A Terrible Proposition: A Sermon for Advent 4B

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is built around the readings for the 4th Sunday in Advent in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

 

Good morning.  And what a morning huh?  This day is just packed!  December 24th The Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve!  There’s almost too much to do!  We’ve gone to just one service this morning so that we can hang the greens, decorate the church, and be ready for Christmas Eve; two more services, with a pageant this afternoon and a dramatic and beautiful telling of the story and a round Silent Night by candlelight later this evening.  All over the church clergy and congregations are dealing with the same time crunch and wondering if it really is possible to get it all done today…

It would be awfully easy to just jump straight into Christmas Eve.  After all, we know how this story ends.   And we’ve been waiting such a long time…  Time is so short…  There is a baby on the way!

But for now, at least for another hour or so, gathered here this morning, it is still Advent, we are still waiting, hoping, wondering…  And it’s a good thing too.

Because today, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, there is someone who is here to offer testimony, to speak truth to power this morning.  She will not be silenced.  Her voice rings out across the centuries, and we are here today to honor her, to hear her testimony, and to grapple with her understanding of what is… and what is to come…

“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…”

Luke 1:26-38

In a world oppressed by empire, among a people conquered, downtrodden, diminished…

The Angel of the Lord comes to someone with no power, someone with no status or rank, someone who is the property of her father, someone soon to be the property of a husband…

The Angel Gabriel comes to a young woman, whose name is Mary, and makes an astonishing claim:

“…you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

Jesus… Jesus will be his name…

But Mary knows that she wouldn’t be the only one to name this son.

Ringing in her ears, even as the light shining from the angel threatens to overwhelm her senses, is the echo of the promise, made through the Prophet Isaiah, crying out to a people lost in the darkness:

            “For unto us a child is born

A son given to us

Authority rests on his shoulders

And he is named

Wonderful counselor, mighty God

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”

Isaiah 9:6

And in her heart Mary knows that this child, the one whose birth the angel is foretelling… this child will come to:

“… bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

Isaiah 61:1

A sharp intake of breath.  Does her heart skip a beat?  An aching in the core of her being?

Mary is engaged to Joseph but they aren’t married.  If she becomes pregnant…  The scandal will be ruinous for her and her family!  In fact, Joseph would be within his rights to have her stoned!

And then there is Herod the Great, the Roman Puppet King of Judea, whose tyrannical reign was characterized by the use of murder and terror.  Threats to his authority, and to the authority of Rome, Empire, are crushed without mercy.

When the Angel Gabriel tells Mary:

“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 forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

She has to see this future as fraught with danger, for herself, for the child, and for the people who live under the rule of Herod and the iron fist of the Pax Romana.

This moment, when Gabriel, an angel of God, arrives as an emissary to a young woman, someone who might walk through the streets of Nazareth without drawing any attention to herself, and asks her to bear a child in a manger, in a stable, surrounded by sheep and oxen…

…This moment is charged with a level of political danger and consequence that is unmistakable to anyone who is paying attention and willing to see the narrative being developed through the angel’s overtures….

Mary is being asked to offer herself, her reputation, her safety and that of her family, maybe even the safety of her people, in order to make God manifest in the world; to set in motion a movement, a revolution that the principalities and powers that hold sway over us and this world will do anything in their power to suppress and destroy.

The angel has asked, God and all of history are waiting… what will she say?  How will she respond to this…     and let’s not romanticize this…   to this terrible proposition?

She asks, “How can this be…?”

One question?  That’s it?  One question?”   That’s all she needs?  She doesn’t ask for assurances, for guarantees?  Maybe she’s stalling for time.

And then, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

 

In just a few hours we will gather here again and it will be Christmas Eve.

There will be a pageant, this space filled with children, children telling the story of a miraculous birth, a birth to the least likely of parents, in the least likely of places; the birth of the one who brings new life to all the earth.

And then again, still later, we will gather, in the dim light of the stable…  We will glory in the miracle of new birth, in the tenderness of mother and child, in the voices of angels and heavenly hosts, and in the excitement and wonder of shepherds.

We will stand and sing Gloria in Excelsis Deo to celebrate Emmanuel, God With Us and we will hold our candles high as we sing Silent Night, Holy Night.

But for now… for now it is still Advent.

And while there is still time, before we crowd around the manger to ooh and aah at the child wrapped in bands of cloth, we need to hear the testimony of a young woman who will not be silenced.

A young woman who, after the angel departed, after the luminous vision had faded, embarked upon a journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth; whose song of exultation describes her understanding of what is and what is to come; whose song interprets and explains without flinching from their political implications the events we will celebrate in the few short hours ahead…

A young woman whose testimony calls us to take our part at the manger this evening as informed participants, as disciples, aware of the political implications and dangers of following the child who will lead us…

Jesus, Emmanuel, Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – who will be great, who will be called the Son of the Most High, who will sit upon the throne of his ancestor David. Who will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of whose kingdom there will be no end.

And so now honoring the voice of a young woman who had the courage to speak truth to power, to offer her testimony and utter God’s Word of love to the world, I invite you to open your prayer books to page 91, and stand as we once again proclaim the Song of Mary.

The Song of Mary        Luke 1:46-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,

The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.

Amen.

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