For such a person, for such a time
Passage: Isaiah 7:10-14; Luke 1:26-38
Date: December 10, 2006
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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We began the Advent season last Sunday with the words of Mary set to music by J.S. Bach: "My soul magnifies the Lord." These next weeks, we continue our preparation for Christmas with scriptures about Mary, and God's presence in and through her. "The Blessed Virgin," as millions of Christians know her, tends to be an enigma to most of us whose religious education is Protestant. At best, we know her in passing simply as the mother of Jesus, sort of like Laurie is the mother of Alex and Aaron-big deal. Actually, it is to them; but at the same time pretty normal motherhood. Through wonderful classes taught by Dr. Elaine Park and Judy Wyss, and through scripture, music, and sermon, we decided to be open to more of Mary this year. Today's reading from the Hebrew Scripture is a piece of Isaiah's prophecy, intended for his time and place. It concerns God's presence and work among them. Christians have seen in it something of Christ's coming. Listen. (7:10-14)
Luke's gospel contains some of the most beloved Advent/Christmas readings. It opens with an announcement to aging Zechariah that his elderly wife would become pregnant, and give birth. An event thought impossible due to age, Zechariah was rendered speechless by the holy encounter. Our reading parallels that one. Both of them mirror birth annunciations in the Old Testament: a divine messenger says, Do not be afraid, calls the recipient of the vision by name, announces the birth of the child, discloses the child's name and future role; often a question is asked, a sign given, and the messenger departs. Today, I invite us to listen. Listen with new ears and new hearts. These often heard verses have become shallow, even insipid to us, for we have lost our ability to hear with wonder, to be surprised, to be awed. Listen. (1:26-38)
A recent communication from Christians in Lebanon reads:
The Lebanese Presbyterian community is faithfully lighting candles on an Advent wreath this Sunday-and waiting. Disillusionment and desperation are growing all around them in Beirut, but, as Pastor Joseph Kassab says, "We have no choice here but to hope in a better future." Then he adds: "Unfortunately, we don't control it." [There are 38 Presbyterian congregations in the Synod of Syria and Lebanon.] Like other Lebanese pastors, Kassab continues to make the case for hope amid a political chaos that has reduced Beirut to rubble and pushed Christians out of the region as they seek employment elsewhere.
Lebanon itself is a metaphor for Advent. Here Christians are waiting to see concrete acts of God within history even though they have little evidence that deliverance is at hand, and even though they are too depleted to imagine what deliverance would look like....
"You can't tell people not to be afraid. There is real physical danger," [says another pastor, Rev. Awad.] "So we sit with them and try to figure out the best way to deal with the situation that they're in. We are not living in a dream. The situation is very bad. But we are called to be here." (Christian Century, 12/12/06, p. 8)
I wonder how close that is to Mary's situation, to the Judeans living under the violent hand of Rome with no deliverance in sight. How much hope could they have had, those subsistence-existence peasants in that insignificant Galilean hamlet? Yet, even at that, people got married, had children, did the best they could. Mary was betrothed-engaged, our term, is too light. For Mary and Joseph, their agreement was the result of a lengthy negotiated process, begun by their mothers, and publicly concluded by their fathers, if they were still living. This economic-religious-political-honor contract could be made between extended families long before the young girl was ready to be married. Often, a year elapsed between the public announcement and the actual marriage, when the husband took his wife from her ancestral family and moved her into his extended family. During that year, they were viewed as "married." If he were to die, she would be known as a widow, even though they had not lived together. For the most part, romance had no place in such relationships. This does not mean that genuine caring, even affection might not grow. But, marriages were for defensive utilitarian purposes: to protect the economic and honor status of extended families, and to assure offspring.
The new movie, "Nativity," is out. I haven't seen it. If you were directing it, with that beautiful 16-year-old as Mary, how would you imagine the scene, the holy encounter, the annunciation? In many societies around the world, and increasingly in the west, other than scientifically reasoned experiences are accepted as part of reality. We have known for some time that our dreams can be important indicators. So can that period between being asleep and awake in the morning. Worship and meditation, visions and voices carry the weight of reality in other cultures. There is no reason to believe otherwise about such occurrences in the Bible.
Mary asked a question: How can this be? Her disconnect was simple: without sexual relations, how could she become pregnant? Interestingly, as I studied these verses, my disconnect was: How is the baby of a peasant from noplace going to throw out the Romans and set up a kingdom that will last indefinitely? Maybe that is a male/female thing. For Luke, the question is only a literary device to move the episode along. Poetically, metaphorically, he asserts that the origin of God's Messiah is the effect of God's creative Spirit on Mary. For Luke, Jesus' life from its beginning was intended by God to be Son of God. The child gestating in Mary will be "gift" of God in the fullest sense. Imagine! How would you put the terror and wonder of that in your movie?
Finally, Mary's response, Mary's choice: "You know I am your servant. I am available to do as you ask." Her answer echoed back to her ancestor Hannah's centuries before.
Notice. Notice what we get here. This is not like one of those wonderful stories from the wildly popular "Chicken Soup" series of books. They are filled with great optimism. Even the worst situations have happy endings. Tragic deaths can still be "good deaths." Life is seen as tidy, and people can be optimistic about the future, their future as individuals. Not so here. The context is far different-much more like Lebanon, much more like the two intractable wars in which we are engaged, much more like extremely painful situations in which there seem to be no good solutions. We like to, we want to solve problems. In this nation particularly, we do not deal well with things that cannot be fixed. Somehow we should be able to do it. So we declare war on poverty or drugs or terrorism or whatever. Even, somehow, it is our God-given duty to fix it, whatever "it" is.
But, what we realize in the middle of the night, or as we are bombarded with the news of the day, or perhaps as we look at our own lives-what we realize is that optimism only goes so far. And then it fails, because it depends on us, on us fallible imperfect human beings. Yes, positive attitudes are essential. But there must be more. Every morning, I begin by reminding myself, "This is another day the Lord has made. Help me rejoice and be glad in it." I mean that. It is my prayer.
Friends, the annunciation of Mary is not about optimism, even Christian optimism. It is about Christian hope, the injection of deep powerful holy hope in the face of intractable suffering and pain, in the presence of things that are not exactly fixable. The one promised to Mary, the "Son of the Most High," indeed the Son of God will let go, will release all pretense, finally. Shadowing the announcement of an unanticipated holy pregnancy rises the specter of the cross. As if all hope were extinguished. Instead, in that cross and its aftermath, everlasting hope which had nestled in Mary's womb was born; holy hope released on the world.
The scandal, the wonder of the annunciation is that God would choose to enter our life, with all of its cruelty, violence, and ambiguity. Listen: the annunciation is nothing short of a declaration of hope. In the womb of that peasant girl, God chose to bring hope. From her "yes," the course of human history changed. Nothing is impossible with God.
Back in Lebanon, pastor Kassab says,
As people of faith, we don't rely on hope in the situation around us. It is very politicized, and there is no hope in that. Our hope comes from believing that history is firmly in the hands of God.
For Rev. Awad, inner peace has somehow come recently. God spoke to him through scripture of a kingdom not made by human hands, one that shall last forever. So, when his people light one more Advent candle today, he sees God imagining deliverance even though God's people, his people, are almost too exhausted to hope for it. (P. 9)
The wonder of it all-through that faithful person Mary, humankind can be given hope for such a time as then and now. May it be so. May it be so for us, and for God's desperately needy world. Amen and Amen.