Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

December 12, 1999

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:26-38

The words of our second Advent hymn this morning begin, “O Lord, how shall I meet You, How welcome You aright?” The choir has just sung, “Welcome be Thou heavenly King, Welcome born one glad morning, Welcome for whom we sing.” This is a season for welcoming. It is a time to be open to receive, as well as to extend, hospitality. It is a time for the sharing of gifts, the giving of favors.

In Advent there are some prominent themes that we repeat every year: hope, peace, joy, love. Perhaps there are no better words to express the celebratory nature of the season. It strikes me, though, that celebration is not automatic. It doesn’t just happen, however much we try to bolster our own spirits and put on a display of Christmas spirit. Something needs to happen along the way if we are to experience the true meaning of this season.

In our text this morning from Luke the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Do not be afraid.” This is not the first time that an angel has had this to say. The first time in Luke was when the angel appeared to Zechariah, the father-to-be of John the Baptist. When the angel appears to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, to announce the birth of the Christ-child, the same words are spoken again: “Do not be afraid” [2:10]. In fact, this seems to be one of the things angels tend to say. So says the angel who appears to Joseph, Mary’s intended, in the dream: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife” [Matt. 1:20]. So says an angel to the women gathered on Easter morning at the empty tomb [Matt. 28:5]. So says an angel to Paul, when he is on his way to stand trial before the emperor [Acts 27:24]. “Do not be afraid.”

In the Bible, angels are divine messengers. They can be bearers of bad tidings, but they tend to be bearers of good tidings. Yet their appearance is such that people hardly ever respond to them without a certain awe or fear. It’s not like having an angel show up is something you can easily take in stride.

But in all of the instances I have just mentioned, the angel has nothing but good news! In our text from Luke the angel Gabriel addresses Mary as “favored one,” then goes on to tell her that she has “found favor with God.” Something good is going to happen.

Yet it is also obvious that this “favor” that the angel of God announces is not exactly like being told that you have just hit the jackpot, or won the lottery, or been awarded first prize in the Betty Crocker cook-off. This good news always comes with an implicit challenge. If God has something so special in mind, then we can hardly be blasé about it. We are going to have to rise to the occasion. We can virtually count on some new and even awesome responsibilities--just as pregnancy tends, after all, to result in having a child to raise.

“Do not be afraid” means more than “rest easy.” It implies something like “take heart,” “have courage,” “be open and willing to receive what is coming,” “get ready for the new thing that God is about to do in your life.” It is an invitation to welcome rather than retreat from divine favor and the new future that goes with it. That is not always easy. Easier to stick with the tried and familiar. Easier to complain than to try a new remedy. Easier to live with known disappointments than to venture unknown possibiities. Easier even to keep fighting the battles that we know than to undertake a whole different approach to living.

We would be mistaken to regard Mary’s response to the angel as an expression of acquiescence to divine demand. It is, rather, an affirmation of faith and spirit. It is a declaration of openness, a word of welcome, for a future yet to be revealed. Luke presents her as an exemplary model of how we all are to respond to the prospect of becoming fitting vessels of God’s transforming purpose: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she says; “let it be to me according to your word.” AMEN.