a cry of promise and love

Luke 1: 26-38

Advent’s been kind of been a downer this year.
Sydney told me so, after church last week. She asked me
if I could preach something more uplifting this week.

It’s just there’s so much that’s not uplifting going on.
This past week didn’t help.
On top of everything, 132 children
paid the price of a world in which too many
consider children disposable pawns.
And then we got the disgusting details of how we,
as citizens of this country, have been involved in torturing people—
doing unto others what we prosecuted others doing to us after WWII—
doing to others that for which we courtmartialed
one of our own soldiers during Viet Nam.
And one poll indicated Christians as a whole
are more supportive of torture than non-Christians.
Makes me think of what that great Baptist
Clarence Jordan said during the Civil Rights’ days,
“the Supreme Court is making pagans act more like Christians
than the Bible is making Christians act like Christians.”
And then someone seeking revenge for the death of Eric Garner
ambushed and killed two police officers in Brooklyn
before killing himself …
which all kind of makes me sick.
There’s so much that’s not uplifting going on.
And we’ve named a lot of that in our Advent worship.

You don’t get to preach and ignore the truth of our times.
Some try, but that’s not preaching.
It’s propagandizing and pandering.
So we’ve been trying to bring the truth of our culture
and the truth of our world
to the truth of our faith and the truth of our scriptures.
That, seems to me, honors the scriptures—
the preaching of John the Baptist (“Repent!”),
the starkly apocalyptic perspective,
the world into which Jesus was born—
and the world into which Jesus is born.

Frederick Buechner writes that “the gospel
is always bad news before it’s good news”
(Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy,
Comedy, and Fairy Tale
[HarperOne, 1977] 7),
and I see no way to preach gospel—good news—with integrity
without trying to see our world as honestly as possible.
Now do I see past my own blinders? Of course not.
That’s why my preaching is part of our conversation—
not something authoritative and definitive.

But today—today is the fourth Sunday of Advent.
We’re as close to Christmas as the Sundays of Advent get,
and our perspective is shifting from the world into which God comes,
to the God who comes into the world.
And so Sydney, this is not just for you, but it’s also for you.

We heard our Scripture read and sung earlier—
the Annunciation, as it’s called—
the angel appearing to Mary in the sixth month—
that is, in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
Our story begins, tied to the previous one.

In fact, our story begins as if it were the continuation of the previous story—
the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah
and the angel Gabriel announcing the birth of John the Baptist.
And Elizabeth conceived and remained in seclusion for five months.
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to the city of—
you see what I mean?
Up to that point, we’re still in the previous story.
But then, unexpectedly, we veer up from Judah
out of the way into the Galilee up to Nazareth.
Unexpectedly we find ourselves in a new story.
We go from an elderly couple of the tribe of Levi
to a young girl betrothed to a man of the lineage of David.

Okay, now I know I know that sometimes—every now and then,
I make way too much of way too little! I know. I know.
But you notice here, we go from the old stories of the tribes of Israel
to a new story of the lineage of David.
You catch that?
We go from the history of those who mediated God—
the Levites—the priests—
to the lineage of the one beloved by God.
And I’m not thinking that’s coincidence.

An angel came saying exactly this:
“Greetings, favored one.”
Quick yes or no question:
do you think God plays favorites?
Yes or no?
Hmmm. Y’all didn’t have your coffee this morning, did you?
But I just saw a few nos.
And no fits my theology too.
So what does it mean to call someone “favored one?”
There’s nothing special about Mary that’s identified as grounds for this favor.
And we are all, in truth, favored by the love of God, right?—
compared to which there is no greater favor.
We are all beloved of God.
We are all part of that lineage of David, the beloved of God.
So we’re all a part of this new story unfolding.

The angel goes on, “The Lord is with you,”
and, again, with whom is God not?
“Greetings favored one, God is with you.”
Well that’s all of us, according to the biblical witness—
God-with-us—
Immanuel—
which is Jesus, yes,
but also the God of the Exodus and the prophets—
the God of the psalms,
the judges and kings,
the widows, orphans, and the aliens.

And Mary was perplexed—
theologically astute as she was.
And we are too—
theologically astute—
and perplexed!

God is with us and God loves us.
This we know, for the Bible tells us so.
But like the parent who loves us so,
God also has pretty high expectations of us,
and can get rather frustrated when we fall short.

So does God’s presence with us and God’s love for us
have something to do with God’s expectation of us?

“Don’t be afraid,” says the angel—
which is interesting
because it never said she was afraid.
She was perplexed, right?
“Troubled” is another translation,
but not “afraid.”

Yet maybe thinking about God’s presence
and God’s love and God’s will
left Mary wondering, “What’s expected of me?”—
a question we should all entertain …
with a touch of troubled perplexity and a touch of fear.
What’s expected? What does God expect?

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
So if she hadn’t found favor, she would have had to be afraid?
That sounds like traditional evangelical theology:
we are unworthy of God and we should be afraid,
but God is love, believe in Jesus, fear not—
gospel.

Except I don’t think it’s that at all.
We are never to be afraid of God.
I know—the Proverbs: the beginning of wisdom is fear of God,
but God loves us.
I think it’s rather we are afraid of us—
of what we have done and have not done—
of how faithful we’ve been—how obedient—or not—
and so whether we feel we deserve the favor and love of God.
But love isn’t something you ever deserve, is it?
“Don’t be afraid, Mary. Don’t be afraid.”

Now, specifically, Gabriel says,
“You will conceive in your womb a boy—a son,
and you will name him Jesus—Joshua—deliverer.
You will deliver a deliverer.
He will be great and be called the son of the Most High,
and God will give him the throne of his ancestor David,
beloved of God (no greater throne than that, is there?).
He will reign over the house of Jacob forever.

Okay, so you remember that big deal I made about not so much—
about how our story kicks off after tribal identity
with identity as those in the lineage of the beloved of God?
Now we note that how our story goes back to a time before the tribes—
the house of Jacob, the father of Israel—right?
The story keeps stretching.
And of his kingdom there will be no end.
That’s specifically what Gabriel says.
That’s Christmas.

More generically—
as favored one and God with us applies to everyone,
we could, each one of us, hear this:
“You will conceive now of a new possibility,
and you will bear new life,
and you will call that christian.
Such a living will be great
and will be recognized as the living of a child of God.”
That’s gospel.
That’s always.
Not taking anything away from the particularity of the Christmas story,
but also not one thing from the possibility of our own stories too.

Well now, how can this be?
Specifically, Mary’s question has to do with never having had sex.
Ours has to do with what?
How can we live like that in a world like this? Seriously?
That is totally unrealistic!
Who would believe that’s even possible?

The Holy Spirit will come upon you.
The power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the life conceived (or the living) will be holy—
that of a son or a daughter of God.
Jesus is the story. Sure. Absolutely.
We are too.
We too, are the story—
the story of promise and love.
Or we can be. Or we will be.

“And by the way,” says Gabriel,
“Elizabeth, your old cousin or aunt—
or whatever relation she is to you (it doesn’t say),
has also conceived—
she who was always thought to be barren.

For nothing will be impossible with God”
(not for God, you notice?!)—
with God.
We’re not talking about what God does to us or for us,
but what God does with us.
It’s our story too.

And there are echoes in the words—
of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:14)—
nothing will be impossible for God.
Echoes of Elizabeth and Zechariah
in the familiar story of the older woman who couldn’t have children
who then miraculously does.

So do we realize that we are now in a twist on that story—
that familiar story of the faith tradition?
Mary was a twist on that familiar story.
So are we.
Something new—
still wonderful,
still miraculous,
still God-drenched,
still reality transforming.

And the point’s not how but that
that God is at work—
that nothing stays the same—
that where there was no hope and possibility
there now is—
that God is marvelous and amazing
and with us—with you.

And as Mary is related to Elizabeth,
though we are all not children of Jacob—
not all of the tribes of Israel,
yet we are all of the lineage of those beloved by God.
Do you know that?
What a proud lineage you come from.

And now for a little literal translation—
because it’s always good to point out how much is lost in translation—
which is a theological point as much as a linguistic one.
Whenever we speak of God, however much we get right,
we’ve lost more than we can know
just by virtue of speaking in a particular way—
a particular language—using particular words and images.
The angel literally says—
well unliterally, the angel says “Nothing will be impossible with God”—
that’s what we read in our translation,
but literally the Greek reads,
“No word will be impossible with God,”
and then Mary says, “May it happen to me according to your word”—
same word—
not logos—
a Greek word also sometimes translated “declaration.”

No declaration will be impossible for God.
God will declare peace in the midst of this.
God will declare love in the midst of this.
And nothing God declares will be impossible.
“Here am I,
servant of God,
let it be with me according to your declaration.”
Well, I declare.

And more echoes—
the story of Hannah, this time, echoing—
another old woman who could have no children
who prayed fervently to God—
so fervently, Eli, the old priest, thought she was drunk!
You know the story? Great story!
She prayed fervently to God and conceived
(1 Samuel 1:18).

Final note: have you considered this?
Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth were all old—all barren—
all looking back on what had not been—
what had not turned out as they had hoped—
what had been given up on.
Mary though, was young.
She was still looking ahead to what might be—
still hoping—dreaming—planning even.
She had the nursery designed in her mind.

Jesus you see is not the answer to disappointment,
but the promise of hope and love and joy and peace and justice—
not a fix-it for what’s wrong,
but a redreaming—a retelling of what’s right and what’s true—

God entering the story—not responding,
but taking initiative—

not answering an individual’s spoken prayer,
but hearing the sighs too deep for words
of all creation longing for redemption—

God initiating not what we think we know we want
but what we don’t know we do.

God enters our story with all its—
ugliness, shall we say?
God enters our story
with the assurance—the promise—
there’s a new story
waiting for us
we can’t even begin to imagine.
But we don’t have to imagine.
We just have to trust.
We just have to risk trust
that God loves us—
that God is with us—
that God’s story is unfolding in this world,
and that that story has to do with newborn babies
and joy
and hope.
It has to do with a star shining brightly
and sheep and shepherds
and angels singing—
with flowers and birds and growing things—
with people used to being left out who are included.
It has to do with peace.
It has to do with justice,
with grace and forgiveness.
It has to do with wisdom and the wisdom of giving gifts—
the wisdom of dreams and the wisdom of love—
and stories that just get better and better.

It’s the fourth Sunday of Advent.
And in the midst of it all—
all that’s so not uplifting,
we’re getting closer.
We’re getting closer and closer
to something real and true and wondrous—
something God—something God will do with us
that turns everything else upside down
and creates new possibility we can’t yet see coming.
But we will.
Oh, we will.

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