Luke 1:26-38; 46-55
I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this before, but my junior year of high school, our school decided to put on Fiddler on the Roof as the winter musical. I love Fiddler, and it had always, secretly, been kind of a dream of mine to play the lead role of Tevye. This musical is about a Jewish man living in Russia around the turn of the 20th century. It’s the story of his relationship with his daughters as they grow older; but it’s also the story of how the daughters’ lives and values inevitably push back against the values of his own generation. It’s a lovely story.
Anyway, I love the musical, and I wanted to try out. I’m a pretty good singer, and I can ham it up on stage, so that’s not a concern. But the first day of auditions was the dance auditions. I have never been a dancer. I don’t do it well, and it’s not something I enjoy doing. I dreaded the dance audition.
Here’s the thing, though. I really wanted to do the musical. So I had a choice – skip the dance audition and don’t try out for the musical at all, or grit my teeth and bear doing something embarrassing in front of a whole bunch of people. Well, I decided eventually that my love of singing (and of Fiddler in particular) were great enough that I would just go ahead and go through with the audition. Plus, telling sixteen-year-old me that he didn’t have to shave for four months was a pretty great incentive, too.
Here we are: the last Sunday of Advent. And Advent is marked, of course, with the lighting of candles at the beginning of our services. Has anyone ever stopped to think about why we light candles? Well, it’s winter; we’re getting colder, and the days are getting shorter. Therefore, the symbol of the candle – a light to chase away the darkness – has been a very powerful one for Christians. Because just as one candle’s light is enough to chase away darkness, so too can this one little baby, born 2000 years ago, chase away the things that plague us: evil, sin, and death.
You probably know that the four weeks in Advent have four traditional themes: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Now why these four things? There are other words that could have been used as themes: faith, salvation, life. But the four that are commonly used seem to have something in common. After a lot of thought about it, I decided that the reason these four themes, in particular, get used, is that they all have a common opponent: fear.
Fear, when we give into it completely, immobilizes us. It prevents us from seeing our own value and the work of God in our lives. It makes us despair, and despair is the opposite of hope, the first theme.
Fear makes us wary of new things. It makes us lash out against what we don’t understand. It makes us embrace violence, and violence is the opposite of peace, the second theme.
Fear can also cause us to wallow in sadness. And I don’t just mean the kind of sadness that comes when something happens that we don’t like, but we’ll get over it. No; fear causes us to find those deep places of depression that we can never climb out of. And depression is the opposite of joy, the third theme.
Fear also causes us to despise those who are unafraid. It makes us guarded and angry. In truth, fear makes us hate; and hate is the opposite of love, the fourth and final Advent theme.
You see, all four of these weeks – hope, peace, joy, and love – are brought up at this time of year, I think, because of the root cause of fear. But what about this time of year would make us fearful?
Well, I think there are a lot of things. As we approach a new year, there are always those things we left undone in the year that is passing. There’s also that natural, human fear of darkness and cold and loneliness, which so often increase for us right around this time of year.
But the truth is, the reason I think we fear is that there simply are a lot of things to be afraid of. The world is not always a happy place. Go home and crack open your newspaper or flick on your television if you don’t believe me. In the summer, it’s easy to ignore those things, what with the light and nice weather. But in December, with the snow and the cold and the pervasive darkness, especially today of all days? Well, it’s a lot harder to ignore the shadow sides of this world.
And for me, a huge part of thinking about fear always loops back to the story that leads up to the very first Christmas. Last year, I gave a sermon about the announcement of the coming Christchild to Joseph, and I talked about his bravery in the face of a pretty negative situation. But this year, we look at a different text, and this one that focuses on Mary.
So, back to my dance audition. It was a disaster. I know I wasn’t the worst one out there – there were definitely some people with two left feet on stage with me – but I was far from the best. I messed up a few times. But I was glad I did it. I got the lead role, and had a great time doing the musical. Still, though, I had to get through that rough part first.
That’s a tiny, tiny microcosm of what Mary went through, I think. I mean, “Mother of the Savior of the World…” wow! That’s a pretty cool title! I mean, can you imagine comparing with the other parents?! “Our son is a lawyer.” “Well our daughter is a doctor.” “Oh yeah? Well our Son came to save us all from sin and death, show us God’s plans for the world, and lead us to salvation.” That would be a pretty nice trump card to be able to pull out.
But the thing is, you don’t get to skip to that part of the story. You have the whole intervening time – and that time for Mary must have been much more nerve-wracking than a silly dance audition in front of some high schoolers.
We hear a lot of conflicting reports about who Mary was. But think back to those days 2000 years ago. Mary was engaged. In those days, it was pretty common for a girl to be married off in her mid-teens – maybe a freshman or sophomore in high school, if it helps you to think of it that way. Her husband was certainly older – possibly quite a bit older. I think we often see Mary and Joseph depicted in art as two parents in their late-20s. But really, maybe Joseph was that age – maybe even older – but Mary was still just a teenage girl.
And this teenage girl had to cope with marrying a man that her parents chose for her. And then, one night, an angel comes to her and says, “By the way, you’re pregnant even though you’ve never been with a man.” Yikes. I mean, her husband-to-be could leave her forever for having someone else’s child – and as far as Joseph knew, the only thing he could be sure of was that the baby wasn’t his, so it must be someone else’s. Her parents might disown her. Her whole community would look down on her. Her life was, for all intents and purposes, ruined in that moment the angel came to her. Oh – and to top it all off, she was going to have to try to raise a child as a single mother in a place where single mothers were considered scum. Yeah; life was not looking so great for Mary – or her baby.
So you know how she reacted? With fear. Why wouldn’t she? I mean, someone basically just told her that the rest of her life is going to be terrible! She should be afraid – for herself, for her child, for her family.
But while her initial reaction is fear, Mary’s mind changes along the way. The thing is, fear, once we get past it, is often disguising opportunity. There are reasons to be afraid for Mary. But once she gets over them and decides to push forward in the way God is calling her, her life improves immeasurably. She starts to realize that she is not just being presented with a burden, but with an opportunity.
In her famous song, the Magnificat, which we find in Luke 1:46-55, Mary sings praises to God, speaking of justice.
She sees that, through the fruit of her womb, God will be bringing about peace and justice in the world. She will be given the chance to mother and shape the future of the whole of creation because of how she raises this little boy she is carrying. And yes – that’s every bit as scary as the other stuff I mentioned – maybe even scarier. Yet, for Mary, once she comes to grips with the situation, it is all just an opportunity to engage more deeply in the life God is calling her to.
Every day, God tries to deepen our relationship. What is God calling you to today? Are you being asked to spend more time in prayer? To become a better parent or spouse? To make a change in your life that helps you live out what God is asking you to do? I don’t know what God is asking of you. But I know that, like for Mary, something that can seem scary at first can, in fact, be the greatest opportunity and gift of all – if we but embrace what God is calling us to do.
Now, there’s no way for me to say for certain that every opportunity is like the one Mary had – obviously, hers was pretty much a one-time thing. But the fact of the matter is, each and every person’s life on earth matters to God. While we might not all be one of the parents of the Son of God, we’re all being asked to do something scary – something more. And while that thing will look different for each of us, we need not fear. Even though we don’t have an angel standing over us, telling us not to be afraid, we simply have to remember: God came into the world to save us, and calls us each and every day into an ever-deepening relationship. May you discover what it is God is calling you to do, and may you have the courage of Mary to go out and do it! Amen.