The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 24. 2017
This year, the Fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve. There is a temptation this year to ditch the “annunciation” and get to the baby’s birth. At my congregation’s morning service, we will do both the announcement and birth as part of our pageant, and then move to the full-blown lessons and carols at the Christmas Eve candlelight service. Like many preachers, my remarks will be brief and will hardly do justice to the Annunciation and Magnificat. Still, the angelic visitation joins the infinite and finite and opens us to appreciation not only the feminine dimension of the divine but also the power of opening to God’s surprising grace.
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, our eyes turn to the call of Mary of Nazareth and her calling to us and for us. Her response to God and her hymn of praise ring out through the ages and serve as a model for our own spiritual journeys. Accordingly, I believe that the congregation would profit from focusing on the entire Mary Saga, Luke 1:26-55, perhaps as a readers’ theatre or dramatic presentation and place the remaining lectionary texts in the background or eliminate them altogether to focus on this woman of agency and adventure.
Mary’s response to Gabriel is as much about fidelity as physiology. The factuality of the virgin birth is important, but not all-important, and can be understand in ways that highlight divine presence without short-changing this-worldly and naturalistic explanations. Virgin births are possible in our fourteen billion year old universe. Naturalistic explanations can inspire as much wonder and amazement as supernatural explanations.
The nativity story begins with a surprising angelic visit to an ordinary young woman, on the verge of marriage. There is no hint that she is sinless or immune from the vicissitudes of human life. There is nothing in the gospel account that would point to her uniqueness metaphysically or prenatally. Accordingly, we need not bring in supernatural explanations – the Immaculate Conception and Bodily Assumption – to portray the uniqueness of God’s revelation to Mary and the birth of the Child. She was the child of mortals who shared in the challenges and ambiguities of mortality. A sinless and immortal Mary can provide no inspiration for fallible, moral humankind. Though called by God to be the mother of God’s savior, she is also “every woman” or “every person.” We are also called by God, in challenging times, to give birth to God’s new age.
To say Mary is perplexed by her angelic visitor is an understatement. Think for a moment how you might feel if you were the recipient of an angelic request of any kind, not to mention an unexpected pregnancy. “How can this be?” Mary responds. We might say the same thing if we received an unexpected spiritual announcement and were called from our comfort zone to a new adventure. Am I the one to say “yes” to God’s calling? Does God really want me to take this step?
The angel reassures her, “Do not be afraid.” In your fear and trembling, God is with you and will bring forth something wonderful in your life.
Mary’s uniqueness is not her perfection, but her willingness to say “yes” to the unexpected and apparently impossible. She aligns her will with God’s will and miracles occur. For with God, nothing is impossible. What we deem impossible may be part of God’s deeper reality breaking forth in our lives. We don’t know how many young girls said “no” before God came to Mary, but young Mary said “yes.”
Today’s extended passage describes a synergy of fetal affirmations. The child in Elizabeth’s womb, the result of another surprising invitation from God, leaps for joy in encountering the child growing within Mary. Divine providence occurs in womb as well as in our ongoing postnatal adventures. Out of the movements of fetuses, God is worshipped.
The movements of prenatal John and Elizabeth’s affirmation, inspire Mary to song. Mary’s hymn of praise, the Magnificat, is equally miraculous. She proclaims her humility and God’s greatness and then launches out into a world-changing message. God’s coming rule, alive in the she child she will bear, turns everything upside down. Unjust social structures are overturned – the hungry are fed, the wealthy sacrifice, tax policies benefit the poor, leaders seek peace,and schools are safe; roles are reversed as God’s peaceable realm comes to earth. This is the way life is meant to be when God’s realm is “on earth as it is in heaven.”
The miracle is saying “yes” to God. When we say “yes” to God’s ways, the world is transformed. Yet, we – and our institutions – have chosen to say “no” to God’s ways and thus perpetuate the growing distance between the rich and poor, unjust distribution of the world’s resources, and the destruction of the earth and its ecosystems.
Mary’s miracle vision appears impossible to us. At first glance, Christmas can’t change our greed and self-interest and our neglect of the vulnerable and marginalized. Yet, with God nothing is impossible, according to Gabriel. The impossible possibility is that we – like Mary – will embrace God’s vision, follow God’s vision, and live on earth as it is in heaven.
Mary’s willingness to say “yes” and then act upon her affirmation inspires us to be agents in God’s adventure. God presents possibilities for new birth and we are called to carry these possibilities to term and nurture them in our rough and tumble world. Mary’s “yes” opens the door for unimaginable adventures for herself and our world. She gives birth to God’s novel vision and opens the door for the coming Christ. Let us open to angelic visitors and in all of our unpreparedness be willing to say “yes” for God’s dream taking birth in our own lives and congregations. (For more on the angelic, see Bruce Epperly, “Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: A Progressive Vision.”)
Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, UCC, Centerville, MA, and on the D.Min. faculty of Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of over 40 books, including “The Work of Christmas: The Twelve Days of Christmas with Howard Thurman,” “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God” and “Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure.” He can be reached for questions, seminars, talks, and retreats at firstname.lastname@example.org.