Scripture - Luke 1:26-56
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.
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
How many of us could use a little more peace in our lives?
I did a quick Google search this week - and we’re not alone in our quest for peace! The search turned up lists like: “9 Books To Help You Find Inner Peace, No Matter How Crazy Your Life Gets”, “11 Books To Read For Peace Of Mind For Times When Things Get A Little Fuzzy”, “17 Books That Inspire Inner Peace and Happiness”, a list of 40 “Best Inner Peace Books” on Goodreads, and so much more. The Self-help market is flooded with texts promising an empowering journey toward fulfillment and happiness through discovering your identity in 5 easy steps or less.
Sounds compelling, right? I mean - who wouldn’t want to find inner peace and wholeness that way?
The problem, though, with many books like this - even though they may contain truths about peace - is that the solutions they offer are often temporary. They promise happiness...which isn’t always peace. They offer pain-free living...which isn’t always wholeness. They give a quick solution...which isn’t always transformation.
In our story today, we see Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel - a conversation that leaves her with a host of problems that any self-help book would love to address. Seeing visions and hearing voices? Check. The potentially adulterous nature of this pregnancy in a culture that executed unchaste women? Check. Delusions of grandeur as one highly favored by God? Check.
It is certainly enough to merit Gabriel’s message of Do Not Be Afraid.
Last week, Zechariah freaked out when the angel appeared. Mary, however, doesn’t seem alarmed, but is perplexed at Gabriel’s coming to a common girl such as she, pondering his incredible message of favor. Yet instead of turning away from the news the angel came to bring her - that she would bear a son by the Holy Spirit and that he would reign over God’s kingdom - she faces her fears, accepts her reality, embraces her purpose in God’s great story as told to her by Gabriel and replies with a simple “Let it be so with me according to your word.”
I find Mary’s trust and faith and courage pretty remarkable in the face of what saying “yes” to the angel would mean for her and for Joseph and for the child she would carry. There is such peace and acceptance of her reality, of her place in what God is doing. She comes face to face with her true identity in God, with her purpose, with what the future will bring - and is at peace within herself...which leads to the joyful song she shares with Elizabeth about what God will do in the world through the birth of Jesus.
I don’t know about you….but I know I’ve struggled with finding purpose and being at peace with it. I’ve struggled with finding more peace in my own life and in my relationships. I wish I could be more like Mary - who had this direct encounter with the angel and immediately aligned her whole life around that message from God. For whatever reason, my method of discernment seems to be a bit more based around holy anxiety or the wrestling match back in the Old Testament that Jacob has with the angel. So if you hear God more like Mary does - more power to you - there is immense blessing in that. If you tend to find yourself in a wrestling match with God more often than not - I am right there with you...and there is blessing to be had in that struggle as well.
This past year where Ben was struggling with his health while I was trying to balance parenting and work and caring for the needs of the household and my own needs and community commitments -- I can say that peace wasn’t something I had in abundance, especially at first. I was wrestling so much against the idea that this was not how I envisioned parenting with Ben, this was not how I pictured ministering and living here on the island, that this was not how life was supposed to be going. I couldn’t accept the reality of my situation and what that meant for me and how I needed to spend my time and energy.
As I continued to wrestle and struggle, a message from God started to come through - sometimes during prayer, sometimes in the middle of the night when I was up with Michael, sometimes in the middle of ordinary activities or conversations with friends. I can be pretty dense, so it had to come through a lot of different channels...but the message was “you are enough”...and in those places where you feel like you aren’t enough, I’m right there with you.”
“You are enough.” These three simple words were enough to shift my focus from the swirling chaos of my life this past year to the core of my identity as someone loved and cherished and gifted by God - just for who I am...not for what I do. All those other things - the sermons to write, the diapers to change, the meals to prep, the constant attentiveness to Michael’s safety, the mound of correspondence that had been accumulating or worry about Ben’s health or all the things I felt like I should be doing to be “super mom” or “super pastor” -- they all weren’t as important as this identity of being enough in God’s eyes. It was that fact that gave me the ability to accept the reality of how things were and that gave me the courage and strength to be at peace with my role for this season of my life. It’s not easy...and I’m not perfect...but I’m learning to live more as someone created by God to be enough for the people God has placed around me.
Perhaps that sense of identity, of rootedness in God’s love and grace and mercy is what enabled Mary to so quickly be at peace with her part to play in God’s story. Mary was able to recognize her own belovedness, her own favor with God, with the message the angel brought to her. Certainly, such a proclamation of favor, of worthiness, of being beloved by God can be such a startling one - and the truth of our identity being centered in God’s unconditional love can feel scary and threatening to us because it means that the centers of identity we’ve built for ourselves - around work, family, status, education, our communities, our accomplishments, our wealth, our politics - have to change.
The truth of it is that we don’t have peace when we build ourselves around all these other things - if we define ourselves by what we do, what happens when we lose our job, or when we have a difficult situation at work that disrupts us? If we define ourselves by what good parents we’ve been, what happens when our children chose a different path? If we define ourselves by our accomplishments, what happens when we are unable to achieve what we’ve used to or when the health crisis comes and we can’t do all that we were once able to? All these other sources of identity aren’t permanent; they don’t give us the foundation to develop lasting peace in our lives.
But if we are firmly grounded in our identity as a child of God, one who has been created by God and who is loved by God simply for existing, that there is nothing we can do or be that would ever change that fact...that kind of identity gives us the strength and courage to be at peace no matter what life brings our way. It allows us to respond to the unexpected news, the difficult conversation with a friend, the change in political climate, the hard day at work with a sense of peace that is not borne out of resignation or passive acceptance - but with the hopeful peace of knowing and trusting in God’s promises that no matter what, God is present and at work and that God has a part for me to play in whatever is unfolding in my life or in the world.
Peace comes when we have a sense of who we are in God and live that out in our lives...which helps there be more peace out in the world. In this season of Advent, I invite us all to be aware more fully of our grounding in God, to surround ourselves with reminders of our true identity as God has created us, to find ways to shift those centers of identity that the world would have us build to bring it back to God’s love for us, for others, and for the world.
For some of us, that reminder might come through the words of Scripture, or other spiritual reading - I’ve been going through Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak recently and recommend it for those of you who might be continuing to wrestle with that sense of identity and what it means for how you live out your life vocationally. Others might find that peace in poetry or music, or in nature -- whatever it is that brings you back to that place of peace and strength in God’s love -- create space for that this season as we anticipate the birth of Jesus and as we seek to have more peace in our lives and in our world.
Because we all know and feel the fear and anxiety increasing in our world, in our communities, and that creeps over into our own lives. So let us stand fast against the tide of fear with the words of the angel echoing in our hearts and in our minds - Do Not Be Afraid - as we stand with Mary, a people who are beloved and favored by God, to share the promise of hope...and the promise of peace to a broken and hurting world. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the Chebeague Island United Methodist Church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and two dogs, and soon will expect a new addition to her family. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the chuch community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.