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Faith United Methodist Church

December 21, 2014

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Rev. Krista Beth Atwood

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38, Luke 1:46b-55

Prayer of Illumination:        

We come to you, O God, ready to be bearers of Christ to the world. Send your Spirit into our very lives, that we may be your servants of love. Scatter the pride that would harden our hearts. Fill us with your goodness and grace. Strengthen us with your justice and righteousness. Humble us with your mercy and compassion. Make the impossible possible and let it be with us according to your word. Amen.

Sermon:  Unexpected Love

In preparation for today’s sermon I glanced through my sermon archive to see what I’d preached about Mary in the past. Mary, the mother of Jesus. Surprisingly I found very little. But, then again, Mary has what we might consider a bit-part in the gospels. Apart from the Christmas stories she only appears a few times. Briefly we hear from her when Jesus, as a pre-teen, went missing at the temple. She appears again at the wedding at Cana to encourage Jesus to turn water into wine. Later we find her trying to get a moment with Jesus in the midst of his teachings and healings. And finally she is there, at the cross, when Jesus died.   The woman, who as a young peasant girl accepted an amazing call from God, watched as her first born son was crucified.

It’s true that, as Protestants, we don’t spend a lot of time with Mary. We don’t revere Mary like our Catholic brothers and sisters do. And when we do speak of Mary we often emphasize her gentle and meek nature. In Christmas pageants Mary often doesn’t even get a speaking part. (I noticed that wasn’t the case in our Christmas pageant last week! Yay for our FLOCK.) Yet our characterizations of Mary don’t do justice to the strength of her faith. Some have, rightly, described Mary as the first disciple. Just like the disciples of later years, Mary was willing to give up all that she knew to follow God into a new life.

And isn’t it appropriate that we get to spend this time with Mary on the Sunday we light the Advent candle of love. For what could embody love more than Mary opening her very self to bear God’s love into the world? This certainly was not a life path that Mary could have chosen, but when the angel showed up with unexpected news she answered, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me according to your word.”

That’s not to say that Mary understood exactly what she was getting into. As Lillian Daniel put it, “She understood enough to understand that she did not understand.” In other words, she had faith. She had enough of the story to get started, which is often all that any of us have when setting out on a journey of faith. Mary had guts. Mary believed.

But still, can you imagine the talk around small-town Nazareth? The accusing? The gossiping? Mary engaged and already pregnant! Probably the rumor-mill was going wild. These days we recite the Apostle’s Creed with barely a second thought to the part that refers to Jesus’ birth. “Conceived by the Holy Spirit; Born of the Virgin Mary.” Yet imagine how strange that must have sounded at the time. The Holy Spirit? Yeah, right!

The disgrace of an unwed pregnancy in that day was one thing. From that alone she could have faced social stigma, isolation and even death by stoning. Then there was Joseph to consider. Joseph, her fiancé, would know that the child was not his. What would prevent him from discarding poor Mary and leaving her in poverty without any resources to support herself or her baby? As a young, unwed woman Mary was in a pretty precarious position.

But Mary didn’t dwell on the fear or the ‘what ifs’. She did as the angel encouraged and was not afraid. Indeed it almost seemed like she embraced the adventure. She trusted that there would be enough love to go around. And by the end of her visit with the angel she announced, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And Joseph didn’t abandon her or disgrace her. And, together, they bore God’s love into the world. As Richard Wills described it, “God had dreamed a bigger dream for her and about her than she could have ever dreamed for herself.”

We can look at Mary’s story as a quaint story from the past. The virgin Mary, meek and mild. We can romanticize it with Hallmark angels and bleating sheep and the baby placed in the soft hay. Yet the truth is that Mary’s story is repeated every day in each of our lives. We all have a choice between love and fear. We all have a choice between wonder and doubt. Each day we have the opportunity to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” We can cling to the security of our predictable, ordinary lives or we can abandon the myth of security and look to God to lead us.

Part of the reason that we, as Protestants, don’t revere Mary the way our Catholic friends do is because we celebrate that Mary was one of us. Mary was brave. Mary was courageous. And Mary was just like you and me. She was an ordinary person from an ordinary town with ordinary hopes and dreams. As Ashley Cook Cleere put it in Feasting on the Word, “The tendency to think that leading unassuming lives in out-of-the way places isolates us from the extraordinary is debunked by Mary’s surprise visitor…” Guess what? God can find us even up here in Northern Vermont.

Mary knew that the baby she was carrying would change everything. She had no way of knowing just how that would happen, but she believed it was so. We know this because of the song Luke records in his Gospel. The song we know as The Magnificant, the song of Mary, was sung before Jesus was born. In it Mary prophecies, “He has shown mercy to everyone…He has lifted up the lowly…He has filled the hungry with good things…Holy is his name.”

Her son’s very life would be the fulfillment of her song. But that’s not the end of the story. Every year, every day, every minute Christ comes to us and, as his followers, we too can be the fulfillment of Mary’s song. Through our daily actions with the people we encounter we can be God’s unexpected love. As we look beyond our doors to see who is hurting we can be God’s unexpected love. Through the choices we make with our time and money we can be God’s unexpected love. Meister Eckhart affirmed, “We are all meant to be mothers of God for God is always in need of being born.” Christ’s hands, Christ’s feet, Christ’s love in the world. Mary did it and so can we. Amen.