In the classic Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence, an angel-in-
training, shows George Bailey what life would be like if he had never been born. Clarence
is not your typical angel. He bumbles along, at times seems uncertain about his ability, and
definitely does not instill the kind of fear at seeing a holy apparition that one might think.
Yet, through his time warping tactics the message is clear that the world is a better place
because George Bailey is in it and of course, at the end of it all Clarence becomes a real
angel by getting his wings. While the story is sweet and heartwarming, and a definite
classic in our house. I’m going to say that Frank Capra and the other screen writers didn’t
consult Biblical text when developing their angelic character. Throughout scripture, when
angels appear, they often terrify those who have received such messengers. In Ezekiel the
angel appears surrounded by wind and fire and he writes, “This was their appearance, they
were of human form. Each had four faces and each of them had four wings, The legs were
straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot…as for the appearance
of their faces the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side,
the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of eagle.” Definitely not what Clarence
looks like but definitely a being that would make me quake or run in terror. I think
perhaps this is why, when the angels appear to the shepherds, the first words spoken are,
“Do not be afraid” because in truth…I’d be afraid.
Today we hear the beginning of the story of Mary. It says that when Gabriel was
sent by God to Mary he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with
you.” And then it says that she was perplexed by his words and wondered what sort of
greeting this might be. Now,in this story it gives no physical description of Gabriel but I’m
going to bet that he didn’t look like what most of the angelic painted depictions of him
look like. It should be pointed out that this is not the first time Gabriel is mentioned in the
Bible. Gabriel first appears in the Book of Daniel, which if you recall from two weeks ago
I said that the Book of Daniel is a pretty apocalyptic book. It is filled with terrifying and
confusing visions. Daniel happens to say, however, that Gabriel had the appearance of a
man, but this isn’t an ordinary man because Daniel goes on to say that as he came near
Daniel became frightened and fell prostrate. Gabriel then goes on to help Daniel
understand his vision of the end times. The name Gabriel means “God is my strength” and
I get the sense that Gabriel was one tough or strong looking dude. So- no wonder Mary is
perplexed and wonders what sort of greeting this might be.
Often this story is called the annunciation, a formal announcement. Sending an
angel is certainly one way of making whatever has to be said have some gravitas. And this
is a big announcement. Gabriel says, “The Lord is with you.” There are a few other
instances throughout the Old Testament in which an angel or prophet tells the person that
the Lord is with them. It was an angel that appeared to Gideon and said, “The Lord is with
you, you mighty warrior.” In his commendation of David the prophet Nathan says to him
“The Lord is with you.” That phrase takes on a whole new meaning as Mary hears how
the Lord will be with her. She will bear a Son, “the Son of the Most High.” She is about to
give birth to the one through whom we will be able to see the invisible God. And the Lord
will be with her through the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps it is this knowledge that the Lord is with her that allows Mary to so
faithfully accept this news. Because this pregnancy, out of wedlock, could have cost Mary
her upcoming marriage, even her life. It certainly would have brought shame to her family.
Yet she has an openness to God that is unlike most people. In our Bible study we heard
how William Barclay said, “Mary had learned to forget the world’s commonest prayer-
“Thy will be changed” and to pray the world’s greatest prayer- “Thy will be done.”
Faithfully, Mary cared for Jesus, helped shape his thinking, encouraged his abilities, and
followed him to the foot of the Cross. We will hear next week Mary’s Magnificat- the
moment in which she is able to actually sing about her pregnancy. This is in part because
she is in the presence of her relative Elizabeth- the only other woman who could possibly
know what she is going through.
Isaiah’s words help us to also understand how Mary could have received this
announcement from Gabriel with such willingness. This passage is not only about God’s
longing to heal the brokenness of humanity but it also challenges us to not only be
recipients of the reconciling love but to be bearers of that love in our own time and place.
Mary completely embodied what being a bearer of love should look like. And it all started
with words from a terrifying angel.
While the carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is a well known Christmas Carol
the tune did not start out that way. Charles Wesley, one the founders of the Methodist
church, wrote the poem but it was then called “Hymn for a Christmas Day” and he
requested that it be played to slow and solemn music. And it was sung to that tune for over
a hundred years until Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata to commemorate the 400
anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable printing press. One of the pieces
entitled, “Vaterland, in deinen Gauen” begins the second part of the cantata and it was that
tune that was later adapted for Hark the Herald Angels sing. I actually appreciate that a
song about an invention that changed the world became the melody for a poem about an
announcement that changed the world.
The incredible angel Gabriel says “For nothing will be impossible with God.” For
me, those words are more important than the actual annunciation and they ring hard in my
ears this year. None of us were prepared for the kind of year that 2020 turned out to be.
But what gives me joy is knowing that throughout these unprecedented times, these
unusual times, these unpredictable times, that God makes the impossible possible. Mary
teaches us much about discipleship in challenging times because the only response we
should be giving to our time and place are “Here I am, a servant of the Lord; let it be with
me according to your word.” Because after all, even throughout this year, it is a wonderful
life, that God has granted us. Amen