Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 24, 2017

2017.12.24 – “Ave Maria” – Luke 1:46-55

Central United Methodist Church
Ave Maria
Pastor David L. Haley
December 24, 2017
The 4th Sunday of Advent
Luke 1: 46 – 55

 Advent 4

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 

          The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 

          Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 

          The angel said to her, “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. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” 

          Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.” – Luke 1: 26 – 38, NRSV

It is the Fourth and final Sunday of Advent, and while megachurches are presenting Christmas extravaganzas, liturgical churches like Catholics and Episcopalians and Lutherans and Presbyterians and us Methodists are saying, “Wait!” “Wait!” “Hold!” like parents walking with their children into Toys R Us.
Christmas, however, is only hours away, so we are all in a hurry to prepare for the big event. First of all, we need to bring on stage the most important actor in the Christmas story after Jesus; his mother Mary. Some might say she is even more important, because without Mary we get no Jesus.

Secondly, not only do we need to introduce Mary, we’ve got to get this pregnancy underway. At the beginning of this morning’s Gospel, Mary is not even pregnant. At the end, she is – which, fortunately for us here in church – remains SFW (safe for work) throughout. But – on this year’s schedule – Mary’s got to push that baby out by tonight. Imagine that: a 7½ hour gestation and pregnancy. Probably only a moment of morning sickness. Talk about a Christmas miracle! What mom wouldn’t want that? Thirdly, I know I need to be brief, because with two more services today; everyone wants to get home and take a nap, including me.

In the history of the church, and especially in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, Mary holds a place of importance second only to Jesus.  After all, her words of “Ave/Hail” have come to open the prayer that ranks second only to the Lord’s Prayer in the number of times it has been spoken over the centuries of Christendom: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death.”

Likewise, Mary’s Song, known in Latin as the Magnificat, has been given a place in the daily prayer of the church, in the evening, perhaps to remind us daily of the way God works in the world.

Catholics know Mary well, but we Protestants sometimes aren’t so sure what to make of Mary, we think she is Catholic. The late Peter Gomes of Harvard Divinity School used to tell the story about a former Dean of St. Paul’s in London — and you could substitute any prominent Protestant — who arrives in heaven. Jesus comes down from God’s right hand and says, ‘Ah, Mr. Dean, welcome to heaven; I know you’ve met my Father, but I don’t believe you know my Mother.”

It’s true, most of the time Mary is missing from much of our tradition and practice and liturgy. Until Christmas, that is, when she shows up in the Crèche, and on countless Hallmark cards, looking like – as someone once said – as if she just returned from having her hair and nails done, to discover this chubby little baby waiting.

In this year which has focused upon the mistreatment of women, we could raise some interesting questions. Did Mary actually give informed consent, or was there a compelling power equation, what with Gabriel being an angel and everything? And if Mary was under 18, could she give informed consent? Shouldn’t Gabriel have been talking to her parents, rather than to an underage minor? Can you believe that in the recent Senatorial election, some conservative Christians in Alabama, in defense of the dating habits of Senate candidate Roy Moore, actually cited the precedent of Joseph and Mary? While it’s true that modern standards should not be applied to ancient stories, it’s is also true that ancient practices fall short of modern standards, like child brides, for example. Because, as with science, our understandings or what is right and true and good continue to evolve.

Today, when we meet Mary, she is a humble young woman confronted by an angel, given an invitation to be the “theotokos,” the mother of God. Will she, or won’t she? Would you?

I love how this moment – known as the Annunciation (Announcement) has been portrayed in art, such as this portrayal by Fra Angelico, or this one by Botticelli, where it seems all heaven and earth wait upon Mary’s word.

Annunciation 2

Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Annunciation 2

Annunciation by Botticelli

Informed consent? How could Mary ever know – any more than we ever know – what saying “yes” to God’s purposes would mean for her? Not only the stigma of an unwed pregnancy, but the difficulty of his birth, which we celebrate at Christmas. Not only would she nurse and raise Jesus, she is the only person who would be with him almost every day of the 33 years of his brief life. She would be with him when he entered the city of Jerusalem the week before the Passover, in the crowd when he was arrested and tried, and there when he was crucified. She watched her son die and one of the last things Jesus did on earth, was he asked his friend to take care of her. In other words, she is the second most important person in the Jesus story. But what she is most known for – especially on this day – is for saying “yes” to God.

It’s frightening, isn’t it, to think of the consequences of the decisions we make, which we can never fully know, nor re-make later, on the basis of what we learn. Where we live, where we go to school, who we marry, what we do with our lives? As an example, one of my great regrets in life is that I did not serve in the military; in my family, out of four generations (and maybe more), I am the only one who did not, just missing Viet Nam by a few years. But if I had, who knows what would have happened: I might not exist, my family would not exist, I would not have served as a pastor to five congregations, or be standing here talking to you right now. No wonder the Jewish Talmud says, “Whoever saves one life, saves a whole world.” Decisions have consequences, in Mary’s case, by bearing the Messiah, though a sword would pierce her own soul, she would also save the world.

Despite that fact that Mary may have been an unwed minor, uneducated and likely even illiterate, she was no theological novice; as demonstrated in the song she sang. As author Kathleen Norris once observed, “When we know God’s voice and answer God’s call, we sing.” And so Mary sings. But her song is no simple song, it is a revolutionary manifesto, not only of what God is doing for her, but what God is doing in the world. As Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message:

“God bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.”

Mary’s song sounds the first clear trumpet call that the Baby she bears will be world-transforming and universe-shaking. Mary’s song is a song sung to all people like her, making clear that God is not on the side of the high and the mighty, the Caesar’s and the Herod’s and Trumps of the world; rather, God is on the side of the humble and the poor and the oppressed, people like her and her fiancé Joseph and her baby, a baby so poor he would be born in a manger, attended by shepherds. Mary’s song proclaims that Jesus comes to do what God has always done, as we heard last Sunday from the prophet Isaiah: to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
to release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Isaiah 61).

Given Mary’s example, the question that remains, is “What about us?” Are we, like Mary, open to saying “yes” to the purposes of God in the world, in whatever ways – large or small – God asks of us? Granted, it will not be to bear a new Messiah – Mary, the theotokos (God-bearer) did that once and for all – but we never know, exactly how or when God is going to invite, use us, to do God’s work in the world.

This last week before Christmas can be a busy and frightening week for all of us, and no less so for us pastors. It always seems that every year, just when I’m scared to death whether I’ll make it, God asks of me one more thing.

One year in particular, stands out in my memory. It was a Sunday afternoon, December 15, 2002, when the phone rang; it was one of my fireman friends. He and I were often the two senior members of a four-member ladder or rescue company. He owned a Heating & Air Conditioning business; I was a Methodist preacher; let’s just say we had different gifts.

But on this particular day, it was my gifts that were needed, because he said, “Dave, my daughter just died, and I was wondering if you could help us. We’re not very religious and we don’t go to your church, so if you can’t do it, I understand.” “Yes,” I said, “Yes, of course I’ll help in every way I can.”

All most everyone in town knew his daughter, who was 21, one of those special people born with Down’s Syndrome, who bagged groceries at the local Jewel. In her short life, she touched many people; the day of the funeral, the funeral home was filled. I said, to those sitting before me: “Some people like to think of angels as fearsome beings who always have to preface their remarks with, “Do not fear”; but the real angels in life are more often sweet souls like this, who once they get our attention, teach us by their lives, and change us profoundly.” At last, when her Dad spoke, he said it best, better than I ever could, in words I’ve never forgotten: “I cried the day she was born and the day she died, but I laughed every day in between.”

Whether male or female, whether gifted or not, we are called to be like Mary, to allow our lives to become the dwelling place of God, to say yes to God’s purposes, to bear Christ in the world. Like Mary, may God grant us the grace, the trust, and the courage to say: “Yes.” So Be It. Amen.”

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