Monday, December 29, 2008

Sermon: Let it Be with Me, According to Your Word

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
December 20, 2008
Sermon:Luke 1:26-38
Let it Be with Me

Let it Be with Me, According to Your Word

Luke 1:26-38 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.

One: The Word of God, for the People of God.

Many: Thanks be to God.

Prayer for Illumination:
Holy God, it is you who is able to strengthen us according to the gospel and proclamation of Jesus Christ,
according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles,
according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

She started feeling uncomfortable around lunchtime, and given that she was on vacation in Wisconsin, it was not unlikely to feel a little out of sorts eating different foods and keeping a different routine than normal. They had an outing planned for that afternoon, and she went to lay down so that her strength would return in time for mini-golf with friends. As she tried to rest, she changed positions a dozen times, finding nothing that could keep her comfortable. Her stomach ached. Her back was knotted. She longed for a masseuse to come and make all the stress melt out of her body. She slept fitfully and woke up feeling even worse. Her friends and husband grew more and more concerned, and as she moaned in discomfort, they finally stopped listening to her denials and helped her into a car.
As they raced to the hospital, Jennifer West, age 31, started to worry that this might be another ovarian cyst. Maybe it had ruptured, and that’s why she was in so much pain. Maybe it was her bleeding ulcer? Or, it could be a recurring fibroid tumor. Her medical history flooded back as they pulled into the hospital, and she was escorted to the E.R.

Once in, a nurse came in to do an ultrasound. Within minutes, the problem was diagnosed and Jen was rushed to another section of the hospital for treatment. An hour later, she delivered a perfectly healthy, 8 pound baby boy whom she and her husband named Robert. Like most reasonable people, Jen was the first to ask: How can this be so? She was an educated woman, who was aware of her body and circumstances, in a good relationship with her husband.

It was possible for this woman to completely miss a full-term pregnancy due to her complicated medical history. Because of her penchant to gain and lose weight regularly, she hadn’t noticed any of the symptoms of her pregnancy. She wrote off morning sickness as a virus, early on. She had a tilted uterus, which kept her from feeling the baby kick in the later months. This baby was truly a gift and surprise, and during his first week home, he slept, wrapped in t-shirts and lying in a drawer. Quite a story, isn’t it?

Today we encounter what is called the greatest story ever told. Today we gather, days before Christmas, hurried and frazzled, over-busy and under-rested, counting down the days until the Christ child gets himself born and we can stop working so hard to do so much and can just take a day to rest, for this year can’t be done soon enough.

I don’t know about you, but 2008 will not go down as my favoritest of favorite years as I think back on my time when I’m old and grey and sharing lemonade on the front porch with Matt, who will be just slightly older and grey-er than me, at least in my visioning of the scene. This has been a hard year for many of us. We have lost loved ones, family members, dear friends, fought battles and lost them, procured jobs and lost them, too. Our institutions have crumbled, our relationships have been strained, our finances have been jeopardized, and our future is uncertain. And we gather here today, during the festive holiday season to hear this story that we might be able to recite by heart – this, the greatest story ever told.

And how we need a good story right now. We need something uplifting, something magical, something hopeful. We need angels and archangels and unlikely heroines and puppies and babies that don’t cry. We need the princess to be rescued in the nick of time and live happily ever after. Yes, that is how I want my 2008 to end.

So our story starts out promisingly, with enough detail to ensure that this is no arbitrary day or time. “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.” Perfect: Angels! Engagements! Boy meets girl! We’re onto something here…

Then the angel starts talking.

You can be sure that when a messenger of the Lord comes for a visit, that he’s not just coming to make small talk. The angel speaks with intuition and calming words, knowing how his presence is typically received with fear and trembling and the like.

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!”

Poor Mary is hardly calmed. She is perplexed and wonders what sort of greeting this is: favored one? No one has ever called her favored. In fact, she’s not been the most highly celebrated of people in her village. She’s lowly and poor, a young girl. But the angel continues:

“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.”

Don’t be afraid, Mary. You, a poor girl who is engaged to a respectable man are going to have a baby out of wedlock and you will call him Jesus and the King of Kings. Don’t be afraid? You must be joking.

Our story instantly moves from fairy tale to impossibility. The angel delivers mind-blowingly startling news, and then, the punch line? Don’t be afraid!

It gets weirder.

Mary isn’t afraid. Somehow, in some way, she responds with amazement, absorbing the good of this news and allowing the circumstances of her time, place and station to be subverted. She asks one clarification question, “How can this be, since I’m a Virgin?” and accepts the angel’s response with peace and calmness.

My hope for a good story is certainly getting fulfilled – after all, this is the most unlikely of heroines. She has received the favor of God, but not because of anything she’s done. She is not powerful or well-known. She is, in the long tradition of many who are called to a particular vocation – called by God, but not qualified. She is gifted, but unprepared. Her role in this story is not just to fulfill the duty to which she has been called – to bear the son of God – but to model that when one experiences a powerful revelation of God’s presence, your only response is to say “yes.” “Let it be with me, according to your word.”

One of my favorite Christmas Hymns is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which we rejoiced in singing together last week. The second verse begins with the words, “Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor the earth sustain…” If we’re qualifying this as the greatest story ever told, it seems unlikely that it would take place in the bleakest and simplest of settings with the most meager and lowly of characters at the center. And yet, when heaven simply cannot hold God any longer, it is this young maiden to whom God comes, and the power of the Most High overshadows her, and the child she bears is Holy, her firstborn and the only Son of God. This Holy In-Breaking doesn’t happen with thunderclaps and fireworks, but with a simple girl in a simple place. The greatest story ever told witnesses to an economy in which wonder is the greatest currency. When God breaks into the world, it is done gently and without fanfare or intimidation.

For us listeners, this begs the question of “Why?”

Why on earth would God choose to do such a remarkably unremarkable thing? Why would this girl be chosen? Why a baby in a lowly manger? Mary, our unexpected heroine, faces the annunciation with faith by her simple utterance: “How can this be?” Her words, carefully chosen, signify an openness to the possibility, and an awareness of the mystery of God. Her response is appropriate because it doesn’t, in any way, limit the possibility that God could do this. Had it been me, I might have offered a slightly different interpretation of these five words: “HOW CAN THIS BE SO?!?!?!?!” But this is why God is God and I am not the God-bearer - the theotokos.

Mary’s simple prayer of acceptance: “How can this be?” is the reminder that nothing is too good to be impossible. For many women, conceiving a child is their greatest dream, and for many women, conceiving a child is the most difficult thing they ever do. For many, they heartbreakingly give up their hopes and dreams of creating new life in the way they imagine and re-shape their lives to fit a new world order and expectation. This was true for Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. She was well on in her years, well past the age where babies would be possible. And the angel of the Lord came to her husband, Zechariah, first to offer that she would be the mother of a son.

Zechariah’s disbelief led him to be muted for months, until the baby was born, but Elizabeth’s dream of becoming a mother was fulfilled, and she delivered a baby who was John the Baptist, the one who came to prepare a way for the one who was to come after him in all things – in life and in death. When God makes up God’s mind to do something, it’s nothing short of remarkable. In whatever is revealed to us, we can know that there is much more which remains hidden.

The angel remarks to Mary: “Nothing will be impossible with God” after giving her the news of her baby to be, he tells her one more piece of the story. She is not the only one having a miracle baby. Her cousin, Elizabeth, who was barren, has been given a baby in her late years. Elizabeth, too, was carrying a baby boy, and was due in a matter of weeks. This was not some isolated, inexplicable magic baby that was conceived by a girl not yet married. People are not dumb. They could work that out pretty quickly, and it doesn’t mean good things for Mary if their assumptions are true.

But God knew to make this experiment falsifiable. By offering another test case – Elizabeth who stands with Mary – then it makes their stories all the more probable. After all, one girl claiming that the Holy Spirit impregnated her while she waited for her betrothed to marry her is not a likely story. But paired with the tale of an old, barren woman suddenly conceiving her first child, then it gives both stories more credit. Without Elizabeth, Mary is written off as a hussy. Without Mary, Elizabeth is an urban legend. Without John the Baptist, Jesus would have had no path blazed for him. Without Jesus, John would have had no reason for being as he was in this world. The more complex the circumstances, the less likely they are to occur in harmony. The angel says to Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God,” but those words are for us.

And we can see it coming to fruition:
a baby born to a completely surprised mother? Unbelievable! How could she not know?
A barren couple given their first child after menopause! By no means!
A young girl given the responsibility to raise God-with-Us, a tiny baby? Impossible!

And yet…
It’s already happened.

So, then, how are we to make sense of all of this? How is this so??

Let us look back to Mary, who raises her fist to the powers and principalities of this world by saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (v. 38).

How would it be for us if we said to the God who continually seeks us out in impossibly simple ways, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

Let’s try it: Consider the might of God:
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty,” (v. 51-53).

In this, Mary speaks to the power of God to do all things, including lifting up the lowly. And if God can lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, not just with something, but with something good, and send the rich away without so much as a crumb, then we must know that God is working out real and powerful things in our lives.

This mighty in-breaking of God into the dirt and messiness of our lives here in such a visceral way is un-believable. How can it be? That God would give us life in death, hope in the unknown, peace in trial? How can it be that God would be born to an unmarried woman? How can it be that death would chase this baby from his birth until his crucifixion on a cross and that in the end, it is not death that wins over life, but eternal life that cannot be killed, and in that eternal life, we receive our promise of hope – hope in God, and hope in Christ. That all things are possible.

Amen and Amen.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is simply beautiful! Thank you for sharing this account of the events leading up to our Saviour's birth. I am studying for a research paper for my Life Christian University class on "Principles of Prayer" re: the prayer of consecration. It seems to me that there's no better example of consecration & obedience than Mary when she said"be it into me according to Thy Word(other than Jesus Himself, when he said "not My will, but Yours be done.") I located your blog when I Googled, "be it unto me, according to Thy Word. Glad I found it! Thank you again for your well written (& humorous) account. Be blessed!