I have been asked to preach in my home parish this Sunday, Advent 4, for which the gospel is Luke 1:26-38. Given all that has happened and continues to happen in the parish and around the world, this was the message that came to me:
One can look around and see many struggling to simply get by. Putting food on the table and keeping up with the bills is constant challenge. There’s plenty to go around, but the surplus always ends up in the hands of a privileged few who control the halls of power. Leaders seem to ignore what’s happening across the vast heartland. Taxes get higher and higher and yet the money coming in is headed in the opposite direction. Lots of promises are made, but promises are broken. People are longing for change. Sound familiar? This is the world of Palestine into which Jesus was born. But Mary is making the best of it. She is, after all, to be married to a man who she hopes will provide for her. She has a plan. But then.. the angel shows up. With confusing news, and interruption.
Mary asks the angel Gabriel- How can this be? This interruption of my plan. What thoughts and fears raced through her head? Like Mary, we cannot reason it, or rationalize it, or grasp how it will be. In the interruptions in our lives- no amount of know-how can make it all clear. Sometimes it is hard to have hope in God’s promises in such times as these. We hear that to this young girl engaged to Joseph come words we now say bring comfort and promise, but for her the angel does not really have very many words. “ Greetings! Rejoice! God has chosen you!”” The Holy Spirit will be with you.” “Nothing is impossible with God.” That’s it.
What was it like for Mary? It is hard to believe that these words were enough. How can these few words be enough to have faith in the promise of the long awaited Messiah, the one who would deliver people from all that holds them captive and weighs them down, to have faith in that same Messiah we await again to complete what has been started?
And I wonder what would it be like if Gabriel came to us with these words, here, now? …. Are these words enough for us? “Rejoice, God has chosen you!” “ The Spirit will be with you” “ Nothing is impossible with God.” Can we trust in God in this time, a time that seems so complex?
Today we’ll hear the choir sing an anthem entitled “Hope for Resolution,” which includes a South African praise hymn sung during the trying times of apartheid, and in these trying times of ours, this side of the cross, but before God’s fulfillment, as we look around our world today, I think we can join in singing that resolution is what we long for.
Meanwhile, can we do as the angel says? For into this world, the angel comes, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” Have you ever noticed that these are the words that are said in Scripture when it is obvious that someone would be terrified? “Yeah, right, don’t be afraid.” Actually, the truest translation is- Stop fearing, stop being afraid, put aside your fears.” Why? Because God is acting even when you can’t see it. Believe. God’s promises will be fulfilled.
The heart of the angel’s message is "Nothing will be impossible with God or for God.” This is the story of faith- a theme continuing throughout the entire gospel story of Christ, and the heart of our hope for today and the world to come. None of God’s words are impossible; none of what has been prophesied and promised will fail to come true. God will do as God has promised- to come again and for us now, to be in our midst through the Spirit. The angel shares words that eventually turn Mary’s fears into hope, in spite of her inability to grasp the game plan or the timetable; words that cause Mary to respond in faith, though I think we can be sure Mary paused.
We are not told she IMMEDIATELY responds, but only that she ultimately accepts in faith what cannot be understood or seen. For Mary, through the Spirit, this means she will be an instrument through which prophecy will live into reality. Through the Spirit, God will use the most unlikely and ordinary person to do the extraordinary. Through the Spirit, God continues to come into our midst, speaking and acting in the interruptions.
How will WE respond?
The interruptions will weren’t easy for Mary, or aren’t for us.
But, as Henri Nouwen writes, “This is the greatest conversion in our lives- To recognize and believe that the many unexpected events are not just disturbing interruptions of our projects, but the way in which God molds our hearts and prepares us for His return. Our greatest temptations are bitterness and boredom. When our good plans are interrupted by poor weather, our well-organized careers by illness or bad luck, our peace by a new war, our desire for a stable government by a constant changing of the guards, our desire for immortality by real death, we are tempted to give in to paralyzing boredom, or to strike back in destructive bitterness.” I would add we are tempted to live in the grip of fear. Perhaps we hear the words, “How can this be?” as “Why me? “
Mary responded to God, by making room, not just in the sense of how her body will change during her pregnancy. First, Mary made room in her heart and mind- for hope, in faith even though it was a plan she could not imagine. She would be tested in ways she could not grasp, or be able to handle alone. But instead being stuck in “why me?” Mary ultimately responded with hope in faith that there is promise hidden in this new event.
So today let’s pause and think of the faith and hope of Mary, and of the promises of God. And ask ourselves- Can we make room for hope? Can we be willing to see promise hidden in new events? To do so, we must be willing to let go of fear and make room for hope in faith.
At the beginning of Advent, the first candle we lit we call the candle of hope. We have since lit the candles of Love and Joy, and now today, Peace. But each week we light first that candle of hope. When we leave today we will step back into a complex, demanding world, with some pretty big issues looming, and big hopes and expectations of how we can fix it all. We may even hope that we can put those things aside as we will focus on the last cards, and the dinners, and the shopping and the wrapping.
But first, especially in this year where many of us have received painful news, unexpected news, challenging news, let’s pause. Pause and see the light of Christ, our promise of hope. Let us not race to extinguish or forget this light.
Let’s make room in our hearts and minds, not for more fear, or questions, or busy-ness, but for hope. Let us live in the faithful expectation of that hope, the hope that was and is and will be.
You see, the paradox of expectation is that those who believe in tomorrow can live a better today, can discover beginnings of new life in the old, and that those who look forward to the returning Lord can discover him already in their midst.
God has kept and will keep promises. The Spirit is with us. Nothing is impossible for God or with God.
Let’s make room in faith for the hope even though we cannot fully see, or understand. The hope that came to us in Christ, the Christ who meets us again this day at the table, the Christ who will come again.