2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16+Canticle 15 (The Magnificat)
Romans 16:25-27+Luke 1:26-38
Like many of you (at least I hope like many of you), Tim and I watched the Mile Square Theater production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” last weekend, the radio-play enacted on stage except recorded by the characters separately and pieced together in a video production. It was a unique and different way to enjoy this holiday classic which we also watch every year, pulling for Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey and hissing at mean old Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore. But perhaps there is no more loveable character than the hapless angel 2nd class, Clarence Odbody. Poor Clarence has been an angel for 200 years and still does not have his wings, and George Bailey is a last-gasp effort for him to win them.
Clarence is not exactly like the angels we find in the bible. Clarence did not have to tell George not to be afraid, because why would anyone be afraid of a kindly old guy who seems a little, I don’t know, simple.
Every time an angel appears in scripture, the first words out of their mouth is don’t be afraid because of course everyone would be terrified of these messengers from God. Even the cherubim – a word we have shortened to cherub and which we imagine to be infantile-looking, pudgy little Cupids – even those, according to the prophet Ezekiel have four faces: a lion, an ox, an eagle, and a human. They have straight legs, four wings, and bull hooves for feet that shine like buffed brass. One set of wings covers their body, and the other is used for flight. Not exactly cute, I would say.
The malakim, the messengers, are imagined as having human form, no wings, and show up when God has a job for them. Michael casts the devil into hell in a mighty battle in the Revelation to John. And Gabriel has a message for a girl named Mary. You, Mary, will be the God-bearer. Don’t be afraid.
Mary, of course, had every reason to be afraid. She was betrothed but not married. In her culture, she could have been put out – rejected by Joseph and kicked out of the house by her family. That’s Gabriel’s message. You are the one chosen for this.
Through the centuries, we have grown so accustomed to Mary’s obedience to this pronouncement that we forget what strength of character and faith it required of her. To call her meek and mild is to completely misread the annunciation and the Magnificat. Mary, this young teenager, is given the words of a manifesto, proclaiming what this reign of God will look like, and it was not at all meek and mild. It was revolutionary.
The message comes to one who is a “lowly servant.” God’s mercy is for those whose fear – or respect, submission – is for God and not human rulers. The proud are scattered, the mighty cast down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled, the rich sent away. Not in some future realm, but now. This is a present-tense promise from God. If God can choose a poor Jewish girl from the backwater of the Roman empire to bear God’s very self, then the whole world is turned upside down. Nothing is the same. Those who relied on their wisdom or wealth or power or going through all the right motions of faith practice are the ones who are left out. It is the lowly ones, the little ones, the weak and marginalized ones, to whom salvation comes in the form of a helpless child.
Don’t miss how Mary responds before accepting this invitation. When the angel greets her, saying, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you,” she did not react in fear at the appearance of this messenger. She was not perplexed that Gabriel told her she would bear a child. No, she was perplexed that he would call her the favored one. That one that God was with. She “pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29).
This is probably the part of this story that is easiest for us to identify with if we just think about it for a moment. If a messenger from God came to you and called you a favored one, would you believe it? If this angel told you that God is with you, would you be able to imagine that for yourself?
Why should God favor me? Why would God choose me?
My question is, “why not?”
God chooses the most unexpected ones and says, “Here is my delight.” God chooses the most imperfect time to come to earth, when the might of the occupation was suffocating the people of the promise: “He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy,” (1:54) Mary sings.
No matter how bleak, how broken, how sinful, how unworthy, God comes. God makes the bleak grow bright, mends the broken, forgives the sinful, and makes us worthy by taking on human form in the messiness of life. Yes, even in a pandemic, God comes. God comes in each one of us.
The 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart has this to say about our part in the incarnation:
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.
Maybe we don’t have a guardian angel, or a terrifying messenger, to show us how the world would be different is we weren’t around, but that isn’t really what we need. We know that God is among us, and our job is to make God known to those we encounter. Our ministry is to be God-bearers to this whole sorrowful, wounded, and messy creation.
Maybe then we get to be the Clarence’s of the world, showing others, all evidence to the contrary, how wonderful this God-given life can be.