Saturday, December 20, 2008

Advent 4 sermon - Luke 1:26-38

Only 3 shopping days to go…I hope you’re all substantially more ready than your vicar.
I seem to have spent much of the past week making lists of lists, with little prospect of actually ticking anything much off any of them…and I know, truly I do, that their contents are not for the most part of any real importance.
Together we’ve spent the weeks of Advent hearing the exhortation to get ready, but somehow things never run exactly to plan, and though Christmas has been on 25th December for as long as I can remember, it still seems to catch me unprepared. Mind you, however breathless we may feel by the time we reach Thursday, it’s surely nothing compared to what happened to Mary.
There are so many wonderful paintings inspired by the gospel passage we have heard today (I have put copies of a few at the back of the church to refresh your memory), and almost all of them are characterised by surprise. There is the young girl, reading or working at a mundane chore…and suddenly she finds herself caught up in a kairos moment, one of those when earth and heaven touch and lives are changed forever. Small wonder that, from the word go, Mary is “perplexed”…and then some.
Surely this must be an understatement. Here she is, a teenaged girl, living quietly in an occupied country and planning her marriage to Joseph. And there, in all the splendour of his angelic being, is Gabriel. An extraordinary encounter, even without the angel’s salutation. “Greetings, favoured one. The Lord is with you!”
It can have made no sense at all.
The Lord is with YOU
If God is with either party, surely he is with his heavenly messenger, who comes trailing clouds of glory…No. Apparently not. It is Mary who is in the spotlight, and not her visitor at all.
Perplexing indeed, but worse is to come as the angel continues. I’m sure that the opening “Do not be afraid” was practically the most important message of all.
Certainly it’s just as well that Gabriel stresses that the forthcoming events are a sign of God’s favour for to Mary they must have sounded very much like a death sentence. I’m reminded of those words of Teresa of Avila’s “if this is how you treat your friends, Lord, it’s not surprising that you have so few of them”…for now God is choosing an unmarried girl and declaring her pregnant. God has cut in on Joseph before the wedding dance could even begin. Not the sort of favour that most of us would welcome. After all, in first century Palestinian culture, honour killings were part of life.. If a woman had been sexually violated by a man -- even if it was against her will -- she could be killed, usually by her own kinsmen, so to prevent her and her illegitimate child bringing shame on the family. Terrible scenes must have flashed across Mary’s mind, for she, knew she had no socially acceptable reason for her pregnancy. If a man and a woman betrothed to each other had sex with each other and the village knew it, they were considered to be married; it was the “consummation” of the union that married the couple, not a religious ceremony. But Mary and Joseph had not yet reached this stage… And that fact had some nasty implications: if Mary's pregnancy became known and her father or brother didn't kill her, the scripture commanded the death penalty both for her and her mystery lover. After all, who would believe that his identity was a mystery even to her. It’s pretty rare to be a pregnant virgin. So the odds were against Mary's surviving until the child's birth….
Time for a swift exit, perhaps?
But it seems that what comes next is not, after all, negotiable. I once heard someone speculate as to how many bushes God had to burn before someone (Moses) turned aside to see what was up. They went on to wonder how many young women were visited by Gabriel before one said "let it be with me according to your word."
Clearly, we will never know, though I’m sure that if Mary had said no, there would have been another way. I do, though, like the insight this view offers into the sheer risky-ness of the Incarnation. God is placing His Son, and his whole plan for the salvation of the world, at the mercy of one Palestinian teenager, who, but for her extraordinary openness to God probably wasn’t so very different from her friends in the market place of Nazareth (or those milling about on our pavements today).
Mind blowing….but so typical of God’s approach right along the line. In relationship with us, God goes out on a limb…and invites us to do the same.
Nonetheless, for all the element of divine risk, it seems that here too is a moment of divine mastery, which it will be hard indeed to reject.
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”
Mary ponders the greeting of with
perplexity and fear. So would we. It is not the sort of salutation we come across in our Christmas cards, but a markedly different message.
Conceiving and bearing the Son of the Most High? The Holy One setting up a tent, this close? Within me? Mary's first response is not like the joyful cry of Elizabeth, but nor is it the same reaction as Herod, who was “troubled, and all Jerusalem with him”.
God’s intervention in her life is outrageous, terrifying, but somehow she finds it within her to say “Yes”.
Confronted with an angel bearing this sort of word, I’m certain we would ask,
“What’s going on?” God finally comes close, comes among us, but in a way different from any we could imagine. At last God chooses a house, -in no way like the one that David longed to build for him.
Instead he makes his home in Mary's womb.
Heaven in ordinary.
The story of God's angel proclaiming the Lord's favour on a young single mother gives us all much to ponder this Advent.
We live in a world in which one more child dies every three seconds from extreme poverty -- sixteen hundred during each celebration of the Eucharist, and yet God's promise is that through Jesus' work among us, the hungry will be filled with good things. We might ask, with Mary, “How can this be?”
But we're called to do more than ponder. We're called to bring the Good News of liberation to the prisoners, of food for the hungry, of the dignity to those considered lowly by the powers of this world. We're called to do that not just in words or song, but like Mary, by giving flesh to God's hope, God's peace, God's justice, and God's love for the world.

How can this be? Through the faithfulness of the God who promises David that his house will be established forever, and whose promise is fulfilled in Jesus. Through the power that gave Mary the courage to face her family, her betrothed, her village, and clothed her with dignity and grace throughout the village's pointing and whispering. Through the compassion that led Jesus to heal and empower the outcasts he encountered. And through the peace that comes of catching even a glimpse of just how deeply, passionately, and unconditionally God loves each of God's children.

So, in this last week of our preparation Mary has so much to say to us, as we wait for Christ to be born in us.
Like Mary, we are visited by God through no merit of our own….like her we struggle with the implications of an invitation to be part of something so much larger than ourselves, and we are challenged to say YES. Would Mary’s response have been the same if she had known what lay ahead? Would she have dared to invest such love in a baby destined for the cross? We cannot know, but we can be sure that if we ourselves say Yes to God, though we don’t know where he will take us, he will never abandon us. For us, as for Mary, he will be Emmanuel, God with us,- through Advent, through Christmas tide and forever.

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