Text: Luke 1:26-38
The annunciation—the story of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would give birth to God’s son—is the part of the Christmas story that challenges us with some of the hardest questions we face as people of faith. Questions like: How much do we trust God? Do we have the courage to answer God’s calling in our lives? Are we, like Mary, willing to say yes to God without having all the answers? Are we open to God’s divine messengers that perhaps come our way daily? It is, indeed, this part of the ancient story that invites us to reflect on how our lives might be different if we truly understood ourselves to be blessed by God or allowed ourselves to begin each day hearing the words that Mary heard from the angel Gabriel: “Greetings, favored one.”
Karl Barth once said “The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has only to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need…the Bible and the Newspaper.” Barth always advised his young students that they should read the Bible holding the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Throughout this Advent, I have been keenly aware of the differences in the newspaper headlines and the themes of this season—hope, peace, joy, and love. Rarely do we see in our newspapers, headlines with those themes. I wonder how we would respond or what we would feel tomorrow morning if we woke up and the front page headline of the News and Observer read, “Hope is Alive in Raleigh.” Or “Blessed Are The Peacemakers.” Or “Love is Officially Declared in Iraq.” I wonder if we have reserved these themes—hope, peace, joy, and love—soley for our houses of worship, and conditioned ourselves to think that they are not a part of our world. I wonder if we have done what Barth cautioned his students not to do—separate the sacred from the ordinary, the divine from the human. As we approach the most holy night of the Christian year, I wonder how we hold this story of the annunciation in one hand and making it relevant for the world in which we live in the other hand?
What stands out to me immediately is the phrase, “Do not be afraid.” In a culture dominated by fear and fear language, the angel’s words offer a counter witness to how we are to live as people of faith. Being afraid is a normal human response. It is not very realistic to think that any one of us could go through life and never be afraid. When the biblical text says, “Do not be afraid,” it is not denying us the very basic human emotion of fear. Rather just the opposite. Throughout scripture there is an acknowledgement that fear exists—that it is part of the human condition. The issue at the heart of our biblical text today is not about denying our fears, but rather deciding how we will respond to them. We are living in fearful times. Our headlines mirror the fears we all feel; fears that are very real. Will we have enough to live on? Will we be safe? Will we be able to continue to live as we have lived? In times such as these, there is no denying the reality or the severity of these fears. It would be futile to try and diminish the feelings of fear; as futile as it would be to tell a young girl not to be afraid in the presence of the awesome and powerful divine.
So the question isn’t whether or not we feel fear, it is whether or not we allow our fears to control us. Do we allow them to stand in our way of doing what God asks of us? Or do we, like Mary, live and trust beyond our fears? Do we learn to make peace rather than war? For Americans today, that could mean supporting the removal of our military forces in Iraq, even though we are afraid of what could happen in that region. Do we act out of generosity rather than greed? For us this morning, that could mean facing the fear that we may not have enough to give our children the same Christmas they have had in the past, yet still choosing to be generous with our time and with what we do have to help others who have even less. Do we show love rather than hate? I would ask you this week if we can welcome the family member who rejects us? Do we dare live our lives trusting God and one another over trusting our fears? The way of the world would have us choose fear over trust. But Mary shows us a different way to live in this world. She shows us that we can live beyond our fears. It is, indeed, an alternative way or counter witness to being in this world at this time in history. This story this morning invites us to ask, “How might we begin living from a place of trusting God rather than trusting our fears? It perhaps could prove to be one of the most relevant questions of our day.
This week, as I held this story in one hand and read the headline in the New York Times, “War in Iraq Declared Officially Over,” I was taken to that phrase in our text that says, “Nothing is impossible with God.” I thought back to other times in our history when, for some, it felt like the impossible had happened. Man walking on the moon. Blacks and whites eating together at the same lunch counter. The Berlin Wall coming down. An African American becoming president of the United States. Nothing is impossible with God is a statement of hope and of justice. It is the belief that peace on earth is possible, that we can end world hunger, that all children everywhere can be safe. It is the belief that one day marriage equality will be a basic human right and that our country will never again discriminate based the color of one’s skin, of where one lives, or how much money one makes, or who one loves. When it comes to God’s love and justice being born in our world, nothing is impossible with God.
For all the relevance this story holds for us today, none may be more important than understanding the significance of Mary’s yes to God. I don’t know why, but it has always intrigued me to think about how many young women the angel spoke with before finding one who said yes to his invitation to give birth to God in the world. I know that it doesn’t matter, and that in some ways such thinking is simply a distraction. And yet this wondering makes me ponder my own willingness to say yes to God.
When I read the story of the angel Gabriel delivering God’s message to Mary, I ask myself this simple yet profound question: What is God calling me to do that may sound strange or hard or scary, but if I say yes to it, has the potential to change my life and the lives of others? This is not just Mary’s story. It is our story, too. It is about us finding our yes to God just as Mary did. The Christmas message today is that God is still saying to us, “Greetings, favored one!” And what makes this ancient story relevant for today is that God being born in our world is, in part, still dependent on us discovering our yes to God.