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Sermon for Advent IV

December 18, 2016

Pastor Anna V. Copeland

Text: Luke 1:26-45 NRSV

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[a] 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 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. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[b] 35 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[c] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 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. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 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.

Mary Visits Elizabeth

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[d] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary’s Song of Praise

46 And Mary[e] said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

    and holy is his name.

                            

What Women

Through much of the Advent Season we have focused on the guys in the story: the faith of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, the expectant Prophecy from Isaiah that God will bind up the broken hearted and free the oppressed, the invitation of God through the prophet Joel to return to God and let go of all temporary satisfactions.

Then here come the women. They’re like the closing pitchers in the World Series. They seal the deal. The story of God with us through Christ hinges on these two women, Mary and Elizabeth. Without them, no prophecy would find fulfillment, no one would have paved the way, no Lord of Life would be born after him. Without Mary and Elizabeth, there would be no Jesus, no church, no Catholic Church, no Protestant reformation, no crossing to America for religious freedom, no you, no me, not one thing familiar to our world would have come into being, for all things came into being by God’s word spoken into the world through them.

This morning we’re going to talk about the power of what God can do through friendship.

Mary and Elizabeth were cousins and they were friends. They could not have known at the time how important their stories would become in turning the world right side up. After the angel appeared to Mary to tell her that she would bear a son, she went to see her much older cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant. It would have been a long and arduous trip, more so even than the trip to Bethlehem given the terrain. Pregnancies for older women increase in risk, and in those days, there would not have been much to be done for Elizabeth if her health had been imperiled. Mary was eager to be with her, to support her, to share her joy as she too was now pregnant. The fate of these two women is sealed by their relationship, by their shared pregnancies, and by God’s shared purpose for the life of the sons they would bear. Their joy is complete for themselves, happy to be full of life, but also for their people, as the long anticipated salvation of God is at hand through them.

As they were bound together as women in their shared joy, they would one day also be bound together in their mutual grief, though they could not have known that either. It was perhaps a mercy that Elizabeth was older and may not have lived to experience John’s violent death at the request of Herod’s wife at a birthday party, as Jesus also died a gruesome death for alleged crimes against Rome.

Women share a tendency to stand by and for one another on life’s spectacular occasions, as well as in ordinary time, and they see one another through unspeakable sufferings. Such was the case for these two women surprised by joy and by the power of their collaboration in God’s plans.

Mary and Elizabeth need each other to complete the kingdom work God has in store for them. Unlike John the Baptizer, the lone voice crying in the wilderness, these two women are in this together as friends, forming community, showing us that whatever we’re up against we don’t have to go at it alone.

All this past fall we have talked about what it means to be brave as Christians. Brave people listen for God’s voice and act accordingly.

Several years ago, Frank Fredericks, (Founder of World Faith and Mean Communications) reflected on the transforming power of unlikely friendship. He wrote: “As a Christian, I reflected over the years on what it means to “love your neighbor.” When I lived in rural America, outside of Portland, Ore., this seemed like a much easier feat. Our nearest neighbor lived a few hundred yards away. I’d have to walk a mile in any direction to find someone we didn’t know.

“Now I live in New York City, and my ‘neighbor’ is someone I don’t know. My city, neighborhood and block are filled people who don’t know me, don’t care to know me, don’t look like me, talk like me, smell like me, think like me, and have no desire to change that fact…I don’t even know my literal neighbors. I find that it’s pretty hard to love people you don’t even know. And sometimes, we all, myself included, use that as an excuse to not even try.

“One day, Brendan, a young but rising musician I know in New York, was coming home to his Brooklyn apartment when a homeless woman asked her for money. He said, honestly, that he had no money. By the end of the week, she asked two more times, and each time he answered ‘no.’

Finally she muttered to herself. Don’t even ask him, he’s going to say ‘no’. He could have kept walking, but for whatever reason he stopped and proposed this: “I am on my way to a job interview. If I get the job, I will take you out for Chinese food.” This promise yielded a friendship that neither were prepared for — that changed the trajectory of their lives…”

“Brendan got the job. But their friendship didn’t just end with Chinese food. They built a friendship of mutual support, spending their birthdays, holidays and tough times together, over a period of eight years. When Brendan’s heater broke, she made him a blanket. Two days later when he told her that he had lost his job, she disappeared, returning minutes later, bringing him groceries, and which she continued to do throughout the winter. Even with so little, she never hesitated to give back.

Over these years, Jackie moved from the streets and into a halfway house, the YMCA, and finally an apartment. To celebrate this occasion, Brendan wanted to do something special for Jackie. He went with her to Target, and helped her to pick out everything she’d need for an apartment, starting an online registry inviting others to help. They raised ten times the amount needed to get her started in her own place and together looked for ways to give a hand up to other women in need.”

The story of Mary and Elizabeth, and of Brendon and Jackie aren’t stories about a particular brand of faith, or a set of rules that tell us how to be religious, as if God cared about that. God is looking for women and men who stop and listen, trusting the voice sometimes still and small, or that splits the heavens with angel voices. God needs brave people willing to struggle with their desire to participate in the human story and to do something about it.

Responding to God’s still small voice may move us to give birth to a grand and unimaginable future, or simply to better love our neighbors, whether next door or at our door step. This doesn’t require a seminary degree or a change in profession, just a willingness to listen, to speak and to give.

Nearly twenty years ago Pope John Paul II preached about these women in his sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent. He held up Mary as an example of the trusting faith that pleases God.

“By proclaiming herself "the handmaid of the Lord", Mary expresses the faith of Israel. Through her faith God’s great work of salvation began to be revealed; because of Mary's faith, the new age of the God’s Redemption was inaugurated.

We find reflected in Mary's visitation the hopes and expectations of the humble, God-fearing people who were awaiting the fulfillment of prophetic promises and they were many. Among them, the prophet Micah had long ago announced the coming of a new king, humble and wise, and created the expectation that out of little Bethlehem would come a leader who would care for his people with the strength of God himself and who would bring peace and security to the ends of the earth. All these ancient promises were to be fulfilled in the Child of Bethlehem.”

Elizabeth’s story is important to us too, because her son John opened the hearts of people and prepared them that God was about to do a new thing in their lives and for the world. Mary’s story is important to us because she demonstrates that authentic compassion that grows within us and flows from us when Christ is present with us.

Standing by and for one another in community is no small thing. As friends and co-workers in the community of faith, we sometimes hurt one another. It’s not possible to love another human being with devotion over a lifetime without at some point causing one another pain.

Even friends aren’t always kind to one another. Two good friends had a quarrel one day, and one of them slapped another. The man felt pain, but said nothing and wrote on the sand: “Today my best friend slapped me.”

The two friends continued walking and found a wider shore from which they decided to swim. Suddenly the one who was slapped started to sink, but his friend saved him.

When he regained consciousness, he wrote on a stone: “Today my best friend saved my life.”

The other friend, who had both slapped and then saved his friend’s life, asked him:

– When I hurt you, you wrote on the sand and now you are writing on the stone. Why?

His friend said:

– When someone hurts us, we should write it on the sand, so that the wind and the waves can erase it. But when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it on the stone, so that neither wind nor wave can erase it.”

The call to live as godly people is at once joy-filled and also tinged with sacrifice. If we can’t forgive one another, let go and move on, God can’t find us very useful. When we say yes to God at work through us as Mary did, our labor may be brief and easy or long and difficult. We cannot anticipate the outcome. It will be decades before we know how our labors bore fruit.

Fortunately, along with the good news that Elizabeth and Mary are about to have sons, God enters each of our expectant lives with the Christmas message: Do not be afraid, Christ is born for us! Spread this proclamation wherever you are. Go to where people live, and be prepared, as far as you can, to help them escape from every form of isolation. To each and every one, proclaim and witness to Christ and to the joy of this Gospel.

This mission of Christmas belongs to all of us: to stand by and with one another insofar as we are able, to alleviate suffering in the world where we can, to assist others in the prevention and recovery from all that threatens life. We respond to the faith of Mary and Elizabeth with brave witness to God’s work in the world, and to live out Christian values as godly people, that others will see our compassion and find hope for a better life and world they cannot yet see.

                 

Like Mary, our soul rejoices in God our Savior, for the Mighty One has done great things for us, and Holy is God’s name.

Amen