of Mary’s praise for God: 

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;
he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed.

No what ifs from Mary, but such a great sense of joy as she accepts God’s will for her: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

May our ‘yes’ to whatever God asks of us be filled with as much joy as Mary’s was. Y is for yes.

LADY:

  • L: Listen to God so that you know what he is asking you to do with your life
  • A: Ask him to make things clearer if you’re not sure
  • D: Decide whether to accept his will or not – he never enforces his will on anyone, but hopefully your decision will be, like Mary’s, what he wants
  • Y: Yes – and when you say yes may your yes be as filled with joy as Mary’s was.

Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ 

Mary, the mother of Jesus – such an inspiration for us. 

What if … we all followed her example?

What if … we all said: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word?