Adapted from a sermon preached at Centenary United Methodist Church on Wednesday, December 2, 2015. The text was Luke 1:26-38.

One of my favorite quotes about the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary comes from Elie Wiesel: “Whenever an angel says, ‘Be not afraid!’, you’d better start worrying. A big assignment is on the way.”

It’s hard to imagine a bigger assignment than the one given to Mary—to become the mother of God, to carry Jesus in her womb and bring him into the world. In Mary’s time, pregnancy and childbirth were incredibly risky. Even after Jesus was born, the chances of a childhood disease or accident claiming his life were far higher than we could imagine today.

Before you get too excited about Jesus being God and therefore somehow being protected, remember that part of the point of the incarnation is that Jesus was fully human, susceptible to the same pain and illness and death that you and I experience. Mary had good reason to be afraid.

You would think God might have chosen a woman who had successfully given birth before, or at least someone who was married. Mary was totally unqualified to undertake this biggest assignment, and yet God chose her.

We have our own big assignments today—in this season of Advent, we have big assignments that don’t seem so weighty because they’ve become cliché. Our assignments are to pray for peace, to share hope with the world, to shine light in the darkness, to embody the love that came to dwell among us at Christmas.CVSJJWfVAAA_xIE.jpg-large

This sounds all warm and fuzzy until you turn on the news. Yesterday in
San Bernadino, California, yet another—and I hate that I have to phrase it that way—yet another mass shooting claimed the lives of at least 14 people.

San Bernadino is just the latest in a long list of violent acts that have occurred in the last few weeks. All over our country and the world, war and violence and racism and xenophobia and fear are killing humankind in body and spirit. In this climate of terror and polarization, we come to the season of love and light.

We are not qualified to undertake the big assignment of praying for peace. We have no relevant experience or educational achievements to prepare us for the task of meaningfully shining light in so heavy a darkness. We do not have the resources or much good reason to not be afraid.

Yet the call comes again as it does every year at Advent: “The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid.”

Only two things made Mary the right person for God to use for such a big assignment: God’s presence with her, and her willingness to trust when all signs pointed to being afraid.

God is with all of us all the time—that’s what we remember at Christmas, that God became Emmanuel, God with us. That part of the equation is not in question. Only the second part is. Are we willing to seek peace when it does not seem possible, to sow love when all around us is violent hatred, to shine light in a darkness that looks impenetrable?

The only requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous is a desire to stop drinking. You don’t have to be smart or experienced or prepared or powerful to join AA. You don’t even have to be sober. You just have to be willing.

We are addicted to violence. We need an intervention. But as anyone who has loved an alcoholic or addict knows, recovery cannot be forced or imposed. The alcoholic or addict has to be willing. They have to have the desire to stop.

Do we have that desire? Are we really willing? When I turn on the news, I have my doubts. When I see the reports out of San Bernadino and Colorado Springs and Chicago and Syria and Paris and Beirut, I want to scream. When will we become willing to stop drinking the poison of gun violence and xenophobia and racism and fear? When will we become willing to put down the bottle of anger and shame and pride and animosity towards one another? When will it be enough? It wasn’t enough when 20 children and 6 adults were killed at Sandy Hook during Advent in 2012, and apparently it’s not enough that there have been more multiple shootings than days in the year 2015 so far. What will it take for us to become willing?

Thomas Merton wrote one of my favorite prayers, and in it he wonders whether he is on the right path, whether his actions are pleasing to God. Today, we might wonder what the right path is, what the best action would be, but unless we truly desire healing and wholeness above all else, unless we are willing to place the commitment to peace above our political opinions and allegiances, we will keep stumbling headlong into the darkness, to our own destruction.

So I’ll close with that prayer. Imagine Mary praying this prayer, and join your hearts with her and with all who desire to do God’s will, all who hear the words, “Do not be afraid” and respond, even with trembling voice, “Here I am.” May we step into Advent with willingness, trusting that God is with us on this journey toward peace, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. Let us pray:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen.

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