Luke 1. 26-38
Janice sat at the table with her blue binder, furiously scribbling notes. Her friend Pam was a few minutes late, but it gave Janice some more time to think and write. When Pam got to the coffeehouse, she found the table, and immediately laughed out loud. “Ah, the infamous Blue Binder! I wondered if you would have it today.” You see, everyone who knew Janice knew all about the blue binder. Janice was a tech consultant with a firm in town, but she had always talked about opening her own firm. There were some things that she didn’t love about the current firm, and thought that she would have more freedom to do what she needed if she branched out on her own. But, she needed to research to make sure it was the right move to make. In her blue binder was all this research. Articles she had printed off. Spreadsheets that she had made about what she would need to invest. Even calendars for launch dates. But every time the launch date came, Janice wasn’t quite ready. So, she made a new calendar and a new set of plans, and did a little more research.
Pam laughed again when they got up to order their coffee at the counter, because of course Janice brought the binder with her. “I can’t leave something this valuable sitting around, can I?”
When they sat down again with their coffee, they took turns catching up with each other. Hearing about the family, Thanksgiving travel, and then the conversation turned to work. Pam talked about her job…it was going well at the school but Pam always had great stories about what kid said what last week or what that crazy parent did. Then, she asked Janice about work:
“OK, so I see the binder. Have you decided to make the leap?”
Janice paused. “I don’t know. There are just so many unknown variables. What is the market going to do? What if the firm across town relocates like they talked about? What if something happens at Tom’s work, and we end up with no income?”
Pam smiled gently. “Janice, you know I love you. And you know I think you can do this. But look at that binder. You don’t need more information. You need to move past your fear.”
It was Janice’s turn to laugh. “Fear! How long have you known me? Do you think I am someone who gets caught up in emotion? This isn’t about fear!”
Janice nodded slowly, “You aren’t outwardly emotional…some might call you a bit of a robot. But you aren’t a robot. You, like all of us, are motivated by emotional realities and I think your state right now is fear. You are afraid of what is to come, and so you deal with that emotion by gathering more information. One more study. One more article. One more spreadsheet. A little more research. But you aren’t ever going to be able to research your way out of fear. Sometimes you just have to take a leap.”
Any of us ever feel like Janice? We are logical, rational, thoughtful, analytical observers and the way that we process the world is to research. If we can figure out more information, then we can feel a little bit better about the decisions that we make. Like Janice, if we have a big decision in front of us, we create a binder for it, or a file, or a big pile of information. I went on a ski trip a few years ago with a young person who was a “Janice.” They had never been skiing before, so before they even got close to the lift, they did lessons and listened carefully to the instructor. Then before they got on the lift, they stood next to it for a long time, watching how it worked, and how to get on…or not get on…to keep from falling. Finally, they made it to the top of the bunny slope, but couldn’t see the whole thing. So they walked to the side of the slope and slowly, painstakingly inched down with their skis, a foot at a time, until they could see the whole thing, and decide that it was OK. Then, they inched their way back up to the top of the slope and began to slowly ski down.
Janice in the story, and “Janices” in real life, would have a hard time admitting it, but what it often at the heart of all of this research is fear. J. Claude Huguley has written a beautiful book, Transforming Fear with Love, and he writes that one of the reasons that we are afraid is limited knowledge. When we don’t know enough, about a person, or about the future, or about a situation, our limited knowledge gives us a sense of terror. What is on the other side of this moment? I cannot step through that door until I know more. Limited knowledge often leads to nearly unlimited fear. Huguley is a long-time chaplain and so he has seen tons of stories of fear, and has seen how limited knowledge—about a diagnosis or a test result—leads to terror in individuals and families.
Which brings us to today’s text. Last week I began our series on Fear with the story of Zechariah. Zechariah was a man who was clearly terrified. The story says it twice how afraid he was. So, the angel Gabriel gave him these gifts. First, the gift that messengers of God give to terrified people hundreds of times throughout Scripture, the simple statement “Do not be afraid.” Again and again, the Scriptures teach us that God does not give us a spirit of fear, and that we don’t have to let fear paralyze us. But for Zechariah, who was a priest in the holy Levitical order, the good news that he would have a son was almost too much for him. Too much pressure. Too much expectation. So, the angel gave him a second gift: he took away his ability to speak for a season. He gave him the gift of listening, of pausing, of waiting, of being humble and allowing others to care for him.
Apparently, when Gabriel was done with Zechariah at the Temple in Jerusalem, his got back on his mighty angelic steed, or whatever it is that angels ride, and galloped on up to Nazareth. The contrast would have been striking. From the gleaming walls of the Temple, filled with worshippers and song and incense and power and authority…to the backwater town of Nazareth, sleepy and out of the way, a place where absolutely no one of importance would live, or even visit. From the glittering robes of the Levitical priest Zechariah, honored and respected by all…to a no-name girl sitting alone at home.
When we first meet Mary in Scripture, it is clear that we might have a Janice on our hands. “’Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” It all sounds very heady, doesn’t it? “Perplexed.” “Pondered.” Perhaps this is a Janice, coolly collecting information about this angel and his message. Even after Gabriel delivers the news that she will have a child of promise, Mary’s response is thoughtful: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” It is a question of biology. “Gabriel, do you know how this works?”
But belying this rational language is some deep emotion. The Greek translation for that word “perplexed” is a lot more emotional than the NRSV suggests. The word diatarassó connotes more emotion: “greatly agitated.” “Acutely distressed through and through.” “Intensely going back and forth between inner thoughts and emotions.”
Mary may look and sound cool and collected, but there is a great emotional fear deep down. What the angel is telling her is deeply unsettling, and like Huguley suggests, that lack of knowledge about the future is terrifying. Not knowing enough is enough to make Mary “acutely distressed through and through.”
But, God and God’s messengers are bearers of good news, not of fear. And Gabriel has already given out a gift to Zechariah, so now it is time for Mary to receive hers. Look what the messenger of God does here:
One, Gabriel explains to her how she will conceive: he gives her just enough information.
And two, he explains that nothing is impossible with God: he gives her an alternative vision to her fear.
Think how important this is for someone like Mary. She cannot compute how an angel would come to her, and why God would choose her. But Gabriel offers this alternative vision: a God that knows who she is and knows what she is capable of. Compare her gift with Zechariah’s. This is an example of how God calls us differently and gifts us differently. In some ways, the Mary’s (and Janices) of the world would love it if they got the gift that Zechariah did: months of silence to research and ponder and consider and analyze. But that is what Zechariah needed…not what Mary needed. Mary got the gift that she needed: an alternative vision of who she could be.
I roll my eyes when we sing these songs about Mary that describe her as meek and mild. If Mary was meek and mild, Gabriel wouldn’t have even shown up on her doorstep. Mary was fierce, powerful, independent, and strong. All she needed was this alternative vision and she was ready to change the world. In fact, she did change it. By the time the angel had left, she had fiercely proclaimed her identity as a part of the long line of those who God has called: “here am I…let it be with me according to your word.” Mary signs up for this alternative vision and is ready to go.
Let it be with us according to this word as well. For those of us who feel a bit like Mary, who are terrified by a lack of knowledge or information, perhaps Mary can be our example. Again, it is Huguley who teaches us that fear is not the end of the story. He writes about what he calls the “dance of imagination and knowledge.” We have some knowledge, but we also have this alternative vision, what he calls imagination. The two are arm in arm in this beautiful dance. Imagination and knowledge together creating action. Just like Mary, she got enough knowledge, enough information to know what was going to happen. But then imagination took the lead: she threw aside fear and jumped at the chance to be who God called her to be.
In the same way, those of us who are like Mary—or like Janice—are often given the gift of imagination. This gift leads us from a paralyzing fear into a life of action. Into response. Into trust that God goes with us, even if we don’t know where we are going.
One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King speaks to this: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” The faith that King talks about. The imagination that Huguley invites us to. The alternative vision that Gabriel calls Mary to. That’s what brings us to the blessing of being who God wants us to be. There is a reason God keeps telling us not to be afraid…because fear robs of us of our voice. Robs us of our purpose. Mary said no to fear, and yes to who God called her to be.
We put up our Christmas decorations this week, and after a couple of days I was sitting in the living room and noticed that we have this beautiful pastoral ornament of the Holy Family, with Mary holding the baby…right next to Hermione Granger. For those who don’t know Hermione is one of the characters in the Harry Potter series, and is a strong, powerful, intelligent leader throughout the series. Perhaps it is a wise pairing to place her next to Mary. Another strong, powerful, wise leader, who takes the world by storm.
Before the end of the chapter, Mary has sung the Magnificat, the first song of Gospel good news, she has been the first preacher of the Gospel of God-with-us. Zechariah got his news first, but Mary is the first to sing. She has proclaimed this alternative vision to Elizabeth, and will tell it to the world. Because of her fierce faith and her holy dance of imagination and knowledge, she is ready to be the God-bearer. And the world will never be the same.