Fourth Sunday In Advent
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel made an uninvited and unannounced visit to the young woman who would become the mother of the Messiah. He had a message for Mary that was shocking and completely out of the realm of her imagination. As soon as she heard it, she knew that it would dramatically change her life forever. And yet, she agreed to participate in a plan that would cause her to become a social outcast for the rest of her life. Family and friends would at first reject the veracity of her story, and most acquaintances would never accept it. In that respect, her own life parallels that of her son’s. He was a man of sorrows, rejected by his own, and so was she.
The story of Christmas, as it is presented to us in the Scriptures, is one of awe and wonder, but mostly one of mystery. One of those mysteries is wrapped up in the question, “Why Mary?” Why did God choose her? Was there anything special about her? Tradition has created an awesome biography for her. But all of that is the product of our imaginations. The truth is we don’t know why God chose her. And I am convinced that that is the way that it must be, because we do not always know why God chooses us to accomplish his work in this world. The “Why Mary?” question is closely related to the “Why me?” question. It is a question filled with mystery, and often fear, and almost always uncertainty. Like Mary, sometimes we are called to go through something or to endure something that we would never have chosen on our own. This is the truth of life, and I am very certain that Mary would not have chosen this path for her life on her own. She neither dreamed of nor aspired to become the mother of the Messiah. We can guess, that because she was engaged to be married, that she had other plans for her life.
Like most other young brides-to-be, she must have been dreaming of building a life together with Joseph. They must have talked of raising a family of their own. I’ll bet that they wanted to grow old together. A suspicious pregnancy would certainly change all of that. I do not believe that Mary would be jumping at the opportunity to imperil all of the dreams that she and Joseph shared. And yet, at the end of her encounter with the angel Gabriel, Mary does just exactly that. She prepares to have her dreams shattered. With resoluteness and with determination in her heart, Mary very clearly says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And with that, her dreams were shattered, and the trajectory of her life was unalterably changed.
How did she get there? But equally important, how do we get there? How do we arrive at the place in our lives where we accept and even embrace God’s chosen plan for our lives, even when that path may shatter dreams, invite danger, and can be counted upon to include lots of mystery? The goal of our lives in this world is, of course, to be ready, to say along with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”
As God’s messenger to Mary, Gabriel also has some things to say to us. And these are truths that we need to lay hold of at every step of our lives and especially in these perilous times in which we now live.
The first thing that Gabriel says to Mary is, “Greetings favored one, the Lord is with you.” How easy this is to forget, to dismiss, or even to disbelieve. But this is a foundational point of our lives. Throughout all of the Scriptures, it is clear that God favors us. God loves us, God wants to be with us, God is with us. This is the actual message of Christmas. “Immanuel” means God with us! We should say to one another, “The Lord is with you.” Unlike mere mortals, who are fickle, God’s love is steadfast, God’s presence is continuous, and God is always with us. God has proven this by stepping into this world, by becoming one of us, by walking along side of us, and by sharing our pain and our sorrows. We know this; we know all these things, because God has also borne the burden of our sins so that we can live forever with him. God is pleased to dwell with us.
The second word that Gabriel has for Mary is, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Don’t miss the repetition of the “favor” part. We ought to be catching on to that by now. Do not be afraid, Mary. Do not be afraid, Wayne. Do not be afraid, little congregation, and do not be afraid children and people of God. Mary had plenty to fear, and so do we. Mary is being invited to step into a very scary place. Mary is being invited to choose, and to squarely face a radically altered life. Mary is being invited to set aside her dreams of a normal life, and to replace those dreams with some hard reality. If we did not already know the outcome of this story, we might ask ourselves, will she do it? Will she give up everything she planned for, and everything she hoped for? Would we even consider it, if God asked us to do something this extraordinary? Would we change our plans, set aside our hopes, or would we prefer that God just kept his angels to himself, and didn’t send them around to disrupt people’s lives?
We’ll know the answer to that the next time God asks us to do something that is not so extraordinary, but rather something that is very simple.
The world is a frightening place. It has been since Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden and became refugees from a place that had suddenly become hostile to them. The world will continue to be a frightening place until Jesus returns. Gabriel invited Mary to face her fears, and he invites us to do the same. Facing our fears is really the only true way to live. We can choose to be cowardly, but being cowardly gets us nowhere. When we face our fears, we can be assured that we will never face them alone. That is why Gabriel said, “The Lord is with you.” Together, with the Lord, we will face the daily barrage of fears that worm their way into our lives. With God’s help and strength we can face anything that comes our way.
I love it that the Scriptures tell almost no stories at all about willing volunteers. When God issues a call, we almost never hear, ooh, ooh, me, me, pick me! I’ll go, I’ll do it, I wanna, I wanna! What we hear instead, is, “Well, God as you know, I’m already quite busy, I have other obligations, you know, I’m not up to it, surely someone else would be a far better choice”, etc, etc, etc. Most of our excuse making is because we know that when God comes to visit, that the invitation that we receive will not always be an easy one. God’s calls almost always involve a stretch of our minds, our hearts, our imaginations and our attitudes. That’s also why they always come with the words, “The Lord is with you” and “Do not be afraid.”
Even Mary, that great and willing saint of our imaginations, had an objection to God’s call. I am sure that her mind is buzzing along at warp speed. And her mind is ticking off all of the complications that producing a baby outside of wedlock entail. Matthew, in his Gospel, gives us a sample of those complications.
And so, very boldly, Mary asks Gabriel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” And Gabriel’s reply is sensitive, and caring and delicate, and most of all, loving. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.”
In essence, Gabriel is saying, God will be with you. This is the answer that God always gives when people object. I will be with you, says the Lord God. But there is even more to it, that I believe will comfort us all. Gabriel is saying that the creative power of the Holy Spirit that brooded over the deep in the days of creation, will hover over you, Mary, and the creative power of the Most High will envelop you and overshadow you and enfold you. You will experience the creative power of God in an awesome, intimate and amazing way. I lack the words to say here, because this is all so wonderfully and wondrously mysterious, but I think that Gabriel is saying to Mary, there’s a way to do this. It is special and creative, but there is a way to do it.
But I also hear Gabriel saying that to all of us. There is a way to do this. We know that we now live in unprecedented times. Everything that we do has got to be done in willing cooperation with God, and so therefore, everything that we do will be different and creative and unusual. But we will also experience the coming together of the loving intimacy and the unparalleled power of God.
The last word that Gabriel has for Mary is almost anti-climactic. Gabriel reminds Mary that nothing is impossible with God. I have confidence that Mary has already figured this out. She has begun to grasp the idea that she and God are about to embark upon an adventure that defies every conceivable possibility that she can imagine. We know that it will not be an easy journey for her. She will suffer greatly, and she will will enter into every possible human emotion ranging from deepest grief and sorrow to highest joy. She will be fully human in every respect.
But hear this truth, and hear it well. God will be with her. From time to time she will hear God whisper, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” And she will hear that, because there will be many times in her life when she will be very, very afraid. And, daily, she will need to hear, again and again, “We’ll find a way. There is a way to do this,” because often the way will seem dark and invisible to her.
And so it is with us. The way seems dark, and the path ahead of us is terrifying. And so we must listen for those words, and we must believe them. There is a way. Do not be afraid. The Lord is with you. You are the favored ones of the Lord. Let us always pray that our hearts will always hear the loving and intimate whisper that comes to us from God’s heart. For nothing will be impossible with God.