Sermon I preached this morning at St. Mary’s of High Point, my discernment internship placement.
Advent IV, Year A
In the name of Love: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
So, during the week I work in the office of St. Timothy’s in Winston Salem. I’m grateful to have my own office, but I really hate the fluorescent overhead lighting. But I do have a big bright window in my office so when I arrive in the morning I don’t bother turning on my light. Then I forget about it the rest of the day. By 3pm, it gets darker and darker outside because it’s getting dark so early, but I’m so focused on my computer screen usually that I don’t notice. Every Thursday, without fail, the Thursday afternoon office volunteer walks in, and in the best Southern accent I’ve heard says, “You must have relatives named Flintstone because it seems that you enjoy working in caves.” It’s a different ridiculous joke every time, but it’s always a comment about me dwelling in my dark office.
The days are getting darker and darker. I’ve been actually having to turn on the light in my office in the late afternoon. The sun rises later and sets earlier. Some days it seems like just as the sun comes up, the darkness starts to encroach and take it away. But hey! It’s almost Christmas! Like, it’s really almost here! What I think is really cool is that Christmas happens every year near the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year, the day when we spend the most amount of time in darkness, is exactly when we celebrate the Great Light coming into the world. This Sunday we’re just at the cusp of that. We’ve watched our advent wreath glow just a little brighter each week, from just a dull single candle to four glowing candles casting a greater ring of light. We know that it’s almost here. We’re just at that tipping point where the days start to grow longer and brighter. We’re almost there, but not quite yet.
We’ve spent the last three weeks preparing our hearts in this season of Advent for the arrival of our Savior. We’ve heard twice now from John the Baptist, matted hair, eating bugs, and hollering in the desert. Christmas is almost here and in our cycle of Sunday readings, we’re only just now meeting Mary, the soon-to-be Mother of Jesus.
I have to confess. It took a long time for me to get the whole “Virgin Mary” thing. It’s not that I ever really doubted Virgin Birth or that she was Jesus’ mom. I didn’t get it because, well, I honestly thought she was kind of boring. I’m glad she was chosen to raise Jesus, but she was never my favorite growing up. I actually remember, one Halloween when I was young, we did a festival at the church and all of the kids were supposed to dress up like Bible characters instead of the usual princesses and Darth Vaders. Every little girl, and I mean every single little girl, all 20 of them, dressed like the Virgin Mary. Light blue dresses and blue head coverings, carrying around baby dolls. Well, we hadn’t yet learned about the woman at the well or Mary Magdalene or Esther. So I dressed as the only other female Bible character I knew of: Eve. I had a long black wig, a hula skirt, and a rubber snake. My Sunday School teacher was less than pleased by my creativity. I thought Mary was boring! I didn’t want to be Mary! I wanted to be someone fun and strong-willed like I was! Mary never fit that bill for me. Even in the yearly Nativity play, it was always the meek well-behaved girls that were cast as Mary. (I’m not bitter.)
Thank God that my faith formation did not stop when I was 9 years old. I’ve since come to appreciate and learn a lot from meditating on the Blessed Mother. Mary is often depicted as weak and submissive. That’s certainly what I learned about her as a child. “The Doormat of the Lord.” It’s easy to skip past her immediate reaction to meeting Gabriel, because we most remember Mary’s final response, “Be it done to me according to your word.”
You see, people didn’t exactly get excited about seeing angels in Mary’s time. Angels were usually associated with death, and they usually weren’t very happy looking creatures. There’s a reason that most everyone in the New Testament is terrified when they see angels. They were bringers of messages, sure, but those messages weren’t usually good tidings of great joy. But our text doesn’t explicitly say Mary was scared. The angel greets her, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you!” She didn’t panic, she didn’t tremble. She also couldn’t have been happy about this. She didn’t leap up excited, in fact she didn’t say a word. She was perplexed and stopped and pondered, completely caught off guard. I’m willing to bet that her face reflected that confusion. That “what in the world?!” reaction. It would have been common in that time for Mary to be addressed often as “you there! Woman!” She would not have had permission to speak to strangers. But here Gabriel busts in and greets her. He doesn’t give her a command to wash his feet or bring him drink as a usual visitor would do. He doesn’t greet her as a slave, but as a favored one of God. This stops her dead in her tracks.
The angel continues, “Mary, 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.” And Mary doesn’t immediate respond with “Oh, cool! I’m fine with that!” She responds, and I’m ad libbing here, “Listen, angel, I don’t think you understand. Earth doesn’t work that way. I can’t be pregnant because I’m not married to my husband yet. Surely you know how this works.” Now granted, I’m taking some creative license here, but it’s fair to say that Mary isn’t immediately humble or immediately joyful. She’s cautious, wary, reluctant to feel happy about this news. She asks how can this be. You see, Mary would have immediately known just how much trouble this would cause. To be found pregnant out of wedlock could have gotten her stoned. She certainly would not have come into a stable life with a house and food and money and the protection of Joseph. So many bad things could come of this. She would have instantly known that. But she still responds to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary’s words take an incredible amount of personal strength. We know from other parts of the Gospel that Mary was religious and devout, believing, worshipful, within what the current institutions prescribed. These traits aren’t why she was chosen, the reason for that choice is locked away in God’s consciousness, but her practice poised her for her response. She was religiously cultivated, and that kind of devoutness and spiritual cultivation takes a lot of hard work and grit. It’s no small feat to willingly humble ourselves before God, to really take a look at our brokenness and strive to mend it, because we each tend to think we’re pretty awesome. Mary had grit.
This angel appears to her and says that her world, and indeed the entire world round, will be turned upsidedown. Ruined, in a way. And she says yes to that. But I think it’s important to note that it doesn’t sound like a joyful yes. I think that Mary is trusting of God and His plan, but tentative. Our reading today ends after this, but Luke goes on to detail Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. It isn’t until she see’s Elizabeth’s pregnant belly and the reality of her call hits that she is finally hit with joy and sings her song of praise, the Magnificat. The joy finally catches up to her.
Advent is a tricky season for me. I’ve never really been one to “get into the Christmas spirit.” I was actually made fun of as a child because I was so expressionless and “joyless.” I could win the lottery and my response would be “oh, cool.” Even still, in Advent I have a hard time willing myself to be “expectantly joyful.” And I think that’s just fine. Because joy isn’t something one can do on command. It’s not something we can will ourselves into alone. It’s elusive. Joy is a response and not an initiation, and it comes in those moments of encounter with thin places, when we see more of God than we have reason to believe. We can often give ourselves happiness and pleasure, but we have no control over joy. Mary was reluctant to feel joy right away. She slouched into joy until it became a genuine and uncontrollable response at her cousin’s house.
Joy spreads slowly, and we must keep enough kindling so that when it spreads to us, we catch fire with it. Mary was a devout, religious, obedient, thoughtful, and worshipful person. She practiced God’s will through her life. She was a part of her religious community and constantly submitted herself before God. It was in that ritualized practice of submission and belief, that when the time came to say “yes,” the kindling was there. She had practiced and now that it was game time, she knew the words to say. And so there was a spark, and the kindling she had from her belief and practice caught fire and grew into a joyful flame. I think that’s where we’re at. Advent lets us practice. Being a part of this congregation in a meaningful and intentional way lets us practice. And thankfully, we get to practice year after year, constantly. When it becomes monotonous and difficult, when we feel distant and alone and when we don’t get it, we get to do it again and again, we still push through, that’s when we develop grit. When we don’t feel it but we do it again anyway. Because we don’t know when joy will hit us, but we must be poised to receive it and to keep it. When we continually humble ourselves before God at the altar, when we take that bread and drink from that cup as we are commanded, we pack our hearts full of kindling, so that when the time comes and we get to say “yes” to Jesus when he comes again, there is something there for the spark of that yes to catch onto. So that our own flames of joy can grow in our hearts.
The darkness has been encroaching on us, both in when the time the sun rises and sets, but also in what is happening in our world. We still have men at war. We are having protests across our country speaking of racial unrest. We have souls sleeping on the streets because mental help is not easy to find or easily available to them. We have a fracturing political system and an economy that has hurt many people. But even as the bigness of the world and the vastness of the darkness seems to cover us, God’s still small voice, the voice that has never stopped whispering to us, says wait. Get ready. A light is coming. You may see the flicker of it now, but it will grow. That light will be joy to you and to all people. When you see it, all will be made complete. Keep the faith, gather your kindling, practice saying yes.