Does it sound to you that Gabriel was excited about the announcement Gabriel was selected to make? It sounds that way to me. Look at the first words: (NIV) “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” The sense of it in ancient text was that he was going to break out in the Halleluiah Chorus any minute. Can we have an Amen?
But then Mary. Mary wondered what kind of a greeting this might be. And I bet she was terrified.
The thing about Mary is she was truly Mary Ordinary; by which I mean she was like us, thoroughly and completely human. Would she stand out in a crowd? I doubt it. She was clearly not the kind of beauty to go to the highest bidder, being pledged to an older man the way she was, and a simple carpenter at that. I suspect (forgive my suspicions), but I suspect that Mary was extraordinarily average. (Surely average enough to give the rest of us hope).
Her first response, to be troubled and silent out of fear, which is confirmed in the next words, is what we should expect in the face of the angel, and we can see in the next words that Gabriel realizes this and backs up several steps. We hear these gentle words in place of the excitement. “Do not be afraid. You have found favor with God… “ Reassurance. Reassurance, and those often said angelic words, “Do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid is a line worth following. Do not be afraid of the Babylonians. Do not be afraid of the Assyrians. Do not be afraid of any human agent. I will lie down and not be afraid. Fear instead the one who has the power to cast you into the outer darkness, to cast you into the lake of fire, to count you among the goats. But then the angel comes, a visit from the Lord in scripture and the first words are “Do not be afraid.” Why is that? Because fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, which means anyone who truly understands will be terrified in the face of Almighty God.
I fear for my generation and even more for the young people who fear neither God nor man. This is the world in which we live. But it is simply proof of ignorance. “God is love, isn’t he? Why should I be afraid of God?” Or the fool’s version, “God is a dotard and when I get to heaven I’ll tell him a thing or two!” This is foolishness in the extreme, or as my wife is fond of saying, they haven’t got a clue.
Don’t they know that fear began at the beginning, when two people hid themselves. They were afraid, because they were naked. That is the way it is in the face of even the mere servant of the Lord. In the face of absolute goodness, righteousness and perfection we can only tremble in terror when our lives are laid utterly bare. Every unclean thought, every nasty moment every slip of the tongue, every hateful, spiteful, angry, envious, lie and on and on is laid out for all to see.
I am convinced none of us would count God unjust for tossing us into Hell and eternal torment. No, not one. We would tremble like Moses. “Away from me, Lord. I am an unclean man with unclean lips. I am unworthy in every way…
But of course we don’t like to think about ourselves that way. We would much rather live in the fantasy that we are basically good people who have God’s complete approval. We like to think that all of the good we have done gives us bonus points in heaven. We like to imagine that God would surely be pleased with us and welcome us home with open arms. But that is our imagination. That is our fantasy. The truth is a genuine angelic visitation would have us… doing something with bricks, anyway.
That is why the angels say, “Do not be afraid.” Yet even with that reassurance, and the further word that she had found favor with God, Mary only dared ask one question. “How will this be?” And she received an answer that she clearly did not understand, but she dared not ask again. It was safer simply to submit. “I am the Lord’s servant.” She dared not ask for clarification.
Listen, there is a reason why, when the shepherds watching their flocks at night looked up and heard choirs of heavenly angels, they became “sore afraid,” and it was not because they were ignorant back-country rubes as opposed to us sophisticated post-modern intellectuals. But then, we don’t like to think of God as frightening. We don’t like to think of ourselves as unworthy people with unclean lips. We much prefer our imaginary God. We much prefer our fantasy lives…
May the angel of the Lord appear to you this season, and may his first words be, “Do not be afraid. You have found favor with the Lord.” My prayer for you.