If, like its cousin while, is also a complex logical construct. It suggests a possibility and asks (or tells) what will happen if the possibility becomes reality. If does not deal in probability, only possibility and reality. It is also a construct subject to analysis by Boolean methods (evaluating as true or false) and therefore extremely useful in computer programming.
It is also useful in planning for contingencies, and it is the core of at least one entire industry. What if you run into another car while driving? What if you get sick or hurt? What if there is a hail storm or your house catches fire? What would happen to my family if I died? What happens if my tree falls on my neighbor’s car? You get the point?
So ubiquitous is IF that we don’t even catch ourselves using it. Can I still retire if the markets tank? What if I won the lottery? What if Baylor wins the Big XII football title? (Oh snap, they did.) Everything we plan and most of what we think about involves an if.
But here’s one you might not think about all that often. What if God or one of His angels, showed up for a word with us?
Everybody we’ve been talking about this Advent season had an angel show up in their lives. Zechariah was confronted by the Angel of the Lord in the Temple. An Angel spoke to Joseph in dreams. The shepherds saw angels while they were sitting in a sheep pasture watching sheep. Had these people given consideration to how they would react if they saw an Angel?
Perhaps. Zechariah had almost certainly wondered how he would behave in the presence of a messenger from God. He had told himself that he would not be one to fail to recognize a true prophet of God or any of His other messengers. While he was sure to have know who and what the angel was, he didn’t believe the message.
Joseph had perhaps never considered it directly, but his heritage, all of the things that had come down to him from his ancestors prepared Joseph to receive a message from God. Its not that such communication was ordinary, or just to be expected for someone who was of the House and Line of David, but if it had happened before, it could happen again. Joseph heard and obeyed because of his heritage and to fulfill prophecy.
The shepherds certainly never considered they would be contacted by God. They were on the bottom rung of the social ladder in ancient Palestine (despite the fact that shepherd had been a nobel occupation during the time of the patriarchs). Why would God come to them? They were correct (in their world view) to be afraid of the Angel when it appeared because nothing connected with God or the organized religion of their day had been anything but cruel to them. But despite that, they were willing to go see if what the Angel said was true. And having seen, they rejoiced and spread the news of the coming of the Christ.
And that brings us to the last Angel incident. What if you were a peasant girl, perhaps as young as 14 or 15, from 1st Century Palestine, engaged to be married to a man who you might know well or perhaps who you hardly knew at all, but who was certainly several years older than you? What if Gabriel the angel who stands in the presence of God, his own bad self shows up and announces that you will be pregnant outside of wedlock?
Could this have been anything but bad news? I mean the angel was nice and all, and he did throw in all that good stuff about being favored by God. But everybody knows where babies come from, and if I’m having one they will naturally assume I’ve been with a man and Joseph will know it wasn’t him. He could have me stoned for adultery. He could make a public spectacle of me, figuratively drag me through the streets and leave me to my own devices, cast out by my family with no prospects for a husband or a living. Even if he kept things relatively quiet, the shame would follow me and my child like a dark cloud for the rest of my life. Nope, this is not good news.
But Mary chose to listen to what Gabriel was telling her rather than the news he was bringing her. She chose to treat favor with God as greater than the possibility of disfavor with man or, potentially, even death. Did Mary understand what was happening? I’m not convinced she did. But there is even more beauty in that. Think about it: even if we consider ourselves wise, do we really understand God? Is there really any difference, when compared to the wisdom of God, between the wisest of men and a Palestinian peasant girl?
We do not have to understand God to trust Him. In fact the need to understand may get in the way. Zechariah wanted to understand what was happening. Mary only knew God was going to work in and through her. And her response was, “I am the Lord’s servant…may your word to me be fulfilled.”
Here are some hard questions for Christmas:
If an Angel (or some other messenger from God) shows up with a word for us how will we react?
Are our priorities more important, or God’s?
Which should we regard more highly, the favor of God with the prospect of death or the favor of men in peace and comfort?