There is a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians that is often read on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. Some have called it a love letter from Paul to the church, because in it he cannot say enough about his affection for the people of the church there.
As we come to the end of an extraordinary year for our church, with challenges still before us, I read those words of Paul this week and was reminded of my own love for the dedicated staff of our church—and for so many of you who have supported them with cards and emails and phone calls and all kinds of encouragement. This year our church has pivoted and pivoted and pivoted again to be church in faithful ways. From our custodians to pastoral care staff, from office workers to musicians to educators to all of you who have encouraged them, Knox Presbyterian Church is truly an amazing group of people.
As we begin our time with God’s Word today, I invite you to hear Paul’s words to a church in his own time, and receive these words as a blessing I wish for all of you:
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (Phil 1:3-6)
We will make it through this time together, my friends. I am blessed by all of you.
The arc of this past year has been incredible. Try to think back to a year ago, when we were just becoming curios about this “coronavirus” and whether it was going to come our way. And then it came—fast—embarrassing our naïve curiosities. It hit the east and west coast and biggest cities hard, and then came to every corner of our country.
We’ve spent most of the year now caught between grief over what has been lost and hope for when things might get better. We’re living through that mix of grief and hope again right now with a current surge of cases alongside the great hope of emerging vaccines. All along the way we have wondered, “What are we learning from this?” How will it reshape our lives? What will things look different forever? These are curious questions, questions that will be different from person to person and for which no one has all the answers. And these are questions of possibility—questions of what might be. We ask them today, caught in a situation that a year ago we could hardly have imagined.
I would suggest that the message of Christmas is especially useful in a time like this. It is the story of a family who finds themselves shocked by circumstances they never could have imagined. It is a story of possibility, a story of a new life God teaches them to imagine.
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.”
This is how the story begins. Notice that God sends the angel not to the big city, but to the countryside; not to the Temple or the Palace, but to a small town that had neither; not to a royal princess, but to a woman whose name is Mary—one of the most common names in the Bible. All of this is to say that at the beginning, Mary is no one special. The Christian traditions of the last 2,000 years have conditioned us to see Mary as holy, flawless, extraordinary, uniquely chosen among all people. But the story itself says none of that. The story goes out of its way to say nothing remarkable about Mary, which is to say that it could have been anyone, and is a story for everyone. God might send an angel into the life of any one of us. When God has a plan for you, there are no prerequisites; and maybe a bit more frightening: when God has a plan for you, there is nowhere to hide.
Mary and Joseph are told news that is shocking—news they never could have imagined. “…you will conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary is not yet pregnant, she and Joseph both know they have not been together, so how can any of this even be possible, and that is to say nothing of who the angel says the child will become. It is the most unbelievable news they could imagine; and Gabriel sets it up by saying this: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
“You have found favor with God.” That sounds pretty nice, on the surface, but stop and think about it for a moment: Do you really want to be favored by God? When someone in the Bible finds favor with God, something big is expected in response. Life is probably easier if you don’t find favor with God…it might be easier if God doesn’t find you at all. But God’s favor is a blessing—it contains amazing possibilities for a life that Mary never could have imagined, and so the angel invites her to consider it: he says, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”
Mary gives it a lot of thought. We do know that. In a few short verses, the story tells us that Mary was perplexed, that she wondered, that in confusion she asked, “how can this be?” and in a step toward commitment, she said words we’ve heard in the Bible before: she says, “Here I am.” And even when the child comes, she will continue to wonder; she will “treasure all these words and ponder them in her heart.”
Mary comes to understand these unimaginable events as acts of possibility. “What is God trying to teach me?” How will it reshape my life? What will be different forever?” I wonder if Mary is able to do that, not because she is extraordinary, but because she finds herself in the midst of a story she has heard before…and she wonders if she too can be a part of it. She recognizes a story she’s heard many times before when the angel says, “Do not be afraid.”
New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine offers a helpful, if surprising, way to understand what’s happening in these stories. You might remember when the show, “Law and Order” first came out. It was a big hit. The show had a pattern: the crime scene, the investigation, the building of the case, then the trial; it was such a compelling story that they spun it out week after week for years, and even when that show got cancelled, it was replaced by SVU and NCIS, and CSI. All these shows played on that same basic theme that viewers had learned to get excited about. This is called a literary convention. The writers of these TV dramas knew how to fit new stories into a model they knew was reaching people.
Says Amy-Jill Levine, the Bible repeats its stories not only to entertain, but even more to “instruct, inspire, and astound.” These stories make the impossible possible in our minds and hearts, and they do so with power because we have seen it take place time and time again in the lives of the faithful who have gone before us.
This is what’s happening when an angel appears in the Bible. All the following are stories about a miraculous and unexpected birth: It happens with Hagar, with Sarah and Abraham, and with Rebecca, the mother of Jacob and Esau in the Book of Genesis. It happens with the wife of Manoah in the Book of Judges, and Hannah, the mother of Eli, in the Book of Samuel. In the New Testament, Luke then picks up this model with his story of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who couples that story with the one we read today, the story of Mary, the greatest annunciation of them all, the birth of Jesus. Over and over, the angel says, “Do not be afraid.”
These stories would have been deep in the conscience of the people of Israel. They might have gathered in house churches listening to the stories told out loud, and the stories had become so much a part of the fabric of their lives that when the angel appears, the people in that house meeting sit up, and they say, “I know what the angel says; he says, “Do not be afraid!” (for the above references, see Levine, Light of the World, 61-63.)
Mary has heard these stories so many times that she might have dreamt about it. She might have wondered if God will work in her life too, in ways that are mysterious, powerful, and wonderful. Even though it is frightening, she wonders if she can “Be not afraid.”
What do we learn from this story? How might it reshape our lives? What could be different forever? What might be possible if I could be unafraid? These are the questions of Christmas, the challenges brought by a mysterious story of a child in a manger, who came as unexpectedly as anything in the world.
Mary “found favor with God.” I mentioned that—and that God’s favor requires a response. Mary’s response comes not only in what she believes God is doing in her life, but what she believes God intends for the lives of others—for all of God’s children. Her response is captured in Mary’s own words that follow the visit of the angel—the prayer we have come to know as the Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)
Mary hears the challenge given to her ancestors. She understands what is being asked of her. She responds, knowing that God’s love is for all of God’s children. She intends to be a part of God’s story.
Christmas brings a challenge to all of us. Some of us love the story, the music, the candle lighting, and even the holy mysteries of what God’s Holy Spirit is doing in this strange and wonderful story of faith, but we aren’t ready to act: to ask what this story means for people living in desperation who need help; to acknowledge that we who live so comfortably, need to be the ones to help them.
There is a challenge there for many of us. Others among us may need a different Christmas challenge. Christmas has become for us an important time of providing food and clothing and gifts, giving away money and making commitments to justice for the oppressed, but we have shielded ourselves from the supernatural in this story—the ways in which the Holy Spirit might be at work to change our hearts—to help us feel the love of our God as we never have before.
Mary reminds us of both. And so will Jesus in the way he comes. Humble and vulnerable—a child in a manger, he comes to save the world. He will not do it by dominating others but by caring for them. He will not reign with a riches and an army, but by calling the powerful to act with justice; he will do it by reminding them that the good life is where love is found. He will live a life connected to God, for the sake of loving others.
It is a call that can be taken up by any and all of us. We know that because the call came first to Mary, who did not receive it because she was perfect, but to show us that God invites us all to “be not afraid.” The angel shows up again and again, to show us that divine messengers can be anywhere.