BOUND FOR BETHLEHEM-THE TRUSTING MARY
December 17, 2017…3rd Sunday of Advent
Most days my 20-minute commute up and down the I-81 Mount Sidney-Harrisonburg Thruway is a ho-hum journey. I do enjoy the beautiful sunrises and sunsets to the east and west. And every morning there’s this group of retired starlings perched on a power line just past the Mt. Crawford exit chewing the fat and discussing the previous night’s Baltimore Orioles game. And if I’m drifting off a bit there’s always the noxious odor wafting from the North River Sewage Treatment Plant to tickle my olfactory senses. But otherwise everything is pretty much routine and uneventful and normal.
But then there will come those occasional days when I’m jarred awake by a line of red brake lights in the distance or a blinking message on a VDOT sign board or Mike Schickman announcing on WSVA “We’re seeing it and we’re saying it!”
Yes, there’s been an accident on the interstate and traffic will soon be coming to a screeching halt and backing up for miles. And I go into a frantic panic mode, trying to find the nearest exit ramp or crossover where I can make my escape to an alternate route, either on the Valley Pike or the CrossKeys Rd. or Rt. 42. The ordinary journey of daily life has suddenly taken a sharp turn, and I’m scrambling big-time!
Could it be possible to draw some analogy between my daily commute and the life experiences of a young woman we encounter today?
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Yes, there are times when life takes a most unexpected turn. We have two choices….
WE CAN SUCCUMB TO FEAR
Mary’s days are quite normal and satisfying as she makes her way down the interstate, the goat path of life. She’s nearly 15-years-old and engaged to Joseph, a hard-working carpenter and a good, decent, well-respected man. They have the blessing of their respective families and the entire village.
The future is so bright for her.
And then life takes that most unexpected turn.
Mary is completely startled by an uninvited guest. The angel Gabriel invades her presence. He sounds like a representative from the Publisher’s Clearinghouse—“Greetings, favored one!” It’s as if he’s informing her she’s won some grand prize in a sweepstakes that she never entered.
And Mary is completely stymied by some most unwelcome news. The message is simply beyond conception. It is most inconceivable that the Spirit of God is conceiving a baby in her womb. And that child is the very Son of God, the savior of the world! Surely this is a dream!
Mary is perplexed with pessimism. “How can this be?” I am a virgin.” Her mind is swirling with scenarios. “If this is true, what is Joseph going to think of me? What will be my fate? How can I possibly face my parents and the people of the town?” Fear grips Mary by the throat and heart.
We’ve had those unexpected turns as well. Life is disrupted by the news from the CT scan, the pink slip left on the desk, the separation papers delivered by the attorney, the phone call from the county lock-up. We are paralyzed by fear of the known and the unknown.
It’s an obvious understatement to say we live in a day of great fear. The language of “terror” has become the motivating mantra of our day. I did a Google search for the word “fear,” and I 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. [www.phobialist.com]
Bruce Larson tells about a man who had terrible hallucinations that plagued him for a number of years. “I believed that there were wild, hideous animals hiding under my bed,” the man told one of his friends. “Every night when the lights went out, they would come out, prowl all around the room and scare the stew out of me. But my brother finally solved my problem.” “Oh, is he a psychiatrist?” asked his friend. “No,” said the man, “he’s a carpenter. He sawed the legs off my bed.”
Yes, sometimes our fear can be the wrong use of imagination. We become anxious and unsettled over things that simply may never come to pass or may not even exist.
But we are not talking about eccentric worries here. We are talking about those times when life takes that kick-in-the-gut, drastic, unexpected turn, and our hopes and dreams and plans are fearfully turned upside down in the blink of an eye.
We feel out of control because we are no longer in control, and that perhaps is the worst phobia of all.
That is Mary’s predicament as she encounters this angel with a life-altering message.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be…?”
How can this be???
Mary has a choice. She can curl up in a ball, melt into a puddle, languish in a constant state of paralyzed self-pity.
When life takes that unexpected turn, we too can succumb to such fear.
But there is another option:
WE CAN SURRENDER TO FAITH
Now, I don’t believe Mary suddenly does a 180 here…what Luke mentions in one paragraph perhaps took place over several hours, if not days. But somehow Mary comes to grasp that the angel standing before her is not some adversary but rather an emissary from God. And in Gabriel’s message Mary receives the grace of God’s presence and provision:
The Lord is with you. If only we could grasp the significance of those five words. We are never alone. The Lord is with us through thick and thin. His presence never abandons us.
Three years ago I suffered a heart attack. In the aftermath of recovering from that event, I dealt with severe panic attacks. And what eventually brought me through many long, fearful nights was simply singing to myself the verse of an old spiritual Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. And I would drift off to sleep in peace, with the assurance that whatever was going to come, the Lord was with me.
Mary discovers this grace of God’s presence. And she also discovers the grace of God’s provision: For nothing will be impossible with God. Not even giving birth to the very Son of God.
Sometimes, though, we need help believing that. And this is where Gabriel reminds Mary of her cousin Elizabeth. Mary hurries off to the one person who could possibly understand what she is going through. Elizabeth has miraculously gotten pregnant in old age following another angelic annunciation. Elizabeth believes Mary and shares in her joy.
Yes, sometimes we need an Elizabeth—someone whose faith is strong when ours is weak. And God provides such folk.
Our own Judy Briggs has been battling Parkinson’s Disease for some years now. She became intrigued with a type of therapy for this disorder that utilized the rigorous training of boxers. It slows the progression of this disabling disease. She helped to organize a group in the Staunton area with the help of a YMCA director. The group now number 21, and his helping many folks resume a normal lifestyle. Providing an Elizabeth like encouragement and assurance to others, Judy has been there for her fellow Parkies!
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God provides Mary with an understanding, supportive cousin in her time of crisis. And through such encouragement, Mary comes to terms with all that is ahead of her—she will deal with the perceived shame of her pregnancy.
Elizabeth will help Mary to trust the divine messenger that indeed she is carrying the very Son of God in her womb. Instead of succumbing to fear Mary surrenders to faith.
Mary says to Gabriel, Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word!
Here am I…let it be with me.
Yes, the trusting Mary teaches us to take that leap of what John Inderlink calls “the gracious abandonment of who we are into the possibilities of who we might yet be.”
Like Mary, life is going to present us with many unexpected turns. We have a choice. We can succumb to fear. Or we can surrender to faith.
May God help us to trust where we cannot always see.
May God help us to grasp that blessed assurance that we are not alone—he is with us now and for eternity—and because he is with us nothing is impossible for us. We can deal with that unexpected turn in the road, and find an alternate route to hope.
Thanks be to Christ, and his mother Mary, for teaching us this most vital truth to live by!