St. Paul’s Congregational Church
December 20, 2020; Advent 4B
Let It Be With Me
Luke 1: 26 – 38; Luke 1: 46b – 55
Our readings from Luke’s Gospel today are preparing us for the birth of Jesus with a description of the humility and devotion displayed by several ordinary members of the nation of Israel: Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary. Zechariah is an old priest, Elizabeth is his childless wife, and Mary is a young, unmarried teenager.
This is the cast that sets the stage for the birth of God’s Son in the world to bring about its salvation. Think about how strange this sounds – if what we celebrate at Christmas is true – the birth of Jesus Christ as Israel’s Messiah and Savior of the nations -- this is hardly the kind of supporting cast we would expect to be assembled by God. But when we think about it, how can we be surprised.
From our perspective today we have followed the Hebrew people through their exile, devastation, and rebuilding as they return to the promised land: the promises written in Isaiah: the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to comfort all who mourn – to give them a garland instead of ashes - and we have heard Jesus’ teachings – focused on the “other”, the downcast, the outcasts, the least of these, and the great Commandment – love God and love your neighbor as yourself – looking back on what we know, we shouldn’t be surprised at this cast of characters, should we.
Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary are blessed, not because of what they have or what they do, but because of what they hear and see. They are blessed to hear good news of what God is doing in the world. They are blessed to see what God is bringing about for the life of the world. And they are blessed because they respond and become instruments of God’s call, of God’s love.
We focus on Mary on this Sunday each Advent, the Sunday prior to the celebration of Christ’s nativity: we remember her for a humility and devotion to God that characterized the whole of her life. When her story begins, the first one we hear from is not Mary but Gabriel, a messenger from God who comes to her and announces, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
Mary’s response is one of sheer astonishment; this is not something she is expecting to hear. But what follows is even more astounding: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” How can this be, she asks? “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God,” which is followed by this promise: “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
She responds in spite of how crazy all this sounds! She gladly receives this life-giving word of good news into herself, becoming pregnant with Jesus -- God’s life becoming flesh in a human life: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And she sings about it! What we have come to know as the Magnificat is not only breathtaking poetry but also the most profound statement of faith and courage and empowerment and discipleship we have ever heard.
She believes that God will see and protect her even as God gives her one of the greatest tasks given to anyone on earth: to be the mother of her Lord and ours. Her quiet courage as she agrees to the greeting of the angel and her powerful song have comforted Christians from the very beginning because we can see in her a true model of the godly life.
She sings of how God has changed her life and the lives of those who will come after her – in the same way when we hear, take in with our whole being, the Word of promise that is Jesus Christ, we are suddenly given a new future, a new ending to our story, because it now begins and ends with God’s mercies.
Mary teaches us how to step outside of ourselves and turn with our whole beings, soul, and spirit, to the light that is God’s love, God’s Son come into the world, despite the devastation, amidst the rebuilding all that we have faced, are facing, will face.
These are dark days today – we ache for comfort, for promise in our lives. We all do. And when we are able to let go, enter the great mystery and promise that is Advent, we are able to let in the wondrous possibility of new life. We become aware of a new world, a new hope, new possibilities, new hunger for something else, something more. Something stirs inside of us that draws us to the light and we dare to wish, to dream, for more for the world, our neighbors, and ourselves. Something stirs inside of us that opens us to accept our needs – and we all have them – and then, and only then, do we hear the promise, the comfort, the joy, the faith of Mary. And we are able to hope. We are able to receive comfort. We are able to look to a world where there is good news, garlands instead of ashes.
And we are able to respond: to become the means to cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. As the earth brings forth its shoots and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so will God through us bring newness, fresh possibilities.
I’ve always been haunted by our closing carol – In the Bleak Midwinter – the tune is simple and somber. The words focus on the birth of Jesus, images we associate with the nativity scene. The meaning of the words lie in their humble simplicity – the carol doesn’t shout from the rooftops about Christmas cheer; instead it focuses on the simplest yet truest gift of all: the gift of love.
In the first stanza, poet Christina Rossetti creates a dreary and desolate image of the world into which Jesus appeared by drawing on the experience of a British winter..but she writes of the Incarnate One, the Light of the World bringing warmth into the most forlorn and dreary of situations. The second stanza makes the point that the eternal One whom “heaven could not hold” nor “earth sustain” appeared during the bleak winter of human existence where a stable place sufficed. This still holds today, doesn’t it.
But it’s the final verse that touches us today as we consider our response to the miracle in front of us: what can I give him? We are called to offer our own gift to the Christ child just as the shepherds and the wise men did – rather than a lamb or expensive gift though, we offer the most important gift: “give him my heart.” Please, hear this final hymn as a prayer and a call.
May we respond. May we respond with our whole beings. Soul and spirit. Hands and hearts. With all that is in us, with all that we are, let us turn to the light, receive both the comfort and the challenge, accept the presence and sing forth our own songs of joy and love. For the Mighty One has done great things for us. Holy is his name. Now and always. Amen.