What Does God Want?
Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let I t be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her (Luke 1:38).
Salvation, it seems to me, has very much to do with God getting what God wants. Advent, on this reading, is about salvation. The world existed in pain, suffering, war, injustice, abuse, hunger—in short, sin—and so along came Jesus. But for what? What was it Jesus came to do—or undo? I think it’s not so simple as to say that Jesus came to save the world. If that’s the extent of the answer, then we’re left to wonder just what saving the world means. On the lips of many Christians, of course, salvation means something like being delivered from this life to a better one in a better place. This particular take on salvation has certainly offered strength in times of great travail and oppression—just read the lyrics to some of the old Negro Spirituals. “We shall overcome . . . someday” is powerful medicine in the midst of a world threatening to implode. On the other hand, as has often been pointed out, salvation as personal deliverance, if we’re not careful, can inoculate us against experiencing any sense of urgency about the world we inhabit here and now. A rival interpretation of salvation has to do with reconstructing the world we live in now. This view of salvation has the advantage of maintaining a sense of urgency about the world we inhabit, but it also can lull us into thinking that that reconstruction depends on us instead of God for its success.
Whether this is theologically true, the easy way to proceed rhetorically would be for me to say that the true meaning of salvation lies somewhere in the middle, between the hereafter and the here and now. And it may just be true—or not; settling that one would take more time and brains than I have. What does seem clear to me, however, is that both soteriological extremes are largely beside the point. What both of those understandings have in their sights is success—either a successful afterlife or a successful present life, neither of which are something to be dismissed lightly. Following Jesus, however, has never been primarily about success (at least success in the way most people understand it). Instead, following Jesus is about attempting to align ourselves with what God wants; and if Jesus is any indication, what God wants is the death of everything that stands in the way of God getting what God wants, which, when all is said and done, is us. At least according to Jesus, gaining the whole world and keeping our souls is a soteriological non-starter. Salvation is first about laying down, giving up, relinquishing, letting go. It’s only in letting go of everything that we have room to receive anything.
All of which brings me to Mary. Of the few words recorded from her mouth in the Gospels, some of the most instructive come after she’s been told that she has been selected to bear God for the world. She says by way of reply, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” It’s interesting to note that her first response isn’t, “What do I get out of it?” Rather, she immediately directs attention to what God ought rightfully to expect to get out of it—that is, Mary herself.“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That’s God getting what God wants. That’s salvation. And if we were ever to do the hard work of imitating Mary, there just might be a new heaven and new earth in it for everyone.