A sermon based on Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 and Luke 1:26-38 preached on December 14th, 2014.
Do you believe that God is still active in the world?
Let’s really think about that question before we give our quick “Yes” as an answer.
That’s Old Testament scholar and professor Walter Brueggemann’s question. And he follows it up with an observation he has made about most of us. He says,
Few people imagine God to be an active character in the story of their lives.
Is he right?
Depending on what poll you believe, 95-98% of Americans believe in God, but I wonder if that actually means anything for them. Does believing in God change their day?
How many of that 98% have any expectation that God could step in, become a part at any moment, disrupting their altogether ordinary lives—changing their course. Do we believe that God is still active in the world like that?
We’re good at attributing the spectacular to God. There are remarkable things that happen and that’s where we say God drops by. Little glimpses, sparks of light and life and healing and hope that sometimes flash before our eyes—“God moments” we might call them. But those are just moments—they leave as quickly as they come. We’re good at recognizing God in quick bursts when extraordinary stuff happens—where we can’t explain things other than to say God stopped by and gave us a miracle. God contained in a moment. Then off that moment goes.
Mary was an unremarkable woman. I was baptized Catholic, so even as I say that, the spots on my head where they poured the holy water —they sizzle a little. Unlike our Catholic brothers and sisters, we Protestants don’t lift Mary up all that high, nor should we. There is nothing all that divine about her. She did nothing or said nothing to earn her appointment as the mother of Jesus. In fact, she’s altogether ordinary—unremarkable.
If we think that Mary becomes favored because she so easily believes what the angel Gabriel was telling her then we’re not paying attention to what Mary says here.
How will this happen?
Those are Mary’s first words. Skeptical words. Unbelieving even. Things like this don’t happen. Mary asks the same question we would ask.
God doesn’t do things like this—at least not to people like me. All those feelings are wrapped up in Mary’s incredulous question.
The angel Gabriel’s first word’s to Mary are,
Rejoice, favored one, the Lord is with you!
and the text says that Mary was confused by those words. We can imagine Mary saying back:
Favored? Do you even know who I am? Have you taken a look around?
I live among ignored and despised people—I am the least of these. I’m no one important. Altogether ordinary and unremarkable.
We can almost hear her ask those questions, can’t we? And Mary was right. (This is when the spots on my head start to sizzle.) There was nothing all that special about her. Mary was an ordinary girl living an ordinary life.
Christmas isn’t about the extraordinary. If anything at all, it’s about how, we the commonplace, can become participants in God’s story—we can become favored.
Mary wasn’t chosen to be the mother of Jesus because she was especially suited for the job—had all the right stuff on her resume. She was chosen because she was the commonplace, and God uses the everyday, regular, and altogether usual to bring about His purposes. God favors the ordinary and does remarkable things through us.
I didn’t plan to use art for every bulletin cover this Advent. It just happened to work out every week that there was a painting I thought would help us see something new in our bible passages. I guess this year we’re exploring Advent through art.
This week we have a painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner. This is his take on the Annunciation.
The color is missing from our black and white copy, which is a shame because the color is the best part about it, but I hope you can still see the expression on Mary’s face. I hope you can see her posture. Where are her eyes pointed? What’s Mary thinking? She looks to me to be cautious, incredulous, stunned, overwhelmed, perplexed, skeptical. I see a bit of all of that on her face.
I love Tanner’s take on this moment, because it knocks us out of this conventional idea we have in our heads that Mary just sits there and daintily accepts this huge news—just passively says “Okay” and hops right on board.
Take a look at that space between Mary’s gaze and the light appearing across her room. The physical distance isn’t much at all, but look how many light years away Mary seems from it?! The distance between the angel’s news and Mary’s capacity to understand it—not just to comprehend it but to accept it—is way too far.
How many times have we been there? Right where Mary is in this painting. Haven’t we all felt that vast distance before—this seemingly insurmountable space between God’s Good News and our capacity to understand it, let alone become an active participant in it.
Haven’t we heard all the great promises told to us by a messenger only to think to ourselves the same thing Mary said out loud to the angel Gabriel:
How will this happen since…
Finish that sentence in any way you want to:
…since I’m too young (that’s what Mary thought).
…since I’m too old (that’s what Elizabeth thought).
…since I feel unworthy of blessing
…since I’m too broken of a person
…since I’m too busy to handle anything else in my life
…there’s a thousand more ways to finish that sentence.
Advent is a bridge that spans the gap between who we think we are and who God is calling us to be—that takes care of that huge distance in between this colossal task that God is empowering us with and how unworthy of it we might feel.
We are each called, just like Mary, to bear Christ into the world. To bring the promise of Christ into being—to conceive and then carry the Good News, nurture it inside ourselves, and then deliver it bring it forth—into the world.
We are Mary—the unremarkable, chosen for the remarkable. God uses us to speak to and in the world—to be Christ-bearers. Whether we feel up to it or not, that is who God is calling us to be—that is why God has visited us and why God has called out to us.
God works through ordinary people like you and me and Mary. God uses us all—Mary as well as all the rest of His people to bring into being the Good News of the Gospel. And just like Mary, we don’t have to know for sure if we’re equal to the task or even if we understand all that God is asking of us. We can even be perplexed by God’s call upon our lives—we can stare at it just like Mary is staring into the light in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting—incredulous and skeptical, fearful and stunned—and still say what Mary says right at the end of this passage,
YES! Let it be with me just as you have said.
In other words,
I’m not sure what I’m signing up for but, God, I’m going to trust you anyway.
That’s the sort of relationship God wants us to have with Him—not just to believe in God but to put our entire trust in God. 98% of Americans believe in God but what good is that doing? It’s too easy to say, “I believe in God.” Believing in God changes nothing. What God wants from us is to put our trust in Him, to regard Him as an active character in the story of our lives—the One we say “YES” to and then throw everything we have and everything we are into the task of bearing the Good News of Christ into the world. Advent is that journey from belief to trust.
The passage after this one is a Christmas favorite. It’s the Song of Mary—the Magnificat.These words ring out every Christmas season—and they’re wondrous and large.
Mary sings this song for all the world to hear:
With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me.
The silent and stunned Mary we see in Tanner’s painting—the Mary in our passage for this morning—the startled, overwhelmed one who can’t muster but a few words in the presence of the angel Gabriel—she becomes empowered with the Holy Spirit—the Holy Spirit who Gabriel says will overshadow her, and all the sudden Mary gains her voice. Perhaps for the first time in her life, this young girl speaks confident words.
Maybe this moment when Mary is visited with a message from God isn’t called the annunciation only because God has something to announce to her. It may also be called the annunciation because it is in this moment—as the angel empowers her and as her Aunt Elizabeth, pregnant with a son herself, that Mary gains her voice and announces for all of us to hear the wonderful things that God will do through her and through the Son she will bear into the world.
Advent is that time to move from the darkness into the lit presence of God. Advent happens when we, like Mary, gain our voice, and with it begin proclaiming God’s Good News in Jesus Christ for all the world to hear.
This season, God is asking us to bear Christ into the world, and to announce His reign over our lives, and God’s stunning and active presence among all the people. We the ordinary empowered with the remarkable news of Christ born in us and for the world.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!