Traditional sermon Advent 4
Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Colossians 1:3).
Today’s gospel lesson on the Annunciation is probably a very familiar story to most Christians, especially during Advent as we await to celebrate the birth of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, on Christmas Day. After all, Advent is a time of anticipation. I am sure we can all agree that Mary, having just learned from the angel Gabriel that she was to conceive and be the mother of the Son of God, had quite a lot of things going through her mind. I would gather that she had much to anticipate of what was going to happen in the following months and even years as she would be the one primarily responsible for raising the young Jesus.
The narratives in Luke related to the birth of Jesus pay particular attention to Mary, more so than in Matthew and John. This is one of the reasons I find the Annunciation in Luke to be so fascinating because it reveals details about Mary and lets us see Mary as she is. Granted, this passage in Luke can easily be read as a description of Mary simply learning what was to happen: angel visits, tells Mary she is in favor of God, she’s going to get pregnant and have God’s son, and Mary agrees to go along with the plan. A simple narrative—over and done with! But it’s more than that! First, Mary is provided comfort by Gabriel, who tells her to not be afraid. The angel also points out that with God all things are possible, using not only Mary’s pending virgin birth but her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy as examples of what God can do. Second, Mary’s strong faith and bravery, which can be easily overlooked can be seen in this passage. The situation Mary was put in and the role she was to play was very complex, not to mention the historical context of the events. And to be told that she was to be the Mother of the God’s Son—an event that would have an impact on all of humanity. Talk about having a major burden put on one’s shoulders, but especially on the shoulders of a young girl! Mary—on her own accord—agreed to take part in God’s plan to bring Jesus to earth to benefit all of us! Moreover, God did not force Mary to go along with the plan. What a responsibility Mary ended up having!
Now, imagine being in Mary’s position. How would we feel or react if we were put in her situation? Would we be able to muster up the same level of faith and bravery that Mary had?
After reading the passage in Luke, I thought about a situation I was involved in that made me think about Mary, but especially about her faith and bravery. Shortly before retiring from the Department of Defense, there was an opportunity for me to go to Afghanistan for six months in 2015. I was informed of exactly what I would be doing, that I would be working 16-to-20-hour days with almost no time off, and that I would be compensated for overtime as well as given special hazard-duty pay, given that I would be working within a war zone. Not only did I think this tour in Afghanistan would be a great way to end my Department of Defense career on the front lines of the war on terrorism, but it was also a great way to get paid megabucks just before retiring to add to my retirement savings. I was all onboard to go to Afghanistan! Unfortunately, it was once the paperwork was in that the fear and anxiety surfaced and it really hit me! Did I really want to work in a war zone where I could end up getting killed? Was risking my life working in Afghanistan worth the financial perks I would have received. And then there was the constant shooting and especially the bombs that would be going off 24/7. Co-workers who had been to Afghanistan warned me that once I had returned home, to be ready for some sleepless nights. They explained that the sounds of the bombs and shooting would remain in my head for up to two months. Not a good situation. Well, I ended up withdrawing my paperwork within three days after submitting it! I chickened out! The bravery was not there! And what about my faith? Did I even bother to turn to God for guidance? No. I was more interested in ending my career with a big hoorah by focusing on an important mission while making lots of money doing so! This was my example and I am sure there are those of you who have your own examples of situations where you were confronted with fear and anxiety and hopefully not so extreme.
Now, what’s significant regarding Mary’s situation is her strong faith and bravery, which is what I lacked in the example I used about myself. Let’s think about it! Was Mary going to get any perks out of going along with God’s plans? She wasn’t going to get any money, no book deals, no celebrity status. To make matters worse, Mary was to eventually have to go through and endure much hardship later, given that she would be seeing Jesus persecuted, tortured and executed on the cross. In today’s world, how many people would want to go through this, especially if there were no incentives to participate. And putting Mary’s situation in a historical context, we can see how much danger she was in. For instance, the mortality rate of women dying during childbirth was probably very high compared to today so for Mary to be told that she was going to have a child could have caused some fears. However, we don’t see that being a concern of hers in the passage. And then we have the social and religious issues related to Mary being an unwed, pregnant young girl. Keep in mind that adultery during that time could result in being put to death so being an unwed mother also could have resulted in a death sentence. Instead, what we see is not only Mary’s bravery, but especially her faith in God that shines. She willingly agrees to participate in God’s plan. We don’t see any indication of Mary even flinching or showing any sign of discomfort. As seen in verse 38, Mary says Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. And with these words of Mary, we are primed to anticipate the birth of Christ, his ministry on earth and beyond.
Looking at Mary with all that I have highlighted, how do we see ourselves when we are faced with challenging situations or we are called upon to participate in some activity like chairing a committee or serving on church council? What do we do when these situations surface in our own lives? I’m talking about situations that have caused fear and anxiety that required some careful thought and planning to resolve the issues. Do we turn to God for help and guidance as well as rely on our faith in God to pull us through? Or do we do the opposite like I did with my Afghanistan issue where I didn’t even think about turning to God for guidance or relied on my faith in God to help me do the right thing?
According to Mark Allen Powell, in the Gospel of Luke, Mary is not put on a pedestal because of her role in God’s plan as the favored one to be the mother of Jesus. Instead, Mary is made to be viewed as an ideal Christian. Powell says that Mary turns out to be not simply the mother of Jesus but an ideal role model for all followers of Jesus; a servant of God who embodies faith and faithfulness. Indeed, following Mary’s example of the faith she had for God and to not be afraid, as she was assured by the angel Gabriel, is something to consider and ponder whenever we are faced with challenging situations. As Gabriel noted, with God all things are possible and that is the Good News.
So, my friends, as we anticipate the celebration of the birth of Christ on Christmas Day, let us remember that God is always at our side, despite the ups and downs of life and the expected or unexpected things that surface that can cause fear and uneasiness. Keep the Good News in mind: do not be afraid because with God all things are possible. With God, we can get through whatever challenges come our way. Amen.