PRAYER: Holy God, remind those of us gathered here that we are called to be your people. Embolden us, give us courage therefore, to be that which you inspire us to be, that we may forever declare your praises and live faithfully in your light. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.
By the spring of 1990, Anna and I had lived in Florida for almost two years. We saved enough to plan a vacation, so we planned – naturally – to come to New Jersey. After all, New Jersey is where our friends were, my family. New Jersey is where we both grew up. So we packed up our little Honda Civic and headed up Route 95 toward New Jersey.
From door to door, the trip was almost exactly 24 hours if you drive straight through. And during just about every one of those 24 hours, we talked about all the things we were going to do, all the people we were going to see, all the places we were going to go while visiting the great Garden State.
I’m not sure exactly where it happened – somewhere between Virginia and Maryland I suppose – we finally both said the quiet part out loud: we both wanted to move back to New Jersey where we belong. It’s our home. Our vacation suddenly became our mission. I looked for – and found – a new job. We looked at potential apartments. We made plans and got as many things arranged as possible.
But we still had to go back to that other place and shut down our lives there. We had to break the news to Anna’s parents who had guilted us into moving there in the first place two years prior. And we did it. We moved home to New Jersey and restarted our lives here where we belong.
It wasn’t until everything was said and done, we were back in New Jersey for good, I had started my new job…and we found out that in the midst of all of that – Anna was pregnant. She had been pregnant before we moved, and we didn’t know it. If we had known this, we probably wouldn’t have moved; we would have stayed right there in Florida near her parents and our lives would have been vastly different. Vastly different. But we DID move and we kept going forward, we had our first child in the midst of all that upheaval, and we did the best we could to carve out our lives and raise our family.
Life is full of uncertainty; it’s the only thing that’s certain! We are constantly presented with situations where we must move forward in spite of or alongside of our uncertainties. In this passage from Luke, we read about Mary having some really legitimate fear and confusion in verse 29. Gabriel comes to her and greets her by saying, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” In the Message translation, verse 29 – Mary’s reaction – says, “She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that.” The words themselves (Greetings favored one, the Lord is with you) are encouraging, but at the same time, as they seem to come completely out the blue, we can imagine that in Mary’s shock, her initial reaction was to recoil in fear.
But even in her fear, she inquires, she wonders. In verse 34, after Gabriel tells her the news, she says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”.
Let me just make one aside here. There’s another story earlier in this chapter in Luke about Gabriel delivering similar news, but in that case, to Zechariah. Gabriel tells Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth will have a baby, and Zechariah responds by saying, “How can this be? I’m old, my wife is old…” Gabriel responded by making Zechariah mute until the baby was born. He asked his question from a standpoint of doubt. Mary asked the exact same question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The difference is that Mary asked from a standpoint of faith. She wasn’t doubting Gabriel’s word, she just asked for clarification. She asked in wonderment. And then in verses 35-38, she has a conversation with Gabriel in which he tells her how it will be, and her faithful response is one of courage: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary’s response – her ‘acceptance’ is most decidedly NOT a passive response to whatever will happen. She is not just throwing her hands up and saying “do whatever you have to do…” No. No matter how challenging, strange, or scary the future may be for her at this point, she openly accepts God’s calling in her life. But by asking her questions, and listening to Gabriel’s response, she shows how an active response is a process, and a choice. While Mary does not know the details of how saying, “Here I am,” will impact her whole life, she courageously says yes anyway. Trust and courage are intertwined in Mary’s response. It takes trust to be courageous and it takes courage to trust in the face of uncertainty. We see Mary working out this relationship between trust and courage in her conversation with Gabriel.
God invites us to face the unknown with courage, just as Mary did.
Because Mary DID have courage. Saying Yes to God took courage; it takes courage, and in spite of how Mary may have been portrayed over the centuries, she very well could have said “No” if she wanted to. But Colin MacIver, a Theology professor in Louisiana writes that Mary’s power to choose was unwaveringly pointed toward self-giving love. “So that while she could have said, “no,” she just wouldn’t have. Her whole being was pointed toward a “yes” to God’s plan and was pointed in that direction in absolute freedom. This didn’t begin in Luke 1; it began with the moment of her conception and stretched from her infancy into her young adulthood and finally to a heavenly throne. It passed through hundreds of mornings rising early to pray and through hundreds of mundane Tuesday afternoons. The “yes” that Mary made to (Gabriel) was a harmony with her whole life.”
As we prepare for Jesus, as we prepare for what is next in our lives, we, like Mary, may need to be open to the ways that God will show up unexpectedly and look for God’s grace and provision even as we face uncertainty. Consider, for example, how Gabriel tells Mary about Elizabeth’s pregnancy, assuring her that she will not be alone in this time of difficulty.
Both Mary and Elizabeth – when we think about their positions in life – we don’t have to struggle too hard to imagine how difficult their situations were. In first century-Nazareth, Mary, a single unwed mother and Elizabeth, a married but childless woman… both would have been dealing with a great deal of stigma hanging over their heads.
Imagine the kind of relationship Mary in particular must have had with God for her to have said Yes. To be told that she is favored by God and then, as a result of being favored by God, she will be put into a position of living with a giant stigma that will impact her life and – presumably – her family as well. She could not have possibly known what troubles would be in her future. Nothing could have really prepared Mary for something like this, and she still said yes.
God invites us to face the unknown with courage, like Mary did.
What would your life look like if you truly embraced the fact that you are favored by God? What would be different? Would kind of courage would that give you? Or perhaps another way of looking at it is to ask what is different because you know you are loved by God? How has that given you courage? We constantly face the unknown in our lives, but we can be sure of the fact that we are favored by God. That alone can be enough to give us courage.
It’s clear from Mary’s response that she was well-versed in the Hebrew scriptures. She knew the prophesy and she understood the nature of God’s love. That is especially clear when we read her Magnificat later in the chapter:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name; indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his child Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Mary’s words came directly from the Hebrew scriptures. She knew what she was saying.
The angel comes and tells Mary not to be afraid and that she has found favor with God. Well, this is a message for us too. Our encounters with God invite us out of fear and to trust that we too are favored. That invitation and trust are the foundation for the courage we need to face what is uncertain.
On this fourth Sunday of our Advent series “PREPARE”, we are reminded that Advent is an invitation to stay awake as we wait for and recognize God’s inbreaking. It is an act of hope and trust in the midst of cynicism and fear. We are reminded that Advent is an opportunity for us to be conduits of God’s grace by courageously seeking repentance from the harm we do towards others and how we turn ourselves towards God’s calling in our lives. And we are reminded to share our story of faith while at the same time allowing us to hear the stories of others. There is a vulnerability that exists in sharing our stories and in expressing our faith that paradoxically demonstrates great courage.
Mary was told that she is favored by God, and she faced the unknown with courage. What would your life look like if you truly embrace the fact that you are favored by God? What kind of courage would that give you?
What would it look like for our church to be a place where each person comes and learns that they are favored by God? Anna and I faced an uncertain future all those years ago. I don’t know if we were courageous or just plain naïve, but I do know that God was at the center of our lives and that the Holy Spirit guided us along the way. God’s presence is comforting and emboldening. When we trust in the fact that we are favored by God, we gain courage.
I believe that God has a calling for this church in 2024 and beyond. Yes, attendance numbers are low – as low as they’ve ever been. And yes, that’s true of churches everywhere. But I still believe that the church has a role to play in the world today. So, we have a choice. We can hear the message of Gabriel and ask out of fear and doubt, “How can this be? Our congregation is too small and too old.” Or we can ask out of faithfulness and with courage, “Sure, our congregation is small, but how can this be?” I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know that God will give us the courage and the strength to be God’s church in the 21st century.
Our faithfulness leads to courage in a world that would have us fragmented and can give us courage to face the uncertainties that we will inevitably face. Mary faced the unknown. She did so with grace and courage – “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
With faith and courage, we are prepared for whatever future awaits us. We are prepared for the Messiah – Emmanuel, God with us – to be present. Let us live with that hope and let us not be afraid.
To God be the glory.