December 2, 2018: "Through Mary's Eyes: From Fear to Courage"
December 2, 2018, 1st Sunday in Advent Rev. Rhonda Blevins
Through Mary’s Eyes: From Fear to Courage
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 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. 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. For nothing will be impossible with God.” 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.
I’m 14 years old. This can’t be happening to me . . .
There is a man . . . an angel . . . who just . . . appears out of nowhere. I am alone and I am terrified. But when he begins to speak, his words calm me:
“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” he says, his ancient eyes filled with compassion. “You’re going to have a baby . . . a boy. You will name him Jesus. He will be called the Son of the Most High.”
“I don’t understand,” I tell him. It’s all very disorienting and confusing. “How can this be?” His response explains and reassures me: “The power of the Most High will overshadow you.” And then the angel reminds me of something I’ve heard but never quite believed: “Nothing is impossible with God.”
Still not quite believing what is happening to me, I tell the angel that I am the Lord’s, and that I will serve the Lord’s will. “Here am I,” I tell him. I’m ready.
The angel leaves, leaving me bewildered, but strangely comforted.
Is it true? Will I bear a son who will be great in the Lord’s eyes? Who can I tell? Who will believe me?
The halls are decked in garland and lights. The shops have started playing Christmas tunes—Jingle Bells and the Little Drummer Boy and Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. Cable TV stations are promoting their schedule of all of the old Holiday classics. What’s your favorite? Christmas Story? Charlie Brown Christmas? Christmas Vacation? Elf? Holiday parties and family visits fill our calendars. Children are beginning to make their lists for Santa.
And Mary isn’t even showing. In fact, today is the day she discovers this bewildering, mysterious, yet wonderful news. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” the angel explains, “and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.”
If we look for a scientific explanation, we miss the point. The point is this: embrace the mystery. As faith matures and evolves, we move past the need to squeeze scripture into the confines of the scientific method, and we embrace the Bible for what it is: holy story, holy mystery—that grows inside each and every believer—like a holy life planted within a holy womb.
If you don’t understand—that’s exactly where God wants you. It’s exactly where Mary was at this holy annunciation. She never claimed to understand the science. Her profound act of faithfulness wasn’t to understand, but to embrace the mystery. To say “yes” while the questions remained. To find the courage to accept what was happening to her despite her fear. It’s all about saying “yes.”
I few years ago I read a book by Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock fame. In Bossy Pants, Tina Fey describes her rules of improvisation in a section entitled, “Tina Fey’s Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat” (she admits that the “belly fat” part is a stretch, but she believes the “change your life” part). The first rule of improv Fey describes is arguably the most important:
The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas!” . . . then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun. Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.
Now think about Mary’s improvised conversation with the angel. Mary didn’t start with a “yes” did she? We catch a glimpse of Mary’s humanness when she questions the angel’s words (which is exactly what I would have done) . She didn’t understand this news that didn’t fit into what she knew of reproductive science. She wrestles with the same question many of us have wrestled with, “How can this be?” How can a virgin give birth?
What if the “scene” ended there? With Mary’s pushback against the strange and wonderful news foretold by the angel? According to Tina Fey’s rules of improv, the scene would have likely ground to a halt. It’s hard to imagine what might have happened if the scene had stopped there. Would God have chosen a different woman? Would we even have a New Testament?
But that’s not where the scene ends. Mary musters the courage to say, “yes” to the angel: “Let it be with me according to your word.” That was one holy YES!
The title I’ve given this sermon, “Through Mary’s Eyes: From Fear to Courage,” is a bit of a misnomer. My title makes it sounds as if Mary’s courage replaces her fear. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Without fear, there would be no courage. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the ability to say “yes” despite our fear. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Think back to that time in your life in which you were able to muster more courage than you thought you were capable of. I’ll bet . . . if fear wasn’t present in your greatest act of courage then I’ll . . . I’ll get Herb Freitag to give you a big, wet kiss.
I’ve got a dear friend named Nicola—she’s about my age with two young boys close to the ages of my boys. Last year she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I can’t think of a more terrifying word than “cancer.” When you hear that word, you hope for a stage 1 or stage 2 descriptor. The lower the number, the better (like golf). Her number was higher. After all the testing and consults—she was given choices. So many choices. Among the choices was the less aggressive treatment path with a lower chance of long-term success, or the more aggressive plan with a greater chance of long-term success. Of course the more aggressive plan would entail surgery along with the “red-devil”—a concoction which meant months of terrible sickness and the loss of her beautiful, blonde locks. She was terrified of this treatment plan. As a single mom, how could she care for her boys through this sickness? How could she pay the medical bills? “What about this, and how will I that?” (Kind of like Mary asking, “How can this be?”) She carried those questions with her as she mustered the courage to say “yes” to the aggressive path. She carried those questions straight to the chair where she would sit and welcome the toxins into her body—the ones that would destroy the cancer and cause her hair to fall out. The courage she found—not in place of the fear but in spite of the fear—has inspired so many people—including me. And the good news is, she’s doing great! Surely questions remain, even as her hair is growing back and she’s sporting the cutest blonde pixie cut you’ve ever seen.
What’s your greatest fear these days? What is life throwing at you? What’s presenting you with more questions than answers?
My hope and my prayer is that you can, like Nicola, and with Mary, find your way to the holy “yes.” May you find yourself in radical agreement with whatever your life is presenting. You may not understand. The answers to your many questions may never present themselves. But remember this: Mary’s profound act of faithfulness wasn’t to understand, but to embrace the mystery. Take Tina Fey’s advice: Start with a YES and see where that takes you.
Let it be, O Lord. Let it be.