LUKE 1 THE 4th SUNDAY IN ADVENT SERMON DEC 18th 2011
In today’s Gospel one wonders if Gabriel isn’t being a little like a used car salesman (no offense to the used car salesman of the world – they just have this almost universal reputation, deserved or not, of always lifting up the good points, while withholding any potential flaws in the automobile at hand. So Gabriel fails to mention that this baby that will dwell in her uterus for nine months, swell her ankles, give her morning sickness, enlarge her belly and strain her back, that this baby will come into the world in a feeding trough for animals without antiseptic or epidural or with the mess of afterbirth.
And then. And then fail to mention, that after she feeds and loves and nurtures and tends to messes of poop and baby vomit and all of that and teaches that baby to walk and talk and watch as mothers do, her son grow to become a man, that this is all part of God’s ultimate plan for the salvation of the world and that that plan has consequences for everyone. That that plan involves God asking Jesus to suffer and die on a cross – and she’ll be there watching of course, as the story unfolds. Watching. Watching him lose his clothes to the soldiers, Jesus now naked as the day he was born (gotta love all of the those statues and paintings too modest to reflect reality, Jesus not hanging there covered by his Calvin Kleins or a sheet or anything of modesty. Bare naked befitting the humiliation of crucifixion; Mary, watching the sword pierce the blood, the water flow, the labored breathing and his death. Then at the tomb there to anoint his body with spices. And there as a witness to the resurrection.
Maybe God did not share all of that with the Angel Gabriel. Or Gabriel decided that Mary did not need to know all that about her baby boy. Too soon. Too much.
So God is about to save the world by coming into the world in the flesh. Coming as a baby chilling inside of Mary for those 9 long months as many babies do, those who do not come early or late to the party, so to speak. Mary, with her betrothed Joseph, working class folks before the term probably existed. He a carpenter. She, well, Mary. We use churchy words like incarnation, to describe what God does here – becomes flesh, fully human, yet at the same time in this incarnation, fully divine.
Well, as Mary says, nothing is impossible with God; the Holy Spirit being the means through which God’s plan of salvation comes to fruition. The Holy Spirit doing what it always does – God’s will.
Why should we care? Because we believe that we, as the confession says, are slaves to sin and cannot free ourselves. So God had to do it and chose to do it incarnationally. By coming into the world in the flesh, to be born as children are born. To live as we live. To suffer and to die so that the power of death would be broken and through grace to welcome us with him into the Kingdom.
So maybe instead of trying to put Christ back into Christmas – amidst the swaddling clothes of centuries and recent years of so much distraction – we need to re-acquire a taste for incarnational living and its transformational power to change us, and through its inordinate power, to change the world. Let’s ponder for a few moments the importance of Christ and the power of the incarnation loose in our lives and in the world, freed from Christmas that more often than not distracts us from the incarnation and in its place lets us get all warm and fuzzy and happy for awhile. Not that there is anything wrong with being warm and fuzzy and happy. But the story of the birth of Christ is about having a God that has come near – not a distant God. Not an uncaring God. Not a “I’ve created the universe and now I have gone on a permanent vacation until the end of time because it is all now in your hands so please don’t mess it up too badly, OK” God. But an incarnational God. God as Jesus, our Savior. God as Emmanuel near us. With us. God in and through Jesus of the promise, the only promise that does not disappoint.
A dozen years ago my family and I were living and serving in Baltimore and celebrating Christmas with family. That year was a year of complicated Lego sets and I had a thousand pieces and an instruction book the size of an unabridged dictionary in front of me building this, this thing, one small piece at a time. And starting over and over my mind befuddled from a midnight mass and too little sleep. Then the phone rang, which was not unusual being Christmas morning with lots of our family in places far away. But the phone call did not begin with “Merry Christmas” but rather, Vicar Keith, my mother is about to die – could you come quickly? And so I did, leaving family and unfinished Lego sets and dinner - and despite driving a ticket-able speed, she died before I got there, her two sons meeting me at the door to her room, the fullness of what just happened settling in, written in their expressions, their eyes, the weight bearing them down.
And if I thought that build a 1,000 piece Lego set was befuddling and pretty much beyond my ability, well, standing in that room with these two men looking at me, their mother laying dead on the bed in front of us, their expressions saying “now what?” or perhaps “say something, speak into the silence, to our pain and grief.” They wanting something to cling to, and I reaching, hoping and praying for something to cling to, to give me voice, words, something, my Christmas morning not at all going to plan.
Christmas is one day. Maybe we see it as a respite from life. A chocolate-covered fantasy wrapped in tinsel with Bing Crosby providing the soundtrack or the Chipmunks, take your pick. Maybe its family being together. Maybe its joy personified. Maybe something else entirely. When we get to the heart of it – Christmas proclaims the power of incarnation, of a God who loves without limits and loves in a way so foreign to us and our way of thinking, so absurd in its completeness, its humility, in its purity, that the only way we can respond is hope and to cling to the one who brings it.
Like Mary as she declares: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.
In that room full of sorrow and grief, all we had left to us was hope. Hope that death would not have the last word. Hope that Christ, our Emmanuel was with us. Hope that we had a future in Christ that death had no power to take away. Could not take away. The incarnation, the coming of Christ into the world, born of Mary, makes that hope visible for us. Real for us. When we put away the tinsel and the garland and the wrapping paper and the final Christmas hymn goes silent and the stockings are put away, the tree and all of its trimmings, Jesus, our Emmanuel, God with us, the incarnate one, continues to walk with us, to be with us, to speak to our needs, our fears, our daily brokenness; speaks his word of hope.
Let us all say: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.