Monday, December 1, 2014

Christmas Secrets - The Cross under Mary's Faith

Preached on the First Sunday in Advent, Novmeber 30, 2014
Scripture reading: Luke 1:26-38

(This is one of my older sermons. I unpacked it this fall of 2014 and it is only one of two that I have been able to find from my first Advent as pastor in Lakeside, Oregon.
Photos taken near Desert Aire, WA: November 2014
I decided, this new year in a new place, to reach back a bit, if possible. Coming to Lakeside, a neighboring pastor named Dick Cochran, a former missionary in Iraq and Lebanon, made me acquainted with some new ideas (ancient ideas) about the suffering present in the Christmas Story.
There was no date written on the original copy of this sermon, but I recognized it right away. I had been ordained for scarcely more than a month and I wrote it out so surprising carefully. I clearly draw out the element of danger and future suffering for Mary. I know that I intended to point to the cross, though it wasn’t clear in this one. That is the meaning of the bracketed paragraph: the only real addition to this sermon. I know I made the connection in the other sermons, included the really, really long one that is the only other surviving part of that series.
So here is that sermon from when I was 30. It’s the sermon I preached long ago, except for the bracketed paragraph on the cross.
I must say that I was 27 when I graduated from seminary (in December 1978) but it took me 2 years to pass the “Bible Exegesis Ordination Exam” the exam that was necessary to prove that you could competently build a sermon from a selected Biblical text, beginning with the original languages.
By the time I finally passed that last exam, I didn’t look very promising (more than two years living with my parents and doing seasonal agricultural work in a cannery). I had a hard time receiving a call from a church. I was ordained on the basis of my call to Lakeside October 8, 1981 and preached this sermon November 29, 1981. It was a sweet time for me. Well, here it is.)

Light from a Mediterranean sun shone soft and fine, sharp and clear. It massaged the hill country that surrounded the high Lake Galilee. It warmed the crowded huddle of stone houses in Nazareth.
Strong patterns of shadow and brightness fell in the narrow streets and tiny courtyards where people worked. But, somewhere, behind all that sunshine, the greater brightness of God was at work. He prepared to surprise a young girl named Mary. Somewhere in the brightness, an angel was approaching with a message for her.
The girl (she was only a young teenager) walked with her empty clay water jar through the streets to the town well, in the grotto of the hill on which the town was built. She had too much on her mind to pay attention to the odd turns and crooked steps of the way she had gone so many times.
She thought how, someday soon, she would walk to this same well, but down a different street, from a different house, Joseph’s house (her own house). With all there was to do till then; wedding, husband, and new home were still far off and yet very close.
She was a girl from a good family and everything had to be done just right. Her betrothal would last the full year. Everyday, her mother, her sisters, and she did a little more to get ready; weaving sturdy cloth for the dresses that would last most of the rest of her life; the embroidered patterns on her wedding gown, which would become her best dress, grew inch by inch. After all, of all the days in the life of a Palestinian girl, what were her proudest moments? Surely even the future days of her children’s births would not be the royal thing that her wedding would be.
Hundreds of people, days upon days, would feast and drink in her honor, and complement her beauty, and her goodness. Otherwise a girl’s glory was rare. After the wedding it would be years of quiet, hard work until her own daughters became brides like her and left her.
As she walked toward the town well, she approached the center of her life, for which she had been raised, the day when the pattern for her whole life would be settled. She would take her place with her husband as one of the sturdy, respectable mothers of Nazareth.
Mary was young, but her plans were set. She knew what her future would be.
Mary could never have foreseen that all this would soon be changed, because God did not altogether share her plan. God, too, wanted her to become a wife and a mother, just as she did. But he would throw in something extra.
God, in his love and favor would give Mary a surprising gift. The gift would be a unique calling, and the calling, given out of the love of God, would bring an unexpected, surprising responsibility, and challenge, and danger.
Christian people, who are never understood without understanding the love of God, find that living with God brings not only his love, but some of love’s surprising and unexpected responsibilities, and sometimes fear. These unexpected responsibilities change our plans. They catch us completely off guard, with no other preparation but the faith and the trust which God has nourished through many other surprises and fears.
The story in the Gospel of Luke tells us how Mary met the surprise of God with shock and fear, and how her fear turned to trust and acceptance. It tells us that we can do the same.
Mary approached the arched entrance to the wellspring which flowed in the cool shadow of a small grotto in the hillside. It was the village’s only well, and the popular place for the women to rest and gossip on warm days.
How strange! Mary heard no voices. The shadows were quiet and empty.
Mary listened to the sound of water filling her empty jar. Then she heard another noise. A voice called her name. “Hello, Mary.” Plain words: strange voice!
She turned, and there is no way to describe what she saw. But this is what she heard. “Hail, O favored one; the Lord is with you.”
Without a second thought, she knew that there was more to the message than what the plain words said. We read that, “She was greatly troubled at the saying, and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.” It almost hurt.
The saying of the angel troubled her. It spoke of the love of God, but surely she already knew that. She felt it many times without needing an angel to tell her.
She was troubled because she would have read or (if she had not been taught how to read) she would have heard, many times, the stories of long ago, how God had his first meetings with those whom he called to serve him. She must have known or feared that she was being “set up”: set up by God.
Why, the scene was too perfect. It was all there: the light, the visionary angel, the voice of the greeting which seemed to echo because it pounded on her heart.
Her heart told her that she would be given something hard to do; something that would seem impossible. It was the pure love in the voice that gave this away.
You’ve heard something like it. You’ve heard the voice of love say, “Daddy, I love you. But I haven’t started my science project yet, and it’s due tomorrow.” “Honey, I love you. Do you remember that noise the car made that worried me?” Where love is the most genuine we hear it in the times of the strongest need.
Even while we feel inconvenienced by the demands which love makes, there is something in us that craves the responsibility as much as we crave the love. This is one of the things we are created for.
Almost everyone wants to think of themselves as caring people who are ready to give something of themselves for others.
What stops us is the fear that the demands (the challenge) of the responsibility will be too much for us. You might experiment with this. If there is any problem or person that makes you uncomfortable, ask God to help you to be the one to find out what to do about it, and then just see if you don’t discover a little fear (or even anger) in the pit of your stomach at what God might say.
Mary was afraid, but she said nothing. Her silence spoke for her.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name 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, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Quite a prophecy: Mary should have been impressed. But her answer tells us what concerned her most. “How can this be, since I have no husband?”
This is a polite English translation. In the Greek, she says that she has “no sexual relations with any man”. The force of the Greek, in fact, says, “How can this thing happen? I have not, am not, and do not intend to have relations with a man until I’m married.”
Mary is saying, as firmly as she can to this angel, “What are you asking me to do?”
Think back, just fifty years. How would it look, for an engaged girl to be pregnant, and her fiancée not know anything about it?
In Mary’s time, among her people, this was the same as adultery. The formal, legal punishment was death. There would be either a public execution by stoning that would bring shame upon her and her family; or the fiancée, or one of the two families, could kill her quietly: maybe slit her throat. No one would object. These things happened, and life went on, for the living. In fact it was more or less expected.
In fact, if Joseph didn’t do anything about it, even if he were the real father, the family would be shamed and outcast. There would be no wedding, or no wedding anyone would attend.
No one would speak respectfully to Mary, or about Mary, ever again. No one would do business with Joseph. He would be ruined, if he wanted to do business with his own people.
Well, in a small town, maybe people would get over it. But, if they did, it would take years, and it would never really be forgotten. What was the angel asking her to do?
‘And 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 called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”’
Mary was told that this thing would be in God’s hands, by his spiritual power. She was not asked to do anything wrong. But she was also not reassured that her fears would go away. She was not told that anyone, not even Joseph, would understand what was happening, or would believe her if she told them. She still might be rejected and even killed, though there was that promise that the baby would be born and live.
Her picture of her life was gone. Even though she did everything right, even though she lived with complete integrity, things would never be easy for her. But this was promised, that God was at work here. God was in charge. Nothing was impossible for God. This would be a great thing; perhaps the greatest thing ever done since the creation of the world.
[Mary didn’t know, yet, that she would watch this son die on a cross for the forgiveness of the sins of the world. She didn’t know anything about how her son would say that if anyone truly followed him they would have to take up their own cross in order to follow him. We are the ones who know this. Mary was different from us really only in this way, without knowing all this, she did it. She carried Jesus. She took up Jesus, and her life as a mother, and her faith in her own son as her savior and Lord was her cross. We are called to carry crosses of our own.]
Through Mary, the Lord himself, God himself, was coming into the world, to live with his people: to be their king, and give them the forgiveness of sins.
In some way, each one of you, each one of us, is a mother of Christ. Each one of us is called to bring Christ and his forgiveness into the world. In some ways Christ can come in simple easy ways: by the attitude you show to others; by the stands you take for goodness, compassion, and for the right; by making peace where there is no peace, or where no peace is wanted; by the love you show; and by the witness you make when people ask you why you do and say strange things.
God will never command you to do the slightest thing that would violate the purest conscience, but he may ask you to do what you don’t think is fair to you. God may ask you to do what you are not prepared to do. God may ask you to do something that destroys your plans. God may ask you to live in a way your family and neighbors don’t understand. They won’t comprehend you.
They may not understand you just being here at all (praying and singing songs and listening to me talk), but that is the very least of it. They may not understand why you live as if you are a forgiven sinner who must forgive others. They will wonder what you really think of them, even when you love them unconditionally.
They won’t understand unless, or until, they know that they need the same love poured out in Christ. But you are people upon whom the Holy Spirit has come, overshadowed by the power of the Most High: so that what is born in you will be called holy.
You may not have planned it that way; but here you are.
Mary remembered who she was and who God is and she said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”
She was able to pray, “Lord, your will be done.”
That is how it is for us.
The responsibility, challenge, danger, of being God’s people makes its claim on us only because of God’s favor and love; because we know we are loved and we love God back.

If there is anything in this that can frighten, worry, or weigh on you, remember how it can come to be that you may do it. You are not doing your own work. God is doing his own work in you. His Spirit will help you because he is in charge. Knowing this when he comes to you in love, only say this, “Behold your servant. Let it be done according to your word.”

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