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Advent 4: Embracing the Gift of Our Lives

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 4:39 pm on Monday, December 25, 2017

A sermon preached on December 24th, 2017, the 4th Sunday in Advent based upon Luke 1:26 – 37.

Maidie and laughing Ryan

At the nursing home this past week at the monthly service we lead Carmella who is approaching 100 and always so faithful and grateful, insisted that the baby Jesus had golden blond locks of hair.  Others of us tried to persuade her that this was highly unlikely that he was a Jew in ancient Palestine, but Carmella wasn’t having it.  Golden blond hair is how she was determined to picture him.

In the same sense that the baby Jesus throughout the centuries of European art has commonly been portrayed as a fair skinned, fair haired child of radiance, something similar is present in the portrayals of his mother Mary.

This particular story that Bob read for us has been a particular favorite of artists through the centuries.  It is known as the “annunciation” of Mary in which the Angel Gabriel surprised her with a visit.  Typically she has a book – presumably the Bible — that she was reading when the angel interrupted her. She almost always looks serene, clothed in long elegant fabric, with an undeniable piety and an ethereal spiritual quality.

She is, in other words extraordinary – quite different from us.

And although we don’t really know what Mary looked like, as you probably are aware of we can say with some confidence that these depictions from affluent European artists bear no resemblance to what the actual Mary looked like.  Not only was her skin surely darker, but she was also probably only 13 or 14 because in the tradition of those days that was the age that a young woman would become engaged, typically to a much older man.

An awkward age indeed, midway between a child and a woman.

The real Mary was a poor peasant girl, unable to read and certainly without any expensive fabric draped around her.  She was, in a word, ordinary.

And yet through the centuries Mary has come to be seen as anything but ordinary, particularly in the Roman Catholic tradition, where she seems elevated to a status almost on the level of that of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The motivation in doing this is understandable.  When the dominant images for God are masculine, Mary offers an appealing contrast, a mothering God who tenderly holds us in her arms.

But in actuality Mary was ordinary, a frail human being like you and me, even though the words with which the angel greets her can easily send us in the direction of viewing her as exalted above us.

“Greetings, favored one of God,” says Gabriel.  When Mary, quite understandably is stunned and bewildered by the appearance of the angel and the peculiar way he addresses her, the angel repeats himself: “You have found favor with God.”

So that does this mean, that Mary has found favor in God?

Our first inclination is to think there is something about Mary — certain qualities she has honed in the course of her short life — particular good deeds she has performed — by which out of all the young women of the world she managed to catch God’s eye and earned a place as God’s “favorite” — a teenage girl who has worked up an extraordinary resume of piety winning an acceptance letter from the Harvard College of Blessedness.

But this whole line of thought is misguided, because we don’t earn God’s favor.  It is a gift.  It is what we call “grace”.

If there was a quality that somehow distinguished Mary, I think we would have found it in the opposite direction in a humble recognition on her part that she wasn’t better than anybody else — the knowledge that one her own she was lost and wouldn’t make it without a whole lot of help.  This is the very mindset we tend to flee from as we grow up – preferring to cling to an image ourselves as self-reliant, capable of earning our place in this world.

But Mary was one of the blessed “poor in spirit”.  She owned her emptiness, and in that sense she was favored by God, an open and empty vessel for the Spirit of God to move through.

Unlike Catholics and some other denominations, when we Methodists celebrate the Lord’s Supper as we will this evening we practice what is called “open communion” which is to say that not only is there no requirement of “membership” or a required creed to give assent to in order to come to the Lord’s table, but even little children are welcome as well.

This is surprising to some people:  “Why do you let children receive Holy Communion?  They have no idea what they are receiving!”  And my response is, “oh, so you do, do you?”  There’s an incomprehensible mystery of divine grace present in the sacrament, and we don’t earn the right to receive it by figuring it out, or by putting on the appropriately “reverent” face.

Generally speaking, children get it better than adults that we can’t make it on our own.  We need help.  And God has come among us to do just that.

So when the angel appears to Mary and makes his announcement that she is to give birth to God’s child, she is taken back, to say the least.

“How can this be?” she asks, and maybe if she hadn’t been quite so floored there were several other questions she might have wanted to ask as well: Will Joseph stick around?  Will my parents still love me?  Will my friends stand by me or will I get dragged into town and stoned for sleeping around? (Which the Law said was the appropriate thing to do in such cases.) Will the pregnancy go all right?  Will the labor be hard?  Will I survive his birth? (Not something a pregnant woman could assume in those days.)

And that’s just the next nine months.  She surely didn’t have the where withal to wonder much further down the road, but what exactly will it mean to be the mother of the son of God — the king whose kingdom will last forever.  It sounds like an honor for sure, but who we know far more of what lies down the road for Mary as the mother of this child know she has good reason to be concerned.  There’s that story of her 12 year old son wandering off in the crowd and scaring the living daylights out of her for three days until she finally found him in the Temple.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch the pain she would know with the growing incomprehensibility of this child, and the most terrible thing of all, the fact that the day would come when Mary would witness this son of hers die a horrific death nailed to a cross.

If she could have foreseen all this, it makes you wonder just how “favored” she would have felt. The interruption in the plans she had made was going to open Mary up to a great deal of pain and heart ache in life.

The angel doesn’t ask Mary for permission regarding this mysterious pregnancy.  It’s going to happen, that much seems clear.  But still there is a choice Mary has to make as to whether she will embrace the life she has been given, or to resist and resent it, which would be quite understandable, since it wasn’t the life she had planned.

It is interesting that it is precisely this moment of decision that the artists have focused on throughout the ages.  The angel has delivered the message, and now he waits for the young girl’s response.  What will she say?

(Except in the fictional world of my Christmas play) Mary was the only person drafted to give birth to God’s baby, which encourages that notion that she was extraordinary – altogether different from us.  But on another level this choice she must make is the same one every one of us is called upon to make:  to say yes or no to the life we have been given.

There is a lot of talk these days about choosing life goals, creating the life we want.  But more often than not, the fact is: “Life is what happens when we’re making plans.”

More often than not we don’t choose our lives – they choose us.

Our best laid plans are interrupted by life’s own plans for us:  by sudden illness or surprise babies, or unexpected deaths.  By downturns in the economy that leave ourselves or somebody we love unemployed, or by aging parents that require our care.  Terrible things happen and wonderful things happen, but seldom do we know ahead of time exactly what will happen to us.

The serenity prayer sums life up nicely: 

God grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change, the courage to change that which I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

If we have the wisdom to know which is which, a great deal of how we will experience our life comes down to how we will respond to that which isn’t going to be changing any time soon?

Which is precisely the moment portrayed in these paintings – the moment at which she says,

“Let it be to me according to thy word; I am the handmaiden of the Lord.”

We too are the favored ones of God.  Like Mary, that doesn’t mean we are being handed an easy, pain free life. But it does mean that if we can say a whole-hearted “yes” to our lives, we will discover that our lives overflow with grace.

(Here I went on to describe conversations of some profundity that I had with strangers in public when I opened myself up to the possibilities that the interactions might hold.)

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