Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 21, 2014
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-28, 46b-55
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
On the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the words DON’T PANIC are inscribed in large friendly letters. I have often thought that if the angels in the Bible were turned into books, they, too, would have “DON’T PANIC” written on their covers. It is, after all, the first thing most of them say when they greet someone. Gabriel was no exception to this trend. He greeted Mary, and said, “Do not be afraid!” Or, in the slightly more poetic words of the King James Version, “Fear not!” But “Don’t Panic!” is actually also not a bad translation.
Which begs the question, why do angels have to go around telling people this, right off the bat? Part of the reason, I think, is that angels are awesome beings in the old meaning of the term: awe-inspiring and terrible and the sort of thing that makes a person realize just how small they are in the grand scheme of things, and how great the angel is. But the other part of the reason, is that anybody who’s read their Bibles and paid much attention to God’s work around them should be afraid whenever God’s messenger shows up with a mission for them. At the very least, we should be nervous. Because think about it: if God wants us to do something we already want to do or are interested in doing, he wouldn’t need to send an angel or a dream or anything like that. We’d already be doing it! And if it’s something mildly inconvenient, a nudge in the right direction can usually get us pointed in the right direction. We only need angels when we God wants something we would never in a million years choose to do on our own. Something hard, and messy, something that will upset our neighbors or make us look bad, something that will take us in directions we don’t want to go.
Take Mary, for example. We know, looking back on things, just what an important part of God’s work she was. We can see the whole sweep of history. We can see what God was doing in and through her, how God had chosen her to be his mother, to bear the Christ child in her womb and bring him into the world, to raise him and care for him until he was old enough to start his ministry, and set himself on the path to be killed so that the world might live. We know, looking back, that God’s salvation is going to come through her in a very literal way. And we know that she will be honored and admired for two thousand years for her faith and her willingness to follow God’s commands.
And all that can blind us to what she was being asked to do. She was being asked to bear a child out of wedlock. And you all know what life in a small town is like. Even if she told people her baby was God’s child, who would have believed her? No, everyone would gossip about what she did. And that gossip wouldn’t just last for a little while and die down. It would last for years. Decades. Even if she later became a respectable wife and mother, you know that people would still talk about her behind her back. Any time her future children did anything wrong people would shrug and say, “well, you know what their mother did.” And that assumes that any man would have been willing to marry her, a known adultress.
That’s the other thing. Mary was engaged, which in those days was a far more solemn and meaningful thing than it is today. The word ‘betrothed’ captures it much better. There was a legal contract between her and Joseph, and to break that contract—that agreement to marry—they would have needed a divorce. Once she and Joseph became betrothed, for either of them to have sex with someone else was considered adultery. Joseph could have divorced her for it, and then she would have been on her own, trying to support and raise a child by herself in a world that was a lot harder on women than our world today is. Not only that, but if Joseph wanted, he could have charged her with a crime: adultery was punishable by stoning. That is, adulterers who were caught were taken to the center of town and people threw rocks at them until they were killed. Now, Joseph was a nice guy, and Mary had to know that he wouldn’t do it—the Gospel of Matthew tells us that he had already decided to divorce her quietly instead of having her stoned, before God told him what to do—but Joseph could have. He would have been well within his rights.
All this pain and heartache, all this trouble and danger, and for what? A special baby. But how special? Sure, we know that salvation for the world would come through that baby; we know that he would be God made flesh. But did Mary? When the angel told her, “hey, this is really important!” could she have imagined just how important it was going to be? I don’t think so. Nobody at the time understood just what Jesus meant; you can see them, all through the Gospels and the Epistles, figuring things out and missing the point half the time before finally getting it right. Think about the disciples—Jesus told them all about his mission, about why he was doing what he was doing, and he told them about his own death and resurrection, but it wasn’t until after his resurrection that they were able to look back at everything he’d told them and go, “Oh, I get it!” And Mary had even less to go on than the disciples did. A few lines from an angel, that’s all, telling her that God is going to use her to do something big and important that will cost her dearly. How could she possibly have understood it all?
So God was going to do something big through her, that’s great. But the consequences were dire. I mean, if I were her, I would have been saying, “No offense God, I’m really honored that you’ve chosen me to do this, but the timing isn’t very good. How about we put it off a year until after the wedding?” How often does God call us to do something, and we say, “Gee, God, the timing isn’t right—it can’t possibly work that way—how about we do something different instead?” Because Mary isn’t the only person who’s ever gotten a tough job from God. A job they didn’t want. Mary questioned it, but in the end she agreed to do it. She would take the consequences; she would do something the world just wouldn’t understand. Something even she doesn’t really understand. But she trusts God to know what he’s doing. She wants the salvation the angel promises. She wants God’s kingdom to come. So she takes the leap of faith even knowing that it’s going to be hard.
When the angel comes to her Mary starts off confused and afraid: first, what God’s talking about seems impossible. After all, babies don’t spontaneously happen. The angel responds by saying God will take care of the details; God’s power will do what God has said. Okay, fine. She accepts that. I think that may be the most surprising thing of all, because even devout Christians doubt God’s power. They feel God calling them to do something, but instead they listen to the little voice in the back of their head that says “well, that would take a miracle—I just don’t think it’s possible,” and so they don’t do anything. Mary had that voice, that doubt, but she didn’t let it drown out her faith.
Then the angel, who has given her this huge mission that’s going to be pretty rough on her, tells her about Elizabeth, her cousin. Elizabeth, who was also going through an unexpected God-given pregnancy. Elizabeth, who could support Mary and give her love and help that the rest of the community wouldn’t. Mary had a special role, Mary had a hard road ahead of her, but she didn’t have to walk it alone. God gave her helpers along the way. Her cousin Elizabeth, her husband Joseph—both got instructions to help Mary, and both would heed that call from God. They would stand by her even when the rest of the world didn’t. God rarely gives us solitary missions. When God calls us to action, when God gives us a task to do, God often provides helpers, confidants, support systems. They may not be the ones we’d choose on our own, but they’re there.
And that’s when Mary says yes. She’s been given her mission, assured that it’s really important and that God will do the heavy lifting, and that she won’t be alone. She may be ostracized in the community but she’ll still have someone with her who believes her and cares for her. And that’s when Mary says yes. Her doubts and fears may still be there—she still doesn’t understand why this is necessary and what it’s going to mean for the world—but she trusts that God will take care of the details. And you know what? He did!
Like Mary, we, too, are called by God, as individuals and as groups. We are given tasks, missions, things to do—it’s part of being a disciple. Sometimes those tasks are small—giving a hug when someone needs it, for example. Sometimes they’re pretty big. Sometimes, we do them without realizing we’re doing God’s work, and sometimes God has to nudge or poke us to get us moving. Sometimes, when it’s really big and really hard, people get angels like Mary did. (And sometimes we don’t recognize those angels for what they really are.) But we are all called by God to be his hands and feet in the world. When you realize God is calling you, take a page from Mary’s book. First, don’t panic. Don’t be afraid. It may be hard, but God will not let you do it alone, and God will help. Second, it’s okay to have doubts and questions. It’s okay to wonder how in the world it’s ever going to happen. Mary did, after all. Third, look for the people God has given you to help support you. Then take a deep breath, and say yes.