Do Not Be Afraid

Advent 4B–23

Immanuel Lutheran Church

The angel Gabriel said to Mary, the child she would bear “…will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, (Luke 1:32). She was a young peasant woman no more than 13 or 14 years old.  She had her whole life in front of her. She was to be wed to Joseph, start a family, and take her place among the respectable people living on the little rocky outcrop that is the mountain town called Nazareth.

Gabriel called her the ‘favored one.’  It is a strange blessing. Did she perceive the broad outlines of trial, tragedy, rejection, and hardship, she was to face?  You’ll notice, this Divine favor would not equate with wealth, health, comfort, or ease. Mary’s ‘favored’ status meant the dream of normal family life would be nipped in the bud and replaced with scandal, danger, and the trauma of her son’s crucifixion.

Yet, was there an upside? Gabriel told her “…the Lord God would give her child the throne of his ancestor David…and he would reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there be no end (Luke 1:32-33). It’s hard to imagine more powerful or overwhelming words than these about the future of Mary’s offspring. But rather than being caught up in such glory, she responds humbly and quite practically, “How can this be, since I have no husband?”

Among the many works of art that depict this encounter between Gabriel and Mary one seems to capture the drama of this moment: The Cestello Annunciation painted by Sandro Botticelli in 1489. Today, it hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. There, Mary is fully aware of the complexity and consequences of her choice. In contrast to the traditional notion of ‘Mary obedient, meek, and mild,’ Botticelli evokes Mary’s internal process of deliberation. She responds to the Angel Gabriel with both awe and angst. The embrace of God’s call would be profoundly countercultural and require her to trust an inner vision that flew in the face of everything her community expected of her. Moreover, it required her to persist in faith long after Gabriel disappeared. Swooning toward Gabriel, Mary is simultaneously vulnerable and gracious. Finally, Mary says yes.

“Where an ordinary woman would dream of a child who would elevate her in this world, Mary dreams of a child who will liberate all the lowly.  Where it might be commonplace to dream of a child whose glory would extend to Mom, Mary dreams of a child who will fill all the hungry with good things.  Where any mother might dream of a child who will grow up and be Somebody, Mary imagines a child who will knock all the Somebodies of this world off their thrones, who will scatter them in their false imaginations and raise the lowly in his new, true world. (Nancy Rockwell, “Fearlessness,” The Bite in the Apple, 12/15/14)

Mary’s glory is almost always connected to her maternity. Mary is Mary because of Jesus. But before she was Jesus’ mother, Mary was a prophet like Isaiah, a person of humble circumstance who lived in a time of political turmoil and military oppression. Like Isaiah, she feels inadequate to bear God’s word to the people. Yet, eventually, both Isaiah and Mary relent and embrace the Spirit’s call on their lives.” (Diana Butler Bass, Sunday Musings, 12/24/23)

Our first reading (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16) and gospel lesson (Luke 1:26-38) each involve proposals for making a proper house for God. In 2 Samuel, David wants to build a permanent dwelling place for God in Jerusalem to match the glory of his own castle. This plan does not please God. David’s hands are stained with blood from years of pillage and murder, killing women, men, and likely children (1 Samuel 27:11). In this way, the home Mary offers God (in Luke 1:26-38) stands in marked contrast to the bloodstained building David built. Mary offers flesh and blood, and a pure heart. Mary is a shining example for all of us who would wish to love and serve God with our lives. As Meister Eckhart, 13th c. German mystic said, ‘We are all called to be mothers of God – for God is always waiting to be born.’

St. Francis wrote, “we should make a dwelling-place within ourselves where he can stay, he who is the Lord God almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” A dwelling place is not a place one passes through, but the kind that one can take root in. God comes again to take root and dwell in us this Christmas. See, we have become a living stone, the fulfillment of the promise Gabriel made to Mary, part of God’s dynasty of justice and that will last forever.

Thomas Merton added, “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him, Christ comes uninvited.” In a violent world such as ours, the best that we can offer Christ are the small corners. The mangers and the dishwasher cribs. Our hearts. The humble places where he feels most at home. Like Mary, we listen again to Gabriel’s proposition with both awe and angst.

Martin Luther noticed something in Mary’s response to Gabriel that is instructive.  Faith isn’t about knowing the facts.  Faith is the willingness to stake “goods, life and honor” upon the promise of God’s love and the hope that springs from it. Faith always involves at least some risk and vulnerability.  (Is the gift of faith on your Christmas list?) Mary shows us faith must follow the way of the cross as we journey from belief into action.

In this busy holiday season, many of us We feel the pressure to be extraordinary homemakers.  Christmas brings a whole season of decorating, preparing meals, special desserts, parties, cards, and letters to write (can I just say, snail mail is so unbelievably time consuming!) and of course, there are the gifts to purchase, wrap, and display before the big day with family and friends.  Adding to all this are the ghosts of merry Christmases past, now lost; or Christmases present that disappoint us; or perhaps the ghost of Christmases future that haunt us with the dread fear of being alone.

Just when all your effort to make everything perfect threatens to overwhelm you; when all your losses and regrets mount up to make celebrating Christmas seem impossible, the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary comes like water in a dry land, or like light in the darkness. Christmas homemaking is not our job, but God’s free and generous gift.  Our savior’s birth marks the moment in human time when God became flesh. God is not “out there,” but, with Mary, we learn God is always also “in here.” This is Mary’s great discovery.  God is here and everywhere. Through community in Christ, we have become a temple of the living God—a living sanctuary of hope and grace.  You and I are God-bearers by our baptism into Christ.