“Do not be afraid” Simple and perhaps terse words for the world-altering news Mary was able to hear. Like elsewhere throughout the Bible, an angel of God cautions their hearer before continuing. A brief reminder that what is about to happen should not cause fear. In our own world of unknowns and fear we would do well to remember that God is at work and weaving new life for the world in our midst. The Christ-child is coming. All will be made new. Things will be different but do not be afraid because God will bring us into better and more abundant life if we but have faith and trust in him.
One of the songs we’ll sing later in our service is inspired by the text and person our gospel is about today – Jesus’ mother Mary. The song is “Mary did you know?” and it asks a number of interesting questions.
Mary, did you know that your baby boy Would one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy Has come to make you new?
That the child that you delivered will soon deliver you?
When the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that she would have a son that she was to name Jesus and that he would be great, be called the Son of the Most High, that the Lord God would give to him the throne of his ancestor David and that he would reign over the house of Jacob forever, Mary was understandably surprised, and must have had an overwhelming number of questions. When it finally sunk in, Mary’s response was exuberant joy. Mary was so filled with happiness and emotion that it was not mere words; it was a song. Mary’s song. The Magnificat, which we hear parts of in many beloved hymns and parts of liturgy and our worship, rather we notice it or not.
Like the others before her, Mary had learned to expect God’s working in unlikely and unimagined ways and so the vision she casts of what a Savior’s coming might mean included amazing things. Casting unjust rulers from their thrones, feeding the hungry, helping Israel amidst their persecution and occupation. Mary considered what her encounter with an angel might mean not only for herself but for her people and the world and so she ran towards that future without fear.
Mary responded to the heed of Gabriel’s command “do not fear” and the world-shattering news that followed by boldly trusting in God and God’s character. While finding herself in an unfavorable situation and with a lot of explaining to do with those around her, Mary chose to cast her vision towards the newness God was creating. Mary did not get stuck in the ordinary that was passing away. Mary did what is not easy to do. In a time when the world felt like it was being turned on its side, she chose confidence in God as she moved forward into the unknown future. She imagined what could be rather than what could be lost.
Last week I shared with you part of my call story, and this week I’d like to tell you about part of my husband’s. Very few of you have had the chance to meet my husband Cole, because he’s also a seminary student, serving as a vicar at four Lutheran churches near La Grange, until we both graduate this Spring and are hopefully ordained this fall. His story is fairly different from mine. I knew I was called to ministry from the time I was 14 and have actively pursued this path ever since. Cole at that time would have laughed at you if you told him then that he’d become a pastor a decade later.
Growing up, he was always excellent at math and science, he excelled in school and his whole personality is much more heady and logical than most people. He wants to investigate and understand everything he can, constantly acquiring more knowledge, rather it’s about calculus or how to shell pecans and make moonshine. Everyone had always told him he would make a great engineer, and he heard that enough times that he assumed he wanted that too. It would give him financial security, it was interesting, he was good at it, what more could he want?
Meanwhile, as a teenager he was much more of a troublemaker than I ever was. While I played in the school wind ensemble, he played in a punk rock band. In my free time I played on sports teams and worked part time jobs, while he and his friends explored abandoned buildings and gave each other bad tattoos. Yet he still remained involved in church, not because his parents made him, but because he genuinely wanted to. He helped to mentor some of the younger youth, and even helped teach confirmation classes. He loved the Lord but didn’t realize that pastors could be people who had tattoos or used swear words, so the thought of him doing something like that never even crossed his mind.
He went off to college in San Francisco, he had gotten into a good school there, and was in a 5-year program for physics and mechanical engineering. He had everything he’d wanted – a great school far from his hometown, a pathway to a reputable career, classes he was doing well in. But while he was in his first semester of college, he heard a voice inside of him, telling him this wasn’t what he was meant to do, he was called to be a pastor, not an engineer. The first time he realized this, he was at a punk rock concert, and told one of his friends what he’d just realized, and the friend stared at him, then laughed in his face and brushed it off. But that voice and that call never left him.
He was doing well in his classes but wasn’t fulfilled in what he was doing. He found far more meaning by wandering the streets of San Francisco at night and making friends with homeless people, hearing their stories and breaking bread with them, being with God’s people on the margins. At the end of the semester, he went home for winter break and talked with one of his pastors at his home congregation about his thoughts about maybe, possibly considering ministry, and his pastor listened and validated everything Cole was saying. His pastor told him he’d always thought Cole might be called to ministry, and that he had great gifts for it, but the pastor was wise enough to know that if he told a rebellious teenage boy that, all it would do is make him run farther from the possibility. He knew Cole had to come to this path on his own, and that’s exactly what he did.
Cole asked his pastor, if going to take this seriously, what he needed to do, where he needed to go, how he could even begin to take steps towards ministry. What this pastor told him was not at all what Cole wanted to hear. He said, Cole would need to leave his engineering program, and his Catholic university in San Francisco, and consider getting a Theology degree instead. And the best place he knew of to prepare and nurture Cole for the path God was leading him on was California Lutheran University, which is a great school, but which was even closer to Cole’s parents’ house than his high school was. It was where Cole relentlessly teased several of his friends for going to after high school, for not wanting to leave the nest or go somewhere cooler than their sleepy suburban hometown. In a matter of just a few weeks, Cole had gone from being so set and sure of his path, and well on his way to life as he’d always imagined it, to a crossroads where he was faced with a complete 180 to a completely different, lower paying job, with more schooling required, at the school that would have otherwise been his absolute last choice.
Like Mary, he was faced with Life changing news, risking, and gaining everything all at once. Mary said yes and responded to her new future with joy. Cole responded, probably not with singing like Mary did, but with full trust and commitment to the new life God was giving him. He dropped out of engineering school and applied to California Lutheran, and was accepted just a few days before Spring classes started. He met me on his third day of school there. While God’s path for Cole was completely unexpected, God also gave him the faith to be able to follow boldly. God is active in our world and in our lives here and now, and having an active God means having our lives changed in huge and unexpected ways. We’re each called to do what Mary was called to – not to give birth to the Son of God – but to be open to God working in our lives in new and unexpected ways. We’re called not to fear, but to trust God as we choose to take steps towards the new, scary, wonderful life we’re being called to.
We don’t always know where God is leading us, but we take courage and continue on despite the unanswered questions. Did Cole know if he would regret leaving his engineering degree? No. Did he know if he would even get into another school, for a completely different program? No. Did he know he would meet his wife there, along with countless other great friends and colleagues? No. But he trusted God and took courage.
Mary, in her situation of uncertainty also decided to take courage in God and God’s character rather than linger in questions that could not be answered before she got through them. What would her betrothed Joseph think if she suddenly became pregnant? What would her parents think? What if she, a young teenager, wasn’t ready to raise God’s promised heir?
Rather than get stuck in the present, Mary trusted in God’s future, whatever that might be. Mary boldly followed what God was doing in her life even in a situation that seemed like it might only cause heartache and headache.
So, did Mary know? Did she know her baby boy would walk on water, save our sons and daughters, and make Mary new? Probably not. As a member of the Jewish people Mary would have grown up with an expectation for a Jewish Savior. The name Jesus, which comes from a Hebrew word meaning Savior, itself carried with it a plethora of different expectations and assumptions. Mary would have had plenty of ideas of what Jesus might do or be, but she never would have been able to know exactly what Jesus came to do. Even more miraculous than predicting the future in that way is perhaps the fact that Mary trusted and obeyed the promise anyway.
Jesus grew up in a house with this sort of trust and bold faith, and so it makes sense that Jesus, as an adult and fully accepting his role as Savior, also trusted in God, and moved forward into a future, knowingly facing death, because he trusted not only in what could be imagined but in what could be possible through God. Jesus and Mary both adopted lives as obedient servants. Trusting in God and God’s plan that was being laid ahead of them. Going forward into the unknown future with confidence in God’s love and mercy, they left their fears behind and took courage in God alone. May we also have the courage and faith to do the same. Amen.