Preached by Rev. Sandi Anthony, 12/5/19
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.”[a] 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?”[b] 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[c] 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.
During my senior year in seminary, for a Christian Leadership Development Class, I had to write a lengthy paper called a personal spiritual development analysis. This was essentially a collection of 24 stories from my life—stories that shaped my Christian journey, and after each, I needed to write an interpretive comment and a spiritual application. One of the stories in the analysis I titled “Glowing Mary.” I want to share it with you today, because it works into today’s scripture well, as we continue this Advent with biblical women who are part of the Christmas story.
Back in 1972, my father was suffering with metastatic colon cancer. Since the disease had spread to his liver, there were no options for him like there might be today. My mother and uncle took him to Mexico for laetrile, a supposed cure made from apricot pits, which was common in the 70’s, but this did nothing to cure him.
My father grew up in a big Catholic family even though he had become Protestant upon marrying my mother. His mother was still a devout Catholic, and her sister was a nun in a local convent. One afternoon my Catholic aunt and grandmother took me to see Sister Maria Helen, my great aunt. We got to see Sister Maria Helen’s room as she gave us a tour of the convent. Next to Sister Maria Helen’s bed was a small, glow-in-the-dark figurine of the Virgin Mary. She told me that the figurine had curative powers, and she gave it to me and instructed me to put it by my father’s bedside and God would heal him. I fully expected a miracle. The miracle never came. My father died shortly thereafter; I was one bereft twelve-year-old.
Now I had never heard about miracles and cures at the UCC where I grew up, but in my desperation, I eagerly embraced the notion that religious figurines could cure. Sister Maria Helen told me that the very Bible I read was full of stories of healing. I had never realized or been taught at my UCC that the stories could be appropriated in the same way. The truth is that they most often cannot. Later I felt that God had let me down.
I know now after wrestling out the problem of suffering and evil, something many of us were doing in seminary, that God does not cure everyone. Jesus’ healings in the New Testament were for a higher purpose—the mission of God, so that the good news would catch on and spread—like Dorcas’ being raised from the dead by Peter that we talked about some time ago. I suspect that Jesus would have healed everyone in the streets or brought back all of those who had just died if this were God’s plan, but God’s plan was more about eternal healing than ephemeral healing.
In any case, Mary’s life wasn’t about curing people’s diseases or having glow-in-the dark figurines fashioned after her likeness or anything like that. Mary is not some sort of golden calf. Rather, she is someone from whom we have much to learn about our relationship with God. She is also a profound exemplar of faith for us. Our scripture today tells us that the Angel Gabriel announced that she was favored by God, that God was with her, and that she wasn’t to be afraid. And the take-home point for us today is that those same angelic announcements that Gabriel delivered to Mary apply to all of us, no matter what is ahead of us in life: God favors us, God is with us, and we too are not to be afraid of the future, whatever that may bring. So, let that give us hope, that thing we focus on the first week of every Advent.
Let’s unpack the scripture a bit and get to know Mary, mother of Jesus. Here we have a young girl living in a backwater town about 130 miles from Jerusalem called Nazareth. Maybe that’s something like Black Canyon City as compared to Phoenix, just that Black Canyon City is closer to Phoenix. Scholars claim at this point, when Gabriel came to her, that Mary was somewhere between 13 and 15 years of age. Catholic tradition claims that her parents were Joachim and Anne, though our Bible does not make any of this clear. She is engaged to Joseph, the carpenter, who we know is of the house of David.
Now let’s talk about what engagement looked like back then. Mary’s father would have arranged her marriage. An engagement then would have lasted for one year. Mary and Joseph were engaged or betrothed, so custom was, they prepared for their wedding, just as a young couple would prepare for their wedding and marriage. Mary likely would have sewed: dishcloths, washcloths, towels, clothes for her wedding and marriage. She was focused on preparing for that day. Joseph, on the other hand, as a typical Jewish man would have prepared by building their future house and their furniture, all the while living with his parents until the wedding. Also, during their engagement, the couple would get to know one another more deeply and build their relationship, and hopefully start to fall in love with one another. Now Jewish law took engagement seriously. If Joseph died, Mary would be considered a widow already. If they separated, it was considered a divorce.
Now just to give you an inkling of the zeitgeist, or spirit of her age and her Jewish cultural milieu, all around her, almost all the people, were expecting the coming of the Messiah, the Savior, long prophesied in the Hebrew scriptures, with which Mary would have been most familiar. So, I imagine that Mary might have been thinking to herself, “Will I be the one who is to be the mother of our Messiah? Will I be chosen to give birth to the anointed Savior of the Jews?” The anticipation was likely in all the hearts of the young women back then, that maybe they would be chosen to be the mother of the Messiah.
So, enter Gabriel with an announcement from God for Mary. This is what angels do: they bring God’s messages to humans. Gabriel says to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Is it any wonder that she was, as our reading tells us, “much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” If an angel, something totally out of the mundane, came into your midst, wouldn’t you too be puzzled, worried, a bit suspicious, and especially afraid, even if there was a hopeful expectation of a messiah coming. But really, an angel coming with such an announcement?! As angels always do, he said to her “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” We hear the point of today’s sermon right there in that sentence: Do not be afraid of your future; you have found favor with God. The very nature of fear is to be afraid of the future, what is going to happen to us or our loved ones. We fear the future: disease, death, disability, lack of income. And God’s message sent via Gabriel is that Mary is not to fear her future. And we, knowing how the story continues and finishes—know that Mary and her son are going to experience much pain. She, as his mother, was going to be with him through his whole, earthly life—even thinking about him before he was born, as all mothers do when they are carrying a child. Yes, she would be there when he turned the water into wine, but she was going to have to endure the scorn directed to an unwed mother, ride on a donkey while in labor, give birth in a cave among animals, flee to Egypt as a refugee, lose her son briefly at the temple, see him beaten and crucified as she weeps at the foot of the cross…We know now—as surely God knew then—that what is coming for her is not going to be easy.
And yet the Bible calls her the most blessed among all women. She was the recipient of God’s favor. Wow! Do we really want God’s favor, knowing what was in store for Mary; what could be in store for us? Could it be that favor means there is a higher calling upon our lives, one that could require of us sacrifice? It would be so much easier to have a glowing figurine at our besides to grant all the answers to our problems.
For you have found favor with God, Mary. Instead of Mary, substitute your own name: Bob, Joe, Dorie, Nancy, Gary, Elizabeth. Elsewhere in the Bible, God says, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you wherever you go. What good news that is for each one of us. God is actively at work, with us always, bringing ultimate and perfect blessing out of life in this woefully imperfect order. Don’t doubt for a minute that God favors you too: If God’s nature is to look favorably up the prostitutes, tax collectors, adulterous kings, and marginalized, common teenage girls in backwater towns in the midst of a land occupied by the Roman Empire, then God favors you too. By the way, those who do not seem to receive God’s favor in the biblical canon include the oppressors, the powerful, and the smug and self-righteous.
The angel goes on to say, “The power of the Holy Spirit will come upon you. The Holy Spirit will be like a shadow over you.” When Luke said, this, his readers would have known he was hearkening back to Genesis and the creation story. The Holy Spirit shadowed over the waters before the beginning of time, and God created life in those waters. In the same way, the Holy Spirit is now shadowed over Mary and creating life in her. (adapted from Rev. Dr. Ed Marquart, Sermons from Seattle).
Isn’t that so like God: creating life everywhere, supplying life from emptiness? Mary was overwhelmed, but the messenger was not done delivering his message: Your aged Aunt Elizabeth is pregnant. With God, nothing is impossible. God who creates out of nothing has caused life in old, barren wombs; remember Sarah? Now it’s old Elizabeth’s turn. Remember how having babies, having sons especially as we have learned in this series on biblical women, is a big, big deal. Might this all be why? Might these pregnancies in barren wombs and dry bones rising be foreshadowing the coming of Jesus? And we will talk about Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist next Sunday. And God does the impossible in Mary too—God creates a miraculous life, fully human and fully God, in an erstwhile virgin. And Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Protestants, if they focus on Mary at all, do so because of the utter exemplar of obedience she is—the way she submits her will to God… the way she trusts. Here’s a great little three-line poem I found about Mary in this exact situation. It was written by female pastor, Sam Gutierrez:
It seems everyone (else) wants at least 3-5 years experience.
Except God, that is.
He looks for the one willing to try something new.
She was willing to try something new, young and inexperienced as she was. And Mary said yes to God and became pregnant with the holy child. And as with most pregnancies, I imagine Mary glowed—glowed with the special knowledge that she was favored by God enough to be chosen to fulfill the expectation of her time: to bear the long-expected Messiah. God was also with her as she bore life’s pain, just as God is with all of us when we do…just as God was with me through my young father’s death, slowly bringing about my recovery and life’s calling and purpose in the wake of such profound loss, even when the glowing figurine of Mary didn’t deliver. Yes, there are times of darkness in life, even as there is the glow of hope, that one day, all shall be truly well. I imagine that Mary glows from her place in heaven now, a place beyond space-time, as she fully grasps the big picture—the holy purpose her life has fulfilled. She is, in fact, blessed indeed. May we all glow as well today, as we anticipate Christmas and ponder our own roles as carriers of Christ within. May it be so, Amen.