We hear this story every Christmas, and it becomes so much a part of our assumptions about this season that it is like … red and green …. Like evergreen trees inside the house …. It IS odd … but it is so familiar that it is hard to get a fresh look at this scene with Mary and the angel Gabriel.
So, just for the sake of getting a new perspective on this astonishing episode, imagine this: What if Mary said “No!”
You see, there are things that Luke tells us … and things that he leaves blank … and other things that we’re just assumed to know.
Probably because I know how the story comes out, I tend to hear it with an ear that tells me: There is a big power differential here….. This defenseless teenage girl…. This big powerful angel….. What COULD she do but go along with whatever was imposed upon her?
But I ask you to think about it one more time. What if Mary just said “No.” She just refused to have anything to do with this angel, this plan, this unexpected pregnancy.
I mean, she came right up to that point. Right off she was suspicious….. When the angel said, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.” … She “wondered what sort of greeting this might be.” ….. And she probably looked at least a bit frightened, otherwise why would the angel make a point of saying “Do not be afraid.”
And then there was the simple biology of the thing: Mary demanded, “How can this be?”
Now it may be that every teenage girl you have had anything to do with has been a marshmallow – easy to manipulate … ready to accept instructions .. that sort of thing…. That hasn’t been my experience.
So, if Mary had exercised her free will and said “No”, …. would there still be a Christmas?
Fortunately we never will have to find out, but for me, it is important to see Mary not as a passive pawn in some divine opera, but rather a willing agent who recognized her calling and responded.
This is the fourth Sunday of Advent, a time when we at Shepherd of the Pines are closing a season of preparation and anticipation by considering one of the oddest concepts of all – love. … We have laid a foundation by talking about Hope …. How we can live in the awareness of what is to come. …. Then we talked about Peace … The two words SHALOM and METANOEITE …. The way it ought to be and the new way of knowing and being. …. Then Joy …. The glimpsing of Christ in the darkness.
Today, is the Sunday when we hold up Love as a guiding, energizing principle, as a bonding agent, as the thing that makes all things possible.
I had a crash course in love lately. A refresher course … as I watched third hand as my step-daughter Valerie fell in love with her new baby Je’sus…. Even her mother was agog at the notion of her intellectual career-oriented 30-something daughter just going absolutely googly-eyed over a little baby. … For my part I was astonished that the baby’s grandmother sat still …. holding him for hours on end …
That’s one experience on a whole spectrum of events and relationships that fall under the heading of Love.
Mary’s story this morning is part of a love story, too. That’s a story that John’s gospel summarizes with the phrase, “God so loved the world…”
It is a love story I have been honored to share here at Shepherd of the Pines. You know, I follow a series of scripture selections called the lectionary in our worship on Sundays, and I am often startled by how close the readings often resonate with our life together as a worshiping community.
Our first reading today from the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel touched on King David’s ambition to build a house for God…. I couldn’t help thinking back over the same ambition we have shared here… How we started Sunday morning worship at the little chapel in Cedar Creek. … How we searched for alternatives for months, and finally came here to the Opera House…. And how we are still looking ….
But I’m heartened by Nathan’s dream in Samuel. God recalled that through all the wandering of the Hebrews – out of Egypt, through the wilderness – God had never needed – or asked for – a house. … Instead, God was the one who established peoples … and he said to David … “I have been with you wherever you went.”
That is the sense I have had at Shepherd of the Pines… God has been with us wherever we went. It is astonishing, where that journey has taken us.
…Out in the streets of Bastrop with Yesterfest, trying to give away ice-water and iced coffee …. Only to be told that we couldn’t give it away … we had to charge for it.
….Hosting Christmas Concerts here at the Opera House to raise money for the Mental Retardation Association and the Child Advocacy Center.
…Broiling in the sun at Memorial Stadium at Back-to-school-day to hand out school supplies to kids who might have gone without. Lots of ice water there, too.
….Freezing in the chilly wind as we accompanied our float and handed out Christmas Eve invitations at the Christmas Parade.
….Enjoying community and fellowship kayaking down the Colorado River… at retreat at Mo Ranch … at Pot Lucks, planning meetings and pool parties.
…And stepping outside our comfort zones with things like the Juneteenth Parade, where we carried signs that celebrated the freedom and dignity of our African-American brothers and sisters…. while we cringed in discomfort at the…. gangsta rap ….blaring from the vehicle in front of us.
Those … and so many more … were the ways you responded to the love you experience from God. ….
So often, I hear the word “call” used as if it was a summons from on high – orders that you ignore at your own peril … kind of like Jonah. …. But the more I am around this odd phenomenon, … “call” … the more I understand it to be like…. “love.”
It is a two-way relationship that begins with the awareness of God’s love as an active force in our lives … and we respond by wanting to be … and to do … the things that would please this loving God.
I saw an interview the other day in which Jurgen Moltmann, a modern theologian, was talking about love, and he pointed this out: “I think the intention of love is the happiness of the beloved. So love’s intention is not to own the beloved but to have the beloved happy. Therefore, love sometimes supports the beloved, and sometimes taking oneself back to let the beloved gain freedom. So both actions are actions of love. ……
“We are not loved because we are so beautiful and good, but we are beautiful and good because we are loved…….. And this is true for interpersonal relationships, and also true with the relationship of God, who is love,”
Maybe we acknowledge that Spirit of Love a little better at Christmas time, but it is the singular mark of God’s presence among us and of God’s presence in creation.
Nothing can ever take the place of the sense of God’s love that lives in this congregation, and my prayer is that this will always be a community full to overflowing with God’s love … a gift to the world around us.
This Advent we anticipate the presence of a love so great .. so overwhelming … that we can imagine it only as the fruition of God’s dream for creation …. But we live in a world where that vision is regularly snatched away by commitments and schedules and the press of daily events.
Jesus recognized the same kind of tug-a-war for our limited attention spans, so he left his disciples with a single word to remember him by … to be recognized by …. To live by …
On what we call Maundy Thursday, Jesus had a last meal with his people. Then he gave them … us … a new commandment: … to love one another.
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Let us pray: Loving God, whose Holy Light shines so brightly in our midst, help us to recognize your love, to respond in kind, carrying your love into the darkness of our world. Thank you for this community gathered in the name of Christ, and inspire us in your ways and your will. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.