Do Not Be Afraid!”

“Do Not Be Afraid!”

Rembrandt, sketch of the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel

Luke 1:26-38 (1:30) – November 29, 2020

            This week, we read one of the most familiar of the narratives in the New Testament. From the first chapter of Luke:  “In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

            Imagine yourself as Mary, a teenage girl. Perhaps doing housework, cooking in the kitchen, or folding laundry. When, out of nowhere, an angel appears. Out of the clear blue sky, something completely supernatural happens! She is wondering at the angel’s words. What kind of a greeting is this, anyway? Here she was, probably in the middle of an ordinary day, with the angel Gabriel paying a surprise visit to her!

            I would like to compare Mary’s surprise situation to many people, in the current day. Specifically, to my friend, several years ago. Out of the clear blue sky, she found out that she needed surgery. Before the beginning of October, she was traveling along, blithely, no serious cares or concerns. After the first week in October? Her life was turned upside down, with a serious medical situation, followed by major surgery.

            How often does something like that happen? Perhaps not a medical emergency in your life, or a loved one’s life, but some other situation out of a clear blue sky.

            But let’s return to Mary. Or, more directly, to the angel Gabriel and what the next words out of his mouth are: “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.”

            I should think, if I had the opportunity to see an angel, I probably would be afraid, too! Practically every time an angel visits someone in the Bible, “Do not be afraid!” is one of the first things out of their mouths! Gabriel continues: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

            Understandably, Mary’s response—quite sensible, under the circumstances—“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?”

            I can see Mary’s point. Truth to tell, it’s hard to beat a virgin birth! We can look at other places in the Scriptures, and see other miracles. We can look at the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus when He was an adult, and acknowledge the fact that He did miracles, regularly. But—here we have Mary, herself, wondering how on earth this miracle is going to happen to her?

            The angel has an answer for Mary, sure enough. “The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” In brief, here we have the angel describing the divine plan for a miraculous conception. Mary expresses doubt, Gabriel explains God’s plan in greater detail, Mary consents, and the angel departs.

This whole narrative makes me want to ask Mary so many questions.

How soon did you tell your parents you were pregnant? Did you tell Joseph about the pregnancy yourself, or did the gossipmongers of Nazareth take care of that for you? Was there anyone in the village who believed your story? For that matter, after the angel Gabriel left, did you doubt his visitation to you? Did you think it was a dream? What about the townspeople’s response—did you fear for your life, since people could have thought you were an adulteress?

The Gospel of Luke is silent on this matter. It leaves us with so many unanswered questions! All we know is what Mary said to the angel. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled,” was her response.

An unmarried girl who was pregnant was not just looked down on but actively persecuted. She knows that she takes the risk of being rejected as a slut, as a tramp, as unworthy of polite company, as a result of this new openness to God’s surprise activity in her life.

            Yet, we can see that Mary exemplifies the kind of response to God’s surprises that I would like in my own life.

Though—out of a clear blue sky—God completely spun Mary’s life around, though Mary knew that her life would never be what she expected it to be before, she nevertheless said “yes” to God in faith. Yes, she worshiped God (especially in her prayer, which comes after our Scripture reading for today.) She models the heart of worship, the giving of ourselves to the one who has given everything to us.

Mary’s example challenges and encourages us to have the courage to say to the Lord: “Be it to me according to Your word!” Remember, Mary realizes there is something special about to happen, that God’s plan must take precedence over her own. She accepts the challenge with hope and faith as she realizes she will be carrying the Messiah her people have longed for.

            I’d like to remind all of us here today that Mary—a normal, ordinary teenager—was visited by an angel out of a clear blue sky. She was an ordinary person who was willing to say “yes” to God, to respond to God’s call willingly and with courage, and go forward in faith.

            It doesn’t matter what our situations are, today. God can come into any of our lives out of the clear blue sky. God can rush right in, abruptly, with no warning. We all—each one of us—are encouraged to respond to God in the same way as Mary did. To agree with God willingly, with hope, and go forward in faith. Are you ready to say “yes” to God, when God calls? Say yes, in faith!  

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

My Soul Magnifies the Lord!

“My Soul Magnifies the Lord!”

Luke 1-46 Mary Magnificat, colors

Luke 1:46-55 (1:46) – December 24, 2017

People have been writing songs about the Virgin Mary for centuries. Songs of praise, songs of worship, songs honoring God, and lifting up Mary for saying “yes” to God. Christmas carols might be the first thing that come to mind—but I am also thinking of music from centuries past. From the familiar first part of Handel’s Messiah, to the various settings of the Magnificat, with lyrics from the first chapter of Luke—our Gospel reading for this morning.

Some Protestants might not be as familiar with the Virgin Mary as many Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Mary is held in extremely high esteem in many denominations and faith traditions throughout the world, and for excellent reasons. I honor her greatly.

Did you know that Mary—an unwed teenager from an oppressed people-group in an occupied country under crushing Roman rule—was also a radical? A subversive? Was plotting to overthrow the existing oppressive government and replace it with the rule of God?

What surprising, even shocking things to say about the sweet, innocent Virgin Mary! Everyone associates her with travel to Bethlehem while nine months pregnant, and needing to deliver the infant Jesus in a stable, because there was no room for them in the inn.

That Mary? Radical? Subversive? Yes.

Let’s back up. Go back to last week’s sermon, where the angel Gabriel surprises Mary and tells her God would like for her to be the mother of the Messiah.

But, what about Mary’s opinion? For a teenager, Mary must have been mature and sensible. She acknowledges the angel’s statement and God’s will. Mary says “Yes, I see it all now: I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve. Let it be with me just as you say.”

Sure, the wonderful classical settings of the Magnificat were often sung in a foreign language, like Latin. Or, in text from the King James version of the Bible, full of “thee’s” and “thou’s” and all manner of archaic words. Listen to the first part of her Magnificat, as translated in the modern version by Eugene Peterson, “The Message.”

“I’m bursting with God-news; I’m dancing the song of my Savior God. God took one good look at me, and look what happened—I’m the most fortunate woman on earth! What God has done for me will never be forgotten, the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others. His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before Him.”

One well-known depiction of the Virgin Mary is one that is meek, docile, sweet, and not raising a fuss at all. But, wait a moment. Do we realize what Mary is going to sing next? How revolutionary were many of the statements in her song?

“Even more importantly, Mary’s song is an overture to the Gospel of Luke as a whole. Mary’s lyrics set the tone for Jesus’s radical and controversial ministry that is to come:

You have shown strength with your arm;

You have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

You have brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

You have filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

“In contrast, the Christmas season leaves too many still hungry, and too many even further in debt.” [1]

Do you hear what radical things Mary is saying? If these lyrics of her song were more well-known, would our understanding of Mary be changed? Here Mary is advocating social change, rescuing victims—neglected women, forgotten elders and children, abused strangers and refugees—from being trodden underfoot, even ground under the heel of bragging, bluffing tyrants and braggarts. Turning all society as it was in her day—and ours—upside down.

What subversive idea is our revolutionary Mary advocating now? Feeding the starving? Giving the poor a banquet? Turning the unfeeling, callous rich people out into the cold? Yes, these radical words are the words found in Luke chapter 1, before we rush on to the narrative of the birth of the Baby in Bethlehem from Luke 2.

Mary was singing two thousand years ago. But, things haven’t changed much. Political leaders are still calling one another names while people starve. “Refugees struggle to find a home in a world with increasingly closed doors. The poor sleep under bridges while the rich build homes with rooms they will never need. And Abraham’s descendants—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—continue to fight over the lands where God’s messengers first spoke to all humanity.”[2]

As the Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg stated in his article on the radical nature of Mary’s Magnificat, “The Christmas story has, over time, too frequently come to have a sense of ‘preciousness,’ of saccharine sentimentality, of almost sickening sweetness as if you had eaten all the candy in your stocking all at once on Christmas morning. When this super-sweetening of the story happens, we can miss the radicality of the claim that God is found, not as the royal child of a queen in a palace, but as the son of an unwed teenager, born in a stable in a religiously-conservative small town.” [3]

Sure, we can see this saccharine sweetness of Luke chapter 2, once it is pointed out to us. But, in reality, life was not so pretty for teenaged Mary, pregnant without the benefit of marriage.

We are still in the season of Advent, the season of waiting. Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. We still watch as Joseph and his greatly pregnant wife Mary walk one hundred miles to the town of Joseph’s ancestors (and Mary’s, too).

We still wait for the baby Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. We still hold our collective breath with all the rest of creation as we wait—and wait.

Luke, the writer of our Gospel, has a different take on things. Yes, he waits, too. But he waits with songs. Mary’s song—Mary’s Magnificat is a great example.

As Dr. David Lose says in his commentary, “Have you ever noticed how often Luke employs songs in the first several chapters of his story about Jesus? Mary sings when she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth. Zechariah sings when his son John is born and his tongue is finally loosened. The angels sing of peace and goodwill when they share their “good news of great joy” with the shepherds. And Simeon sings his song of farewell once he has seen God’s promises to Israel kept in the Christ child.” [4]

These songs are deep expressions of the heart and soul to God and to the listeners—including us. These songs are hymns, psalms, songs of praise and exaltation, and even songs of resistance. Mary combined all of these into her song.

I’d like to close with a portion of a modern song written to Mary, asking her if she knew her infant son would truly be the Messiah, the Son of God. This song was written by Mark Lowry, and asks: “Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation? Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am!

Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?”  [5]

We are still waiting…

 

[1] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/12/magnificat-learning-to-sing-mary%E2%80%99s-song-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-on-luke-146-55/

“Magnificat! Learning to Sing Mary’s Song,” Carl Gregg, Patheos, 2011.

[2] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Four. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[3] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/12/magnificat-learning-to-sing-mary%E2%80%99s-song-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-on-luke-146-55/

“Magnificat! Learning to Sing Mary’s Song,” Carl Gregg, Patheos, 2011.

[4] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/12/advent-4-c-singing-as-an-act-of-resistance/

“Singing as an Act of Resistance,” David Lose, …in the Meantime, 2015.

[5] http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/m/mark_lowry/mary_did_you_know.html

Mary Did You Know lyrics

(A heartfelt thank you to An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide. Some of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this guide.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my Advent sermon series. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Do Not Be Afraid!

“Do Not Be Afraid!”

Luke 1-38 annunciation icon

Luke 1:26-38 (1:30) – December 17, 2017

Pictures of Christmas in the church bring to mind all sorts of things: Joseph and Mary entering a crowded Bethlehem, shepherds abiding in the fields, pictures of the Nativity scene. All manner of different pictures. But—we still haven’t gotten to Christmas. Christmas has not arrived yet. We are still in the waiting period; we are still in the third week of Advent.

Our Gospel reading—and presentation this morning—comes to us from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. We look on with Mary, the teenaged girl engaged to Joseph, when she has a heavenly visitation. This Annunciation, or visit from the angel Gabriel, has been the subject of paintings, stained glass windows, mosaics, and other forms of artwork for centuries. About as long as the Gospel of Luke has been written down.

In many of these paintings, the teenaged girl Mary often looks relaxed and comfortable. She’s holding a book, she’s sewing, she’s arranging flowers, she is hardly startled at all. [1] Consider this situation another way. What are the first words out of the angel Gabriel’s mouth? “Do not be afraid, Mary!”

Look at another picture of Mary and the angel Gabriel, in the modern-day image of the Annunciation painted by Benedictine priest, John Giuliani. “In his rendition of the Annunciation, Have No Fear, Father Giuliani depicts Gabriel coming down from heaven, feet first, aimed right at Mary’s face, with a stem of lilies outstretched like a sword. For her part, Mary nearly falls out of her chair as she shields her face from Gabriel’s descent. The chair is pushed back on only two legs, swept over by the force of the messenger’s entry into time. It’s not as pretty a picture as the ones on Christmas cards, but it might be more accurate.” [2]

Before we go further into this Gospel reading, we need to consider Mary. A teenaged girl, can we even consider how frightened Mary must have been after she was greeted this way by a heavenly visitor, an angel? I am not sure, but I suspect I would have been at least as frightened as Mary at the totally unexpected visit of the angel.  How do you think you might feel if an angel appeared to you?

The separate branches of the Christian faith think of Mary in different ways.

I grew up on the northwest side of Chicago. For me, surrounded as I was by Roman Catholics, I knew that Catholics considered the Virgin Mary to be an extra-special woman. It was not until years later that I learned exactly how: “for Roman Catholics, Mary is a Co-Redeemer with Christ whose job description is to act as a go-between with us sinners on earth and God in heaven. During the Middle Ages, Mary became important in the prayer lives of the common folk, as one who could empathize with their plight and mediate forgiveness. In the councils of the Church through the centuries, she gradually gained supernatural qualities.” [3]

Again, we are getting way ahead of ourselves! Here in Luke chapter one, Mary is still a teenager. The angel Gabriel has just left. She travels to see her older cousin, and now we come to another great picture from the life of Mary. We have the Visitation of the Virgin Mary with her cousin Elizabeth, another picture that has been painted countless times throughout the centuries.

Women are so often overlooked, when we consider the Bible. In both the Old and New Testaments, as well as in general society, women are forgotten, ignored, shunted aside, and treated as second-class citizens. That is, unless we are reading the Gospel of Luke. Luke lifts up the characters of Mary and Elizabeth, and provides a memorable exchange.

“God is already at work to overturn the world’s structures and expectations.” [4]

At our neighboring church here in Morton Grove, St. Martha’s Catholic Church and Shrine of All Saints, we would discover something else about Mary—and about her cousin Elizabeth, and about many women of many periods and cultures. We would see that in many pictures at St. Martha’s Church, each woman has a covering on her head. Similar to certain cultural standards of dress today, many religious women cover their heads. Like religious Christian women today—like many Catholic nuns, and like many Orthodox women all over the world. We have religious Jewish women who cover—like observant married Jewish women. And, we know some observant Muslim women today, here in our area as well as in other places, cover their heads. They wear hijab. Head coverings. Just like Mary and Elizabeth did.

Returning to the many pictures and other artworks that portray the Virgin Mary, many of them show Mary interrupted from reading. A book is something that has been in pictures of Mary for centuries. Mary remembered as a literate young woman.

What a wonderful thing to tell our children and our children’s children! We have it on good authority that Mary could, indeed, read. Many Jewish women of that time could, unlike their contemporaries in other places. What a wonderful opportunity for the young Jesus to have both an earthly mother and father who were literate and able to teach their children.

Is there anything better that what Gabriel said?  The angel “assured Mary that God’s Holy Spirit would be with her. Even though she was frightened, Gabriel promised that God would take care of Mary. Mary learned from the Bible about God’s love, so she knew that she could trust the words of the angel when he said “Don’t be afraid!” [5]

Mary’s cousin Elizabeth adds some intelligent and insightful comments.  “When Elizabeth says, ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,’ she implicitly contrasts Mary’s trust in God’s power and promise with her own husband Zechariah’s skeptical questioning.” [6]

The high-powered priest Zechariah was skeptical when the angel came to him, a few months before. He asked for proof that the angel’s word was true. In contrast, Mary asked for an explanation of what was going to happen to her, and then gave her willing consent. Zechariah the religious professional doubted God, but Mary the girl from a poor family believed what the angel Gabriel said. “Her trust in God’s word opened the door for God to bless her and to bless the whole world through her. Elizabeth celebrates Mary’s willingness to say “yes” to God.[7]

We know God’s call is not always convenient. And sometimes, God asks us to set aside everything we think we know about reality in order to accomplish the Divine agenda. Such was the case with Mary. Thankfully, we know the end of the story. All of us can listen to the angel when he tells us “Do not be afraid!” Those are good words for all of us to take to heart.

 

[1] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Three. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[2] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Three. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[3] http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/mary-reluctant-prophet-alyce-mckenzie-12-17-2012.html  “Mary, the Reluctant Prophet,” Alyce M. McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2012.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2723  Judith Jones

[5] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Three. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2723  Judith Jones

 

(A heartfelt thank you to An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide. Some of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this guide.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my Advent sermon series. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)