Sermon for December 13th, 2020
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “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 Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Angel Songs: Afraid to Hope
It was Christmas day, and the virgin Mary had just given birth to baby Jesus. Shepherds and angels gathered around the manger to pay their respects, and the three wise men had just arrived. The first one walked into the barn and gave Mary a gift for the baby. The second one did the same, and Mary thanked them both. Then the third wise man, who was rather tall, walked into the barn and banged his head against one of the rafters, exclaiming in a loud voice, "Jesus Christ!" Mary turned to Joseph and said, "Write that one down, it sounds so much nicer than Clarence!"
This week's scripture passage is about the angel Gabriel's visitation to Mary, the mother of Jesus. We've been talking about angels in the Christmas story and their consistent message, whenever they appear, of "Do not be afraid." It's a highly relevant message, both then as well as today--precisely because fear is such a powerful emotion, and because our fears control us, so much more than we like to admit.
What are you most afraid of, today? And what does that fear prevent you from doing, from becoming? If God appeared to you today, with a message from an angel, I can almost guarantee you that the angel's first words--just like in all of our scripture passages--would be "Don't be afraid of that thing you are so afraid of." Step into the hope and light and confidence of God, who frees us from our fears, who calls us to become all that we were made to be. Do not be afraid.
So. What is Mary afraid of? The answer to that question, I believe, is evident in the angels opening words to Mary:
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
We tend to read these words in the light of 2,000 years of Christian history and doctrine, all of which is comes from hindsight, knowing that Mary is chosen to be the mother of Jesus, the savior of the universe. Next to Jesus, Mary is probably the most revered person in the entire Bible, and so we hear these words "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you" and we think, "yeah, clearly."
But Mary didn't know any of that when the angel appeared to her. Look at her response in verse 29: "But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be." Or, in 21st century vernacular, Mary said, "Wait...what??"
So the angel says it again, in a slightly different way. Verse 30: "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."
There's that word, a second time...favor. Some ancient manuscripts of this passage even have it a third time, with Gabriel telling Mary that she is "most favored among all women."
What is Mary's fear? Exactly the opposite of what the angel is telling her: The fear that she is not favored, not special, unimportant, alone and insignificant in all the world. That's actually a pretty common fear that many of us have, if we're completely honest with ourselves.
My first semester at Princeton seminary, I was surrounded by some really smart, genius level students. Sometimes I wondered if the admissions committee had made a mistake in letting me in, maybe they got my transcripts mixed up with someone else, because clearly I was not ivy league material. After a few years, I learned that just about every student at Princeton (and at Harvard, and at Yale, or any other college for that matter) feels exactly that way at some point--there's even an official name for it: Imposter syndrome--the feeling that you were incorrectly chosen, and that you don't really belong.
The impostor syndrome makes a lot of sense in Mary's case: She is a woman in a male-dominated culture. She is a child in a society that revered elders. She is from a rural, backwoods village named Galilee that is the butt of jokes from people in more refined cities like Jerusalem. She is Jewish--a conquered people in a world dominated by the Roman Empire. She has no husband, no protector, but she is pregnant with a child that does not belong to her fiance.
By the standards of the world she was born into, Mary is indeed not favored, not special, unimportant, alone and insignificant in the world. By the teachings and values of the religion she was born into, Mary should be in big trouble, despised and rejected by her fiance, by her community, and by God. She has nothing to live for and nothing to hope for. In Mary's circumstances, the last thing you would want would be for an angel of the Lord to appear, and confirm all those things with finality.
"Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you...Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."
Unfortunately for Mary, what the angel says next doesn't exactly clear things up. Verse 31: "And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
In Mary's world, all of these things are not just unlikely; they are impossible--physically, socially, legally, and theologically. And Mary seems barely able to find her words here, to address only the first in a long list of impossibilities: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
If there's such a thing as "angel training school," I think Gabriel must have missed the day they talked about answering questions in a straightforward, helpful, and comforting way. He says, in verse 35:
"Well, 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 Son of God."
And Mary said, "Oh...well, in that case, great. Now I understand completely." I'm just kidding, she didn't say that, but I'm sure she thought it. The angel continues in verse 36:
"And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God."
Here at last, is something that Mary might at least be able to verify, and if true, it would indeed be miraculous. Maybe that's in the back of her mind, but she doesn't say: "Give me a few weeks to visit Elizabeth, and then I'll get back to you."
Instead, defying all reason and everything we might expect from someone her age and in her position, we read in verse 38: "Then Mary said, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.'
And then the angel vanishes, leaving Mary to ponder and question (as we read elsewhere that she does), perhaps whether the whole thing was just a dream, a wishful fantasy induced by fear and anxiety about her situation.
Do not be afraid.
2,000 years of history and veneration of Mary as the mother of Jesus would lead us to believe that God chose her because she was really special--someone pure and virtuous, faithful and perfect above all others. Maybe she was all of those things, but from reading the story, I don't think so.
What impresses me most about Mary, is how normal she seems. She reminds me of, well...a teenage girl in trouble. She is sometimes thoughtful, sometimes afraid, sometimes eager, and sometimes confused. She is maybe too quick to question, and yet maybe also too quick to believe.
If God chooses Mary because of her supreme virtue at such a young age, then all we can do is to put her on a pedestal and notice how unlike Mary we are, how unworthy and un-virtuous. We could never compare to that. Mary is the real thing, and we are...impostors.
But what if, instead, God chose Mary precisely because she was human, imperfect, unimportant, vulnerable, with fears and insecurities, with overwhelming problems just like us?
That would mean that we, too, are capable of hearing the angel's message, "Do Not Be Afraid" with hope, and with skepticism, but ultimately with acceptance.
That would mean that we, too--with all of our flaws and imperfections, no matter how poor, how broken, how much in trouble--that we too are capable of saying, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
God's favor is not transactional--it's not something that we earn in exchange for being good. It's not something God gives us as a reward for obedience or spirituality. No. God chooses us, God favors us, God loves us because of who we are in his sight, because of who he created us to be. In exchange for that kind of love, we have zero obligation.
But in response to that love, we do have an opportunity: To let go of our fear and our feelings of inadequacy. To see ourselves the way God sees us. To love ourselves (and each other) the way God loves us.
Mary is worthy of our admiration and our veneration, not because she was more holy than anyone else, but because she reminds us that we, too, are holy. We, too, are favored. We, too, are blessed.
Do not be afraid, says the angel--to Mary, to Joseph, to Zechariah... and to us.
The opposite of fear is hope. And the greatest hope comes from knowing that God is with us; we are not alone; we are precious in his sight. Do not be afraid to hope.