The Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 24th, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
One of the hallmarks of the way God works in our lives is that the divine call is often surprising and scary.
Too often, Christianity has been seen and marketed in our generation as a safe path…a sure-fire way to prosperity and happiness…provided we follow the specific instructions and commandments that the religious person or institution is peddling.
If you just follow these ten steps, then God will bless you and keep you from harm.
If you send us a check, then God will multiply that blessing in your life because of the prayers we offer.
While such schemes are attractive enough, at least based on the sheer numbers of those who adhere to such communities and espouse this superficial form of the faith, they are also the reason that many in the contemporary age have thrown up their hands and said, “If that’s what it means to be faithful, I want no part of it.”
On more than one occasion, I’ve heard animated complaints and arguments about Christianity from friends and strangers who equate the entirety of Christian faith with this narrow, but pervasive, interpretation.
I understand their frustration, because I share it, and after listening to what people need to say to me about their discontent, I usually want to just put my hands on their shoulders, look them in the eye and say…
“Don’t be afraid. This way to which we are called is not so easy or clean. Real faith and real life come from responding to God in hope while still in the midst of uncertainty and inconvenient surprises.”
The God who loves us, co-creates with us, and will show that love most fully by becoming one of us in humanity, is a God who rarely approaches us when it is convenient or logical.
On this last Sunday of Advent, we are blessed to be reminded of this through the story of the Annunciation.
Here at St. Paul’s we are fortunate to have a beautiful mosaic arch that tells this story from Luke throughout the year, to all who are willing to receive its message.
I invite you to look up there as I continue preaching, so that you may resonate with the lessons both Luke’s account and the Burne-Jones mosaic are trying to convey.
And while you do, I’m going to highlight three aspects of the Annunciation that strike me as increasingly important for us who seek to honestly live out our faith in this day and age.
First, Gabriel greets Mary in a way that shocks and surprises her.
“Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.”
Now, let me set the scene a bit for us here.
Mary was most likely barely a teenage girl, from a poor Judean family, in a society in which women and children had virtually no social standing apart from the men to which they were bound in marriage.
And this virtual nobody named Mary has an angel of the Lord in front of her addressing her in honorifics fit for an ambassador or a queen.
No wonder Mary is perplexed by this, as the text says.
I can almost see her wrinkled nose and incredulous expression as she looks back at Gabriel and says, “Excuse me? Are you talking to me?”
One of the things I like most about the portrayal of the Annunciation in our mosaic is that it captures this sense of shock and surprise, as well as the fact that Mary is not some rich princess in a palazzo (as is the case with many Renaissance representations of the Annunciation), but rather a poor, young, unadorned nobody.
It highlights for me that our God does not judge us as the world does, does not judge us by “our covers,” but instead sees into our hearts and the base of our motivations.
If the future mother of our Lord was once a scared, unconnected, teenage girl made great and unforgettable by her faithful response and God’s grace…then that means every single one of us has reason to hope as well.
But in order to enter into the story of salvation, we have to first be willing to be surprised by God.
Our Advent preparations, which are meant to assist us in making ourselves ready for the coming of the Lord at all times, are not preparations meant to control how God breaks into the story of our lives.
Rather, they are meant to help us recognize that the shocks and surprises of life, as unsettling and difficult as they may be, are opportunities to remember what Gabriel first told Mary, “The Lord is with you.”
No matter how the story will play out from here on, and no matter how inconvenient this announcement may seem to you at this moment in your life, The Lord is with you.
Think for a moment about a recent time in your life where something shocking or unsettling has happened: Can you see from where you are today that the Lord was with you then, and is still with you now and always?
We humans are not always great at dealing with the unexpected.
That is why after his initial address, Gabriel continues his interaction with Mary in the same way he did with the old priest Zechariah earlier in the gospel of Luke, and the same way he will do so with the shepherds later in the story.
He utters the phrase that I believe is the heart of the entire biblical message: “Do not be afraid.”
Sometimes I want to modify it slightly by saying, “Don’t be afraid, even though fear seems like a reasonable response.”
Looking back at the mosaic, Mary has all sorts of reasons to be afraid.
She’s alone in the Judean wilderness, a young girl as previously stated, and too make matters worse, her life is about to become more complicated. Extremely more complicated.
She’s about to become pregnant in an unbelievable way, which will bring scandal to her community, her family, and her soon to be husband.
And in light of all that, the angel Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid.”
There is so much in our world today that begs us to respond in fear.
Whether climate change will reduce this home of ours to an uninhabitable hellscape.
Whether extremist terrorism will deprive us of life and loved ones.
Whether our daily personal challenges and tragedies will prevent us from living into the fullness of life for which we were created.
Fear is what tyrants use to control their constituencies, fear is what keeps mothers and fathers and children awake at night, and fear is, too often, the dominant emotion and perspective controlling our destinies.
The divine announcement and promise…to Mary on the brink of this epic journey of becoming Jesus’ mother, to the people of God throughout all time and generations, and to us who have passed through the darkness of winter’s solstice and look forward to a better 2018…is that we do not have to fear anymore.
God’s presence with us…Emmanuel, we sing…does not rid the world of these concerns and fears.
But “God with us” does mean that we now have a choice between fear and love, and between embracing the divine promise and mission, or following a lesser empire’s attractive, but unsatisfying, promises.
That is why the final part of the annunciation story is so important.
Because when all is said and done, when the unexpected comes to pass and the litany of fearful consequences and seemingly insurmountable challenges are set before us, we ultimately have a choice to make.
Do we trust that our fears will not win the day (even if we acknowledge their presence), and say yes to this fruitful, faithful, but often frustrating collaboration with God, or do we choose instead our safe, comfortable lives and walk away… content with the status quo?
Do we recognize that God has given us a choice, and that love’s measure is the free will by which we have the ability to say yes or no to this holy invitation?
Mary’s response is not just the words of a nobody teenager alone in the Judean wilderness, but rather the archetypal response of all people of faith, who like her, have been ennobled by their recognition that, indeed, the Lord is with them.
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Bring on the hardship. Bring on the labor. Bring on the trials, the crucifixion, and the sword that will pierce my own heart.
But bring on as well the tender moments when this child of mine will learn how to walk.
Bring on the days of healing and restoration when I will see the lame leap for joy and the blind regain their sight.
Bring on the time in which my people will no longer fear the power of any emperor, global system, or idol.
Bring on the fulfillment of prophecy, the attainment of hope’s promise, and the reign of God’s supremacy on this earth as it is in heaven.
Bring on streams of living water in the desert, and the reddening dawn of a new day and age
Bring on resurrection.
Mary made her choice, setting aside whatever previous plans she had for her life, as well as her very justified fears, in order to dedicate her life as a living sacrifice to God.
The same choice stands before us all today.
Though you may not always feel favored…be assured that the Lord is with you.
Though you may be afraid and unsure…let God’s perfect love empower you to cast those fears aside.
And when you stand face to face with God’s messenger, confronting the decision as to how you will live out the rest of your days, and whom you will serve from this day forward…
May you be bold and say with the confidence of Mary,
“Bring it all on. Here I am. Let it be to me according to your word.”
If we each say yes, and follow through with that yes every day of our lives, then not only will the church shed the superficiality which has given it such a bad name, but our whole world might be transformed from a place of darkness, terrors and fear into a peaceable city where healing and wholeness radiate forth perpetually.
Bring it on.
Bring on the incarnation in each of us.
Bring on Christmas.