TEXT:  Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38



            The story of the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary is one of those stories that makes you think twice about getting hooked up with God.  Oh, to us it’s a beautiful part of the Christmas story, but to Mary…my, oh my.  Put yourself in her shoes for a moment.  She’s engaged to be married for the first time.  In that time and culture that would have made her between 12-14 years old.  An engagement was serious business in those days.  It happened about a year prior to the marriage, and it had the weight of a legal status.  A woman belonged to her husband from the time of engagement onward.  The engagement was not a further testing of the relationship, it was a time to make preparations for the marriage.

            Under Israelite law, adultery was a capital crime…you got stoned to death…even if it happened during the engagement period.  That’s the culture in which Mary and Joseph live.  That’s the law when Gabriel announces to Mary that she is now pregnant as a sign of God’s favor.  Well, with friends like that, who needs enemies!  If that’s a sign of God’s favor, I don’t even want to see what happens if God is mad!  Mary at this point is completely at Joseph’s mercy.  Mary would not be condemned if the child were Joseph’s…they were already legally bound together and all the law had to say about sex before marriage was if a man took a woman’s virginity, he had to marry her.  So at this point, only Mary and Joseph know that the baby is not his.  She is safe, unless Joseph tells.

            So to make this work, God has to work on Joseph.  He was not happy about Mary’s situation.  We do see, however, that he is a kind man.  Matthew tells us he was righteous and so he didn’t want to expose her publicly…which would have meant death.  But neither did he want to marry her anymore.  She was damaged goods.  So he resolves to take break it all off under the radar.  Now this is still not good news for Mary.  Maybe she won’t die, but as a woman in that culture she is destitute without a man.  With her virginity gone, no man will take her as a wife and she will live in her father’s house until he dies.  Then she will be a beggar, dependent on the charity of others.  Neither Mary nor Joseph is wealthy.  We see that later in the story when they bring Jesus to the Temple for his circumcision.  The offering they bring is the one designated in Leviticus for those who can’t afford anything else.  It is the offering of the poor…two doves.  So Mary is not going to live off alimony from Joseph or inheritance from her father.

            I take a lot of time to explain all of that so you have a context for the words in both Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary and the angel in Joseph’s dream.  “Be not afraid.”  That’s not just a reference to being calm in the presence of an angel.  Mary would have true cause to fear for her life from this announcement.  Joseph would fear betrayal, the embarrassment of being cuckolded, and the loss of a woman he loved and thought was righteous.  To them both the angels say, “Be not afraid.  This is the work of the Holy Spirit.  This child has a special calling.”  Both of them believe the angel.  Mary agrees to the covenant in her body…to become the Mother of God.  Joseph agrees to go through with the marriage.

            And it doesn’t get a heck of a lot easier after that.  You try giving birth in a stable rather than that nice, clean hospital bed or room at home.  Sterile it wasn’t.  Sometime after Jesus 12th birthday, Joseph disappears.  Many scholars assume that he was much older than Mary and that he died before Jesus’ began his ministry.  So by the time Mary is in her early forties, she’s a single mother.  By her mid-forties she is watching this special son be tortured and killed as a criminal.  The disciple John takes her in and she lives out her days with him in Ephesus.

            We have in Mary and Joseph a picture of the dilemma of Christian life.  God doesn’t show up and call us to sit in a rose garden and drink tea.  We are called to difficult and sometimes threatening tasks.  And, if we can believe Scripture, the greater the favor of God, the more difficult the task.  When God showed up to talk to Moses in the burning bush, Moses got sent right into the court of Pharaoh to tell the ruler of all Egypt…the man who was worshipped as a god…that he should wreck his economy by freeing all his slaves.  Sure, piece of cake.  Moses complains about that assignment for two whole chapters.  God never promises it will be either easy or comfortable.  What God does promise…both to Moses and to Mary is “I will be with you.”  The reason they are not to fear the difficulties ahead is because God is present, and that can’t be taken away even by death. 

            Which is exactly the point of Christmas.  The passage in Isaiah 7:14 that Matthew records, says, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”  The word Emmanuel means, God with us.  That is the good news…the Gospel.  God is no longer “out there.”  God is here.  Present.  With us.  Then, now, and forever.  And THAT is why we are not to be afraid.  “Be not afraid,” doesn’t mean “Don’t worry, nothing bad will happen.”  If it does, then angels lie a lot.  It means that a loving and all-powerful God is with you, no matter what happens, and if you trust that God, your life will have meaning and purpose and might even save the world.  God with us means that we can meet the horrors of life the way 7-year-old Erika Gould met her cancer.  There were two quotes on the back of her funeral bulletin, both from the final weeks of her life.  One said, “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone knew Jesus?...because he is real.”  The other said, “Home is my second favorite place to be; Heaven is first.”

            Emmanuel.  God with us.  I’m not sure that I can explain why that makes such a big difference, but it does.  At least in part, it’s a reminder that we are worth something.  We are with those we value, and if God is with us, we are valued by God.  It also means that I have more than my own strength to draw from.  I am the one who has to meet life’s challenges, but God is right there to infuse me with the strength, courage, and faith to meet whatever comes.  It’s not about whether life is hard or easy.  It’s about who goes with us on the way.

            I don’t know what you’re afraid of this morning.  Like Mary and Joseph, those fears may be perfectly legitimate.  More than that, they might be fears not of evil but of things God has called you to do.  Or maybe it’s just the challenges of life…broken relationships, change, illness, grief, economic worries.  Real and serious things.  To all of it, God’s answer is the same.  Be not afraid.  I am with you.  As odd as it seems, that’s enough.  Erika could tell you that…she did tell us all that.  She learned in 7 years what Moses still had trouble grasping at 80.  God’s presence can take you through anything life has to throw at you.  Was her life cut short?  Maybe.  But maybe it only took her 7 years to give us the gift God sent her to give.  Maybe the purpose of her life was fulfilled in that short time.  She brought us right up to the first day of Advent and showed us the very same truth that the angels proclaimed to Mary and Joseph so long ago, “Be not afraid.  I am with you.”

            Christian life is not for sissies.  Not if you’re seven, not if you’re ninety-seven.  But the good news of our faith is that the Kingdom of God has come near to us in Jesus.  God is with us.  Be not afraid.  O come, O come, Emmanuel.  Amen.

            (c) 2005, Anne Robertson

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