Sermon #212 St. James the Less #119 12/20/20
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Lights in Jerusalem
I would like to start with an Advent story.
The Old City of Jerusalem is encompassed by a beautiful stone wall that was built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century. Within these hallowed walls, the city is broken into four quarters: the Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian Quarters. The Armenians were given their own quarter for being the first kingdom to officially adopt Christianity as the national religion in the 4th century.
Each quarter has its own feel to it—its own culture and history—and in some cases, residents stay quite close to their designated religious quarter.
This past week Christmas lights were turned on throughout the Christian & Armenian Quarters. What is typically a festive event had to be a private showing with the different bishops of Jerusalem gathering to light the Christmas tree by themselves with the local Christian TV station covering it for everyone at home.
It really sums up 2020—what is usually something the public gathers together to celebrate, could only be enjoyed by a few, while others watched from home. It is the way of the world right now.
But even so, there is something to celebrate. In Jerusalem, peace comes and goes like the seasons of the year, but more times than not it is a place of conflict, or at least there is a sense of tension in the air. It is like gasoline just needing a spark to ignite a roaring blaze.
But in the constant turmoil and tension of the Holy City, light is still shining from the Christian Quarter, pouring forth into the other quarters and ultimately into the world.
Advent light breaking into a world darkened by Sin and Death.
Mary vs. Sentimentality
This morning we hear the familiar story of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary what God is planning to do in her life. Now it’s really starting to feel like Christmas isn’t it?
But before we go into full Christmas mode, we need to recognize that this story is anything but sentimental. This was never supposed to be a feel-good story. Luke would be horrified at what we’ve done with the story leading up the Jesus’ birth.
Like the example of the lights turning on in the Christian Quarter, the story of the Annunciation is about God’s light breaking forth through the darkness of the world. Nothing can stop, or will stop, God from acting on behalf of his creation.
As much as our culture may want to turn this season into a celebration of togetherness or good cheer, it is about something much more important than that.
That may be shocking to hear, Lord knows Mary was in utter shock when she came face to face with the angel Gabriel. Her awe and wonder not only comes with the encounter of a heavenly figure but also what Gabriel’s message means for her and her people. God is on the move once again!
God on the Move
One of the Advent themes we’ve wrestled with over the past few weeks is the silence of God. We look at the world and sometimes wonder where God is? In the great mystery of God’s nature, somehow in his absence he is present, and vice versa, he is present though absent.
For Mary, and her contemporaries God had been seemingly absent for ages. The great prophets of old were long dead; Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel had been gone for centuries.
In the meantime, there had been invasions by the Greeks and then Romans, revolts of course took place, and messianic claims by Jewish military leaders, but God had not been present in the same way that he was in the days of Moses or Samuel or David. And one had to wonder if he would ever be as present as in those ancient times.
Gabriel’s message to Mary is a clear indicator that God is about to do a new thing for the people of Israel, that he has not forgotten them, nor has he been absent all the while. In fact, it has come about just as the prophets foretold, but in God’s time, of course.
The angel says that God isn’t just about to start this new thing with her, but that he’s already at work, this new chapter has already started. He says: see what God is doing for your aunt, even in her old age she has conceived a son. People thought she was barren, heck she even thought she was barren, and yet, God has surprised her, surprised all of us at what he’s up to.
The wheels are already in motion—the forerunner of the messiah is in the womb. And the greatest surprise of all is that God has chosen her, little ole Mary for the greatest miracle.
As one commentator said, “God has given his favor to one who had no claim to worthy status, raised her up from a position of lowliness, and has chosen her to have a central role in salvation history” (Green 87).
The God of the Old Testament is at it again. He has shown his preference for the poor and lowly many times before. He called little known Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees to be a great nation, he blessed Sarah with a baby in her old age, he appointed Moses the murderer and stutterer to lead his people out of slavery, and took the young shepherd-boy David out of the grazing fields to become King of Israel.
The God who seemed so absent, so distant from his people, had been present all along and was raising up yet another no-name person from a no-name place to bear the Son of God.
What makes Mary so special and so worthy of honor is that she said yes to God’s call in her life. And it was not an easy ask, if she said yes, her life would change forever. When we look at her all these years later, we can see that Mary’s “yes” is the yes of every faithful Christian.
Just as we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Mary essentially said the same thing, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Her faith and trust in God are remarkable, and there are so many lessons we can learn from her. But as much as we think this story is about Mary, it is even more so about the God who called her all those years ago and who continues to call out to us.
The primary actor, the force, and energy that is at work in the Bible is not humanity but God. In both the Old and New Testament, the people time and again, struggle to realize that God is the one working out his purposes, many times in spite of all the “supposedly” good work we as humanity try to do.
God is the God of limitless wonders and life—true, pure unadulterated life. Our gospel story today reminds us that God is already at work in the world, already moving and acting in his creation, and when we are confronted with that reality, we should be like Mary and just exclaim, “Yes! Yes, Lord I see you working in this marvelous way, and I too want to join you where you already are.”
That is each of our calls to ministry—to keep a prayerful and watchful eye in our lives and neighborhoods and see where God is already at work and to join him there. There is no need to force his hand, to make him show up in what we think should be our ministry, but rather to look for him, and as we already know, he will be found in some surprising places working through some unexpected people.
“For nothing will be impossible with God,” as Gabriel reminds us.
Ending the Season
As we wrap up the season of Advent and move towards the joy of Christmas we need to end where we began a few weeks ago. As we said on the First Sunday of Advent, “What other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent” (Karl Barth)? For the waiting church, meaning you and me, there is no other season than Advent.
We continue to strain our eyes for the Lord’s return, but we must not forget to look for where God is already working in the here and now: among us and with us.
Our waiting can be prayerful but it cannot be passive, discerning but not docile, faithful but not fearful. We have in our midst the God who called to Moses out of the burning bush to proclaim release to the captives, to Isaiah the news of judgment that would lead to redemption, and to Mary the call to make a home in her womb for the Lord of life and salvation.
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
4th Sunday of Advent. Year B. Lk 1:26-38. Advent by Fleming Rutledge. Pic here.