Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 18, 2011
May the gentle Christ speak through us, the creative God expand our lives unexpectedly, and the Holy Spirit write the Gospel in our hearts every day. Amen.
She is young, unassuming, obedient to family and tradition. Maybe she is at that very moment reading a book or spinning yarn as some artist’s renderings of the Annunciation depict her. Suddenly she hears the greeting that will change her life and the life of the world forever: “Greetings, favored one!” In the original Greek, “Καιρε κεκαριτόμενα!” The angel goes on to tell her that she has been chosen to do the unspeakable. She will bear a child—the Son of God, the Messiah foretold by the prophets.
What was going on in her head at that moment? What didn’t she say out loud? What would a fourteen year old girl be thinking after that kind of visit? What would you be thinking? I’m hearing an expletive or two! Remember that Mary is a female in a world that prizes males and subjugates women and children. She is just a simple nobody in a nowhere town. No one—even God—ever prepared her for this visit by the angel. “Greetings, favored one!” “Καιρε κεκαριτόμενα!”
Note the alliteration in this lovely sound that no translation can convey. Naturally she would be perplexed by these words. No doubt she wondered if this messenger was in his right mind—or if, perhaps, she were hallucinating. Twice, Gabriel tells her that she is favored—chosen by God. That lovely root word in Greek translates into that amazing thing we call “grace.”
What the angel was telling Mary was in a paraphrase: “You are a precious and wonderful gift for you bear within yourself God’s own image and likeness. God’s love is your origin and your destiny. You are God’s own and you will bear God’s Son.” No wonder she was perplexed. Being favored with God—chosen—potentially means big trouble. When grace enters the picture as a creative blast our life can expect to be changed. Being favored can bring with it some advantages but it can also bring more than we bargained for.
How would the Holy Spirit overshadow Mary? There was no visible sign of a Dove hovering over her as there would be at the Jordan River when Jesus was baptized by John. Annunciation painters have filled in that gap using things like light streaming through an open window to represent the radiance of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the scene Luke’s Gospel paints for us is very plain and straightforward yet the events that would transpire after this angelic visitation were to set history on its ear and change the face of the world. A people who had lived for centuries with despair would find hope.
That was then. What about now? We are not regularly intruded upon by angels or called out from our anonymity to do the impossible. But the one phenomenon to which we can all relate—well, clearly, some of us better than others—is pregnancy. I asked someone who knows a little bit more about it than I what it means to be pregnant. “Uneasiness,” “fear,” “lack of comfort,” “vitality,” “joy,” “a tone of work,” “pain,” exuberance” were just a few of the words she offered up. It takes a woman—as it took Mary—to show the world the wonder of God’s breaking into the world with new life and hope. Watch women with any baby, not only their own, and you will witness the richness of creation in all its glory.
Yet whether we are female or male, we know that God acts in our lives—sometimes even dramatically. Some of us have been privy to extraordinary events that awaken us to do great things for God and some may even tell you that they have been visited by angels. Is this perhaps a day, just one week before Christmas, to ask what it is that God might be stirring, growing, wanting to give birth to in you? And, yes, the very thought of such a commotion may raise the same feelings that Mary must have experienced as has every pregnant woman.
Facing the reality that God wants to do something new and through you is both exciting and scary, thrilling and uncomfortable. It can make your stomach queasy, do funny things to your appetite, and disturb your sleep—not unlike a pregnancy.
You may know at the core of your being that it will be a ton of work—but somehow you also sense that it will be worth every bit of it—because when we allow God to be born in us there is no telling, no telling at all, what can happen; so with great unease and apprehension you muster up the courage to whisper those very dangerous words, “Here I am. Let it be according to your word.”
To this community, we bring all of that wonderful experience of our individual, personal, unique “stirrings” and the birthing of creative blasts as we form the Body of Christ, the Church.
Just as Mary was called to bear God’s Son, you and I are called to be bearers of the Gospel Good News. Male or female, we are pregnant with God’s abundant grace and asked to witness to and share that blessing with everyone and anyone we can in a world torn apart by religious intolerance, in a society that labels others at the drop of hat, thoughtlessly draws the line that determines who is “in” and who is “out, and in a climate that promotes religious extremism rather than broadmindedness and compassion.
So as a faith community called together by God, where are we being subjected to annunciation? Where is God breaking in to our life here? How is God intruding on our space and attempting to fill us with a holy potency that can inspire us to greater actualize our potential as the church? Are we a pregnant church? Is our “body” changing? Are we open to and able to embrace the growth we experience —even when it stretches us and makes us somewhat uncomfortable? Can we trust, like Mary, that God is doing something amazing and life-changing even if we don’t fully understand what that is?
And how do we respond to this pregnancy—this conception, this gestation and maturation? Will we give our best to what God is calling us to do—just as a parent needs to give the best to a child—sometimes even saying “no” to our individual wants and desires and comfort so that we can say “yes” to raise up God’s work in our midst?
God has come to us—not only to dwell among us, but to dwell in us. God calls us “favored ones” and wants to fill us with new life. We have been chosen to offer the world living proof that women and men of very different backgrounds, opinions, and beliefs can live peacefully together in a shared search for the meaning of God in their lives. We are favored because the earth on which we stand has been revealed as holy ground. God’s call, God’s redemption is with us here and now. Annunciation is a timeless moment coming to us again and again throughout the ages.
As we learn from Mary’s own story, being favored—chosen by God—can potentially mean big trouble. When grace enters the picture and something new begins to grow in us, when we are asked to birth some wonderful creative blast, our life can expect to be changed. Being favored can bring us more than we bargained for—and there’s just no telling what can happen once we say, “Yes. Here I am—ready, willing, and able. Let it be!”
“Greetings, favored ones!” God is with you. Here and now and evermore.