a sermon on Luke 1:26-56 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
preached on December 18, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Whenever angels appear on the scene, you know that God is up to something. Angel really don’t show up all that much in the Bible – the word “angel” only appears some 104 times in the Old Testament and 99 times in the New Testament – but when angels do appear, they are always bringing or bearing a message, and the message is always more important than the messenger.
In our scripture reading this morning, the messenger came to a young woman named Mary who lived in the hill country of Palestine under Roman rule over two thousand years ago. The message from God was as unusual as the recipient: this young woman was favored above all women and chosen to bear the Son of God, the one who would change things once and for all for the people of Israel and all the world.
Mary was stunned and confused by all this, so she asked the angel how this would happen. She was not naïve and understood that certain things were involved in bearing children, and she knew if this message were true lots of people would be asking lots of questions.
The angel answered her, promising that her pregnancy would come not by a usual human method but by the power of the Most High God. And this wasn’t all that God was up to in these days. Mary’s relative Elizabeth, well past childbearing age and long considered barren, was also expecting a son.
Mary wondered about all this, but somehow she accepted it, whether or not she had a choice, declaring, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
These days, we don’t see all that many angels, and I for one am pretty skeptical when anyone suggests that they have such direct contact with God and God’s message, because that message is usually less about what God is doing and more about what the individual wants to hear.
But the seeming absence of angels in our midst doesn’t mean that God has stopped working in our world or has no message for us anymore. We still find God speaking to us in the words of scripture as the Holy Spirit moves in the community of faith. We still find God speaking to us as we live this message out in our worship, study, and service together in the community of faith. We still find God speaking to us even as we are confronted with the challenges of living in a changed and changing world that doesn’t look like what we remember it being even a few years ago.
But the key thing for us – and for Mary – is how we respond to God’s message. What do we do when we are bowled over by a powerful and challenging call from God? How do we keep on the path that God intends when we hear something unexpected or unknown?
I think Mary could have responded to the angel’s message in one of two ways. She could have freaked out, doing everything possible to avoid the consequences of his words, working to undermine the angel’s message and the hope of her son not yet born, maybe even saying “no” to the angel.
But Mary did none of this. Instead, she welcomed the uncertainty and challenge of the angel’s message. She set aside her fears and anxiety and opened herself to the possibility, gift, and challenge of being the mother of a child who would transform the world.
Mary’s actions after all this were pretty remarkable, too. She decided not to be ashamed of this child being born out of wedlock, clearly conceived before her marriage to Joseph. For support she set out to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the relative whom the angel had mentioned in his message, who was also expecting an unexpected child. And together they rejoiced in the strange and wonderful gifts of God taking shape and form within their bodies.
During their time together, Mary broke forth into song, echoing her ancestor Hannah and offering the great words known for centuries as the Magnificat. In her song, Mary places the fullness of her joy in the gift of God given not just in her time but across the centuries. In her song, Mary claims the justice and mercy of God for all people. And in her song Mary points the way to a new way of life that her son Jesus would make possible as he came into the world.
All along the way, Mary responded to this strange, challenging, and wonderful message by recognizing that she could only begin to understand what God was doing in and through her life, and yet she had no choice but to offer her thanks and praise.
The message of God before us isn’t quite as clear as it was for Mary, but there are definitely things going on around us that we need to be listening for. Even amidst the economic and political challenges of these times in our world, God is speaking words of comfort and hope to all people – and invites us to join in. God continues to challenge us in the midst of the deep need of so many to embody God’s own attention to and concern for the poor and all who are vulnerable. God calls us to listen for the voices of those who are kept silent or ignored. And God invites us to dream and imagine that things can and will be different for us and all the world, that things don’t have to be returned to their previous state or the clock turned back to make them right but rather can be new and different and wonderful and good as God continues the work of the new creation in us and through us and all around us.
So how will we respond to the message of the angels that God sets before us in these days? Will we consider only the ways and paths that we have known in the past? Will we stay true only to where we have been before and open only to the possibilities that are comfortable and well-known? Will we cower in the corner in fear, unwilling to move anyplace new because we are afraid of losing the little that we have?
Or will we be open to the power of God moving in us here and now? Will we be open to God’s transformation of the gifts that we offer into something greater and better? Will we let God change us and our world to make room not just for the ways that we have known but for the ways that God intends for us and all creation?
Despite my skepticism, these days remind us that angels are still present and at work in our midst, still bearing God’s message to us, in us, and through us, still showing us that God is up to something in our world and in our lives, still inviting us to join in rejoicing because of what God is up to in our world.
In the familiar stories we will hear over the next week, these strange messengers from God keep speaking, bringing more good news not just for a few people but for all humanity, opening the way to transformation for our broken and fearful world, proclaiming hope and joy and peace and love for all people not just at Christmas but all year long.
So may the message of the angels be alive and well in these days, bringing us good news and helping us to respond in faithfulness and joy as we join in God’s good work that is not yet done in our midst.
Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.