What the Heck? The Better Angels of our Nature are Speaking
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a young woman engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. Her name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He 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. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be?
A few years ago, sitting in the midst of children at the front of the church I said, “Today we are going to hear a story about a woman named Mary who had a conversation with an angel named Gabriel” and before I could take a breath a four year old exclaimed…”What the Heck!” His parents were glad he choose heck. And to be honest I could understand where he was coming from. A child that might not question how Santa slides down the chimney thought this story form the Gospel of Luke was hard to fathom. Luke’s Gospel is filled with angelic visitors that share God’s message and urge people to make choices beyond their fears.
We know about an angel visiting shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. Even if you don’t read the Bible, you probably know this story by watching Linus explain it to Charlie Brown every year. The Angel of the Lord appears in the sky, urging the shepherds to “fear not” because they are bringing good news of great joy for all people. They announce to the nobody shepherds, in the middle of no where that a savior is born this day in the city of David and then they direct them to go find the baby wrapped in bands of cloth and laying in a manger. The conversation is over and the shepherds follow. If they have any questions Luke doesn’t think they should be included. They don’t say to the Angel, so which part of town is this manger located..south or north..any hint other than listen for the crying baby? They don’t ask the Angel if he can watch their sheep or if they should take them to town even though the towns people don’t like the sheep. They don’t ask if they should fill out a form for PTO and none of the shepherds start to wonder if their was something “special” in the brownies they had for lunch. Apparently Angelic messengers make the unreasonable reasonable.
Another angel makes an appearance in the Gospel of Luke…it happens in a church of all places. Mary’s Uncle Zechariah is performing his priestly duties when an Angel of the Lord appears to surprise him with good news. Mary’s Aunt Elizabeth and her Uncle Zechariah have been unable to have a child and now that they are long in years. In a culture where a woman’s value is based in her ability to bear children..preferably hard working sons and preferably 12 or 15… Elizabeth has born the shame of her struggle with fertility. And now an angel announces they are going to bring a child into the world. And Zechariah doesn’t ask any questions…which may be in part because he goes mute for awhile. Of course he could have spread some incense on the table and drawn out his questions. But he does not and he does not speak again until he can proclaim the good news of his son, John’s birth to the world.
No one has any questions when these angels arrive in the Gospel of Luke…that is except Mary. She is perplexed and I love her response to the Angel. The Angel says, “Greetings favored one. The Lord is with you.” She is perplexed. She does not respond to “the Lord is with you” by saying, “and also with you.” She thinks..what kind of greeting is this. The presence of God, wrapped up in the form of an angel named Gabriel proceeds to tell her that she is going to have a baby. Which she knows is not really good news by the world’s standards. She is unmarried, she does not belong to any particular male household…she is a virgin which could also be translated to say she is a woman belonging to herself. And women who belong to themselves that get pregnant need to be put right back in place. Mary is pregnant in a world where the people of her community have every right to publicly stone her. If she receives mercy she can endure a life of poverty and fend for herself and a child that no one else loves. She of course has one great Aunt that is excited for her but she might have a few others lamenting how such a good girl ruined her life. She probably has an uncle or two that can't believe she would bring shame to her family. Things are not looking good. Plus none of them know that Joseph is getting a visit from God in a dream in the Gospel of Matthew. No one can really believe this is a blessing. But Mary moves forward in faith, carrying all her doubts, questions and hopes as she response, “May it be with me as you have said.”
That’s the thing about the Gospel of Luke. Shepherds on the margin get to proclaim God’s good news in the center of town. An elderly couple brings new life into the world. And a young woman that should be ashamed of herself proclaims herself blessed then she lifts up her illegitimate baby as filled with the very presence of God. This is counter to every reasonable social norm. And I through the unreasonable part was the angel. I have always struggle with how to take these winged beings seriously and yet I’m not so sure that’s the detail that we have to take seriously.
Perhaps you remember a show from the 1990’s called Touched by an Angel. Once a week these beings that walked around earth and had some perspective beyond what we can see would solve everybody's problems within an hour. Occasionally a really big problem took two weeks to solve but for the most part every time these angels were involved things were smoothed out after and their work was done. But in the Gospel of Luke the angel shows up and the problems are not solved in an hour or even a lifetime. The Angel shows up and once Mary or the shepherds or Zechariah choose not to be afraid they are in for a life time of hard work. This is a different kind of angel than I had been imagining.
In his first inaugural address to the nation, President Abraham Lincoln alludes to angels in a way I find really helpful. He urged a nation consumed by violence, struggle and potential war to connect with “the better angels of our nature.” He gave these words as seven southern states had left the union. He gave these words as snipers stood ready to discover anyone bent toward violence on that day in our nations capital. He gave those words and pointed to the work that would be done to make the world new. It may not have been his original language, Seward may have borrowed the phrase from Dickens and he may have borrowed the notion from Shakespeare’s Othello but regardless of the route, Lincoln’s words landed with deep meaning.
Perhaps this helps you, as it does me, I imagine the angels with in and around..less winged and glowing but brilliantly urging us listen to God’s love all the same. Perhaps if we could listen to the better angels of our nature when the knot in our throat nudges us to speak up or when our stomachs turn in witness to injustice. Perhaps if we can listen to the better angles of our nature we will hear them say be not afraid to act with compassion and love with deep vulnerability. Perhaps if we can listen to our better angles we will hear God say, “Greetings favored one” and we will remember we are beautiful, beloved and sacred. Perhaps we will notice that everyone else is too. Perhaps as we listen to the better angels of our nature we can be the ones proclaiming good news and great joy to all people. We can live the good news with our hands and our feet and proclaim great joy when every action we take and every word we speak is motivated out of love not fear, out of hope not dispart, out of grace not anger.
May we have the courage to listen to God urging us from those better angels of our nature and then perhaps we will say with Mary, “May it be with me as you have said.” Amen
Rev. Debra McKnight
Pastor, Urban Abbey