Mary, the Shepherds and Us

Dec 24, 2023

Sermon 12-24-23, 10 a.m.
Fourth Sunday of Advent/Christmas Eve
Text: Luke 1:26-38
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     It’s always a dilemma when the 4th Sunday of Advent falls on December 24, at least for those who pay attention to church seasons. By the letter of liturgical law, the morning service is only Advent 4, in other words, a time to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The celebration of Christmas does not begin until sunset on December 24. I would not be surprised if after the morning Masses next door there’s a huge redecorating process going on to switch from Advent to Christmas décor.
     I’ll admit I like that idea, but I’m a bit too practical for it, especially after all these years as a Pastor. Certainly, there are worshippers who will attend both the morning and evening services today. But, for some, only one is an option, and if it happens to be in the morning, they would like to leave having heard something about the birth of Jesus. So, we seek the Advent/Christmas balance of preparing for Jesus’ birth and celebrating his arrival.
     A key person in both is a young woman named Mary. We know she was young because she was not married. There were three steps in a first century Jewish marriage, beginning with the engagement which was arranged by the parents through a matchmaker when the boy and girl were children. The betrothal was a formal ratification of the marriage-to-be which occurred when the girl entered puberty, usually done a year before the couple was married. Finally, the wedding itself, which lasted a whole week and at which the marriage was consummated.
     Mary was betrothed to a man named Joseph; she probably was 13 or 14-years old. It is to this young, poor, uneducated girl that the angel Gabriel appears. (A little side-note here; the angel’s name is Gabriel, not Greg. At a recent confirmation gathering Gabriel was renamed during a Bible trivia game when the “hint” for the question, “What was the name of the angel who told Mary she would become pregnant with Jesus”, was “it begins with the letter “G”.  The response? Greg!)
     Gabriel (not Greg) greeted Mary, indicating that she had found favor with God. Our text says she was “much perplexed” by this, but a better translation is greatly troubled, which is affirmed by the angel’s next words, “Do not be afraid.” Then comes the life-changing, world-altering pronouncement, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”
      It’s interesting to note that unlike a number of other Biblical women who were beyond child-bearing age, but longed for a baby and miraculously became pregnant in the usual way, the angel Gabriel’s announcement was not an answer to Mary’s prayers. It is, in fact, a problem for her. Being unmarried and pregnant, especially if Joseph rejected her, would cause her to become an outcast, and perhaps even subject to death by stoning. No wonder Gabriel instructed her not to be afraid.
     Now, let’s jump ahead nine months from this announcement to Mary to another announcement. This one is to a group of shepherds living in the fields, watching their sheep. “Then the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them….” I’ve always thought that angel probably was Greg … I mean Gabriel. “And they were terrified,” not just greatly troubled, as Mary was, but terrified.
     Besides angel encounters, Mary and the shepherds have some things in common. None of them have any power or status in their world; they have done nothing special to earn God’s favor and they are all unlikely recipients of good news, especially good news from God. They are, in fact, recipients of grace through Jesus.
     Mary is told that the child will “be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord will give 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.” The shepherds are given the shorter version, “he is the Messiah, the Lord.” Now…the question is…how will they respond? We are so accustomed to the story that we forget it could have gone another way, with Mary rejecting being “blessed among women” and the shepherds staying put with their sheep and wondering why they all had the same vivid dream.
     Mary’s response mirrors that of Jesus 30+ years later in the Garden of Gethsemane, “…let it be with me according to your word.” She then visits her relative Elizabeth, who is 6-months pregnant with her own miracle baby who turns out to be John the Baptist. Mary’s “yes” is affirmed by Elizabeth’s words, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Indeed, nothing is impossible with God.
     As for the shepherds, they are not frozen by fear, but respond by going to Bethlehem where they, “found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.” They too said “yes” to God, and their yes is affirmed by the sight of a baby wrapped in bands of cloth and a young mother whose eyes had the same glint of wonder as their own.
     So it is that God intervenes in the world, re-aligning Mary’s and the shepherd’s lives, because that’s what it takes to accomplish God’s work of redemption. As unlikely as it seems, that still happens. God shows up in our ordinary lives with the message that we are noticed and valued – as were Mary and the shepherds. Could it be that, as was true for them, God is doing a new thing in our lives?
     Perhaps we too need to be reminded not to be afraid. Can we trust God, as Mary and the shepherds trusted? It’s interesting to consider that their lives continued beyond the watershed experiences we read about today. No doubt they had to be repeatedly reminded that they were valued by God, to not be afraid and instead, to trust. We need that reminder, too, when we face the unexpected, the troubling or even terrifying, when we must choose whether to stay rooted in fear or move forward into that which is yet unclear.  
     Could it be that Mary and the shepherds were strengthened as they looked back on angel visitations, heavenly hosts praising God, a baby in a manger and the proclamation that nothing is impossible with God.  And, so it is for us. Every December 24 we remember that God works through unlikely people, in unpredictable ways, to bring grace to the Jesus, God with us. AMEN