A sermon based on Isaiah 61:14, 11 and Luke 1:26-38 preached on December 13th, 2015
Christmas is full of questions: Did I buy enough wrapping paper? Will they like the gift I bought them? Is the Christmas tree straight—or at least as straight as it can be? How many will show up to my open house? Did I prepare enough food? What happens if the little one lights his bulletin on fire with his candle during the Christmas Eve service? How much cash do I give the girl ringing the bell out in front of the grocery store? How long do I have to stand in this line? How many days before it’s all over with?
How many more questions can you think of? Christmases are full of them.
Sometimes, it’s all we can do to get through the season—to make it to Christmas morning. Until then, we’re a bundle of indecisive nerves scurrying from this place to that place wondering if we’ve forgotten anything.
These are the questions of Christmas. There are many, many of them. And those are just the practical ones—the ones we make it through the day with. But there’s a host of other questions, too, aren’t there? Much deeper questions of heart and soul that we are confronted with—that we are invited to ponder this Advent season.
The first few chapters of the Gospel according to Luke are full of questions, too. From the start, Luke tells us what it’s like for us to be confronted with news too great and wondrous for human ears to hear and human minds to comprehend.
Zechariah was the first one to hear unbelievable news. Zechariah was a priest who was in the twilight years of his life; long-ago retired, collecting Social Security, and living off his 401K when suddenly an angel of the Lord comes swooping in with news too delirious-sounding to be truth. In her 80’s, his wife Elizabeth has conceived their first son. After all those early years of trying. After all those years of despairing, it somehow happened. They will have a son, and his name shall be John. Who could blame Zechariah for laughing at the angel? Who could blame him for doubting the message—even if it was given to him by a presence who would have taken the belief out of anyone of us?
After the angel is done proclaiming his wondrous, amazing, breath-taking, Heavenly News, (imagine blazing light and trumpet fanfare, and alleluia choruses all around), Zechariah responds to it with all the enthusiasm of an Ebenezer Scrooge. He says,
How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.
Way to go, Zechariah! O, man of little faith and even less imagination! And according to Luke, Zechariah was just the first to receive an angelic visitation. God’s not off to a great start. No one seems too convinced so far. The world is full of incredulous and world-worn people, we live weary lives, we’re too tired for good news, we’re too jaded to hear and believe. We are a people too used to the darkness to notice when the light starts shining through the cracks. We are incredulous and exhausted people. We’re not ready for God to swoop in and do something surprising and altogether new and incredible among us, with us, through us!
The news given to Zechariah was too wild for him to understand and accept, and because he didn’t believe it, you might remember, the angel of the Lord struck him dumb. He wasn’t able to speak for months and months afterward. Sometimes, maybe most of the time—especially in these weeks leading up to Christmas, it’s best to keep our mouths closed and listen for the Divine voice who is speaking to the world and to each one of us.
The 2nd person to whom the heavenly angels speak in Luke’s gospel is a teenage girl. 14 or 15—maybe younger than that. She too is confronted with news too good that she must have wondered if it was really for her or not. The angel Gabriel must have got his paperwork mixed up. He must have misheard his orders.
This can’t be,
Mary must have said to herself. And then she said it aloud, she just switched up the words to be polite:
How can this be?,
she asks Gabriel. Mary wondered, and doubted, and feared, and was confused—all in the same instant. But unlike Zechariah, Mary’s “How can this be?” wasn’t of the skeptical and proud, know-it-all variety. It was more like the only thing anyone could manage to say if they were told something too holy for human ears.
What can you say to God when God says “I choose you”? In moments like that, there is only awestruck and wonder, silence and light. Mary’s “Yes” was by no means a sign that she was prepared for this baffling calling she received. In this moment, there was no understanding, no comprehension of what God was about to do with her life. She wasn’t briefed about what lied ahead of her. God didn’t give her anything extra-human to help her take on such a daunting and bewildering task. Nothing like that. As Gabriel left her side, doubt and fear, questions and hesitation set in.
How does God expect anyone made of flesh and blood to handle news like that? Isn’t it completely unfair of God to do such a thing to her—to give her something she didn’t ask for or could even imagine (I mean, who could imagine such a thing!)? And a teenager at that! Why would God take a human life and change the entire course of it at such a young age? Can Mary take a few days to think about it and get back to God? Evidently not. That’s not how God works. That’s not what being called by God means. God uses us whether we’re ready or not. Whether we feel up to the task or whether we think we’re missing some pretty key skills to make it happen. The bible is full of sorely unequipped people who say Yes anyway, and then live their way into their divine vocation one stumbling and bumbling moment at a time.
Mary’s Yes makes her the very first of Jesus’ disciples. She becomes a follower of her Son before she even gives birth to Him. But, let’s not stop there. Mary’s invitation into the story of God is also ours.
It’s a long-held belief that Mary was not the first woman asked to be the God-bearer. Can you imagine angel Gabriel working in consort with God? He’s holding a list, and he’s almost to the bottom of it. Everyone has said no so far, and some didn’t just say no, they said “heck no!”, (because when angels are present, people have a tendency to temper their language). There’s only a few more viable candidates left to try, and then it’s back to the drawing board. The heavens are despairing, but then there it is—the next name on the list, “Mary”.
Gabriel reports back with the good news that this teenager named Mary said Yes. She was astonished and scared out of her wits, she doubted and she asked questions, and she almost talked back, but those are all good signs! Healthy signs! It means she’s struggling with it, taking it seriously, trying her best to wrap her head around what was happening. And then at the end, she said something amazing: She said,
Let it be! I am the Lord’s servant.
You can’t ask for more than that! That’s faithfulness at its best! That’s almost too good to be true. The heavens rejoice in an uproar with those words from Mary’s mouth! She said Yes!
Christmas is full of unanswered questions. Extravagant, divine, and holy things left hanging in the air. God has left room for our uncertainty, just as he did for Mary’s. Just like her, we’re left to wonder, ponder all that God has for us, find ourselves perplexed by how God works.
Christmas isn’t the time to figure all these things out—to have all the answers. Christmas is the time to see the huge gap between what God is doing and our own understanding of it, and be awestruck by how marvelous God’s ways are—and in the end, remind ourselves of the words from the angel, “Nothing is impossible for God!”
Christmas is also time for us to trust that God is always doing a new thing among us, for us, and with us, and along with Mary, proclaim our “Yes”, our trust in God to work wonders.
Let it be…
Let it be with me just as you have said.
Can that be our Advent prayer, too? Can we find those same words upon our lips this season?
May those be our words to God this Advent. And with those words uttered from our lips, may God invite us into the new thing that He is already doing! And may we have the faithfulness of Mary to carry God’s new thing to term. And when it’s time, to give birth to it, so the whole world can see that God is here!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!