Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent 2020
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 Canticle 15 Romans 16:25-27 Luke 1:26-38
On Wednesday, Mike and Don, Sandy and Mike and I unloaded the Christmas dinners, stockings and gifts to our Ruskin kids and families. I borrowed Anita’s car and picked up the meal that Jason at Rockin Bear had prepared. Sara helped me load up the food. It was amazing how seamless it came together. So many hands and hearts and feet at work gave us time to stop, breathe and enjoy. We don’t get to see the faces of the children and the families, but we can feel their joy. That is the spirit of Christmas – giving and not expecting anything in return. God honors our giving by blessing us.
At this point in Advent, we face one liability in having heard the Christmas story over and over again is that we know how it turns out. There is no way to recapture our initial excitement of the news: that God is coming in the flesh to show us what real life looks like. It may be familiar, but it is not ordinary. We usually want to ignore the fourth Sunday of Advent and leap into Christmas, and the impulse is a strong one, especially today. By this Sunday of Advent it is almost irresistible. Many congregations open the floodgates, break out the Christmas carols, and rename it “Christmas Sunday.” This year has its extra challenge with Christmas Eve with wanting some openly hopeful signs of things changing with the COVID pandemic. However, this gospel text of Gabriel visiting Mary presses us to resist the temptation.
For the past couple of weeks, John the Baptist has been our messenger. We have heard a lot of talk about waiting and being prepared. So, it is a great relief this morning to hear from a different messenger – not John the Baptist, but from the angel Gabriel and Mary the Prophet, who will also turn out to be Mary the mother of Jesus, but not yet. Today, she is still a young maiden, chosen by God to bear a message before she ever bears a child.
And, we also know the story that follows the announcement, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth is the first to hear what she has to say, maybe because Elizabeth is the first one willing to listen. She is also pregnant – about six months further along than Mary and much, much older – so old, in fact that her impending motherhood is as much a miracle as Mary’s.
Mary’s encounter with Gabriel sends her off to check on her cousin. Elizabeth becomes the first human witness to the good news the angel Gabriel brought to Mary in the annunciation. Both women are pregnant with significance, for between them they bear the messenger and the message. The meeting between these two women is about the confirmation of hope, the fulfillment of a promise. So, Elizabeth and Mary have a lot in common.
We almost never hear Elizabeth and Zechariah’s story in church, which is too bad, since he and Mary have something in common too. According to Luke, they have both been visited by the angel Gabriel, who went to tell Zechariah about his and Elizabeth’s baby-to-be before he ever went to tell Mary about hers. Unfortunately, Zechariah’s annunciation did not go as well as Mary’s. When the angel told Zechariah that Elizabeth would bear a son whose name would be John, Zechariah said, “How will I know that this is so? For I am and old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” For this apparent impertinence, the angel zipped Zechariah’s lips, making him mute until the day he heard his son cry for the first time.
Six months later, when Gabriel told Mary that she would bear a son, she said more or less the same thing. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” But for some reason the angel went easier on her. He told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and instead of asking any more questions, she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”….let it be with me according to your word.
So, when she goes to visit Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary can still speak, while all Zechariah can do is wave and point. That day, it is only women’s voices heard in the house. First Mary, greeting her cousin Elizabeth, and then Elizabeth, who does not say what she says next, the way we make it sound in church, but who exclaims with a loud cry, almost like Holy Moly…“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Why is Elizabeth talking so loudly? Because she is excited that Mary has come to see her. Because her own baby has jumped for joy inside of her. Because there is new life popping out everywhere and she is glad her young cousin has the good sense to believe that what is happening to her is not an accident, nor an illusion, nor a freak of nature, but a wedding gift from God.
After Elizabeth shouts her Holy Moly, it is Mary’s turn again. You would think that at a time like this she would settle down with Elizabeth and compare notes on their appetites, their cravings, mood swings, backaches and swelling feet. Elizabeth is ahead of Mary, after all. She could have warned her about some things, given her some other things to look forward to, but instead of the elder woman sharing her wisdom with the younger, it is the younger who enlightens the elder, launching into a prophecy that we repeat to this day.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings right there in Elizabeth’s living room, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Elizabeth and Zechariah are the first to hear her song, but it is not just for them. It is also for her, Mary, and for the Mighty One who has done great things for her. It is for Gabriel, who first gave her the good news, and for all who will benefit from it – for the proud and powerful who will be relieved of their swelling heads, for the hungry who will be filled with good things, for the rich who will be sent away empty so that they have room in them for more than money can buy. Her song is for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – for Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel – for every son and daughter of Israel who thought God had forgotten the promise to be with them forever, to love them forever, to give them fresh and endless life.
It was all happening inside of Mary, and she was so sure of it that she was singing about it ahead of time – not in the future tense but in the past, as if the promise had already come true. Prophets almost never get their verb tense straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it – not divided into things that are already over and things that have not yet happened, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone – maybe even God.
I have heard it described as a divine dance that we are all invited into, a divine dance that we are all dancing, God may lead but it is entirely up to us whether we will follow. Just because God sends an angel to invite one girl onto the dance floor is no guarantee she will say yes. Just because God sends a prophet to tell us how life on earth can be more like life in heaven does not mean any of us will quit our day jobs to make it so. God acts. Then it is our turn. God responds to us. Then in the divine dance, it is our turn again.
The only thing that is absolutely sure in this scenario is that we have a partner who is with us and who wants us to have life. Mary’s trust in that fact is all that she really has. What she does not have is a sonogram, or a husband, or a certificate from the Holy Spirit that says, “The child really is mine. Now let her be.” All she has is her unreasonable willingness to believe that the God who has chosen her will be a part of whatever happens next – and that, apparently, is enough to make her burst into song. She does not wait to see how things turn out first. She sings ahead of time, and all the angels with her.
If there are any big changes going on with you right now – if something is underway you can’t predict the end of, and your stomach is rolling with your own version of morning sickness– then you might try following Mary’s lead. Who knows? Maybe the Holy Spirit has come upon you. Maybe that shadow hanging over you is the power of the Most High God. While it would certainly be nice to have some details about how it will all turn out, that is not really necessary, is it? We know how God has acted in our lives in the past and we know what happens when people say, “Yes, thanks, I’d love to dance,” and join in with trust and faith. Given all of that, I don’t know why we would wait to get excited until we knew for sure how it all turned out.
Hidden deep within, the folks of Grace seem to be the kind of people who would bump into each other getting out on the dance floor before the band leader ever showed up – full of hope and determination. We seem to be the kind of people who would start singing ahead of time – full of hope, full of faith, full of heart, full of joy in living out the promise of God.
These last days of Advent are a time to prepare our hearts, to open the doors of our lives to Mary’s faith. And we will be amazed at its appearing. May your soul magnify the Lord, and your spirits rejoice in God your Savior. For he has looked with favor on you and all generations will call you blessed. For the Mighty has done great things for you, and holy is his name. Let it be with us according to your word. Amen.