Advent 4

Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2011

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1–11, 16
Psalm: Luke 1:46b–55
Second Reading: Romans 16:25–27
Gospel: Luke 1:26–38

Congratulations! I hear you are all expecting! That’s a wondrous thing! What? Are you surprised? Weren’t expecting to be expecting? Join the club! Imagine Elizabeth’s surprise! Imagine Mary’s surprise! Today’s Gospel lesson is a conversation between two women who never guessed they would be expecting.

Who was Elizabeth? The elderly wife of an elderly priest. Elizabeth and Zechariah had probably long ago resigned themselves to the whisperings about which one of them had the problem, that they remained childless. In a society that valued women only for their progeny, she was highly suspect—not highly regarded. But today, in our Gospel lesson, she is expecting a child who will be named John and who will be the prophet of the Messiah—as well as his cousin.

And who was Mary, this other expectant mother who wasn’t expecting to expect? Not the wife of a high priest, that’s for sure! Not even the daughter of the high priest. Not in any way connected to the temple or any other realm of importance—just a young girl engaged to a blue collar laborer. A “lowly maiden” she calls herself. And that must be true. The Bible, which is usually very big on who begat who makes no mention of Mary’s family. Noticing this glaring problem, the church invented a family for her in the 2nd century. You’ve probably heard of Anne, Mary’s mother? Fictional creation, nowhere mentioned in the Bible. Probably Mary’s kin are not mentioned in Luke because they were, by society’s standards, whatever the opposite of a VIP is (NIP—not important person?). We hear in today’s reading from 1 Samuel that Jesus’ lineage is traced back to David and Jesse, but that’s Joseph’s family tree—and it seems that Jesus wasn’t even biologically related to Joseph.

So Elizabeth, the has-been and Mary, the nobody and never-gonna-be are the main characters in our Advent experience today. Imagine that! And try to imagine their surprise when they turn out to be expecting—and such remarkable children too! What was God thinking? Had the angels accidentally knocked on the wrong doors? Was it a case of mistaken identity?

It’s a good question, but Gabriel’s message to Mary actually begins by looking right at her identity—not the one her community gives her—”teenager with no real future”—nor even the identity she sees in the mirror (which, if she was like most 14 year olds, probably included embarrassment about things like not being pretty enough, or smart enough or good enough at anything). That’s not the identity the angel sees. Gabriel addresses her real self, a precious part of God’s creation, by greeting her in this way: “Rejoice, highly favored, God is with you.” Right from the start the angel affirms her place in God’s family.

Nothing about Mary suggests that she’d be a candidate for helping God save the world except that God favors her. God delights in her. God crafted her and then sat back and said, “It is GOOD! It is VERY GOOD!”

Which is also what God said when God created you. And you. And you. Your identity is as a highly favored part of God’s good creation, whatever doubts you have when you look in the mirror or whatever doubts creep into your heart when you hear other people suggest you are somehow less than OK. You may not remember it, but when you were baptized, the angels came and sang around the font (or river or wherever you were), “Rejoice, highly favored! God is with you!” I know they did. It’s what angels say. At your baptism God marked you with the cross of Christ and called into the family forever. It’s not just the capable and qualified that God calls on to do wondrous works in the world. Ask Mary, ask Elizabeth.

So are we then required to serve God? Do we have to believe and obey the word of God? Can God just send an angel swooping in to make us do things that God wants? Then what happens to free will? Yes, Elizabeth was praying for a child, but as far as we know, Mary wasn’t. Was God just like all the other powerful figures in her world, using her because it was convenient, because she had no resources with which to fight back, because she was a poor girl with no connections? Did God assign her this formidable task without any consideration of what a predicament it put her in? If anyone in that society was more despised than an old woman who didn’t have children, it was an unmarried young one who did. (I wonder if much has changed.) Didn’t God realize that when Joseph and his family found out Mary was pregnant—and that the child wasn’t Joseph’s—they could’ve had her stoned to death in the public square? Did God force her to accept her task, knowing what could happen? Could she have said no? What would God have done then?

Notice the angel conveniently sidesteps the Virgin’s question, “How can this be?” Notice, too, that God conveniently sidesteps the whole sexual setup of the time, in which a woman was revered for the men connected to her—either as father, husband, or child. God works in Mary without any of those connections, without any attachment to the power system of the time. And Mary responds to that kind of twist on what she has come to expect.

Mary’s song, which we call “The Magnificat” gives us some clues about how Mary experienced God’s invitation to her to be Jesus’ mother. From the way she sings about God, it doesn’t sound like God forced Mary do anything. It sounds like she understands God to be quite the opposite of the powerful figures she knows. This is not a God who reinforces the already powerful, but a God who builds up those who don’t have anything to lose. It sounds like she doesn’t think God is taking advantage of her or of the poor, but rather elevating them and giving them dignity. It doesn’t sound to me like the annunciation is a rape story. It sounds to me like a story of lovers wooing and being wooed.

Remember back in junior high, when you wanted to find out if the person you liked liked you back? Remember passing notes in class that said, “I like you. Do you like me?” Then boxes to check: “yes,” or “no.” Then weren’t there usually two or three people who required to pass the note from the sender to the recipient? If you think about it, that’s what’s going on here, I think. Gabriel the intermediary between the lover and the beloved, hands Mary a note from God that says, “I love you. I want you to help me change the world. Will you? Check box “yes” or “no.”

This is not a case of God entering this young woman without her consent. It is a love story of beautiful and extraordinary consequences.

And what’s in Mary’s note back to God? Mary’s love note back to God says, “If you are a God who pays attention not just to the important people, the acceptable people—as other people define acceptable… And if you are a God who honors the poor and marginalized, not just the respectable, well-connected people… And if you are a God who notices unwed pregnant teenagers and elderly women who feel forgotten… And if you are a God who will bring good news to people who are feeling beaten down and beaten up, then YES.

Yes, I will help. Yes, I want to do that kind of work too!
Yes, I want to be a part of your family.
Yes, I want to bear that Love into the world!
Yes, I want to nurture that Love and feed it and sing to it, and share it with everyone I know.
Yes, I will suffer when that Love gets spat upon and ignored and ripped apart….
BUT as long as you will stay with me, then YES. YES. YES!
Let it be with me according to your will.
And everyone will call me blessed, not because of how fabulous I am, but because you love me.

The love story is not over, you know. It’s open-ended. Today the angel comes to you, and knocks on your door. Rejoice, highly favored, God is with you. Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. Each of us is asked to be a God-bearer, to carry God’s love inside of us and to push it out into the world. But we don’t have to. We get to check the box “yes” or “no.” What will you say?

~Pastor Susan Schneider

About Trinity Lutheran Church

A congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) located in Madison, Wisconsin.
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