And a Soul Felt Its Worth: a Sermon on an Overlooked Miracle

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2013-12-8 NBW HFASS Sermon<—-click here to listen along!

 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’* But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’* The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born* will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

(we are working our way through the 1st chapter of Luke over the 4 weeks of Advent – a rare departure form the lectionary for us)

I wasn’t very good as a teenager at paying attention during church.

This week as the snow fell on Denver, a memory from a winter church retreat suddenly came to me – something that I had not thought of for 25 years.

We were at a retreat center somewhere and it was snowing outside, and we kids were all sitting on the cold floor listening to the speaker. I remember staring out at the beautiful snowfall, while the right side of my face was warmed by the fire next to me.  The speaker paced back and forth holding an open Bible in one hand – it’s soft leather cover draping over each side of his hand like a rag. His wet boots leaving dark prints on the wood floor. The reason I remember all these details so well is because I had basically stopped listening to what he as actually saying soon after he started. Because his main point was about how God was waiting to see if we were grateful enough about Jesus’ crucifixion that we would start living in a very particular way. That is to say, waiting to see if we did not use swear words, or lie about anything, or listen to rock music, or have any kind of sexual inclination before we were married to someone of the opposite sex – if we were always cheerful, and never drank alcohol or were snarky then we would become worthy of God’s favor. How would you be living, the man with the floppy bible and wet boots asked us…how would you be living if you really believed

I believed, at least I think I believed, but I just never seemed to be able to make myself into something worthy of God’s favor. Perhaps if I had a personality more naturally predisposed toward clean living and clean speaking and clean thinking I could have pulled it off but as it was I was just me and all the guilt tripping in the world never seemed to change that. So instead I paid attending to the snow and the warmth of my cheek. I tuned out the youth minister in wet boots preaching to me about how my life should look.  Because I just couldn’t say yes to what seemed like God’s conditional maybe toward me.

I mention this because this week as I watched the snowfall around Denver I kept thinking about Mary and the yes she gave to the angel that night he visited her.

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am big on Mary. One of my favorite things about Jesus has always been his mom. She carried God in her womb. She’s the only girl we ever see in nativity sets. Next week we will hear about this completely amazing song she sings about overturning the social order. She is beautiful. She is the queen of heaven. She is blessed among women.

But what the text seems silent on is what exactly she did to earn God’s favor.

We have no idea what Mary was like before this night the angel visited her –  this night she said yes-but here’s what I’m thinking: I seriously doubt that she made herself into a girl which God could favor because she took the advice of her youth rabbi and lived the way she should. I think God looked upon her with favor because it is God’s nature to look upon young peasant girls and prostitutes and tax collectors and adulterous kings and lawyers and prices and fishermen with favor. Because God’s just like that. Read the book!

When we think about the annunciation, this scene between the angel and Mary and how she is the girl who said yes, we think of what faith it took for her to believe that crazy thing that the Holy Spirit would knock her up and that her son… the illegitimate son of a peasant girl would have a throne and a kingdom…. but this week I started to wonder, were I in her place, Which would be harder for me to believe, that part or the part where the angel said I was favored? If an angel came to me and said Greetings favored one – I’d be like, you’ve got the wrong girl.  There’s no way I would trust that the angel meant me.

But here’s where Mary has some real chops. Mary trusted this word form the angel. And maybe that is what made her favored. Because we may feel more comfortable with the idea that we can live a life that can make us worthy of God’s favor, but God’s Word is so much more powerful that our ability to become worthy of God.  I mean, not for nothing, but if God can create the universe through speaking it into existence then I think God can make us into God’s beloved by simply saying it is so.

This, it seems to me,  is an overlooked part of the Annunciation story.

An angel came from god to a town called Nazareth to a woman whose name was Mary the angel said her rejoice o highly favored for god is with you

And her soul felt its worth

And every other word fell silent

One of the amazing things about this story of the girl who trusted God’s word, was that she surly had to tune out a lot of other messages in order to say let it be with me according to THIS word.

I cannot speak to the worthiness of Mary before that night the angel visited her. But what I know is that she is a truster of Gods word. Knowing what little I do about the Bible and how God chooses to operate and who God chooses to operate through, I have to say that I think it was God’s word to her that she was worthy that made her worthy. Her response to the angel was not I will do everything in my power to be who God wants me to be. It was let it be with me according to Gods word. I trust that I am who God says that I am

Here’s where I want to take a page from Mary’s prayer book. Let me be what your word has claimed me to be. Let me become what you have said I am. Your word, oh God, and not the word of the school system or the word of my bank statement or the word of my family or the word of society or the word of the media. But your word O God, let this be what defines me. I will allow you alone to determine my worth.

A couple weeks ago, Steve Ludwig said something that took me a minute to wrap my head around. We were talking about the idea that Christ conquered death so death has no sting. Steve said, “Man, I wonder what my living would look like if I really really believed this. How would my life be different if I was not scared. If I really believed that I am fully and totally loved by god? He said “no wonder we have liturgy and Eucharist every week. I have to hear this at least that often” In other words – don’t be like me when I was a teenager – pay attention in church, people. Listen for God’s word

Because this question Steve asked how would my living look different if I was not afraid and really believed I was loved?” is totally different than the guilt inducting question what would your life look like if you felt sufficiently bad about Jesus having to die that you made yourself sufficiently good enough to be worthy of God’s favor.

When I say this, when I say that perhaps we should let it be with us according to God’s word, to be clear, this is not some Pollyanna high self esteem positive thinking BS.

To let it be with us according to gods word is not us trying to always  remember a nice thought like Jesus loves me – something so abstracted that it frankly can feel meaningless in the face of actual life.  No brothers and sisters. When I say Word of God I mean God’s address to us.  God’s creating, redeeming and sustaining address to us that makes a claim on our lives. God’s yes.

We are used to conditional maybes.

But the faith of advent calls us into saying yes to God’s yes. A yes that created all that is, including us. A yes that underlies all of love. A yes that addressed a girl 2000 years ago a girl who dared to say let it be with her according to God’s word. A yes that walked among us full of grace and truth and who died and on the 3rd day rose again. A yes that is offered to you in bread and wine every week so that you can become what you receive.  It’s is God’s yes toward you and all that is that continues to define you and animate your lives. So when you are trying to decide what to listen to, tune out the static of all other claims. May it be with you only according to God’s will. May your soul feel it’s worth. AMEN

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About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org


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