The story began when the angel Gabriel visited Mary with the words. “Do not be afraid” she was puzzled by his words. That has to be one of the great understatements of the entire Bible! Her confusion is no surprise, for nothing could have been more unexpected, more perplexing, more shocking, than the appearance of Gabriel and his dramatic announcement. If we have trouble understanding some of the story of Christmas, this much we can easily understand. As the text readily admits, she was much perplexed! And as the old King James version said, she was sore afraid.
This element of surprise is consistent throughout all the stories of the birth of Jesus. All the familiar characters in the biblical accounts are surprised and puzzled. It is a story full of surprises. Who would expect, that such a world-changing event would take place in such a marginal location? The angel Gabriel was sent by God, not to Jerusalem, the centre of religious life; not to Rome, the centre of political life; not to Athens, the centre of cultural lifebut to little a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to announce the birth of a king.
This king would inspire a new religion, challenge the politics of that day and revolutionise the world. All of that was about to happen, and it would be announced by Gabriel in a place of religious, political, and cultural obscurity.
What a risky thing for God to do, going out to the margins of respectable society to launch this world-changing event. Galilee was hardly a respectable place in the eyes of the Jewish elite. So from the very beginning Christianity had two things against it. To speak of a Saviour from Galilee was almost a contradiction in terms. In those days Galilee was known as a hotbed of political unrest, a place full of uneducated locals who had little respect for the Torah. The Gospel of John even quotes a well-known saying of the time. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
We live in society with a culture of celebrity status, where so many people think that the only way to influence the world for good is to have your picture on the front of Hello Magazine; But God doesn’t work like that - in fact just the opposite. He sent the angel Gabriel to make the momentous announcement to a young woman in an obscure place on the margins of society.
Consider how surprising it is that God chose such a vulnerable way to change the world. At any point the plan could have collapsed. Mary could have laughed in Gabriel’s face. Joseph could have been a disappointment and walked out on Mary. The unsanitary stable could have led to infection, pneumonia and death for the baby Jesus. Herod’s soldiers could have found the baby Jesus before they escaped to Egypt. At any stage along the way there were plenty of times when the whole story could have come unravelled.
There are some, of course, who think of Mary and Joseph were puppets in the hands of God with no more choice in the matter, but is that really the way we think God works?
Frederick Buechner, in his book Peculiar Treasures, described the scene when the angel Gabriel visited Mary. ‘Gabriel told Mary not to be afraid: And as he said it, he hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung on the answer of a teenage girl.’ Imagine that the angelic host hovered invisibly over that scene and the angels are holding their collective breath: “What will she say? Will she do it? Come on, Mary, say yes.”
We know the answer Mary gave: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary wasn’t the first to say these words. Abraham said them when God told him to gather his family, pack their belongings and head off to a land that God would show him.
Hannah said the same thing when she brought her child Samuel to the temple to dedicate him to God, and the child Samuel said the same thing when he heard God calling him at night.
The prophet Isaiah said the same thing when he heard the call of God saying, ‘Who shall I send, and who will go?’ And Isaiah said, “Here am I; send me.”
And now Mary, this young girl, barely old enough to have a baby, senses the call of God in her life, and even though she has no idea what this call will mean for her future, she says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” She never asked, “What’s in it for me?” or if she would be safe through childbirth. She never asked if she would be stoned for being pregnant out of the marriage bond. She never asked, “Will my parents disown me?” She just answered the angel and said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to your word.”
This is a story about ordinary people not celebrities and right here in this place today we are ordinary people who have been called by God to do extraordinary things. No, you will not be called to give birth, but don’t think for a minute that the angelic chorus is not holding its breath to hear your answer when God nudges you with an urge to do something good and helpful or courageous. And don’t think, just because you can’t hear it, that the heavenly host is not singing “Alleluia” when you say, “Yes, Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to your word.”
God calls individuals and he calls churches to be bearers of Christ to the world. The Greek Orthodox Church calls Mary, theotokos, which means God-bearer, and that is our calling, to be the bearer of the divine in our corner of the world!
There is an underlying question running all through Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. Where will Jesus find room?
At the beginning of his gospel there is no room in the inn. At the end of his gospel there is no room for him in the world. No one shouted out a word of support for Jesus when he stood before the crowds and Pilate asked, what shall I do with Jesus? There was no room for Christ in this world, they even laid his body in a borrowed tomb, just as Mary had laid the baby in a borrowed manger.
No matter what state we find our lives in today, busy, tired, feeling far from God, lonely, or frightened, there is one surprise that beats any other Christmas surprise we have ever received. It comes from the lips of the angel Gabriel in Luke’s story. Those angelic eyes looked into Mary’s heart and they look into our hearts as well, and the angel said; “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Notice that promise is in the future tense. Nothing WILL BE impossible with God. And that future tense stretches all the way from Galilee to us here in all our respective towns and villages. The message from the angel Gabriel to each one of us is:
“Greetings, highly favoured ones. The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid. For nothing will be impossible with God.” What a tremendous promise to leave with us today.
There should be a resounding Hallelujah!.