What do you think of when you hear the word “angel”? Chubby babies with little, tiny wings? Effeminate men in bright robes washed in heavenly light with impressive wings? (Have you ever wondered how they sit or sleep at night?) Many of our images of angels come from European paintings, not from the Bible.
Perhaps we should begin with the biblical words for angel. The Hebrew term is malak; the Greek term is aggelos. Both words simply mean messenger and are used of both ordinary humans who bear messages and of heavenly messengers. So, the stress in the Bible is not on the looks, personality, independence, or power of angels. The emphasis is on their function: they are to deliver messages from God. The message, not the one delivering the message, is the focus of Scripture. And what is the message angels deliver? Sometimes it is a message of comfort, consolation, and deliverance. But just as often, perhaps more often, the messages delivered by angels upset the applecart to say the least. Here are a few examples
Abraham and Sarah: Sarah was past the age of bearing children. In other words, she had gone through menopause. And Abraham, according to Hebrews, was “good as dead.” Yet an angel announces that Isaac will be born. Now this is good news, but it was news that required major adjustments. Sarah had not planned on this birth. She had planned a gradual retirement with a little less cooking, a little more napping, and a lot less noise. And now at the advanced age of ninety, she has childbirth to look forward to (with no Lamaze or epidurals), 2:00 am feedings, the terrible twos, not to mention dreaded adolescence.
Moses and the angel in the burning bush: Moses is called by God to go to the most powerful ruler on earth and demand that this pharaoh free his slaves. Moses gives every excuse in the book to escape this mission, from “I have a speech impediment” to “nobody will believe me” to “God, just choose someone else.” The call of Moses was good news for the Hebrew slaves, but certainly Moses’ plans to settle down with his wife Zipporah, raise his kids, and take over his father in⋅-law’s sheep now must abandoned.
Gideon, who was called by God after the defeat of Israel by the Midianites in Judges 6: The angel says, “The Lord is with you.” Gideon then asks, “Pray sir, if the Lord is with us, why has this befallen us?” “Gideon, God has chosen you to whip the Midianites.” “But my clan is the smallest in the tribe of Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” “But the Lord is with you, Gideon. So get!” Again, this is good news for Israel, but for Gideon it meant leaving his farm and taking the risk that he could lead Israel’s ragtail army into victory.
And earlier in our chapter for today, the same angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, the father to be of John the Baptizer and tells the old man that he and his elderly wife Elizabeth will have a son who will prepare Israel for the coming of the Messiah. Good News, but like Abraham and Sarah, the birth of a baby is at best a mixed blessing at their age. At the very least, the rest of their lives will be nothing like they had anticipated.
So, the bottom line is this: if an angel appears to you, you might want to consider hightailing it the other way. More than likely your life will never be the same again. Things are going to change (eventually for the better, you hope), but in the meantime, expect everything nailed down to come up. Expect a shaking of the foundations of your customary, status quo, predictable life. The pious Jew may not have said it, but this thought probably surfaced when he encountered such messengers: “Uh oh, it’s one of those blasted angels!”
So, Gabriel appeared to Mary and greeted her with these words, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you.” But we are told that Mary was greatly troubled at this saying and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. In other words, she thought, “Uh oh, one of those blasted angels again.” Whenever someone was told “The Lord is with you,” it meant there was a task to be done and you’re the one God has chosen to do it (similar to the “Greetings and Salutations from the President of the United States” letters young men receive during war). Perhaps Mary, like Moses, thought, “If it’s all the same, I’d just as soon God be with someone else.”
But the angel said to Mary, “Don’t be afraid, because you have found favor with God. You are going to have a baby boy who will be the promised Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world.” Now we hear this annunciation as good news. But if we can put away our Holy Joe attitudes long enough to hear what the angel is saying, we might wonder how Mary heard these words. As a teenager (13-15) who is betrothed, she is being asked to become pregnant. We can only wonder how awkward her wedding would be. And then there’s the village gossip and her reputation to deal with. And what will she tell Joseph?
She already had her life planned. She would marry this carpenter, settle down like a good little Jewish housewife, raise a lot of children (conceived after marriage, of course), give grief to daughters-in law, enjoy her grandchildren, and die in the peace and security of her oldest son’s home. But now all the plans go out the window–pregnant before marriage! Which raised the question in Mary’s mind, “How can this be? I am still a virgin. There’s no man I’m involved with sexually. Betrothed sure, but that closest intimacy will come after we’re married, not before. So, how can I become pregnant?”
The angel answers, “By the Holy Spirit. God will take care of all this. Mary, you remember your cousin Elizabeth, that old, old woman? Guess what? She’s six months pregnant. You see, for God nothing is impossible.”
I wonder how much time passed between this statement from the angel and Mary’s response? How much time passed between v. 37 and v. 38? How long was this pregnant pause (if you will excuse the pun)? What went through her mind? “Sure–Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and Elizabeth—all of them as “good as dead,” but at least they were married! And so, the birth of their children would be respectable. I mean, old Zechariah may get some slaps on the back and some Geritol as a gag gift along with some good natured kidding: ‘Zechariah, you old dog!’ But the birth of their son will raise no serious eyebrows. But I’m not married. I’m a virgin. There is no woman, not Sarah, not Hannah, not Elizabeth, who has been in the situation I am being asked to embrace.”
We will never know what went through her mind. But I can’t help but think that she may have muttered under her breath, “Those blasted angels!” But when the time came for her to respond, she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be unto me according to your word.” I am God’s willing vessel, in spite of my fears, questions, and doubts.
Now, what might we get from all this? Mary agreed to join God in a divine conspiracy for the healing and redemption of the world. She could have said no. And she had a host of awfully good reasons for refusing this mission. And we wonder why God chose her in the first place. Why this insignificant peasant girl? Certainly, God could have chosen a better candidate to be the mother of the world’s Savior.
Frederick Buechner expresses something of the vulnerable mystery of God’s selection of Mary:
She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that has to come upon her. “You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,” he said. And as he said those words, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.(Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC)
But she said “Yes”. A peasant girl with no credentials of her own – with nothing to offer but her willingness to be an instrument of God–said “Yes” and entered into a unique partnership with eternity. With nothing more than a message from one of those blasted angels to hold on to, she decided to trust the promises of God and put herself, her reputation, and her future on the line. When Gabriel said, “For God nothing is impossible,” Mary believed. She gave herself to God believing the impossible could take on flesh and blood in spite of the absurdity of the world and the commonness of her life. She believed that God could raise from her womb One who could fulfill ancient promises and bring to life the deepest longings of humanity: longings for love and community, for peace and joy, for forgiveness and mercy, for compassion and justice. From her womb the Son of David could come and redeem this world.
I’m not sure we believe anymore that God can do the impossible. And at this point, I am not talking about flashy “miracles” a la the Amazing Kreskin, the astounding David Copperfield, and Cecil B. DeMille. I talking about redeeming our world – making whole our society and healing our planet – reconciling the divisions which clutter our history with so much pain and suffering. We are too worldly wise, too shrewd, and too jaded to fall for any meaningful fulfillment of ancient promises of peace and for the fleshing out of deep longings for love and community. The cynical wisdom we follow is summed up in phrases like “There’s nothing new under the sun” and “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Let’s be honest. We just don’t believe anymore in the redemption of our world–in our own redemption, perhaps–but not in the redemption of the world.
And so unlike Mary, who had less to go on than we do, we can’t bring ourselves to say, “Behold, we are the handmaidens of the Lord. Do unto us as you will.” We can’t believe that the partnership of God’s faithfulness and our obedience can transform the world.
So why did God choose Mary, a poor teenage peasant as common as dirt? Perhaps to demonstrate once and for all what is required to make a difference in this world. It is not wealth, power, prestige, or religious trappings. All that was required of Mary and all that is required of us is simply to say to those blasted angels, in whatever form they may take and regardless of how their message may turn our lives upside down and inside out, “Behold, we are the handmaid of the Lord. Do with us as you will.” That is the only way Christ can be born in our hearts, in our time, and, most importantly, in God’s world. Amen.