Sermon Advent 4B 2017
Barbara J. Cooke at St. Andrew’s, Greensboro NC
December 24, 2017
Canticle 15, Luke 1:26-38
Wow! Just look at what a careful job the altar guild has done to keep us in Advent this morning, but at the same time prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth later this afternoon and evening. With their white, but not yet red poinsettias; their wreaths but with no bows of merriment, and the torches set in place but unlit – I would say that the altar guild has shown us the “almost, but not yet” feeling most of us have this morning. Christmas is almost here, but not quite yet.
So let’s turn our thoughts for these next few minutes to Mary, as she hears the shocking announcement that she will bear the God-child.
We might wonder at just how the angel Gabriel approached Mary.
- Did he come swooping down with the all the fanfare of wings flapping, making such a scene that he thoroughly alarmed this young girl as she went about her daily chores?
- Did he shine in holy light?
- Or, did he approach her quietly, so as to soften the effect of God’s intrusion on her life?
- Was he loud and majestic in his announcement, or did he whisper softly into Mary’s ear?
And what about Mary?
- Did she hear in Gabriel’s announcement a request or a command?
- Was she aware that this was her moment to help bring about our salvation?
- Was there faith or fear in her heart as she uttered “Here am I…let it be with me according to your word?
- Did she laugh… or cry… or pray when it was all said and done?
And what about us? I wonder what kind of world this would be if more people responded to God’s interruption in their lives with Mary’s “Here I am ? Mary has lessons for us all.
- Mary knows her God, as she shows us in her famous song “The Magnificat.”
- Mary doesn’t view an angel’s appearance as ‘business as usual.’ She doesn’t say, “Well, that’s interesting, but no thanks. I have other plans.” She doesn’t figure out how to manipulate God for her own benefit.
- And what I find especially remarkable is that Mary never assumes that God is on her side. She never supposes that she could direct the will of God.
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary reminds us of what it looks like and what it sounds like when God shows up in your life – unannounced, unexpected, and unplanned.
Throughout religious art, Mary is usually depicted clad in blue – docile, domesticated, and flat – with an expression of calm resolve – an “I can handle this” kind of look as she gazes down at her young child. One of my favorite paintings of Mary is by Raphael, and isn’t quite as flat as most. I encountered it in Dresden, Germany. In this painting Mary is standing tall and looking straight out at the viewer, her veil billowing to one side. She is holding up a toddler Jesus who is also looking straight at the viewer, but the mother and child’s connection is unmistakable as her chin gently touches his forehead.
Today’s story of Mary shows us a more multi-dimensional person than is seen in most religious art. Today, we see:
- A Mary who is filled with emotion
- Mary who receives the news with holy fear
- Mary who hopes for a future not yet seen
Emily Dickinson’s poem about hope has a similar tone.
Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul
and sings the tune without the words
and never stops at all.
When Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth who in her old age is pregnant for the first time, and whose son will become John the Baptist, the two women do more than compare their pregnancies. They point to the radical changes that are coming about in history – a change that John would prepare for and a change that Jesus would bring to fruition. And Mary gives voice to the character and shape of that change. It would be a gospel revolution that would scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, send the rich away empty and fill the hungry with good things.
Mary finds her voice and sings a song for the ages – The Magnificat. It was a reading in our service this morning:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
And then she goes on to name the ways God has set the world right, and it is for these proclamations that Broderick Greer, another Episcopal priest, calls The Magnificat Mary’s rebel anthem.
Often when we think of Jesus, we think of the divine part of Jesus. But it may be worth wondering if maybe the revolutionary, the prophetic side of Jesus was inherited from his mother.
- Could it be that Jesus inherited his revolutionary nature from Mary?
- Could Mary’s rebel anthem have moonlighted as Jesus’ lullaby?
The words of The Magnificat gives us all pause. While today we look for change in the centers of power – in the courtroom and houses of congress – God scatters our power and presumption, and instead points our attention to a maternity ward where faithful women pray and praise the “Mighty One who has done great things,” the One who is still doing great things, and often in the most unexpected places.
It is not by accident that Christmas is a time filled with music and singing. When our hearts fill with hope, our voices lift in joyful praise. Because, when we fully embrace God’s promise to be with us, then we become part of the story.
And with Mary we can say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”