Luke 1 26-38
This morning we have lit the fourth of the candles on our Advent ring which signifies the annunciation and indeed in some Christian traditions this Sunday is referred to as Angel Sunday which I think is rather lovely!
I wonder if any of you have ever met an angel? When I was a hospital chaplain, I met a man who was absolutely convinced that he has seen an angel alongside him as he regained consciousness following a major operation. He described the small child who had sat next to him and spoken words of reassurance very clearly – and this was not a man who would claim to be in any way religious. But he knew beyond doubt that a presence had been alongside him when he most needed support – and who am I to argue with him! After all I have never seen an angel – or at least I don’t think I have!
But then again would I recognise one if I did encounter one? After all what does an angel really look like or indeed sound like. Yes, I know that they are depicted on many a Christmas card but are they actually all dressed in what looks like a white nightdress with fluffy wings and a shining gold halo floating above their heads? In our Gospel reading this morning Luke doesn’t actually describe Gabriel – but we can imagine him (we assume him to be a him but I think angels probably transcend our earthly constructs of gender). And we know what he said to Mary, we know the words that he spoke, words that were to change her entire life and ultimately change the lives of millions of people.
Suddenly she went from being a quiet devout young Jewish woman from a respected family, betrothed to an equally upstanding man to being the talk of the town…and not in a good way! Gabriel’s visit meant that the couple’s planned wedding had to be brought forward, which in the eyes of the society in which they lived could only mean one thing – the bride was pregnant! And that was a scandal. The way in which Mary and Joseph would have planned their wedding had to be radically rethought. It would have been a very quiet affair, not the usual celebrations taking place over a week, with singing and dancing and lots of wine. The purpose of the hastily arranged ceremony would have been to make sure the baby had a father, to try and keep Mary’s family name from falling into disgrace. But just because it was a different sort of wedding it didn’t detract from its purpose as a witness to the strength of love shared by Mary and Joseph, in fact maybe it made it more special because the focus was on that love, rather than the need to entertain a bunch of random people, and even more importantly the focus was on the love they shared for God and their desire to please Him. Initially Mary was somewhat confused by Gabriel’s greeting – what does he mean by being highly favoured by God? We know that Mary was brought up in an observant Jewish household and that she was diligent in her prayers and devotion to God. We know through the genealogy of Jesus that is recounted in Matthew’s Gospel that His birth was foretold to be through David’s line from whom Joseph was descended but Mary would not have known that she was always destined to be part of God’s plan for the world. Yet there she is a young woman confronted by the news that she is to be a mother! I think Mary shows great courage as she asks Gabriel how she can possibly be pregnant as she is a virgin – I’m not sure I would have been quite as brave! Here we see just a small indication of the courage of this woman that God has chosen, courage which she would surely need as she watches her beloved son die the most painful of deaths some thirty years later. Gabriel tells her that God’s spirit will come on her and make her pregnant and explains that her relative Elizabeth is also going to have a baby, despite her advanced age. For nothing is impossible with God, he says.
As I read those words yesterday afternoon, I saw them with fresh eyes and was reminded of their power. Because truth be told yesterday things did seem a bit impossible – how was Christmas going to be possible in the light of the government’s announcement. How could we still celebrate the birth of our Saviour in a meaningful way while still keeping people safe? In the absence of a clear direction about places of worship, just a vague mention that communal worship could continue, it all did feel a bit overwhelming. Nothing as overwhelming as being told you were going to give birth to God’s Son, I know but in the scheme of being a vicar pretty daunting! But of course, the reassurance I needed was right there in the middle of the scripture passage I was preparing to preach from – For nothing is impossible with God and from those words I gained strength. Now I am not naive – I know that this Christmas is going to bring untold challenges to so many people. Carefully made plans have been dashed. Many of us won’t be able to see our loved ones as we had hoped and that is incredibly hard. But once more we are taken back to the Gospel and the Great Commandment that we should love one another as God loves us. I know I keep saying this but I honestly don’t think I can say it enough – yes there are going to be sacrifices to be made this Christmas more than most of us have ever experienced before but if we make those sacrifices then we see the fruit of that sacrificial love, the possibility of hope that next year we will once more be able to embrace our loved ones and enjoy this most wonderful of seasons with them. I don’t pretend that finding the strength to get through this time is easy – it’s far from easy. But we need only look to Mary to see the impact of what inner strength and trust in God results in. Mary told Gabriel that she would be obedient to God’s will – I am the Lord’s servant, she says, May it be to me as you have said. Now I am not for one moment suggesting that this dreadful pandemic that is sweeping the world is God’s will – I know it is not. But I also know that it His will that we keep His commandments, those that His Son gives us and that if are obedient to Him as Mary was, then the outpouring of His love will be plainly seen to those who perhaps have never seen it before and who knows what fruit that will bear as we seek to build God’s kingdom in this place.
As followers of Jesus, we are required to keep His commandments and perhaps never more so than we are in these challenging times. It’s not easy – it wasn’t easy for Mary either but if she hadn’t accepted the challenge that God gave her then what would our world be like today? We don’t know – that goodness – but we do know what happens when we refuse to think of the greater good of all God’s people. Throughout history there are so many examples of the ugliness of the world when the selfishness and greed of a few are allowed to prosper unchallenged. And in the spread of this pandemic, we have a glimpse of the sorrow that is caused through the actions of those who refuse to see the bigger picture, those who focus on their needs and desires rather than the wider community. Mary’s plans were changed by Gabriel’s visit. Her expectation of a joyful wedding surrounded by all her loved ones had to be set aside – but that didn’t make the ceremony any less holy. Our expectations of a joyful Christmas surrounded by our loved ones are being set aside – but the doesn’t make the day less holy.
So, let us all endeavour to focus not on what is different about this Christmas but on what is the same – that the Light of the World will come and darkness will be defeated. That is surely the hope of us all and that is certainly our prayer. Amen