A Faithful Response
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Imagine this – if, indeed, it’s possible to imagine such a thing: A thirteen-year-old girl – fifteen, tops – is confronted by an angel, who says God has chosen her to be the mother of his only begotten son. What would you say to such a startling announcement? What would you do?
What constitutes a faithful response?
That’s what I’d like for us to think about in the sermon this morning: When faced with an unexpected, unsolicited and, often, undesirable situation or circumstance, what does it mean to respond in faith? Let’s begin with Luke’s account of the annunciation. He says,
“Now in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,
to a virgin pledged to be married to a man whose name was Joseph,
of the house of David.
The virgin’s name was Mary.
Having come in, the angel said to her,
‘Rejoice, you highly favored one! The Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women!'” (Luke 1:26-28)
The “sixth month” refers to the preceding story where Luke tells us about an old couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth and how God chose them to be the parents of John the Baptist.
Somehow Mary is related to Elizabeth – a niece, perhaps. So, here the angel Gabriel appears to Mary in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. The point is that, from the very start, there’s a connection between Elizabeth and Mary and between John the Baptist and Jesus.
That’s a good place to start in trying to figure out what constitutes a faithful response to the unexpected crises of life – to believe that, somehow, some way, there’s a connection between what happens to us and how God is at work in our lives and in the world.
What do you think? Do things just happen, or is there some overall plan at work here in which everything fits together?
I can tell you this: You can’t prove it, one way or the other. And you’ll have a hard time explaining why bad things happen to good people. But is that any worse than to think that everything that happens is random and unrelated? I like the little definition that says,
“Coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous.”
As Christians, we believe first and foremost in the sovereignty of God. We believe God is at work reconciling us to himself. That’s not to say we blame God for everything that happens – that God caused Hurricane Rita to wipe out a good part of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, for example. What we believe is simply what scripture says, and that is:
“… all things work together for good
for those who love God
to those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28)
And so, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary she didn’t run away or ask him to leave her alone; instead, she listened and tried to understand the meaning of it all. Luke says,
“She was greatly troubled at the saying,
and considered what kind of salutation this might be.” (Luke 1:29)
Well, I submit to you this is the first ingredient of a faithful response – not to lash out in anger or strike back in rebellion when things don’t go your way, but to consider what God is up to and how God might use an unforeseen circumstance to bless you and strengthen you in faith.
As Presbyterians, we’re often criticized for believing in predestination, that all things happen according to some preordained master plan. Well, I’m not here to defend Calvin or the doctrine of predestination, only to say I think we have an important perspective on faith others need to hear and that is simply that God is in charge. Nothing happens, good or bad, outside of the providence of God’s grace and love.
Believing this, we’re able to take the unexpected events of everyday life and see them not as impositions that get in the way or as obstacles to be overcome, but as opportunities that can lead us into a closer relationship with God and those around us.
That’s not to say we can’t question what’s going on. Mary certainly did. According to Luke, the angel said,
“Don’t be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bring forth a son,
and will call his name ‘Jesus.’…
(and) Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?'” (Luke 1:30-34)
At this point in her life, Mary was betrothed to Joseph but not married. William Barclay explains there were three steps in a Jewish marriage: The engagement which was often arranged by the parents through a matchmaker when the boy and girl were children; the betrothal which was a formal ratification of the marriage-to-be, usually done a year before the couple was married; and the wedding itself which lasted a whole week and at which time the marriage was consummated.
Mary and Joseph were betrothed, but not married. They had not had sexual relations. Mary was still a virgin. In spite of this, the angel Gabriel said she was to become pregnant and give birth to a son and name him Jesus.
Mary was baffled and rightly so, and she asked, “How can this be?” It doesn’t make sense. To this day, the “virgin birth” is a mystery that defies our logic. We can’t explain it, yet we confess it every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed. We say,
“(I believe in Jesus Christ) …
who was conceived of the Holy Ghost,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead and buried …”
That, to me, is a faithful response. It allows for the fact that there’s so much more to God’s creation and God’s will for our lives than we can possibly ever know or fully comprehend.
I had a dear friend who died of cancer. Near the end of her life, when it was obvious she didn’t have much time left, I was heartbroken. I didn’t want to see her die. Oddly enough, she was upbeat and optimistic. I asked her, “How can you be so cheerful?” And she said, “There’s a bigger picture at work here. If you could only see the bigger picture, you’d understand.”
Somehow, facing the reality of her own death, she could see her life in perspective to the whole of God’s creation. And that’s the point I want to emphasize: A faithful response looks to God without having all the answers.
You see it all the time. Just this week I had a call from a woman asking for assistance. She said she needed help getting to Hermann Hospital to pick up two of her grandchildren who were in ICU, born prematurely. She said all she needed was enough gasoline to get there and back.
Well, to be honest, we get a lot of calls around this time of year from people asking for assistance, and not all of them are on the up and up. I asked her if she had a number I could call to verify her story. She said she did, and she gave me the number. I called it and, sure enough, the nurse who answered the phone said they had twins in the neo-natal unit by the name the woman had given me. So, I called her back and asked her to meet me at H.E.B. She was sitting by the pumps when I drove up, and I filled up her tank.
Was that a faithful response? I’ve been duped so many times in so many ways by deadbeats and con artists who’ve pulled the wool over my eyes, I’m cynical. But, what are you going to do, say no to everybody? A faithful response looks to God without having all the answers.
• Without a hint of warning, a young man with a wife and a child lost his job this week. Merry Christmas! He can be angry and upset and go off the deep end, or he can turn to God and ask, “O.K., Lord, where do we go from here?”
• A family’s home in Mississippi was washed away by the storm surge. They lost practically everything. They can become bitter and resentful of those who dodged the bullet, or they can be thankful to be alive, roll up their sleeves and start over.
Seldom can we say why things happen as they do. More often than not, we don’t have all the information we need. If we waited until all our questions were answered, we’d never do anything. So, we take what we know and use our best judgment and take a leap of faith.
That, to me, is a faithful response because, in the end, what’s important is not so much whether you’re right or wrong, but that you act in good faith.
“How can this be,” Mary asked, “seeing I am a virgin?” And the angel replied,
“The Holy Spirit will come on you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore also the holy one who is born from you
will be called the Son of God.” (1:35)
Now, I seriously doubt that Mary had any idea what the angel was talking about. Still, she listened, and when he finished, she bowed her head in humble obedience and said,
“Behold, the handmaid of the Lord;
be it to me according to thy word.” (1:38)
In her reflections on Mary, Barbara Taylor writes,
“Mary wins her place in history
not for her cleverness, nor for her beauty,
nor even for her goodness.
She becomes the most important woman in the world
simply because she is willing to say yes to an angel’s strange proposal
without a clue where it will lead her.
Doing so, she becomes the prototype for all of us
who are into invited to bear God into the world.”
(Kirkridge Readings and Intentions, Dec. 23, 1990)
Mary gives us one of the best examples I know of a faithful response to an unforeseen and unlikely – and uninvited – circumstance of life:
“Be it to me according to thy word.”
Hers is second only to the response of her son, who, when faced with the sure certainty of an unjust and painful death, prayed to God in the Garden of Gethsemane,
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.
Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)
A response such as this is born out of humility and trust in the providence of God. And the Good News is such a response as this is possible for all those who turn to God in faith.
One of the dear saints of First Presbyterian Church, Odessa, where I previously served, was Frances Evans. If I’m not mistaken, she was the oldest living member up to the time of her death. She and her husband and her husband’s parents were charter members when the church was reorganized in 1913.
I’ll never forget visiting Frances in the hospital on day. She was in her nineties and near death. As I got ready to leave, I asked if I might offer a prayer. We held hands and I prayed that God would give her the peace of his presence and, if possible, the strength of his Spirit to recover, and then I said, “Amen.” Frances looked up at me and whispered, “And might I add one additional word?” I said, “Why, of course.” She held my hand, closed her eyes and prayed, “Dear God, not my will, Thine be done.”
Now that’s what I call a faithful response!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2005 Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.