It's an obvious understatement to say we live in a time of great fear. The language of "terror" has become the motivating mantra of our day. A Google search for the word "fear," came up with a fascinating site called "The Phobia List"—pages of phobias, A to Z. Everything from Alliumphobia—the fear of garlic and Lachanophobia—the fear of vegetables to Zemmiphobia—the fear of the great mole rat. It even lists Ecclesiophobia—the fear of church and, get this, Homilophobia—the fear of sermons! You can even get a poster of the "Phobia List" which will cover your entire wall. We all have our own phobia lists, We all have our own phobia lists, and the list can be as fresh as the morning papers: Daily bad news about the state of the economy or personal security; Ongoing fighting in the middle east with no clear sense of how long it will go on, or when, if ever, it will end; horrendous fires, tornadoes, drug resistant bacteria, plane crashes, epidemics, drought and flooding. Add to that, fear-mongering TV preachers and politicians who use talk of terror for political gain until the fear of terror becomes its own terror. Then add to that, panic-driven newscasters who can't even give the weather without fear-filled, bated breath. It all leads to what Jane Spencer in the Wall Street Journal refers to as the "fear system" of our day. Into that maze of fear, we have the audacity to read the word of the angel to Mary: "Do not be afraid!"
Do not be afraid. It's a hard message to accept in the face of our world. But, like FDR, Advent reminds us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Mary was both troubled and confused by what the angel told her. When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” Mary was quite likely wondering just what such a greeting meant. Why would she, an insignificant young woman from an insignificant village be favored by God? Granted that she was of the House of David (Through Aaron) as was her husband Joseph; but then being descended from David wasn't all that unusual. So what had she done to deserve such a greeting?
As Mary wondered what the greeting meant, Gabriel continued: 30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 1 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.
Why? Mary Asked. “Why Mary?” we ask. Why an unwed, impoverished, and teenage girl?
Throughout the gospels Mary is portrayed as thoughtful, obedient, believing, worshipful and devoted to Jewish law. To us, and to all who knew her, she is the ideal Christian. However, none of these qualities are offered as reasons for God choosing her, God’s reasoning is tucked away from our view. We can guess, and we can come to our own conclusions, but the truth of God’s choice is known only to God in his eternal plan.
If Mary had wanted a perfect life on unbroken happiness, ease and pleasure in all things, then she certainly didn’t get it. If she had tried to measure up the favor of the Lord by the expectations of the world, then it would seem that the promise and salutation of the angel was only an illusion.
There are those who would tell you that God's favor results in health, wealth, and prosperity. God's love is exhibited in a beautifully decorated tree with presents piled high around it. Televangelists and Christian writers proclaim that God’s favor is with them, that God wanted them to be wealthy and powerful. Their messages always contain some sort of theologically problematic promise: If only you pray more, if you only read your bible more, if you only put more money in the offering plate, then God will make you healthy, happy, holy, and wealthy. That is not the favor Mary Experienced, nor is it the Gospel Jesus proclaimed. If God had wanted our discipleship to be easy then he would not have come into the world through the difficult situation of an unwed virgin. If God had wanted our faith to be easy then we would have no need for church, repentance, and forgiveness.
On the contrary, it appears that if you are “favored”, you are probably being recruited by God, who has a task for you. At it may well be something you don't want to do. Like Jonah. The LORD told Jonah, the son of Amittai, (Jon 1:2) to go to the great city of Nineveh and say to the people, "The LORD has seen your terrible sins. You are doomed!" Jonah didn't want to go so he ran in the opposite direction only to learn that you cannot run away from God. God’s favor and blessing do not necessarily mean life is easy, we get our way, or we live happily ever after. It is not God’s reward for right behavior or right believing. It is rather a state, a condition, a way of being. Mary’s “yes” to God is not the source of or reason for her favoring and blessing. Rather, her favoring and blessing are the source and origin of and the means by which she can say “yes.”
With Mary, and frankly with every single one of us, it comes down to obedience. Purely and humbly Mary put herself into the hands of God. She sacrificed so that God’s will could be done in the world. “Let it be with me according to your word.”
When Christian Herter was governor of Massachusetts, he was running hard for a second term in office. One day, after a busy morning chasing votes (and no lunch) he arrived at a church barbecue. It was late afternoon and Herter was famished. As Herter moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line.
"Excuse me," Governor Herter said, "do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?"
"Sorry," the woman told him. "I'm supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person."
"But I'm starved," the governor said.
"Sorry," the woman said again. "Only one to a customer."
Governor Herter was a modest and unassuming man, but he decided that this time he would throw a little weight around. "Do you know who I am?" he said. "I am the governor of this state."
"Do you know who I am?" the woman said. "I'm the lady in charge of the chicken. Move along, mister."
The baby Mary would give birth to is the one in charge of this meal. It appears to be a simple meal, just bread and juice. But it is so much more. It is the body and blood of the one called great; the Son of the Most High God; poured out for you, and for many for the forgiveness of sins. So don't be afraid to take seconds...or even thirds. This is the food of salvation, the food of grace. Come, eat, drink, and celebrate! AMEN.