Luke 1:47-55; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38 December 20, 2020 – 4th SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Why? Why then, at a time when the people had waited so long in the silence?
Why there, where God’s chosen people were dominated by an army sent from a thousand miles away?
Why them?...such an unlikely ‘holy couple’…who had so little…who enjoyed no station in life…except that they were in so many ways ‘outsiders’ …who had been ordered by the foreign occupiers…to travel on the eve of the appearance of their firstborn…to an old place their families had not lived for generations?
Why was there so much humility surrounding such a portentous birth? Why was it such a ‘low station’ event?
The ways of God are beyond human understanding, but it seems as though greatness appears most often…most importantly…in ordinary places…to those who are least likely…at a time when all seems to be lost.
Somehow, we humans open ourselves to new possibilities at times like that. What was unthinkable becomes what has to be…when we are confronted with what we had never imagined.
It was hard enough to live in that place and time…even without thinking about how God’s chosen people were being governed by Pagans who worshipped a mortal as god.
Life was short. Joseph and Mary are probably teenagers. Life was harsh, without any medical science as we know it today.
People would look down on a young unmarried woman who was great with child. Joseph would be justified under their law in leaving her to fend for herself.
Then…there was the need to travel just as she was coming to term.
But the humbleness of their circumstances only left them vulnerable to the high and mighty who might… somehow…feel threatened by such an obscure event.
If King Herod heard about what the angel had told her…that her son would rise to greatness…be called the Son of the Most High…and would sit on the throne of his ancestor David forever… Well, it’s hard to see how that could possibly turn out okay.
But it was even more precarious than that. Mary could have been crushed by a minor authority. She was among the least of the people in her village… much less her nation. She had no way to protect herself or her baby, and neither did Joseph.
They were in danger, from above and below…far and near. And they dared …and kept daring…to do the right thing. God bless them.
I don’t know if all of this went through Mary’s mind that fateful night, but some of it must have. So it is astonishing that she is so unhesitating in her reply. “Let it be with me according to your Word!” …which we might roughly translate, “Whatever you say.”
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where what is prudent is screaming at you and what you really need to do is whispering to you from the corner?
There is an easy way out of it, but what needs to be done is just too important to ignore?
It was just a movie, but it was a movie that was made just after World War II, and that was a time when humanity had to ask itself just who in the world it was. Who, in God’s name, are we?
Having been shaped by that refiner’s fire, everyone knew what had to be done and we were all ready to play our part. They could see…once all the comfort was stripped away…what was truly important.
Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson and Lionel Barrymore all starred in Key Largo. Edward G. Robinson is the gangster, Rocco, of course, and Humphrey Bogart is the veteran to comes to visit the family of a man who had died saving his life.
He and Robinson clash again and again. Bacall and Barrymore counsel him to be safe. He replies, “When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.”
It is from our emotions…and our memories…that we gain our understanding of the meaning of life. How we respond to an existential challenge tells us who we are.
It was a great blessing that Mary received that day, to be sure. But it was also a great responsibility.
Again and again, as we read through this great Book of Life, we see that those who carry power do not carry the burdens of everyday life, those who carry privilege do not labor, and those who carry authority refuse to submit to the urgent needs of the day.
They think they have power when…in fact…it is power that has them.
Perhaps they have so much to lose that they are preoccupied by the property at risk, and cannot see what the world could gain. Mary does not suffer from the prospect of that kind of consequence. She has nothing to lose but her life…and soon…her son.
All she can see is what the Lord might do for her people…and for all the people of earth…now and forever after…with the promise she carries.
After all she and her people have been through and all the ways they have been abused, she simply says, “Let it be with me according to your will.”
When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses. Again and again, we read in history how those who fight with the good cause on their side win and those who bring all the muscle to the fight are vanquished.
Think of the American Revolution or the Battle of Britain, Lord Nelson at Trafalgar or the Berlin Wall. There is power in doing what is right. There is much good in doing good.
In the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of praise to God that we read in our Call to Worship, her understanding of this aspect of goodness…her faith in goodness itself…is manifest.
My soul magnifies the Lord.
The Mighty One has done great things for me.
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
This is a love song to the human spirit.
It is recalled in Mary’s song…and in the generosity we all felt toward New York City and Pentagon workers on 9/11. Suddenly, God Bless America had to be sung in every church in the land…some places more than once.
It is seen in the compassion with which our health care workers have submitted to the hazards of their calling.
It is in the dedication of our teachers …trying to keep every student in their physical and virtual classrooms…on task and growing…in both knowledge and understanding…through it all.
Mary is a magnificent human being, and in her response to the challenge she accepts lies all the hope and daring of humankind. And we need to be both hopeful and daring.
We always think that the last great challenge is the last one that we will ever have to face. When World War II was over the Greatest Generation came back to celebrate when they just wanted to forget.
We know deep down that the last great challenge will not be the last great challenge forever. We know that the constant question that is being asked of us, as life on earth is “What are you going to do about it?”
To paraphrase Viktor Frankl, “We should not ask what the meaning of life is, but rather must recognize that we are the ones who are asked. In a word, each of us is questioned by life; and we can only answer to life by answering for our own life. To life we can only respond by being responsible.”
To life we can only respond by being responsible. That sounds like the poor young woman, Mary, we meet this morning.
And how can we respond to our lives…to our God…these days by being responsible?
We can mask up. What does it hurt and what good might come from it? If I keep one person from getting the virus by putting a bit of cloth over my mouth when I go into the grocery store, what has that cost me?
Many believe they are claiming their freedom in not wearing a mask, but it feels like they are taking some of my freedom away when they do it.
Sometimes the best way to claim the blessings of freedom is to share it with those around you. This appears to be one of those times.
If we cannot give our neighbors a little space out here in the last best place, why should we look for others to blame for our deepening difficulties?
I had a dear friend in Billings and I looked forward to the time we would spend visiting every now and then. Chuck Heath was a retired United Methodist pastor and had accumulated a lot of wisdom over the years.
I came to feel comfortable sharing my frustrations with him. We often laughed at them once they were spoken out loud. But he had a wonderful question he would ask me every now and then.
“So how is that working for you?” The reason we had been talking about it was that it hadn’t been working. It was a great punch line, really, that made us both laugh at our troubles.
If we just take a moment to wash our hands several times a day, are we not showing…in a hidden way…that we truly care about those who have less power than we do…and those who have more power than we do…that we still know that we are all in this together…and that is the only way… together…that we are going to come out of it, too.
This will be a Christmas like no other. But every Christmas is. Maybe this one will be a little more like the first Christmas that Mary and Joseph and Jesus shared…with each other…and the world.
Let us show how grateful we are to God for the everyday gift of life we enjoy this day…full of light and hope awakened to this morning…and the light of the promise of God’s enduring love.
O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through us… through me…today?