Cancer. Unemployment. Relationship implosion. Addictions. Family tension. Uncertainty over the future, and all the anxiety that attends that. Financial crises. These are the kinds of things that fill a sheet of paper every Monday morning for our pastoral staff as we gather to pray over requests offered by our congregation here in Seattle. We pray over them and then destroy the page to assure confidentiality, but what remains, is the sense in our collective hearts as pastors, that we who gather to worship Christ every week do so as broken people.
This brokenness isn’t visible on the surface of things very often at our church. This Advent season our sanctuary is stunningly beautiful, decked out with evergreens and lights to frame our space for the celebration of advent. Throw in brilliant musicians, masterful singing, and lovely people, and the overall aesthetic experience can be powerful.
But just beneath the veil of beauty and majesty there’s a sea of brokenness, and it’s the juxtiposition of brokenness and beauty that’s worth considering as we approach Christmas. On the surface of things, one wouldn’t think that lives filled with challenge, loss, uncertainty, disruption, would care at all about gathering to sing praises to a God who watches over a universe filled with such suffering. A superficial consideration of spirituality presumes that the well dressed, the singers, the ones with hands lifted high, are the fortunate ones who are enjoying a season of immunity from challenges. “People in the sea of suffering don’t sing this way, rejoice this way” we tell ourselves.
And we are, it turns out, mighty wrong. Why are some of the best worshipers also the people who are walking through the deepest valleys of suffering? We can find some of the answer by revisiting the story of Mary. When the angel visits her to let her know of God’s plan to impregnate her with deity, a son who will grow up to save the world, his initial greeting is jarring:
“Greetings O favored one, the Lord is with you!”
Favored one! This “favor” will mean that Mary will endure the scandal of pregnancy prior to marriage, and this in a culture that has a death penalty attached to those kinds of fornications. Her pregnancy will stretch her credibility with her husband and family. The timing of this event will destine the child to birth in a cave. His presence, even as an infant, will create such a threat to Herod that Mary and Joseph will be forced to live in exile in Egypt for a few years. Before that, though, when they bring this baby to the temple for dedication, and old prophet will declare that this child will bring division and world, that he’ll be opposed (which of course, was a way of predicting Jesus’ untimely death). The prophet then declares to Mary that “a sword will pierce through your own soul”!
“If this is what it means to be favored, then thanks anyway God, but I think I’ll pass.” We think this way because we’ve often been taught that religion is about pleasing the gods so that they’ll make your crops grow, or your womb grow, or your bank account grow. That IS religion – but that’s not life in Christ. The truth is that Mary is a prototype. She’s favored for one reason: God has chosen her to bring the life of Christ to the world, and the fact is that Christ comes into the world – always – in context of disruption, scandal, uncertainty, even loss.
Here’s the punchline this advent season. Mary’s calling is yours and mine too. We’re also favored, for just as Paul says, the single greatest thing we can achieve on this planet, is that we can allow Christ to be formed in us so that His life can be brought into this world again and again. If Christ is to be formed in us, just like Mary, then the birthing of this Christ through us will unfold in the context of uncertainty, challenge, disruption, and loss. Paul speaks of this in II Corinthians 1 when he says that he and his companions suffered a great deal in his ministry, and right in the midst of that suffering Christ was seen more clearly. His summary statement about this kind of thing is: “so then, death works in us, but life in you” which is his way of saying that all the suffering that’s present in his life has this strange effect of allowing Christ to be seen with greater, not lesser, clarity – to which I can only say to everyone reading this: That’s absolutely true.
Here’s L, a faithful missionary for years, who is now struggling with the recurrence of cancer, and yet still finds a way to be part of the prayer team at our church. Joy pours through him more clearly than nearly anyone I know. Here’s S, facing health, and financial, and marital challenges, all at the same time. Over there, in the fourth row, more cancer. Over there near the back, challenges with adult children who’s lives are imploding. Vocational uncertainty. Dying parents. All of them are worshiping genuinely, powerfully, wholly.
As a result, we pastors can sometimes be overwhelmed by the profound juxtaposition that we see when the church gathers for worship. Yes, there’s the stunning beauty of well dressed people singing praises to creative, excellent music, in a sanctuary filled with evergreen and light. But I see exactly what Paul says too: “death works in us, but life in you” I see that the people who are walking through the deepest waters of disruption and suffering are also the people who are most clearly displaying the reality and sufficiency of Christ. Yes they struggle. Yes they weep. But yes, too, they worship – in spirit and truth, and in so doing bring Christ to the community with the greatest clarity and beauty of all!
Favored ones! On the surface of things, it’s a favor none would choose. But for those who say, with Mary, “I’m available God – use me for your purpose”, these favored ones become my heroes, because they’re giving birth to Christ, to hope, to joy, to beauty – and that’s what its all about in the end.
O Lord Christ
We come to you as broken people. Our worlds of health, security, certainty, have been shattered. And yet, you deem to call us favored, right in the midst of our darkest valleys. Grant us the grace to say with Mary, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”, knowing that in so accepting your favor, you will, right in the midst of our brokenness, allowing Christ to be seen through us with stunning clarity.
Be born in us today, Lord Jesus Christ. And we’ll thank you for it.