Sermon: Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 21, 2014

Rejoice, highly favored ones! God is with you!

Now you may not think that greeting is meant for you. It may have been what the Angel Gabriel said to a first century peasant in Palestine, but she was special. Some of you, on the other hand, don’t consider yourselves special or highly favored. “Maybe that greeting is just meant for the bishop,” you might think. Or the bishop’s husband. Possibly the pastor, or event that very well-behaved person in the pew behind you. But not you. You imagine that someone who is highly favored has a nice flat stomach and perfectly-behaved children in an immaculately clean home where the checkbook always balances and no one ever loses it. So definitely not you.

But bear in mind that–although she is now called The Queen of Heaven, and her image graces countless paintings and sculptures all over the world–when Mary met Gabriel she didn’t consider herself very highly favored either. She was an adolescent female–probably around the age of one of our acolytes–living under an occupying government. And though Scripture tends to be very interested in who begat whom, Mary’s parents are never mentioned–which probably tells us all we need to know about them. Never mind that you may have heard about Mary’s mother Anne, who conceived her immaculately. The Church made her up centuries ago to address this very concern: Mary was no one special.

Elizabeth and Zechariah are identified as living a “blameless” life, and he’s at least a priest. But Mary? She’s simply called “a virgin” and her own self-description is as “a lowly maiden.” There is no indication that she has remarkable spiritual attributes or is particularly emotionally mature or in any other way warrants a visit from God. And yet it is to her that God’s message is delivered: “Rejoice, highly favored. God is with you.”

So why SHOULDN’T that message come to you as well?

A warning: right after Gabriel tells Mary she is special and important to God, the angel communicates startling news. The most incredible news ever: she has been chosen to bear God into the world. It makes perfect sense to me that her first reaction is, “How can this be?” Beyond the biological impossibility, she is just so improbable! She must have wondered, “Are you sure you got the right house?” In this, she is like so many others before her. I think of Moses standing before the burning bush where God commands him to lead the people of Israel to freedom, saying, “Do you know my brother Aaron? He can sing like an angel and talk like a preacher!” Or Jonah. Oh my, if ever there were a person who didn’t react well to being called by God to a special task, he’s the guy!

Notice that Gabriel never answers Mary’s question (“How can this be?”) except to tell her that nothing is impossible with God. Notice too, how everything about this encounter reveals God conveniently sidestepping the whole power system of the time. God doesn’t visit the high priest with the Good News. Or a princess. Mary is barely a woman, not yet even anyone’s wife, which means she has even less status than most women of her day, which is really saying something! Yet she is called by God for reasons beyond her understanding and ours. Which is not unlike the reactions we might have today when God whispers that there is a holy calling to which we have been called.

After Mary has some time to digest what Gabriel has asked, she responds with a beautiful song we now call “The Magnificat.” Martin Luther once described it as a song to “strengthen our faith, to comfort the lowly, and to terrify the mighty.” We just sang a version of it a few minutes ago. Echoing Gabriel’s parting words to her–that with God nothing is impossible–Mary’s song is a song of trust that God can do mighty things. And that since God pays attention not just to the well-behaved, educated, respectable, and clean, she answers YES to God’s request that she bear Christ into the world.

What made her decide that? What happened to her between the times she asks, incredulously, “How can this be?” and the moment she says, “Let it be to me according to your will?” I wonder if it isn’t something to do with Gabriel telling her that her cousin Elizabeth was also expecting a child, long after Elizabeth and her husband had given up hoping. I wonder if she suddenly realized that not only did God regard her as highly favored and important, but God also saw her cousin that way. In fact, God wanted to bring hope and transformation not only to her, but to all of the sick, sad, lonely, and hopeless people in the world.

Maybe then Mary decided, “Since God notices the elderly and couples who have been unable to conceive, I will say YES to all God asks of me. Since God wants the hungry to be fed, the forgotten to be remembered, and the lowly to raise up their heads….since God wants to console those who weep and the guilty to know they are forgiven…then YES. I don’t know why God chose me over a million more suitable candidates, but since this is the God you are and these are the things you want to do, then my answer is YES YES YES!”

Meister Eckhart once wrote, “We are all mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.” Which brings me back to today, to us. The Greek word for angel is more accurately translated messenger. That means, in an unlikely twist, that today I am your angel! And the message that God has sent me to deliver to you is this: “Rejoice, highly favored. God is with you.” God would like you to bring Christ into our messy, violent, depressed and wildly unfair world.

God would like a word of consolation to be shared not only with those of you who feel weak and inadequate, but also everyone else with similar concerns. God wants to heal your loved ones who are in the hospital, but also the patients in the other rooms. And the doctors and nurses. And the lab techs and custodians. Yes, God is eager to bring good news of good cheer to you and your family, but God also wants that good news to be spread to the grieving parents in Pakistan and Sandy Hook and NYC.

Of course you can say no. But if you say yes, as Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor puts it in her book Gospel Medicine, “You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body.” How’s THAT for an invitation!? YOU are invited to bear God’s unending mercy and redeeming love into all the world in your own body. You are called to bring forth that Love, to feed and nurture it, sing to it and care for it, and pass it on to everyone you meet!

Remember, of course, that saying YES has consequences. The cost of bearing great love is enduring great sorrow. Just ask Mary. How do you think she felt when her beautiful baby was spat on and mocked and murdered? Like her, you will find your heart breaking again and again as the darkness threatens to crowd out all the light. So, what happens if we say no? Does that mean God does not come to work in the world? No, even then, the darkness does not win. On this day of the winter solstice, the world is about to turn! In just a few moments, regardless of how you respond to God’s invitation to you, God shares God’s own self with us at this table. As Advent comes to an end and Christmas approaches, we see the light creeping into our dark and weary world. Whether we say yes or no, God will keep on singing to all the weary world that we are highly favored; we matter to God. God will never call us to a task without also promising to empower us and nurture us along the way to complete it. Even as we bear God to the world, we are fed with God’s own self to strengthen us for the task.

So, how is the light creeping into the world today? What in your life is being reborn? How is God at work in your life, your family, your loved ones? What is God up to here at Trinity? And how are we, specifically, being asked to share Christ with this community, this state, this nation, the world? When Mary said YES to God’s call, she changed history and opened up a new path for the future. What will happen when we say YES? It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? We can’t even understand the HOW of our task. How can we possibly grasp the WHY?

“Rejoice, highly favored. God is with you.” Though it’s as improbable as a virgin having a child, let’s follow Mary’s example and just trust that with God, nothing is impossible, even if–like Mary–we still wonder, “How can this be?” God’s desire is to keep on coming to us and to the world, no matter how many questions we have. The only question we really have to ask is, “Will we say YES?”

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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