Sermon on Luke 1:26-38 for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year B, Dec. 21, 2014
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 for ever, 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.
This is the Sunday closest to Christmas, so it is one of the big church-going Sundays of the year. I was thinking about the people I know who have reasons not to be in church very often, and I have had conversations with some of them. One of them said it clearly: “I want to be science-based about what I believe is true.”
Well, if anyone here has had thoughts like that, I want you to know that you are not alone, and your number is growing rapidly. If that feels like you, I wonder what you think about the rest of us? Do you assume that we all just slide right by stories of angels and virgin births easily? Yes, some of us do; many others do not.
In fact I am willing to bet that in this room are two kinds of people. Some have trouble with stories of angels and miracles. Even if they want to, and used to believe them, now it seems difficult or even impossible. The other kind of people simply believe that God can do what God wants to do, and in this case, it involved an angel and Mary, just as the story says.
New Testament scholars who have examined all the literary devices in these stories we read at Christmas know there there is a lot going on here. These stories are structured in detail in ways that anticipate the themes of the gospels, especially the theme of Jesus as the new Moses. Perhaps the authors meant these stories to be read as parables.
If you are among those of us who have doubts about the literal nature of this story we just read, then let me invite you to consider it a parable. But I want also to encourage you to consider it as a parable with a poignant message, and one that we personally need – and one our world needs to hear.
Let us first consider this: that whatever is going on in this story, the message that Gabriel gives to Mary is that her son will be a king on a throne. He will, the angel says,
“reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Luke is the one telling this story, and Luke knows where it is going. He knows it does not end with the literal enthronement of Jesus as King in place of Herod, founding a new Jewish dynasty that never ends.
In fact, by the time Luke wrote this, the Roman army had put down a Jewish revolt, not too many years after Jesus walked the earth. In that revolt, hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed, the temple was destroyed, and there was no “king” reigning “over the house of Jacob” – and this is the world that Luke was living in as he told the story.
So why would Luke include these details? Wouldn’t it be like telling the story of the glorious grand opening of a Jewish glassware shop in Berlin in 1937, a year before Kristallnacht and not long before the Holocaust?
Let us give Luke the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say he knows what he is doing by telling this story. So, what is he doing?
If this story means anything, it means that Luke believes Jesus is a crucial character. By this kind of a start, Luke is preparing us, his readers to read the gospel of Luke, a story about Jesus that has potential life-changing implications if we are open to them.
So let us spend a few minutes with this story and try to be open to its message.
I see three big ideas that this story tells. First, as we said, that Jesus is super important, and that whatever happens in the rest of the story, Jesus’s life experiences, actions and words are the main event. Birth stories are portents.
Second, that God is involved here. This is a “God-thing.” Jesus is important because, as Marcus Borg says, he is a “Spirit-man” – a person deeply in touch with the presence of God. God is doing something, and Jesus is God’s means. Jesus’ significance is not super-human strength like Samson – whose birth was also announced by an angel – but rather that from the beginning, Jesus is in direct relationship with God.
Third, this is a human-response story. This is why it is so powerful for us. Luke wants us to see Mary as the model. She is a normal person; not a prophetess like Anna, she is not a judge like her ancestor Deborah, she is not anything special. Just a normal young person. So her response is the response of a normal person, and therefore, a model for us.
So what does she respond to? What is she asked to do? This is not normal at all. She is to become a mother by a super-normal means. Now, think for a moment what this request entails. Let your imagination be your entry point to this story. Women probably get the implications here at a far deeper level than men, but men can at least attempt to appreciate that giving birth for the first time radically and permanently changes a woman.
Even without the God-part of this story, Mary is being asked to a task that is enormous, risky, painful, and life-changing. And if the physical part is not challenging enough, there is also the social-stigma of an unwed pregnancy to consider.
I heard a story on a podcast called “The Moth” told by a young mother who was getting questions from her daughter about where babies come from. So the mom remembered her mother telling her the facts of life long ago. As she heard about pregnancy and childbirth, she said she remembered thinking, “it’s all bad news!”
And that is the point. This human response story is about a normal person in a deeply challenging situation. This is not a pretty picture.
So, Mary is being asked to embrace what is coming as a God-thing that will serve a purpose beyond her imagination, but at quite a price.
If we are supposed to see her response as a model, then let us enter the story right here. What is your life like, right now? What are the challenges in your situation? What are you being asked to deal with?
For some of us, the process of aging brings a host of issues, both medical and emotional. It is not easy, as I have been reminded by many people here.
Some of us are dealing with grief because we have lost people we loved. Some of us have family issues, and the “happy holidays” only seem to accentuate them.
There are as many challenging situations as people – finances, relationships, guilt, depression, addiction, we are vulnerable on innumerable fronts. I have learned of two suicides in this Christmas season. People are dealing with a lot, often privately.
Unlike Mary, we do not get to choose. We do not get an angel coming out of nowhere giving us a yes-or-no vote about it. Life happens, and much of it is not pretty.
Let your imagination take you to that moment: how is Mary feeling? Overwhelmed? Fearful? Apprehensive? Yes, just the way we feel in the face of what life serves up.
So if this is a human response story, let us look at Mary’s response. How does it start? With a personal reflection on who she is; her essential identity. She begins,
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord”
I can imagine her thoughts: “Here I am, young, unmarried, poor, from a village in the country side of an occupied nation, under the boot of a massive empire. I cannot see how anything good is going to come from me or from this. But more important than all of those ways of knowing who I am is that I know myself as a child of God; the servant of the Lord,” to use a prophetic image.
Response, part B: Yes
If I know that about myself, that I am in God’s hands, that God can be trusted with all the things going on above my pay-grade, then I know how to respond.
So, she says,
“let it be with me according to your word.”
In other words, “Yes; Let everything the messenger from God said would happen, happen. I will not fight it; I will accept it. I will trust. I will risk believing that God is with me in this. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m paying the universe a compliment it does not deserve. But I will risk a “yes” to what is happening in my life.
Most great truths seem to be paradoxes. Life is a struggle. On the one hand, you have to work hard. You will never accomplish anything by sitting around and letting life happen to you. You have to persevere, overcome obstacles and adversity, and push yourself.
And there are things worth fighting for, and fighting against. It is our high calling to fight injustice and discrimination. We believe in fighting poverty and homelessness. We celebrate the fight against corruption. We believe in the fight for a cleaner planet. All of those fights are nobel and good, demanding and yet, worth the struggle.
But the paradox is, that there are also many parts of life that cannot be fought, and must not be fought, but rather accepted with the words of Mary, “let it be.”
Tragically, there are people who keep fighting unwindable battles, making themselves and other people miserable in the process.
The past is one of those unwindable battles. What has happened has happened. No amount of fighting it changes it. If you have experiences in your past that still cause pain, consider prayerfully saying, “Let it be.” I cannot change it.
“Other people” is another thing to stop fighting to change. It is also an unwindable battle. We can pray for people, wish them well, long for their healing or enlightenment, but we cannot change anyone else. We must, “let it be.”
- There are many aspects of our present condition that are completely outside of our control.
- Maybe we are responsible for some of them,
- maybe we were victims or innocent bystanders,
- maybe we were just the one in a thousand that got dealt the bad hand.
Or we can respond, as Mary did, “OK; let it be. I know who I am, and I know whose hands I am in. I can trust that God is present, even in this circumstance.
This is why we believe in and practice daily silent contemplative prayer meditation. In the silence, we let go of our ego, we silence our self-pity and self-justifications, we stop narrating our lives to ourselves and simply be present to the Presence. The harder it is to say “yes, let it be” as Mary did, the more we need that 20 or 30 minutes of silence every day.
“All is well”
One of the last songs of the Christmas Choir concert last Thursday was “All is Well.” The words come from Julian of Norwich, who said,
“…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
She came to that conclusion in what we would call horrible circumstances. It was the time of the plague epidemics, the black death, as they called it, during the 14th century. There were a series of peasant revolts in her time, and she herself nearly died of fever.
And yet, she came to the conclusion that “all shall be well.” She had learned to say what Mary said; what all of us can learn to say:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
This is the Christmas invitation.
It will be alright.
God is here.