Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday Sermon December 18, 2011

CH Mel Baars
Luke 1:26-38
Camp Sabalul-Harrison

“Let it be with me according to your will”

Most of us know the Christmas story by heart. Even if we haven’t grown up in the church or listened to the first few chapters of Luke every year about this time, this story has been told in so many ways and in so many places that it’s hard to avoid it. Just about every nativity play begins with these verses found in Luke, the angel Gabriel’s visit to the unsuspecting Mary. If you simply grew up with a tv in your house, you can imagine this scene.

Out of the blue, the angel Gabriel shows up in Nazareth. The text doesn’t tell us what time of day he shows up or where exactly in Nazareth he finds Mary. Nazareth was a decent sized town, for antiquity, and Mary could have been up to a host of things. Most likely, she was in the middle of working, accomplishing her “to do” list of daily chores which helped to keep her and her family alive, day to day. Drawing water from a well, milking a goat, preparing food, washing clothes, cleaning home, never quite getting ahead enough to take a break. From waking to falling back asleep at the end of the day, her work would not have ceased. As I say this out loud, I realize it sounds a little bit like life here on Camp Sabalu-Harrison.

Into this fray of banal domesticity, Gabriel appears and delivers this earth shattering news. “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 Son of the Most High. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” This is certainly surprising, maybe even a little unbelievable. But it wasn’t only the content of the message that was earth shattering. The juxtaposition of divine encounter with ordinary life, this was enough to make Mary dazed and confused. One minute she is milking her goat, feeding chickens, washing a pile of filthy clothes from a host of relatives, all things which she has done again and again, day after day, and then suddenly, an in-breaking of divine flavor. You can imagine why her first response would have been “How can this be...” Quite frankly, I could have come up with some other choice words if, in the midst of my chores, an angel visited me. Scripture doesn’t capture what Mary may have been thinking in her head during the annunciation or even the look that may have come across her face.

I can only imagine how she may have felt about this announcement because I know myself just how I have felt when God has come to me, has placed a certain call on my life whether it has to do with reaching out to someone who isn’t very easy to love or making a major life decision which will change the course of everything. It may not have been the angel Gabriel who delivered God’s message per se, but as most of us can attest to, there are times when God’s voice seems to come to us so loudly that no matter what we do to ignore it or push it away, there is no escaping.

But what was so special about Mary? Is it her purity which makes her an obvious choice to be Theotokos, which is a fancy Greek word for “bearer of God.” Growing up with the name “Mary,” I have heard my fair share of jokes about Mary’s supposed perpetual virginity. One of my favorite, slightly sarcastic, religious movies, has its very own nativity scene where, the main character, whose name is Mary and also happens to be 16 and unfortunately, pregnant, bemoans the fact that the “virgin birth” excuse had already been used. She doubts that her parents will fall for it a second time.

Being a life-long Protestant, the truth is, I haven’t thought a whole lot about Mary, her virginity or anything else about her. In fact, as speaking parts have gone, she doesn’t really say a whole lot in scripture. Often, at least in Nativity plays and even in artistic depictions of Mary, she seems placid, quiet, and serene. It’s hard to really know who she is. Obviously, she plays a very important role in God’s coming into the world. Yet what seems so remarkable about her to me is that she is just a regular person, who, when approached by God and asked to be a part of the coming of God’s kingdom, simply said “Yes.” She responded with a faithful heart, and remained faithful to God throughout her life no matter the ups and downs and the difficulty which she encountered.

There are considerable differences between how the Catholic and the Reform traditions understand Mary which may be important to name. Roman Catholic theology focuses on Mary’s extraordinary nature, that she is different and set apart from all others, while in Protestant traditions, it is because she is so ordinary, just like any one of us, that she is so special. God calls upon a regular person to be an integral part of the most important event of all human history, Emmanuel, God with us. John Calvin, both a reformer and theologian, goes so far to argue that the word used to describe Mary, often translated as “favored” or “worthy of praise,” should actually be translated as “happy one” because “Mary has received ‘the undeserved love of God,’ who alone is to be adored.”[1] In even mentioning this, I am not trying to stir up Catholic/Protestant conflict, but honestly, I had never really thought about just how ordinary Mary was. If we think of Mary as just a person who God called upon in order to form an important partnership, it is easy to see how we, like Mary, are also called. Those of us, like Mary, are called from our work places, from the cubical that we occupy twelve hours a day doing intel analysis, from the guard post that we work at making sure that order and discipline is kept, or wherever we find ourselves doing the daily chores of our lives, to be a part of God’s work, here and now.

Saying “yes” and attempting faithfulness does not require perfection. Faithfulness is certainly not without stumbling and falling, moving toward God and God’s purposes for us in one moment and then finding ourselves lost and perplexed in the next. Doubt and fear, disappointment and other road blocks are a part of following Christ. If we look at Mary in the Bible, we see examples of this. We are reminded how very human she was and how, at times, she doesn’t really grasp the enormity of what her son is doing. Jesus scolds her time and again. It should be no surprise that as a child, my favorite Mary scolding was when Jesus was young and wandered off to teach the religious leaders at the Temple. I found this whole story quite empowering. But Mary responded to the situation like every panicked mother would, attempting to discipline Jesus for his disappearing act. She did not understand what he was doing.

Which is interesting in light of our passage today. One would think, having been told she would be giving birth to the Son of the Most High, successor of King David’s throne with a never ending kingdom, that Mary would pretty much allow Jesus to have free reign and do whatever he felt like. He was God, after all, so a little leeway might be expected. But that is not what happened. Mary treated Jesus as her son, just like she would have any other child. She watched out for him and took care of him. No matter how divine he may have been, losing a child in a crowd is enough to cause worry.

Mary wasn’t asked to be perfect, she was asked to be a mother, to nurture, and guide and love. She was asked for willingness to follow God, no matter where that road might take her. When Mary agreed to do as God willed, she really had no idea what was coming, how this would change the course of her life. She just said yes. But the journey which unfolded after she said yes was not without struggle. Like any good mother, she wanted Jesus to be healthy and happy, to be free of pain and suffering. Like any good mother, she wanted to be near her son and protect him from the harshness of the world. But even when she didn’t fully understand what was happening, she was steadfast and she kept her promise to God. “Let it be with me according to your will.”

I will never forget walking the Stations of the Cross in Old City Jerusalem and pausing at the station where Mary weeps over Jesus. I had walked stations of the cross in my church since I was a child, but it really hit me there, with those old stones beneath my feet, how utterly devastating it would have been in those moments, to be his mother. She would have experienced his pain, step by step, every torturous breath, a twist of the knife in her heart. I am sure her mothering instincts would have pushed her to try to do something. All we know, though, is that she remained with him through this journey of suffering to the cross. She was there, watching his agony. She was there, never wavering in her love.

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your will.” Mary is at the beginning of a journey of faith. She cannot know what saying Yes to God will require of her, all she really knows is that God is good. I am sure, in the highs and lows of this journey, she may have questioned, she may have cried out, she may have lamented her loss, but no matter the suffering, she was there with her son all the way to the foot of the cross.

May we remember Mary and know such faithfulness in our own lives. For we know not what the road may yield, but we know that our God is good and will be with us every step of the way. Amen
[1] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of Evangelists (Grand Rapids: Baker Books. 1999), 33

1 comment:

  1. Mel,

    Christmas blessings to you. I pray that you and all with you at Bagram will experience God's love, joy and peace, especially in that faraway, foreign place, as we remember and celebrate once again God's coming to us in the form of a baby.