Sermon on Luke 1:26-38 for Advent 4B, December 24, 2017

Luke 1:26-38

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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 4.30.27 PM

Back in 1969 the Beatle’s Paul McCartney had a dream.  In his dream, Mary, his mother, who had died ten years earlier, came to him.  She was aware of all the issues he was dealing with – Paul’s life was pretty crazy in those days – and said to him, “Let it be”  meaning something like, “It will all be okay; do not worry.”   He said that dream was the source of his song “Let it Be.” 

The song says,

“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be.’”

So, according to Paul, the song “Let it Be” was not about the virgin Mary, but about Mary,  Paul’s mother.  But dreams are a bit mystical.  I am not sure that we know all that our own dreams are about. 

I have heard a professor of psychology speaking of dreams, and his clinical conclusion is they are neither to be treated as prophetic words from God, nor are they to be written off as merely random mental events.  Sometimes they tell us things we need to pay attention to that we were not conscious of.

Anyway, in his song, which the dream inspired, Paul does not say “My mother, Mary, came to me, speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be.’”

Rather he says “Mother Mary came to me, speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be.’” 

Now that is something specific, for someone who was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, as Paul was.   I am pretty sure a Muslim would not have worded it that way.  In other words, Paul grew up in a tradition that was steeped in the story of Christmas which has, at its center, the words Mary said to the angel, “Let it be”.  The fuller quotation is

“Let it be to me according to your word.” 

Mary as One of Us

This is one of the most famous scenes in Christian history – it has been depicted in countless paintings, drawings, statues and stained glass. 

Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 3.46.47 PM

Usually, Mary looks like a Caucasian European in flowing medieval robes with a face as white as they come. 

Of course, as a poor girl, from a Palestinian village on the distant fringes of the Roman Empire in the first century of this era, she looked nothing like that.  She would have had dark Middle Eastern skin, dark eyes, and hair, and her clothing would have been what poor peasants wore, day in and day out, back then. 

So, artists have made Mary look like the people of their own culture, which is probably the correct way to imagine her, if you are taking this story seriously.  Mary is the model disciple.  She gives the perfect response, when she realizes what God is doing: she gives her full, unconditional “yes” to God’s will.  Her full response is:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” 

Or as Peterson’s Message translation puts it:

“Yes, I see it all now:  I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve. Let it be with me just as you say.” 

The Promise of a Kingdom

Now, that was no easy thing to say.  She was being asked to do something that would completely upend her world.   All pregnancies and all births of first-born children completely change the lives of new mothers.  But this pregnancy and this birth, according to the angel Gabriel, are significant beyond belief.  About Jesus, the angel announces:

“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.”

The angel’s words refer directly to the ancient prophecy that the great King David of ancient Israel would have a dynasty that would never stop. 

Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 3.52.10 PM

The prophet told David that God had said,

“Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”

But that was centuries ago.  In the meantime, the dynasty of David had ceased.  The Babylonians brought it to an end in the sixth century before Jesus, and now, the Jew’s local king, Herod, could not claim David as his ancestor.   

A New Kind of Kingdom

What could it possibly mean that peasant Mary’s child would take the throne and reign over a kingdom which would last forever?   

Well, of course, peasant Mary could not have known, but Luke, who wrote this story, wrote this scene as his prelude to his story of Jesus, according to New Testament scholars, anticipating its themes.  Luke will spend the next 24 chapters of his gospel, and all of the book of Acts, his second volume, trying to show what that kingdom is all about. 

The great surprise is that Jesus’ vision of the kingdom is quite a departure from the kingdom David reigned over.  In Jesus’ vision, the kingdom is not a national one, with borders and armies protecting them. 

Rather, the kingdom of God is present when people do exactly what Mary models as she says,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” 

Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 4.04.14 PM

Abandoning Self-Concern

The essence of the kingdom of God is a life lived in such a way that self-concern is not at the center.  Self-concern is the natural way to live.  To look out for one’s own interests, one’s own reputation and status, one’s own prosperity, one’s own safety and security, is natural.  It is as natural as the world of primates – of monkeys and chimps that we evolved from. 

Self-concern extends to family and tribal concern, because these are merely extensions of the self.  Every normal person defends their own family.  That is why courts of law know to suspect the witness testimony of relatives.  They have a self-interest in the outcome. 

It took a long time for humans to develop to the point that we had such things as the science of psychology, and even longer before we started understanding the brain. 

But now, we know about the ego and its drives to protect and to propagate the self.  We know about the primitive lizard brain we all have, and its nearly instant willingness to fight against any and every threat to the self.  Self-concern is hard-wired in us, down to our brain stems. 

But that is not the only option anymore.  We have developed the rational part of our brains.  We are able to think and speak.  We are able, not only to have a concept of ourselves, but we can imagine other selves as well.  We know our own hunger, our own pain, our own suffering, and we can imagine that other people experience these in exactly the same way we do. 

The Infinite and the Finite

Now, let us pause and take a step back and ask, what is this story of Mary and the angel about? 

At the most basic level, this is an interaction between a messenger from God and a human.  In other words, the divine and the human are in contact.  The infinite and the finite are in contact. 

Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 4.07.36 PM

This is basic to the human condition as well.  Human experience is finite and limited, and yet we confront the infinite constantly.  Life is infinitely complex.  We are confronted every day with complexity that we have no capacity to understand.  We face mysteries constantly, from the weather to our own health.  We do not understand how crops grow or how living things can produce new living things. 

Even when we know the biology behind reproduction, it only increases our appreciation for its complexity, but does not explain life, or consciousness, or morality, or love or anything that gives our lives value.  The finite human constantly confronts the infinite with every breath we take. 

So, this story of Mary and the angel is a story of the Infinite in contact with the finite, in a specific way.  In this story, we see the Infinite, or Being itself, initiates the contact, taking the first step.  Why?  Because the finite matters the infinite.  In the story, it matters to God what happens to humans.  Human life is a subject of God’s concern. 

For the next 24 chapters, Luke will show how this works out in story after story.  Jesus is going to be born into this impoverished, marginalized family, and yet grow up to be so intimately connected to the Infinite, so present to the presence of God, that people begin to sense God’s presence in him.  Many experience the physical liberation of healing.  Others experience liberation in a purely spiritual sense.   

Because of Jesus, they will begin to see God in a new and liberating light.  Instead of judgmental and wrathful, they will be taught to see God as the Good Shepherd who goes out in search of the lost sheep. 

Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 4.10.13 PM

They will be taught that God is like the father of the prodigal son who longs for his return, and forgives him instantly, restoring him to the family with celebration and joy. 

And this is what life in the kingdom is about.  It is about letting go of self-concern — even self-preoccupied concern for one’s own religious purity, in favor of a life of joyful celebration of forgiveness.  Instead of the self-concern of guilt and shame, there is the un-self-conscious delight in God’s goodness.

And this lack of self-concern flows out into a new awareness of the pain of others.  In Luke, we hear Jesus teach about the Good Samaritan who could never simply walk by on the other side of the road when another human was suffering. 

Completely disregarding self-concern for safety, the Samaritan stops, in spite of the obvious possibility that the robbers were still around, and provides first aid, and then puts the victim up in a rented room at his own expense, even putting himself on the hook for any and all care expenses in the future.  And that is what it means to live in the kingdom, according to Jesus. 

What do We Want?

So, at the beginning of Luke’s story of Jesus, he gives us this scene in which the Infinite contacts the finite: God’s word comes to Mary, saying that God will do something life-upsetting, but enormously significant.  And Mary replies with the exact kind of reply that makes it possible for God to be born into the world of finite humans,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” 

As the prelude to the gospel, this story comes to us as a question.  Do I want God to be born in me?  Do I want to be a part of what the Infinite God wants to do in me, on behalf of our world?  Do I want to be a part of God’s kingdom? 

I think we all feel the tug.  We all feel drawn to embrace the reality of the depth dimension of life.  We feel called to the good.  We long for a better world, and to be better selves in the world. 

And yet, we feel pulled away as well.  A life lived in such a way that we let go of self-concern feels risky – even scary.  Anything could happen – look at what it meant to Mary. 

But look what it brought forth.  When Mary said “yes” to God, God was born into her womb and into her world. 

So today, we are given this occasion to join her.  Today, let us embrace this vision of the kingdom of God, and relinquishing our self-concern, as truly liberated people, who have had our own encounter with Jesus, let us say along with Mary,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” 


One thought on ““Let It Be”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s