A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on December 18, 2011
Sermon for Advent 4(Year A)
December 18, 2011
Christ Church Andover
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 15; Luke 1: 26-38
Very early yesterday morning I posted a message to my Facebook that said, “24 years ago today I became the proud father of a gorgeous baby boy. Happy Birthday, George!” One of the responses it generated was a reminder to me that it was Carolyn who had done all the work – lest I be too proud.
Indeed it was she, and not I. I still can’t help but be proud – of her, and of George. Watching him come into the world was an experience I will never forget. That was a Thursday evening around 6 pm at the Birth Center in Beverly. And we were all home in bed together that same night by 11 pm, and the four of us were in church (seated in a pew right here in this very church about there) on Christmas Eve one week later. I guess I should be proud of Carolyn, shouldn’t I? She’s a pretty amazing person!
The announcement to Mary that she would have a child is one of the truly iconic moments in all of scripture, art, music, and the whole of human imagination. Think of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio – can’t you just see all those images in art – or hear the music of Bach, Mozart or Tallis or modern composers like Rutter or Arvo Paart – with their settings of the Magnificat, or beautiful hymns like the one we sang just a moment ago that it has inspired: “Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord.” Mary’s mixture of fear, confusion, awe, joy, and desire, it turns out, resonates with our own deepest and very human emotions. And her willingness even in the face of this confusing array of emotions to take a risk, to open herself to God, to embrace her fears and choose what was not only unlikely, but seemingly impossible, strikes a chord within us.
What, after all, could be more enticing than to do the impossible?
Our tendency to get bogged down in the mechanics of the incarnation just might cause us to miss the whole point of this amazing story – which is that God makes the impossible happen – to those who say “yes.” The modernists and de-mythologizers who want us to be oh so scientific and gynecologically correct about this whole thing can unwittingly take all the fun and the power right out of it for us. Thankfully, the post-modernist philosophers and the quantum physicists have come to the rescue, and they tell us not to be quite so sure of ourselves when it comes to what is possible and what is not. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle seemed to understand this when he famously said, “For strange effects and extraordinary combinations we must go to life itself, which is always far more daring than any effort of the imagination.” Or, in Mark Twain’s slightly homier version, “truth is stranger than fiction.” But he didn’t stop there. He went on to say, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”
Truth has a way of revealing itself sometimes out of the most improbable of situations.
And so, our task is to find the truth in this most improbable story.
It is a story that in spite of its appeal to artists and composers and to the unhinged human imagination has sometimes been troubling to, well, women – maybe especially to modern, liberated women, who often look at this story and have trouble with the image of a too passive, submissive young and vulnerable woman. I heard a young woman say just a few days ago how much trouble she used to have with this story because of how seemingly passive Mary was. She wasn’t sure this was a good role model for women. All of us who care about the empowerment of women will necessarily share such a concern.
As she was quick to point out, however, this is no passive young woman. Anything but. You have only to hear the words of the Magnificat, that beautiful hymn that bursts forth from her when she encounters her cousin Elizabeth, and you realize that this is not a passive, weak person willing to accept whatever fate is handed to her. This is the voice not of one who has been victimized, but of one who has been filled with power. She’s more activist than pacifist. Her words proclaiming the greatness of the Lord could easily be the inspiration for some of today’s activists in the protest movements here in our own country and around the world when she says:
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Mary’s submission is not the weak, resigned submission of a victim, but the conscious, willing, and purposeful submission to God – saying “yes” to God – which is the most daring thing any of us can ever possibly do. It is the most daring thing we can ever do because saying yes to God changes everything. When you and I say “yes” to God, we allow ourselves to be filled with God’s very own life, which always leads to a very different place than when we are filled with ourselves.
Saying yes to God turned into a very tangible reality for Mary. Pregnancy, after all, is a very tangible, fleshy thing. Mary’s yes to God was the opening of herself to God’s incarnate presence right within the flesh and blood of her own body. And it changed everything. Never would her life be the same. God within cannot leave you unchanged.
Saying “yes” was such a daring thing, we might actually wonder if there had been others before Mary who had said “no!” to this invitation. You never know if the Angel Gabriel had appeared to others who because of fear, or unbelief, or lack of imagination, simply could not go there. Maybe lots of them! Until finally, a young woman takes a chance, decides that being filled with God’s presence, terrifying as that might be, could actually be a wonderful thing.
How often have we said “no” to God? “Oh, it’s just too hard, or too inconvenient, or doesn’t fit with my plan for my life.” How often does our own willfulness stop us from experiencing what God really has in mind for us? Or our lack of imagination and our lack of a spirit of adventure keep us from the very thing that would fill us with the joy we can barely imagine.
We really limit Mary and we limit this amazing story if we think it is only about women’s experience, or one particular young woman’s experience a long time ago. Mary is all of us, I dare say, because in the mystery of the incarnation we face the same decision she faced – whether we will allow God to take up residence in us. Will we allow God to fill us, to become flesh and blood in us? We all have to decide if being filled with God’s life is something we will dare to let happen in us. What would it truly mean for us to say “yes” to that?
Each week we come to this table to be filled once more with God’s incarnate life. We take it into ourselves so that it can grow in us, make us one with Christ’s own life, and reveal in us the life God intends for us. And that life just keeps growing and multiplying as we gather ourselves together to be, in the words of Paul, the body of Christ. I heard that this morning in Hope’s words in our Living Epistle: God’s own life reaching out to her, filling her and embracing her, and now she doing the same as she shares it with others. I heard a “yes” to God.
I love the words used in some monastic communities when the bread and wine are offered at Holy Communion: “Behold what you are,” to which the one who receives replies, “May we become what we receive.”
What will saying “yes” mean to us today? What will change? Can we approach this table with the same openness, the same willingness, the same embrace of God’s immense love and God’s desire toward us that Mary had? Can we become with Mary those who bear a little more of God’s incarnate presence into the world?
Who would not want to say “yes” to that?!