People often say that we fear the unknown, but I think that sometimes what we fear the most is knowing what we are meant to do, yet not feeling adequate enough to do it.
Imagine this scene with me. I am in Downtown Toronto after a lovely dinner out with friends when I board the subway home. At the subway platform, I notice a group of teenage boys harassing an elderly gentleman. “Go back to China!” They hurl along with a barrage of other racist slander. The elderly gentleman apologizes, cowering in a corner. The teens do not physically harm him, but their words are seared with hatred for someone different than themselves. I stand there paralyzed by fear. My own safety and comfort called into question. Afraid and unable to stand against violence, oppression, and division, I leave the vulnerable man in the midst of these youth. Insecurity welling in my soul as the subway speedily takes off.
I would love to say this only happened once, but it didn’t. I have witnessed similar things at other bus stops and walked away. Despite my base level knowledge of indigenous rights, race riots, or institutional violence, I have often chosen not to become involved when the presenting issues haven’t directly affected me.
Mary must have felt a similar inadequacy when the angel first brought her the news that she would have a child despite her virginity. Today, it is rather common to have a child out of wedlock and in the western world, civil partnerships or common-law relationships have become the norm and just as acceptable as marriage. In our current climate, the institution of marriage is often regarded not as an act of ultimate love and sacrifice, but rather as simply a piece of paper or a legality.
However, Bible times presented a much different worldview. Getting pregnant outside of marriage was the ultimate sin. It was an insult to her parents and her fiance. It was a sign of disobedience, unchastity, impurity,and belligerence that often resulted in social ostracism, loss of security, stoning and even death. So, although the angel’s greeting is good news for us today, it likely was not such good news to Mary.
Here was a young teenage girl, about to start her life and get married to Joseph the Carpenter. Unlike today, women back then did not have careers, so marriage meant a stable livelihood, security and social status, and although these marriages were arranged rather than of love, the Bible speaks highly of Joseph’s character. He was a God-fearing and righteous man who would take care of Mary and be gentle and tender to her youth and naivety.
We do not know much about Mary’s backstory, but we can easily imagine how thrilled her parents must have felt at the prospect of Mary’s engagement. At this time, having children was the crux of marital life and there was no choice or debate surrounding having kids. Therefore, her parents eagerly anticipated the birth of many grandchildren, just not particularly in this way.
Let’s try to place ourselves in Mary’s shoes. Mary is going about her daily activities when an angel miraculously appears and drops an earth shattering message which detonates like a bomb. Yet despite Mary’s initial fear and apprehension, the angel assures her that God is with her.
We have all experienced bombs in our own lives. Perhaps through a health scare, a child born with a disability, the news of infertility, or a loved one’s deteriorating physical or mental health. It is difficult to believe God is with us in these times and hard to imagine or conceive of a God who is near to the broken hearted in the midst of tragedy.
Yet bombs do not always have to come in such unpleasant ways. Sometimes they come in the form of God nuding us to dream and dare to do the impossible. A call for reaching out to the darkness in our world and building bridges in the midst of brokenness. None of us anticipated 2020 bringing a global pandemic and a never-ending list of restrictions. None of us thought of adding the words”quarantine, isolation and lockdown” to our vocabulary. Yet, the New Normal has caused all of us to wrestle with our faith in various ways, ultimately leading us to a place of surrender and urging us to discover creative ways of being the church. With the government’s recent restrictions on religious settings, we have had to learn new ways of worshipping. The church’s mission of being alive and active has never been so needed. Although I didn’t know about Zoom pre-pandemic, today it is the most used app on my phone. Engaging with technology, I have joined United Church events across Canada in recent months. I have discovered that church does not simply mean watching a live Sunday recording, but also encompasses my young adults group out of McClure United in Saskatchewan, my 2 weekly coffee mornings, and the Advent race and media circle I have joined focussing on racial oppression and indigenous rights. I have learned that God is calling each of us to stand with each other becoming a united front, rather than giving into the culture of division and dissension so prevalent in our day.
Perhaps like us, Mary’s encounter was one of surprise. In June of this year, God dropped an unexpected gift into my lap which left me shaken, but later brought wonder and surprise. You see, this is when God first called me to serve the United Church. In the first lockdown during extended times of prayer and contemplation, God revealed to me that it was time to start searching for a permanent ministry. At first, the idea of working towards ordination in the United Church was the farthest thing from my mind. It was a new concept, perhaps difficult to reconcile with my past background. Yet, God took this encounter to show me my true inner longings. Being true to myself, I discovered some of the harms done to others through the institution of the church. Being authentic and vulnerable, meant acknowledging my hunger and thirst for social justice and my quest to bring the church to people rather than people to the church. God used a global pandemic to bring me to my knees in surrender and begin a beautiful and glorious partnership with a denomination I now claim as my own.
Some of us might relate to Mary’s questions. Mary may have been young and naive, but she knew simple biology. She knew what was involved in having a child, and she equally knew she had not done the prerequisite for pregnancy. Mary boldly asked the angel “how can this be, since I am a virgin?”
Many of us might have felt similarly when we first felt God’s call upon our lives. We might have asked questions such as: how can this be since I didn’t graduate from university? How can God be calling me since I struggle with mental illness? How can God use me since I am a single mother? Why would God want me since I have a past? God must have chosen the wrong person because I hate public speaking. God can’t possibly need me because (fill in the blank).
Here’s the thing: the angel didn’t argue with Mary. He didn’t debate with her or try to teach her something new about biology. He acknowledged that Mary was right, but he also gave her a brilliant promise: “The Power of the Holy Spirit will come upon you.”
In the greatest moment of our weakness, the Holy Spirit indwells within each of us. God’s spirit permeates and touches our hearts and lives regardless of our nationality, ethnicity, past difficulties or troubling present circumstances. The Holy Spirit has called each of us to various acts of service within the church, community and world,and has promised to equip us for these regardless of what life events we are brought.
Finally, once the Holy Spirit was revealed to Mary, she gratefully accepted it and joyously surrendered to God’s leading. Using wisdom well beyond her years, Mary proclaimed “I’m the Lord’s maid ready to serve!” And it was under Mary’s affirmative response that the angel left her with the time and space to do just that.
Who are the people we can serve this Christmas? With the recent lockdown and restrictions we can easily turn to glumness and disillusionment. Many of us might be lamenting this strange Christmas which feels unnatural. Yet, without diminishing the difficulties COVID has brought to our personal lives, I would like to encourage us to bring the world a gift of light and peace. We are here to spread hope to the world. Whether it’s giving extra groceries to the food bank, surprising a neighbour with an act of love, or sharing positivity online, we are here to make a change. We are here as God’s people, not living in the shadow of doom, but in the light of God’s presence. As we leave from this place, let us remember that we are church wherever we go. Let us remember that we are loved, chosen, called, and God’s holy people set apart for good things. There is only one response to this and it is the same as Mary’s: “I am God’s servant, ready to serve!”