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.
Scripture - Luke 1:5-25; 57-80
5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
The Word in Song (Anthem)
It was another day - business as usual. Well, mostly as usual...as usual as it can be when you are sorting through your entire life with your home on the market, preparing to move back to your home state with no job prospects or place to live. Ben and I had accepted this state of limbo as our new reality; I went to work each day at this lovely gourmet food and sandwich shop while Ben took the lion’s share of preparing our house to sell - from doing all those little paint touches to sifting through all our possessions deciding what to keep, throw away, or donate, while also working down the road at the Tewksbury United Methodist Church as their church musician.
We knew that we would be moving to the Portland area, but as to when and how and why, we didn’t know. We couldn’t make firm decisions until we had a timeline on the house. We had dreams and ideas, certainly - of renting a small apartment somewhere in the city, finding jobs working at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods - or I would draw upon my skills learned at my first job as a teller and get back into banking or break into actuarial science with my math background. Neither one of us had any desire to get back into ministry, deciding that we both needed a season of rest and healing after our ministry in Haverhill had come to an end.
This was our new normal.
Until one morning in early February an email crossed my inbox from Jim McPhee, our district superintendent, who had an opportunity for us that brought us to this place...and that has changed our lives in ways that are beyond our imaging. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jim McPhee was an angel...but he did bring a message of hope at a time when I was wondering what was next for our family.
Today we hear a story about one man whose life was changed in the midst of business as usual - Zechariah. His wife Elizabeth was barren - they had no children and were old. Yet they continued to pray to God for children. The scene opens on Zechariah performing his priestly duties at the Temple in Jerusalem. He had been chosen to enter the most sacred of places - the holy of holies - to make the offering on behalf of the people gathered outside. It was his turn to ensure that everything was done properly and in good order...and what happens instead but an angel shows up...now, you’d think that in all the places you’d expect an angel to show up, it would be right there, in the inner sanctuary, by the altar, in the Temple -- but no - Zechariah is caught completely off-guard. More than that, he’s terrified. Fear overwhelmed him. It’s into this fear that the angel speaks the words “Do not be afraid” and continues to tell him that he and Elizabeth will bear a son that will have a special role to play in preparing God’s people for the coming of the Lord….and Zechariah’s life is forever changed.
So much for proper and good order in worship.
Life is full of these moments - moments that break into our reality and nothing will ever be the same again. The college letter. The job loss. The health diagnosis. The birth of a child. Finding your partner in life. Moving to a new place. Losing a parent...a partner...a child. The new business venture. Moments that bring joy and grief and challenge and excitement and...as all change can bring...a bit of fear as well.
In our story, Zechariah can’t get his head around this news and so the angel silences him until the baby is born and is presented at the Temple, at which point Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks words of hope and promise over his son John -- who will come to be known as John the Baptizer -- and offers a reminder of the hope and promise that God had given to God’s people - a promise of redemption, of mercy, of covenantal relationship...that the day is coming when light will appear out of the darkness, when salvation will be at hand, when they will be guided in the ways of peace and forgiveness.
What words of hope for an oppressed people in the backcountry of a vast empire on the verge of change….and what words of hope for us to remember as well as we consider our own changing world and the fears and anxieties that threaten to overwhelm us.
In Hebrew, the word for hope is tikvah, and it’s defined as a cord -- as expectation -- as hope. It comes from the Hebrew root kavah, which means to bind together, to collect, to expect...to tarry and wait for or upon.
Hope is concrete. It’s definite. It’s not an abstract ideal or emotion, like we often think about in English. Rather, hope as we see it used throughout scripture is this a stunning visual - a tactile image that we can grasp with our hands, literally holding on to hope as something real enough that we can cling to it. It’s a lifeline...something within our reach...active and expectant...hope is being thrown a rope when we desperately need it….hope is hanging on to that cord even when we can’t understand why we’re hanging on.
It’s a bit ironic that in our story, when Zechariah hears the news about the one thing that he and Elizabeth have been hoping for - actively waiting for - holding on to - having a child - Zechariah doesn’t believe it. He doesn’t understand it. He confronts this news about the son his wife will bear...about the joy and gladness he and everyone will receive because of this child...about the role his son will play in God’s story...with cold, hard fact. Not hope. I’m old. Elizabeth’s old. It ain’t gonna happen. He lets fear get the better of him.
But how often is that our reaction when faced with the promises God gives to us about how this new way of life is possible? That we can live a life with more hope?
It takes courage to hold fast to hope in the midst of an ever-changing world, where we are bombarded by messages of who should be welcomed and who should be excluded, who should be prioritized and who should be forgotten, who should be praised and who should be denigrated. We live with threats of violence, of the abuse of power, and of economic insecurity; it’s in the air that we breathe.
And yet we are called to be a people of hope - people that point to a different way of being in this world - actively expecting God to fulfill the promises of a kingdom of justice and peace, of mercy and forgiveness. God is the rope we cling to, the lifeline that sustains our souls and in this Advent season we look to that time when Christ will come and make things right in our world.
It’s in that active, waiting, hope that we are invited to be messengers of hope to a world that desperately needs it….we as the people of God are called be a lifeline for those who need to hear of God’s love, for those who are lonely and brokenhearted, for those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, and for those who have no peace in their lives.
In the midst of great change, in the midst of a broken and hurting world, hope is always a welcome thing. Advent reminds us that God makes us ready for whatever unknown may come our way - when those moments come that change our lives, when fear can creep into our hearts, even when we go about our business as usual, we can hear the words of the angel to Zechariah: Do Not Be Afraid...and we can be filled with the strength to live with more home in an ever-changing world. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and two year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.