There is something comforting about a familiar story, isn’t there? In the midst of all that is happening in the world and in our lives, we know that we can hear this story and think about the miracle that occurs in this story. It’s as if, in the middle of chaos, this story is the calm that surrounds us in a warm blanket of security and familiarity. The annunciation is key to everything we believe. In our creed we even confess that “we believe he was born of the Virgin Mary…” Now, would the story be any less amazing had Mary been an older woman, already married, already with a child or two? Probably not. The fact is, Mary had been chosen for something pretty amazing, pretty miraculous, and pretty life-altering.
What amuses me about this reading is that it really is about one of the hardest issues we have to deal with in the church. A reading that usually brings us comfort and warm fuzzy feelings is really truly about one thing at its core: change. Oh no, there’s that four letter word again. Change. Change is the number one enemy of our dear friend “we’ve always done it that way.” Change is also a pretty good acquaintance of “we’ve never done it that way before.” I believe all of you are familiar with our old friends “we’ve always done it that way” and “we’ve never done it that way before.” They hang out here quite a bit. They don’t contribute much to the life of this church but it seems they have hung out here once in a while. It seems that they’re hanging around less and less though.
In an instant when Gabriel comes to Mary what he is saying to her is this: your life is about to change. Everything you know is about to change. What plans you had for yourself in your mind are about to change. Your identity is about to change. Everything you have held in your heart to be true is about to change. All of it. And Mary, instead of freaking out and running from the angel screaming (as I might) she instead says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord…” yes, because that is how we all embrace change, right?
Over the last few weeks I’ve talked a bit about the hurt in this world. I’ve talked about the reality of waiting, keeping watch, and being awake. I’ve talked about a world that is weary and is longing for Christ to return. And as Christmas has drawn closer, it seems that there is more hurt in the world. The stories on the news are almost too much to bear. A hostage situation in Australia, rising racial tensions in our own country, the threat of terrorist type attacks if a movie is released, and just the normal hum-drum of everyday life. Or maybe this year, for whatever reason, it’s hard for you to be anything close to “merry” as we get closer to Christmas. And maybe the one thing we need right now is consistency. What we need now is familiarity. What we need now is the old standby. What we get, instead, is change.
I’m sure it’s not just me, but for some reason, my life seems to operate in an opposite fashion. What I mean is that when I need life to slow down, it speeds up. When I need to find balance, I get tilted. When peace, quiet, and calm, I get met with chaos. Does this happen to anyone else besides me? Do you have those moments when you think “I don’t know how much more I can handle, God!!” Eventually you might start having that fight or flight reaction in your body. Darkness may get deeper. Love may be harder to feel. God may seem further away than ever. And just when it seems that things can’t get much worse, change happens.
We’ve learned, thanks to experience, that change isn’t always bad. But as I thought about Mary and how she must have felt upon receiving the news from Gabriel. Her reaction and how I would have reacted are complete opposites. Sometimes when I am faced with change, I go into an Ellen-style meltdown, complaining that it’s not fair and wondering “why does this have to happen to me?” (Of course, I get frustrated with Ellen when she has the same style of meltdown). But when I’m finally calmed down and quiet enough, I hear something. I feel something. I am warmed by something. It is the whisper of God. See, because it’s not just Mary that God adores, it is all of us.
Before even giving Mary her life changing news, Gabriel greets her with “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” Do you understand how amazing this is? Because this is the way that Mary was greeted, we know a lot about our God. Gabriel doesn’t show up to Mary and just dump the news on her that she is going to have a baby which will, consequently, be the savior of the world, and then leave. No. Gabriel, who is an angel of the Lord, says “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” And in that moment, we learn so much about the God that Mary will serve, the God that Gabriel serves, and the God that we serve. We serve a God who first and foremost favors us and promises to be Immanuel: God with us.
When it comes down to it, when we get a chance to be honest with ourselves and if we dare be honest with God, I think that what so many of us long for is an assurance of love. We want to hear “I love you.” Perhaps we want to hear that same sentiment but just using different words. Maybe you want to hear “you’re important” or “you’re worthy”. Maybe you long to hear “you are enough” or even “your life matters.” No matter what words we use the root of the message is this: I love you. And because Gabriel says it to Mary, we can believe it is true for us too. God favors you and God is with you. God loves you.
And it may be tempting to argue and say “but Pastor, how do you know? Gabriel only says these things to Mary.” I know because every time I hear the words “given for you and shed for you” what I am really hearing is “I love you.” And when you see someone receive communion, they are receiving love. When you see someone splashed by baptismal waters, they are receiving love. God finds so many ways to love us and often we are blind to it. You ARE loved, brothers and sisters. You are loved beyond your comprehension by someone who thought you are worth dying for. You are loved in a way that our minds and hearts have trouble understanding. But, you are loved, indeed. No matter what. Not only are you loved, but God is with you. Every moment, of every day, of every month, of every year until forever.
There is a lot of change happening in our world. There is a lot of change happening in our lives. Doesn’t it make it a lot easier to handle knowing that God loves us and God is with us? “Oh that you would tear down the heavens and come down.” “…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” Be awake. Keep watch. Be alert. Are you ready, favored ones? God is with you. The Lord is coming. Immanuel: God with us!