What is our initial reaction when we receive difficult news? Are we the kind of person who is fearful? Our hearts race, our spirits worry, our minds run through a thousand scenarios of how this news is going to effect our lives.
Or are we the kind of person who gets angry? Our fists clench, our words become forceful, our bodies pace back an forth until we create a well-worn path in the carpet.
Or are we the kind of person who becomes paralyzed? Our minds shut down, our emotions are put on hold, our bodies curl up in a fetal position on the couch as we stare blankly at the television.
Or are we the kind of person who lives in denial? Our minds try to build a wall around the difficult news so that we cannot see it. Our daily pace quickens as we try to distract ourselves from thinking about the inevitable.
What is our initial reaction when we receive difficult news? It’s no surprise that different people respond to stress differently. Our coping mechanisms vary from one person to another. We may also find ourselves cycling between several emotions including fear, anger, denial, depression, and others I’ve not even mentioned this morning.
What is our initial reaction when we receive difficult news? Let’s think about this for a moment and recall a time in our lives, perhaps recently, when we had to face difficult news. What was our reaction to this news? What did we do to try and cope with the darkness that began to descend on our lives? Think about this for a moment. Capture the emotion in our minds and spirits. Then let’s take this emotion and compare it to our gospel lesson for today where Mary is the recipient of difficult news.
Luke says “In the sixth month,” meaning the sixth month of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy, “The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph. The virgin’s name was Mary.” [Lk 1:26-27]
Gabriel says to Mary, “Greeting favored one! The Lord is with you.” which is a formal way of saying “Be happy! Be cheerful! God has chosen you and will be with you.” Luke then says that Mary “was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” In other words, she is thinking to herself: “Is this good news or bad news? Should I stay and listen or should I run away screaming?”
Gabriel then gives Mary the difficult news. He begins by trying to soften the blow a bit: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” [Lk 1:30] Any time someone tells us “do not be afraid” we wonder what’s coming next. “Do not be afraid” implies that there might be a very good reason to be afraid!
So Mary braces herself for the worst and listens to what Gabriel has to say. For some strange reason the Revised Common Lectionary omits these verses. however I think the story does not make sense without them.
And so Gabriel says to Mary “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” [Lk 1:31-33]
Mary then presses for more information: “How can this be,” she says to the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
Gabriel replies, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” [Lk 1:35-37]
So there’s the difficult news. Mary is an unwed teenager who is now pregnant. She is engaged to her fiancé Joseph, but she is still a virgin. Sure, an angel delivered this news. But does that make it any less difficult to hear?
Luke tells us that Mary’s response to this is news is “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. [Lk 1:38]
Now, I know that this is the official version of the story. But I cannot help but think that Mary felt a little bit differently when she first received this difficult news. Perhaps she was fearful. What is Joseph going to think? What are my family and friends going to think? This is going to be a scandal.
Perhaps she was angry. Why me? I’m just a country girl from a one donkey town! I had my life all planned out. I really don’t need this right now!
Perhaps she became paralyzed, staring off into space; her emotions shutting down because this difficult news was more than she could handle.
Perhaps she shifted into denial mode. I’m probably just dreaming. This is NOT real. This is NOT going to happen!
But Luke records none of these emotions. He simply says she reached a point of acceptance: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
The question we are left to ponder this morning is how did Mary get there? It may have happened immediately. It may have been a process over a period of time. But Mary found a way to move from fear, anger, depression and denial, to a place of joy.
We see the end result of this journey in other verses omitted from the lectionary which are known as the Magnificat. Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with John. John did a summersault in her womb when Mary, who was carrying Jesus, came close.
Elizabeth exclaimed “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” [Lk 1:42-44]
This prompted Mary to exclaim “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” [Lk 1:46-48]
Mary found a way to move from fear, anger, depression and denial, to a place of joy. It leaves us wondering how Mary got there? Surely there is something we can learn from her when we become the recipients of difficult news. Surely, we can make the same journey from fear, anger, depression and denial yo a place of deep trust in the graciousness of God: “Here we are, servants of the Lord; Let it be with us according to your word.”
Friends in Christ, I wish I had all the answers this morning. I wish I could say that I am always in praise mode, always joyful in spirit. But, if I’m being honest with you, this is not the case. I have my share of struggles, just like everyone else. I have my dark nights of the soul just like I’m sure Mary did. But if we look at the words of the Magnificat closely, we see that the key to overcoming negative emotions is to find a place where we can trust that God is on the move in our lives and in our world in spite of evidence to the contrary. God is on the move giving birth to light and new life in places where we least expect it.
In translating and paraphrasing the Magnificat, I changed the perspective from “me” to “we” because I believe that we do this work together. Thankfully, not all of us are in crisis mode at any given time. It’s up to us as a community of faith to sing Mary’s song of praise for those among us who feel like they cannot sing it themselves. It’s up to us to remind our loved ones who are in crisis that God is faithful even when they have their doubts.
And so, we lift our voices together, and sing: “Every breath we take declares your greatness, God! Our spirits leap for joy because you are our Deliverer! You look favorably on your humble servants. Future generations will say that we are truly blessed. Almighty God, you have done wonderful works in our lives. Holiness defines your character. Your compassion is offered to all who stand in awe of you in every generation. You take charge and flex your muscles, weeding out those who think too highly of themselves. You toss the powerful from their lofty perches, and offer a hand up to those who are oppressed. You prepare a banquet feast for the hungry and tell the rich it’s time to leave the table. You take care of all your children with compassion and tender mercy. You remain faithful to your promises, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, and continuing through every generation.”
(Psalm paraphrase from The Psalms: Remixed by David Eck, © 2011.)
The key to navigating difficult news is to find a place where we can trust that God is on the move in our lives and in our world in spite of evidence to the contrary. It’s the kind of faith that believes God is fulfilling the words of the prophet Micah from our first lesson. It’s the kind of faith that sees our God as one who is bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives and release to those who feel imprisoned. God is doing this right this very moment! God is also comforting those who mourn, giving them the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
Somehow, Mary was able to reach a place in her life where her faith in God outweighed any fear, anger, depression or doubt she may have harbored. We’ll never know the details of this faith journey. We only see the result of it in the Magnificat.
It is my hope any prayer that all of us this Christmas season may find a way to follow her example. May we hold onto the faith that God is alive and well in our world in spite of any difficult news we may be facing. God is moving and shaking things up, birthing light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of despair, and peace in the midst of chaos.
This is our Advent promise and our Christmas hope. It is the one thing we need to hold onto this holiday season when the weight of the world feels like it’s pressing down on our shoulders. Take heart, my brothers and sisters. Be encouraged. Hold tightly onto faith that we may sing, with Mary, a joy-filled song of praise: “Every breath we take declares your greatness, God! Our spirits leap for joy because you are our Deliverer! You look favorably on your humble servants. Future generations will say that we are truly blessed.” AMEN
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck