The gospel lesson we are about to read is so important to our faith that it appears in the cycle of readings every year for the Fourth Sunday in Advent. The story of Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel has captured the imagination of artists and theologians for centuries. It’s an amazing story. It’s a story filled with mystery. You have heard it already, in the annunciation hymn of this morning’s offertory, “To A Maid Engaged to Joseph.” Hear it now, as given to us in the gospel of Luke, chapter one, beginning at the 26th verse:
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.” 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?” 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 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. – Luke 1:26-38
The angel Gabriel doesn’t show up much in the Bible. We see Gabriel here in the first chapter of Luke, appearing first to Zechariah, who will become the father of John the Baptist, and then to Mary. Other than these two encounters, the only mention of Gabriel is when the angel appears to Daniel in a vision (Daniel 8:15-16, 9:21). This is an angel whose rare appearances always carry important news from God. So when Gabriel shows up, it’s a pretty good idea to pay attention. Gabriel is no little cherub with rosy cheeks and a sweet smile. This angel means business.
In this short conversation with Mary, Gabriel tells her that she is about to become the mother of the Son of God. But in the process of sharing that blockbuster news, Gabriel says a few other things that we might overlook if we aren’t paying attention. Let’s look at four of those statements, and Mary’s response to them.
First, the Angel tells Mary she is favored. The King James Version says she is “highly” favored. We often think of Mary as somehow better than us, more righteous, more holy, more perfect than normal humans. The truth is that Mary was quite ordinary. She had done nothing special to earn God’s favor. It was her very ordinariness, her human-ness, that made her the best possible mother for one who would be completely human, and completely God. It wasn’t Mary’s perfection that mattered. What mattered was her faithful obedience in response to God’s favor.
God “highly favors” each of us. God is with each of us. Not because of our goodness, not because of anything we do. We cannot earn God’s favor. God’s favor is grace. It is love we do not deserve. It doesn’t matter how holy or perfect we are or are not. What matters is how we respond to God’s love. What matters is our faithful obedience to God’s call.
In the same breath with this announcement that God favors Mary, Gabriel tells her that God is with her. He is about to tell her that she will bear a son, who will be called “God With Us, Emmanuel.” But God is already with Mary, and Gabriel wants to be sure she knows that this is true. Stop and think about this for a moment. Here we have a young, unmarried girl, who would have held no status, no power at all in her world. She would have gone completely unnoticed by everyone except her immediate family.
Have you ever felt like the rest of the world ignores you completely? Have you ever felt that you are powerless, and you have no value at all? Have you found it difficult to hang onto hope? Have you been frustrated by the way your cries for help went unanswered? That was Mary’s normal existence. And in the midst of her powerless life, an angel of the Lord shows up and says, “God has noticed you. God values you. The all-powerful one who created the entire universe is right here with you.” That kind of news can be pretty scary when you think about it. Which brings us to the next important thing Gabriel tells Mary: “Don’t be afraid.”
Luke says, that Mary “was deeply confused by his words and tried to figure out what sort of greeting this might be.” (Lk 1:29) No wonder the angel told Mary, “Don’t be afraid.” Put yourself in her sandals for a minute. Here’s this angel from God standing beside you, telling you that God values you, and that something God is going to do in you will change the whole world forever. Wouldn’t you be a little bit afraid? But the angel said, “don’t be afraid.” You might remember that this command might be better translated as “Stop being afraid.”
Stop being afraid. The angel knew that what was about to happen to Mary would be scary for her. She was very young, just the opposite of her relative Elizabeth, who was so old. But both women were about to have babies. One of those babies would grow into John the Baptist. The other would be Jesus. God was doing a new thing, and Mary must have wondered how she had been chosen to be a part of it. No one had ever given birth to the Son of God before. There was no “Virgin Birth for Dummies” manual to walk her through the process. It’s often been said that we are only afraid of what we don’t know, and Mary was facing the biggest ‘unknown’ in history. Of course she was afraid. So Gabriel said, “Stop it. Stop being afraid. God’s got this. You can trust him.”
God says the same thing to us whenever we face what we don’t know. Whether we are afraid of failing, or of hurting someone, or of being hurt, God’s got this. You can trust him. Stop being afraid.
So Mary boldly asks Gabriel a question. It sounds a lot like the question Zechariah had asked, when Gabriel appeared to tell him Elizabeth would bear a son in her old age. In v 18 Zechariah asks the angel, “How can I be sure of this?” (NIV). Zechariah wanted some proof, some sign that the angel’s words were true. His answer today might have been, “Yeah, right,” a case of two positives equaling a negative. But Mary’s question is not about her own faith, but God’s action.
In v. 34, instead of asking “How can I be sure?” Mary asks, “How will this be?” In this case, the NIV gives a more accurate translation than the NRSV we heard earlier. The difference may be subtle, but it’s huge. Mary trusted God to do what he said he would do. She didn’t need proof, as Zechariah did. She trusted that everything the angel had said was true. She just wondered how it was going to happen. What’s the protocol for virgin birth? How does infinite God become a finite human? “Okay, tell me what to expect,” was all Mary wanted to know. “How exactly is this going to work?”
And Gabriel’s answer is the fourth important thing he says that we might overlook if we aren’t paying attention.
“Nothing is impossible with God.” If God could make an old woman pregnant, he can do anything. Mary didn’t need to know the specifics.
How often do we second guess God, like Zechariah? How often do we need to see some proof before we are willing to commit our lives to following the path God has set in front of us? How often do we get bogged down in the details that really aren’t important?
God calls us to trust him completely, just as Mary did. “Let this thing you have told me about happen to me,” she said to the angel. Mary’s response was an act of humble obedience. Everything was being turned upside down and inside out, as far as Mary could tell. But God had a plan to save the world through his Son, Jesus.
Mary would soon sing a song about the things that Jesus would go on to do. He would feed the hungry and send the rich away empty. He would give power to the poor and bring down the powerful leaders of his time. Mary’s humility and complete trust would be echoed in her son’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, more than thirty years (and 21 chapters) later. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42). In other words, “Let it be to me according to your word.”
Jesus would do impossible things, and then he would die on a cross – a horrible death, full of shame – as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. All because Mary stopped being afraid, and said, “let this thing you have told me about happen to me.”
How is God showing his favor to you? What do you need to stop being afraid of? What miracle is God ready to work in you, that seems impossible? Are you willing, like Mary was, to let God do anything with your life that he wants to? Can you let God take control of you, and be with you, even when things are really confusing and scary? Because that’s exactly what God wants from you. He wants to be with you and do great things in your life, just like he did in Mary’s. And he wants this for you, because he loves you very much. You have found favor with God. You may not see an angel standing next to you, but the message God has for you today is the same one he had for Mary: Hey there, I have some good news for you! God is with you! You can stop being afraid, because God loves you so very much, that he sent his own Son, so that if you believe in him, you will have life forever. Nothing is impossible with God. Amen.