My next guest needs no introduction. We met Gabriel about six months ago in the Jerusalem temple when old man Zechariah, feeling his aches and pains, climbed the stairs to the incense altar. He had a startling vision. Gabriel, in all his glory, turned the priest’s allotted time of duty into an earth-shattering revelation! The angel told him some pretty crazy stuff, so outrageous that the respectable man of God questioned this holy messenger. “Your elderly wife is going to have a son and you are to give him the name John.”
Casting doubt on the message of God’s emissary can carry a stiff penalty. For his disbelief (you could hardly blame the old guy), Zechariah was muted. No voice. No way to tell of this remarkable experience. But his brush with angel wings left its mark on the cleric. As he left the temple, wide-eyed and radiant, folks knew he’d had an encounter with the living God while serving in the sanctuary. Zechariah went home and had several months of quiet to reflect on the experience. Everything Gabriel said came true! When the child was born, his voice was restored. The priest’s doubts melted away as he held his baby boy in his old man arms. “We shall name him John.”
Today we meet Gabriel once again! He’s on the move for God, this time visiting a young woman. If delivering news of a pregnancy for an old woman was difficult, this time his message was more absurd. As he floated into view, he praised the bride-to-be with a blessing from God: “Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you.” His words of blessing were not enough to allay her alarm. He moved quickly into words of reassurance that he knew she needed: “Do not be afraid…”
It can be frightening to be visited by an angel!
When has God shown up and offered you reassurance?
A woman was leaving an AA meeting. There weren’t many secrets in small towns and her struggle was practically public knowledge. She often felt on the periphery of community life, sideways glances coming her way in the local diner. At the bar, she fit in. But her life needed a reboot. She attended meeting after meeting, wondering if it would help. She had no other choice but to change course. Leaving a meeting one dark, winter evening, she felt led to take a different way home. She said it seemed as if she was no longer the one at the wheel. She was frightened but obedient. As an unseen force served as her GPS, she found herself approaching a church. She had never been much of one for organized religion. But she knew to turn into the parking lot. Her hands moved to turn off the ignition and exit the car. She approached the side door of the church and it was open. The lighting was soft and a table of lit votive candles drew her in. She easily found the sanctuary and took a seat in the back. No one was there but the space welcomed her. She looked around this foreign territory and the weight she had carried for years melted away. She slumped into the wooden pew and wept quietly. In that space she felt safe. All fear melted away as she understood that she was led there and was meant to be there. That was the beginning to a routine of concluding each AA meeting with a visit to the church. Confession and a palpable assurance of pardon.
“Greetings, you who are highly favored, the Lord is with you.”
Gabriel wanted the young woman to understand that she was known. He called her by name: “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.”
Mary. In the depths of her soul, she understood that this was a holy encounter custom-tailored for her. God had noticed her. The fear lost its grip and she listened to Gabriel’s words.
A parish pastor, two decades into his career, was discouraged. He knew something in his life had to change and he was pretty sure it related to his vocation. He felt like a stranger to himself and to his God. He kept praying though he no longer felt God’s nearness. He tried to stay open to God’s presence but felt as though he was in the wilderness. One night, he had a dream. Later he would tell crowds of people that it was more like a visitation. In the dream he was walking in a barren setting and he saw Jesus walking toward him. Jesus was dressed in a long robe, as he might imagined from the illustrations in his long-ago children’s Bible. He was both terrified and overjoyed. In this nocturnal meeting, Jesus called him by name. But it wasn’t the name by which God had called him in the past. He was given his father’s name at birth so the family called him by a nickname—Bobby– to minimize confusion. From his early calling into ministry and in each parish he served, he felt known by God as Bobby. But, in this meeting, Jesus called him Robert. He was being prepared for a new venture with his grown-up name. When he awakened, he didn’t remember many words but he felt loved into a new calling. He was left with a clear directive to attend a certain conference in a particular place. Several weeks later, he obeyed. At that conference, he got excited about a ministry of equipping pastors for planting congregations. His heart was filled with a passion for ministry once again. In time he would be the key note speaker at national conferences that prepared pastors to establish churches in places where the Gospel was not preached. He confessed to our group something he learned from his night time encounter: Jesus always shows up in the wilderness and calls us by name. Like Simon, who was renamed Peter by Jesus. Or the woman from Magdala who grieved in the garden outside the tomb until Jesus said just one word to her: Mary. She fell at His feet, knowing it was the Savior she loved.
Do not be afraid, Robert, you have found favor with God.
Gabriel knew that he had news to deliver that would rock Mary’s world. Having set her heart at ease and assuring her that she was beloved by the God she served, Gabriel spoke the message he was sent to deliver: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” Mary’s world shifted on its axis with this announcement. She was engaged but not yet married. She asked for clarification, understanding at her young age that this could not be true: “How can this be…” The same question had muted old Zechariah for several months. But Mary seemed to ask with curiosity and an open spirit. The explanation was far from detailed but gave her what she needed to know. In that moment, in a stirring deep within, she knew that she was being entrusted with a life that would be precious not just for her but for an aching world.
There were not the usual gifts to Mary’s pregnancy. Mary was young and engaged to a carpenter. They lived in a backwoods province that was poorly regarded. One of Jesus’ disciples, years later when being urged to meet and follow Him, would judge Jesus’ pedigree with these words, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Mary’s pregnancy out of wedlock would bring public scrutiny and could lead to her being stoned to death. This child would never play the part of a traditional oldest son and He would die a criminal’s death. Nothing about the scene would lead anyone to believe that God Almighty was involved. With few details given, Mary shifted at the center of her very being. From that moment, she knew that she no longer lived for herself. Gabriel assured her that the God she served was behind this miraculous new creation. Revealing the news about elderly Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel concluded his visit with the bride-to-be with a promise: “For nothing is impossible with God.”
She sat in her doctor’s office, stunned with the news that she was pregnant. She had been told she wouldn’t be able to have children. She and her husband had gone through the stages of grief and learned to live with contentment. Their circumstances were pleasant and their relationships, rewarding. But now there would be a baby? She was in her late 30’s so tests were done. An ultrasound revealed some concerning factors that could indicate that the child would suffer from disabilities. In sharing the results with the couple, the doctor asked if they wanted to continue with the pregnancy. They were both shocked at the question. Something from deep within told this mother that this child was special. God’s eye was on this unborn baby and, regardless of future health or wellbeing, the child was meant to be in their care. The pregnancy continued normally and, with both excitement and trepidation, the birthday arrived. A perfect little boy entered their world, with a healthy cry and all parts working well. The unexpected child they held would grow up to be a gifted musician. He captured the beauty of God’s world with his voice and instrument. His music sang out God’s glory for the unlikely gift of his life. His mother would recall the doctor’s warnings that his life might not be worth living.
But she hung onto a promise: “For nothing is impossible with God.”
Young Mary, no longer naïve, had listened closely to the angel’s words. How would she respond to this unsolicited call on her life? Would she try to reject God’s consecrating presence in her life? Would she profess unworthiness, like her ancestor in the faith, Moses? Would she try to run from God’s calling, like Jonah? Would she cry out to God that this sacrifice asked to much of her, like Elijah as he despaired of his life? Or would she submit, like her relative Elizabeth, who already felt the stirrings of new life in her womb? Was she remembering the words of elderly Sarah when she learned she would finally bear a son for old Abraham: “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”
Mary’s answer was anchored in a hope she would need when this beloved Son faced His crucifixion. Her answer reflected a resurrection faith before she could understand the destiny of this boy for her and for her world: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” The deep faith with which Mary was raised dictated obedience. She submitted to God’s will and prepared to welcome a Son who would one day pray, “Not my will but Yours be done.” He was His mother’s Son. The unfathomable loss she suffered would lead to salvation for all. The Spirit moved and, at great risk to herself, Mary said “yes.”
I wonder where you have seen the Spirit at work, moving us from incredulity to obedience? I think of a church member who retired from teaching only to move across the country to pursue an advanced degree. Nothing about it made sense at first but she knew God was behind it. I think of a businessman who felt led to leave a secure position to start his own company. The vocational shift wreaked of risk but he felt God’s prompting and obeyed. It has led him across the world and brought him back to his home sanctuary regularly to offer God praise. More importantly to him, it led him to establish an orphanage as his business took root overseas. It now supports one hundred children with room, board and schooling. If they wish to work for his company when they are done with their schooling, they have a secure future. I think of a couple in our congregation who felt God’s leading to double the number of children in their family by adopting two children. Knowing the calling came from above, they never considered the costs, only the benefits. They expanded their hearts and the walls of their home to make room. I think of how God moved in the midst of depression and led a member to write daily prayers as a means of blessing to others. I think of a young man in the congregation who is choosing our churchyard for an Eagle Scout project. He’s excited to beautify the grounds of his home church. I noticed how a woman in the pews last week felt the movement of the Spirit when technology failed. In a pinch, this woman of petite stature stood before her church family and preached a sermon about joy. Her spontaneous proclamation was received with applause.
Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you.
I wonder where you have seen the Spirit at work, leading you to obey in spite of the risks. I wonder when the impossible has made sense and moved you to tears. I wonder when you have allowed God to be your GPS and found yourself in a holy place where God lifted the weight off your shoulders. When has God called you by name and welcomed you as a beloved child?
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.