This is our fourth week of waiting for that coming of Christ – and we are so close we can almost taste it! We are ready for the heavenly choirs of angels mingling with the smelly shepherds in the field, for the time when wise men led by celestial signs witness the fragility of an infant of a manger. It is a season of holy anticipation – not for experiences beyond this world, but ones that are embodied in things that we can touch and feel, live and breathe. We are getting ready for God to take on human flesh in our midst!
This morning, we get to hear the beautiful telling of the annunciation – the announcement ! – in Luke’s gospel this morning. The angel Gabriel appears and proclaims Mary to be favored in God’s eyes – blessed among all woman – for she will bear a child who will be called the Son of God. And Mary, for her part, asks but one question: How will this happen? And then responds with that very familiar statement: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Maybe this is because for over half of my life I have heard this story as a child – but Mary has always been in my mind a wise and beautiful woman, full of the grace of God and ready to face any challenge that might come her way. She is filled with a maturity that to me has always belied her age. She seems so much older than me, so much more ready to accept God’s joyful burden, and yet- Mary was probably no more than fourteen or fifteen years old when the angel Gabriel stood before her.
Fourteen or Fifteen years old! For nearly half of my life I have been OLDER that this amazing young woman who said yes to the impossible.
Now, granted, Mary was living in a world of prearranged marriages and was likely promised to her husband-to-be, Joseph, for many years. Young women would have been married and having children by the age of eighteen to be sure. But it was also a world where a woman’s only education would have been in the home, a world of Jewish faithful living under a Roman occupation, a time of darkness and poverty, disappointment and despair.
We witness her willingness to accept the burden that God is bestowing upon her. We hear her song of praise to the God who has come to her, a lowly servant. “Let it be with me according to your word.” And we forget how difficult it must have been to not only accept this joyful burden with those words, but to carry that joyful burden in her life.
Because of the nature of Christmas, we hear the annunciation on Sunday, and by Wednesday evening we have a beautiful, bouncing, baby boy in a manger. There is so much we skip in these precious few days before Christmas… and in part, we skip this part of the story because we do not know what happened. The scriptures leave us to fill in the blanks.
We are told in the gospel of Matthew that Joseph probably would have quietly broken off the engagement had not an angel of the Lord intervened. Thank God for angels.
Mary would have still been living with her parents at this time, but we don’t know how they responded. I can tell you that it was customary to send an unwed mother off to live with distant relatives, so as not to shame the family… perhaps this is the cause of Mary’s hasty trip to visit her cousin Elizabeth after the angel Gabriel appeared. Elizabeth, herself, was overjoyed to greet Mary and her unborn child – yet Elizabeth was also in on the secret of this divine birth and was in the middle of her own miraculous pregnancy. Her husband Zechariah wasn’t so sure… at least not at first.
With the exception of these two, we don’t know how the rest of the family responded, or how her community responded. A young woman, still unmarried, becomes pregnant and the people are supposed to…what? Celebrate? Extol her virtues? Even if Mary told everyone that it was the Son of God in her womb, who would have believed her?
I think that this is an important part of the story that we miss, because if she wasn’t believed, and if she wasn’t protected, Mary would likely have been stoned for adultery. And yet, it is precisely in this vulnerable and difficult experience that we come to understand that Christmas as the celebration of God entering the world, not to condemn it, but to redeem it.
Christ comes into this world not to condemn it, but to redeem it.
Two thousand some years ago, a young woman, a girl really, said “yes” to God’s invitation – and just look at how the world has changed. But then, if you think about it, that is how God has been working all along. It is how God has always changed the world.
From the very beginning, the people of God were transformed and moved along and inspired by ordinary nobodies who hesitantly said “yes” to God. Think of the poor nomad Abram, think of the murderer Moses, think of the shepherd boy David.
Each of them, in their own way, said “let it be with me according to your word.” And they opened themselves up to God’s will in their lives. They followed his call. They tried to live obediently. And God accomplished amazing things through them. That is how God works.
Does that mean it was easy? No. Does it mean that they faced straight paths with no obstacles? No. Does it mean that they found perfect happiness? No.
Think again of our young Mary. She would have to struggle to protect her child from the slaughter of infants by fleeing to the foreign land of Egypt. And then she would live to see her own son crucified by the Romans. There was no way of knowing when she said “yes” to God that this would be the course her life would take. But still she said, “let it be with me according to your word.”
We look back, and perhaps we are thankful that we have not been faced with such a momentous decision. We are thankful that we do not face persecution because of our faith. We are glad that God did all of that work a long time ago, so that we can now enjoy this life that we have in Christ.
The Gospel of John reminds us that:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…. And the Word came and lived among us, and we have seen his glory… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
The Word came and lived among us. God took on flesh – God worked through human lives, God’s will was embodied in the small “yeses” of many insignificant people. And the world was changed.
But you know, right now, in this season of Advent, we are not only preparing to celebrate what happened in the birth of Christ 2000 years ago, we are also preparing for Christ to come again – we are getting ready for the new thing that God is about to do in our midst.
And the question I want us to really ponder today, is what would it mean for the call of God to ring out again? How would we respond, if we, as ordinary people not unlike Mary or Joseph, or Moses or David, we asked to say yes. Not as some kind of temporary commitment, like a new years resolution that we make today and forget about tomorrow, but in a real and powerful way?
What would it mean for us to stand here, fully and openly before our God and say, “let it be with us according to your word.”?
Are you ready, are you prepared for something new to be born within your spirit? Within this community? Are we ready for Christ to enter our midst, our hearts? Does that idea terrify you?
You know what. It terrifies me a little bit. Because I hear that call of God all the time. I hear that call of God challenging me and challenging us to really and truly take the plunge, to hand our lives over to God’s will.
I hear God calling us to stop being simply Sunday Christians, or even, every other Sunday Christians, and to fully let the Word of God dwell in our hearts every single day.
I hear God challenging us to take risks and to put ourselves on the line as we go out into the world to be the hands and feet of Christ. I hear God urging us to say yes, because God doesn’t want to change the world without us.
And what is so hard, what is so scary, is that saying yes means everything will change. The kind of transformation that God wants to see in this world – the kind of redemption that God is continuing to bring about is only possible if we leave behind everything that we know and follow.
The reason that we haven’t fully said yes in the past is because we keep assuming the path will be easy. We keep hoping that whatever comes our way won’t involve some kind of radical change. We want to believe that we are already living the way we are supposed to and that not too much more will be required.
I can guarantee you – that is not the case.
Everything changed for Abram. Everything changed for Moses. Everything changed for David. Everything changed for Mary. Everything changed for every single one of those disciples who put down their nets and their tax bags and decided to follow Christ.
But you know what… they didn’t have to do it alone. And when someday, we find the courage to say yes to God, we will not be left on our own either.
As the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, one of the first things that he whispered in her ear was: “Do not be afraid.”
The words of that hymn we have used quite often – “You are Mine,” seem to express the words of encouragement that might have helped Mary find the strength to accept this blessing in her life, in spite of the difficulty, in spite of the whispers behind her back, in spite of the long hard road ahead. “Do not be afraid, I am with you… I love you and you are mine.”
No, we will not be left to our own devices when the time comes and the call is given. Because while God freely chooses to use ordinary people to accomplish his will – God also gives us everything that we need.
That is what grace is all about. That is what love is all about.
During this time of year, there are goodies everywhere. My sister-in-law loves to bake, but she also really wants to involve her children in the process. Now, Cami and Xander are 3 and 7 respectively, and so there is only so much that they can do as children in the kitchen, but Bevin tries hard to include them nonetheless. She calls them each into the kitchen, gives them various small tasks to do, and pretty soon, before they know it, they have made a beautiful and delicious masterpiece.
In many ways, that is how God works. God wants so much for this world to be transformed, but he also loves us so much that he lets us in on the secret, wants to teach us the recipe, and hopes that we will want to help out where we can. So little by little, we are charged with the task of redeeming this creation. Little by little, we do what we can. Little by little, God helps us along. Like a loving parent, God will not leave us on our own to burn ourselves, or let us be with a sharp knife, but carefully, painstakingly, helps us to navigate through the dangers. God molds us, supports us, guides us and leads us.
Don’t be afraid. I love you. I will see you through this. You are mine and I am never letting you go.
Are we ready to roll up our sleeves and say yes? Have we spent enough time preparing? Have we put off the call long enough?
In three days, we will come together again in celebration and joy for the birth of the Christ child. May these days of waiting and anticipation help us to get ready for Christ to be born in our hearts. May these days help us to be able to say, “Yes, Lord, Let it be with us according to your will.”