This week we took a look at the story of the announcement of Jesus’ birth through the eyes of someone who experienced it first hand. Just what can we learn from Mary’s reaction to the news of God’s plans for her? Keep reading to find out.
In a season when busyness seems to be the name of the game, sometimes it’s hard to remember just what exactly it is we are supposed to be celebrating at this time of year. Many of us know the story of Christmas well enough, but when we’re running to and fro trying to get everything done on time, we don’t stop to give it much thought. As we continue in this season of Advent, of waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ, we want to help you remember just what exactly all the hype is all about. We’d like to help you see the Christmas story through the eyes of some of the folks who experienced it firsthand. This morning we’re going to hear from someone who had a bit…higher…perspective on the whole affair than most of its participants had. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy our guest, but make sure you listen closely all the way to the end—he’s got something to share you won’t want to miss.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. You there: Stop being afraid. Relax, everyone. No need to panic or make your way to the clearly marked exits. Although, if you feel you must do so, please proceed in a calm, orderly fashion. Don’t be afraid. Do not be afraid.
Are we good? Can I take these things off, then? Yeah, I don’t really need these at all. Michael just said it might not be a bad idea since you people have such funny ideas about what we’re really like. We used to get pretty offended—I mean, how would you feel if you were reduced to a ridiculous-looking cartoonish caricature of yourself all the time? But, after a while, the Boss reminded us that He really didn’t tell you folks all that much about us in the Big Story Book, and that we are kind of far outside what your little brains can wrap themselves around, so we started just taking it in stride. Still, maybe these helped a bit? Are you a little more relaxed than you might have been if I had just showed up? Part of me still thinks that Michael was pranking me…well…I’ll deal with that later.
Anywho…wait…duh! I got so wrapped up in making sure nobody panicked at the sight of me that I totally forgot to introduce myself. I’m Gabriel. You can call me…well…Gabriel. That’ll work. And in case the fake wings and the roguish good looks weren’t enough to go on, I’m an angel. In fact, I’m kind of, like, the angel (don’t tell Michael I told you), but we’ll just go with an angel for now for the sake of clarity.
And just so we’re clear: There are different kinds of angels. I mean, we’re not all the same, just like you’re not all the same. I can’t tell you everything right now because there’s not time for one, and for two, the Boss hasn’t cleared it, but I can tell you a bit. In the Big Story Book, the Boss cleared us to tell you about a few different kinds of angels. There are the seraphim, the cherubim, messenger angels like me, archangels like Michael (he always holds that over my head…but I’m not jealous), and the “angel of the Lord.” The seraphim and the cherubim are the ones with wings. The rest of us? Not so much. We don’t need them. Those guys are the workhorses of the kingdom. The Boss sends them out on all kinds of missions. As a result, they’re the ones who managed to capture some of your artists imaginations which resulted in all the funny pictures of us. We still give them a hard time about that. Michael’s in charge of the heavenly hosts. It’s a pretty big job, I won’t lie to you. But, though I give him a hard time about it, he’s never let the position go to his head. The Boss chose well putting him in that spot. He never loses. Ever. Even at cards. As for the “angel of the Lord,” we’ll just say that if you emphasize the last part of his title, you’re getting pretty close to the reality about who he is. He tends to be put on the very most important tasks. Then there’s me.
Let me tell you a bit about myself. I’m God’s messenger. And I know that may not sound like such a big deal to you, but it kind of is. I’m the one who stands in the very presence of the Lord of all Creation and delivers His words to people who need to hear them. Why doesn’t He just deliver them Himself, you ask? Well, think about it. He’s God. His words called the whole of creation into being, including you and me. But, you and me, we’re not the same. You may bear His image in a way I never will, but I was designed to stand for all time in His full and unmitigated presence. I was built to handle His words. If He spoke to you directly without some serious filters on His voice, it would melt your bones. You’re not made of strong enough stuff for that particular experience. He’s going to give you and upgrade someday, but you’re not there yet.
Anyway, I take the messages God wants delivered to His people and I deliver them. But I still know what you’re thinking. I’m not like an errand-boy. He has other ways to filter the little stuff down to you. I take the big stuff. For instance, when He wanted His servant, Daniel—great guy, by the way—to have an explanation of the glimpse of what was coming down the pipe of human history the Boss gave him, I got the gig. It still makes me laugh when I think about the look on His face when the Boss called for somebody to explain the vision He’d just given him. He made it sound like He was talking from out of the river running alongside where he was sitting. Then, I just showed up behind him and he about lost his stuff. I wasn’t even in my fancy “angel” robes and he passed right out in front of me from the shock. Right on his nose. It was a hoot! I mean, I didn’t laugh to his face or anything—that would have been rude—but you should have seen it. It would have gone viral on your Tik-tube or You-Tok or whatever it is you call that stuff. In any event, there’s a reason we always open with “Do not be afraid.” I forgot that part that afternoon and he went down like a stone.
Well, I could reminisce like this all day, but let me go on. There were two other times the Boss sent me to deliver messages that were back to back. It was the same basic kind of news in each instance, but the responses I got couldn’t have been more different from one another. In the first instance, He sent me to talk with a priest whose wife had apparently been having some trouble getting pregnant. They had been trying for years and were getting pretty discouraged. I’m not sure why the Boss does what He does in those times, but there’s always a reason for it.
Well, when it comes to delivering news like that, the context is just as important as the message itself. Choose the wrong context and the person may not hear you at all. Approach matters. For someone like Zechariah, if I had just showed up around the house, it would have caused too great a stir. Given his position and background, I needed to take a bit different of a tack. So, I waited until it was his turn to offer some incense to the Boss in the holy of holies of the temple. And in case you’re wondering, yes, the Boss may have had something to do with the outcome of the drawing for whose duty it was that time.
The deal was that once a year, one of the priests got to burn incense in the holy of holies. The Boss gave them that particular place in the temple as a way they could get close to Him before he bridged the gap between Him and you. Because you folks stay in such a sorry state most of the time, He had to make the requirements on entering it pretty strict so you didn’t toasted. The way this worked out was that one priest, once a year, went in there, got smiled on by the Boss, and went back out after a bit to tell everybody else how great it was. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it worked.
As I said, Zechariah’s name came up and while he was in there, I got to sneak up on him and deliver the news. What I wanted to do was be sitting on the box they kept in there, and when they drew the curtain back to let him in, fire off a big “TA-DA!!!” But Michael said a bit more subtle of an approach would probably be better. It had been a while since I got to do anything quite like this, so I was pretty excited, but I went with his advice. I did get to have some fun, though. When he went to offer incense, I tapped on the wall behind him. When he turned around to look, I appeared next to the altar so that when he turned back around, there I was. His face was absolutely priceless. He was all, “Uhh…uhh…uhh…” I just stood there and let him drool on himself for a second before leading with, “Do not be afraid.” What I wanted to say way, “Chill out, man, you’re making a mess on your beard,” but I kept it short.
He actually remembered the message I gave him pretty well for having lost his mind for a second there. Dr. Luke’s record of Jesus’ life really gets it just about word for word. I said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. There will be joy and delight for you, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord and will never drink wine or beer. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb. He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people.”
Pretty good message, right? I mean, if you had been waiting your whole life for a child and I finally delivered that kind of news to you, how would you take it? You’d be doing a little happy dance, wouldn’t you? Maybe even a big happy dance. You would have probably busted out of those curtains and roped the crowd waiting outside into a big conga line, and danced your way back to the outer court, celebrating the news the whole way. It would have been a party. Right?!?
Would you believe this knucklehead had the nerve to look me in the face and say, “I don’t believe you”??? I mean, no, he didn’t use those exact words, but the first thing out of his mouth when he finally got his senses back was to tell me there was no way that could happen because he and his wife were too old. The nerve of some people! I’ve never delivered a false message at any point in my existence and the Boss never gets anything wrong. Ever. This guy was supposed to be one of his most faithful servants, and he was too stuck in his bitterness over having to wait a few of your decades—barely a blip on the radar—for the timing to be right for the Boss to execute His grand plan, that he wouldn’t believe me. I may have lost my cool a bit…but at least I didn’t torch him on the spot. I wanted too. If Michael had loaned me his sword to complete my outfit that day like I wanted him too…well…things may have gone differently. I don’t believe you…I tell you what.
Anyway, that one didn’t go quite like I figured it would. I did get clearance to teach Him a little lesson. I reminded him just who exactly he was dealing with and then shut his doubting little mouth until John arrived on the scene a few months later. It obviously gave him enough time to think about what I said, because as soon as he held that cute little guy in his arms, he was right back on board with the Boss’ plan that I outlined for him.
Now, as for that other message the Boss sent me to deliver, that one couldn’t have gone more differently. This time it wasn’t to an old man, but to a young woman. She was barely old enough to even be thinking about having children, but the Boss said go so off I went. And I’ve got to tell you: This young girl—her name was Mary—was made of stouter stuff than Zechariah was. Maybe it’s because her heart and mind weren’t all worn out from too many hard years and challenging life experiences, but when I showed up in Nazareth that morning, she just kind of took everything in stride. I mean, she was still scared out of her mind when she first saw me, but there was a courage in her eyes that wasn’t there with Zechariah in the temple. No, the Boss had chosen well this time. Okay, He always chooses well, but this time He got it really right.
I’ve got to tell you: I was pretty excited about this particular message. This was finally going to be the event that would blow open the doors on the plans the Boss had had brewing ever since Adam and Eve broke the world in the Garden. The Boss was planning on coming Himself in the person of the Son to make a way through His own death and resurrection for you folks to be back in the relationship with Him that He’d designed you to be in way back in the first place. This was the beginning of His plans to restore His creation to its original splendor. This is where everything we’d watch unfold for millennia was pointing. And I got to deliver the opening line. Honestly, I got so excited about it in the moment that I forgot the “do not be afraid” part and gushed like a fanboy at a Comicon: “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you.” Her owl-eyes reminded me I’d forgotten the reassurance part and so I quickly added that and started over: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
Now, I know that your cultures have changed some over the years since then, and that things which were considered wildly unacceptable then are taken without even blinking now, but what I was about to share with her was going to rock her world in a way she couldn’t have even imagined before I appeared in the room with her. God was going to use her as the vehicle for His Son entering the world. Now, maybe that doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but He wasn’t going to involve anybody but her in the process. He was going to totally circumvent the normal ordering of things and create someone out of nothing. In other words, she was going to get pregnant all by herself.
What I actually said to her was this: “You will conceive and give birth to 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 him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.”
I think what surprised me the most about this who episode was that she actually remembered what I said clearly enough to be able to report it to Dr. Luke so many years later. I guess something like that really would stick in your mind, but I’m surprised that she kept listening after I told her she was going to conceive. You see, Mary wasn’t married at this point. Worse, she was engaged to a righteous man who no one believed would have started acting like he was married before he was married. And, just like you because it’s never happened any other time, no one back then had any concept of having kids taking any fewer than two people. You can do the math just like she knew everyone around her was going to do it: If Mary is pregnant and Joseph’s not the father, then some other guy is. The natural assumption of every single person in her life was going to be that she was unfaithful to her betrothed. This was not the way to get started on a good life with your new husband. It was the way to get stoned to death as an adulteress.
What I’m getting at is this: Mary had every reason in the world to scream, “No way!” when she heard this news and not because she was so excited about it. This had all the potential of totally ruining her life and reputation. In other words, she had every reason in the world to flat out refuse to play ball with the Boss’ plan, and yet the only thing she managed to say at first amounted to, “Now, how exactly is that going to work?” She didn’t worry about any of the social or relational or cultural complications this was all going to bring to her life. She was just curious about the specifics of how exactly she was going to get pregnant without her future husband involved: “How can this be since I have not had sexual relations with a man?” She was a virgin and knew as well as you do that virgins don’t get pregnant without becoming not virgins and she didn’t have any plans on that. Listen: explaining to someone about the birds and the bees is hard enough; explaining to someone about how the divine birds and bees work is way above my paygrade. I assured her that the Holy Spirit was going to handle that one and told her again just how special this child was going to be. Then I added just one more little thing to the very top of the pile I had dumped on her: “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
If there was just one thing I could reassure her of before getting back home it was this: If the Boss is involved, “impossible” flies out the window. Do you know that? When the Boss is personally involved in some task—and He’s personally involved in a whole lot more than you might think—there’s nothing He can’t do. Nothing. Things you think lay so far outside the realm of possibility that you can’t even see them from the edge aren’t even near the border when He’s involved. The only thing that limits Him is His character and that’s not really a limitation at all. I just wanted Mary to know that even though this all sounded totally insane, the Boss had things well in hand.
At this point, the only thing I was waiting on was her response. How was she going to take the news? Was she going to lean into doubt like that chump Zechariah did, or did that substance I saw in her eyes when I first looked at her run as deep as I thought it did? The second one. All these years later and I still get a little misty-eyed at what she said. She said, “I am the Lord’s servant…May it be done to me according to your word.”
And I know Dr. Luke makes it sound a bit like a business transaction—“Then the angel left her”—but I had to get out of there and quick. I was about to lose it. It just would not do at all to have The Messenger of God break down into tears—even tears of joy—right in front of the person to whom he had just delivered a message. I was so excited and relieved at her fearless faithfulness that I was a slobbering mess for days. It took Michael a full week just to get me to calm down. Every time I thought about it again, I’d go right back to bawling.
I mean, do you realize what she did? She had the entire world dropped on her shoulders, was told the Boss would be there, and essentially said, “Okay, let’s go.” What?!?!? Who does that? Zechariah certainly didn’t! Moses whined and begged the Boss to pick somebody else until He finally had to use His stern voice to get him to get on board. Elijah hid in a cave and cried, “Woe is me; I’m all alone,” just because some nut-job queen put out a hit on him. Don’t even get me started on the total coward Abraham was for most of his life. Jacob was a scoundrel. David was…well…I won’t say that in polite company. Later on, the disciples were all a bunch of clueless idiots who bailed the first time things got really hard. And Paul, he wanted to wreck the whole movement until Jesus Himself nipped that in the bud. But Mary…she just took it all in stride and say, “Okay.” And the world’s never been the same.
Look, I know you folks are getting ready to celebrate Christmas. You’ve started shopping—right?—you’ve decorated every square inch of your houses. You’ve scheduled yourselves to the point that you’re swimming…perhaps drowning…in events. You’re listening to Christmas music (after Thanksgiving, right?) in hopes of capturing some nostalgic moment in your past that never really happened quite the way you think it did. You’re busy doing life. But can I just encourage you to not miss what this young girl did? The Boss said, “Let’s roll,” and the only thing she had to say was, “How far?” Other than wondering a bit about the mechanics of something that she had always been taught was a physical impossibility, she was ready to go. She was, in her own words, the Lord’s servant. And the world was transformed. With a willing servant, God can change the world.
Don’t miss that. With a willing servant, God can change the world. He did it then and He’s done it over and over in the years since. God’s power is more than enough to accomplish anything that needs accomplishing. Remember what I told her? “For nothing will be impossible with God.” He will handle all the heavy lifting. He just needs for you to be willing to be faithful; to go when He says go, to speak when He says speak, to give when He says give, to serve where He has called you. With a willing servant, God can change the world.
Now, hear me well: This doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Do you think Mary’s journey from my announcement to the birth of Jesus was easy? You need to read the story more closely. She had to get out of town almost immediately, was almost divorced, had to make a difficult journey late in her pregnancy, and even had to flee for her life not too long after Jesus arrived. Being a faithful servant generally means your life is going to get a whole lot more difficult in the short term. But you’ve got to look beyond the short term to the bigger picture of what the Boss is doing in His world. Being a part of that is everything. He is reclaiming what is His. He is fixing what is broken. He is changing the world. And you, yes you, can be a part of it. I’m telling you: All He needs to do it is for you to be faithful. With a willing servant, God can change the world.
And again, I know this is a busy season, but you don’t have to wait until the New Year to start this. You can do it right now exactly where you are and with whatever it is you have going on in your life. You simply listen closely to what He’s saying, and then go and do it. It may be something big, it may be something small (okay, between you and me, it’ll probably be something small at first), but you can start there and the rest will fall into place as you continue on down that path. It may not seem like a little obedience will have much of an impact, but you don’t know what His plans are, and you badly underestimate just how big His power is. All Mary agreed to was having a baby and giving Him a certain name. And the world has never been the same since. With a willing servant, God can change the world. What are you waiting for? Go do it.