4th Sunday of Advent 12-23-18 Luke 1:39-55
I’d like to begin with a poem by Methodist minister and artist Jan Richardson.
Not to one
but to many you have called
come on the dancing wind,
come from the deepest forest,
come from the highest places,
come from the distant lands,
come from the edge of darkness,
come from the depth of fear
come and become the bearer of God.
I am not sure where you find yourself today—on the dancing wind or at the edge of darkness or in some other location Jan didn’t mention—but wherever you are, whatever the context is surrounding you, I urge you to listen, because God is calling to you. God is calling each of us to come and be bearers of God because, as German mystic Meister Eckhart once wrote, “We are all mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”
If it’s hard for you to feel like God is calling you for significant work today, if the distance between where you are and where you think you ought to be seems too vast, maybe it will help to remember that all the fresh life we anticipate coming up in the spring begins as tiny seeds buried in the dirt. What I mean is, one small “yes” to an angel and a teenager named Mary becomes a revolutionary.
As we’ve seen throughout Advent, Luke is convinced that God’s technique for revitalizing the world involves working with the least likely candidates, the tiniest of seeds, the ones that aren’t even in the garden, but have fallen between the cracks of the sidewalk or taken root in the ditches. Think back to John the Baptist yelling the desert, or Zechariah the High Priest, muted by an angel for his skepticism about God’s promises.
Today’s lesson extends this theme, showcasing a strong, faithful woman named Elizabeth–the elderly wife of an elderly priest (the very same one who got silenced by Gabriel). Elizabeth and Zechariah had probably long ago resigned themselves to the neighborhood whisperings about “which one of them had the problem” since they remained childless. In a society that seldom valued women—and if it did, then usually only for their parents or progeny—Elizabeth was not highly regarded.
Yet it is to Elizabeth and Mary that God gives the gift of understanding and prophesy, not to mention the role of mothers of the revolution. Despite her age, Elizabeth is suddenly expecting a child. And not just any child. God calls her and Zechariah to parent John the Baptist, who will prophesy the long-anticipated arrival of the Messiah, and preach repentance and baptism. God also enables Elizabeth to understand and support her kinswomen Mary in the holy task she has been called to do.
Mary is other key woman in Luke’s story today who wasn’t expecting to expect. She was not the wife or daughter of a high priest. She wasn’t anyone’s wife, and –though Scripture tends to be very interested in who begat whom–Mary’s parents are never mentioned. Which probably tells us all we need to know about them. If you grew up in a Roman Catholic household you may have heard stories about Mary’s mother Anne, who conceived her immaculately, but you should know that the Church made up Anne centuries ago to address this very concern. Mary was probably just as she describes herself: a “lowly maiden.”
Gabriel greets Mary saying: “Rejoice, highly favored. God is with you.” Everything about Gabriel’s message to Mary is surprising, beginning with how he identifies her. Gabriel doesn’t refer to the identity her community bestows on her or even the one she sees in the mirror. Gabriel goes right to the core of who she is in God’s eyes: a precious part of creation. When Gabriel says, “Rejoice, highly favored, God is with you,” the angel affirms her place in God’s family in much the same way as someone saying how pretty dandelions are, even though they are usually labled weeds.
If anyone in 1st century Palestine was more despised than an old woman who didn’t have children, it was an unmarried young one who did. Yet God chose to work through these two women to change the world. Which means you might want to brace yourself, fellow dandelions. If God could call those two, what’s to keep God from calling you? You—each one of you—are highly favored members of God’s good creation, whatever doubts you (or anyone else) might have about that.
But don’t be afraid. God will not force you to do anything. God invites, beckons, and calls. But in this age of #metoo, I like to point out that in this text, God already knew that women had a right to say yes or no about what happens with their bodies. It isn’t until Mary consents to God’s request to bear the Christ child that God’s plan is set in motion. For all we know, hers may not have been the first door Gabriel knocked on. Maybe other women had refused when asked to risk everything to bear God’s love into the world. After all, Mary’s choice came with potentially dangerous consequences. When Joseph and his family found out Mary was pregnant—and that the child wasn’t Joseph’s—they could’ve had her stoned to death in the public square. Knowing what could happen to her, Mary’s “yes” is an act of bravery and faith. It is also an act of love.
Way back when I was in junior high, if you wanted to find out if the person you liked liked you back you wrote a note that said, “I like you. Do you like me?” Then you drew 2 boxes to check: “yes,” or “no.” Protocol demanded that this note was never delivered directly to the intended recipient. Two or three trusted deputies were required to pass the note from the sender to the recipient.
It is my impression that this is the kind of transaction that is going on in this Gospel lesson too. Gabriel is the intermediary between God the Lover and Mary the Beloved. Gabriel is sent to deliver a message to Mary from God that says, “I love you. I want you to help me change the world. Will you? Check the box “yes” or “no.”
And after Mary has some time to digest what Gabriel is asking on God’s behalf, and after consulting with her older, wiser cousin Elizabeth, Mary responds with a beautiful love song back to God. We call it The Magnificat. Martin Luther called it “a song to strengthen our faith, to comfort the lowly and to terrify the mighty.” In it Mary sings, “Since you are a God who notices the elderly and couples who have been unable to conceive the child they long for, I say YES to all God asks of me. Since you are a God wants the hungry to be fed, the forgotten to be remembered, and the lowly to raise up their heads….I say YES! Since you are a God wants to console those who weep and to reassure the guilty they are forgiven…then YES. Since this is the God you are, then let it be to me according to your will. My answer is YES YES YES!”
That’s how this love story began, and no one knows how it’s going to end. God is still passing this message to the people God loves. The Greek word angelus, which we translate as angel, really just means messenger. And today God has sent me as an angel/messenger with a love note for you. The message is this: “Rejoice, highly favored. God is with you. Do not be afraid. God calls you to bring Christ into our messy, violent, depressed and wildly unfair, unjust world. Are you willing to be a God-bearer? Will you carry God’s love inside you and to push it out into the world?” Yes? Or No?
You don’t have to say yes, you know. You can check the “no” box. Whether you say yes or no, God will keep on favoring you because God cannot stop loving you. That is just God’s nature. But if you say “yes,” then, as Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor puts it in her book Gospel Medicine, “You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body.” And how can we resist THAT invitation!? YOU are invited to bear God’s unending mercy and redeeming love into all the world.
Oh yeah. God also asked me to deliver one more love note of Good News to all of you: God will never call us to a task without also equipping us with all that is required to complete it and empowering us to fulfill it. So even if we say yes, we will bear God to the world, we will be fed with God’s own self to strengthen us for the task. We are given the grace and the courage to act. And we are given the blessing of one another as companions on the journey. Rejoice, highly favored ones! God is with us!