December 21, 2014
Fourth Sunday of Advent Year B
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:46-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
God With Us/Great Reversals
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by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
Like those before her who have been informed of a most unlikely impending birth (Sarah and Abraham, Hannah and Elkanah, Elizabeth and Zechariah), Mary is astounded by the amazing power of God. Luke the storyteller weaves his way through the announcement of John the Baptist's conception (and Elizabeth's recognition of what God has done for her), through the annunciation of a virgin birth, and on to Mary's interpretation of what is happening to her, in the Magnificat. There are, of course, significant differences between the two stories. From the settings to the characters to the way the story goes, each account takes its own path to that doorstep, with everyone together, and Mary singing that beautiful song of jubilant faith. Whether in Temple or dusty little village, with elderly parents-to-be surprised by joy or a young maiden facing an unexpected and dangerous pregnancy, the story speaks of trust in God at work in their lives in very surprising ways. (Zechariah the religious leader, of course, took a little longer to get to that place of trust.)
While Luke describes Zechariah and Elizabeth in glowing terms ("righteous...living blamelessly"), Mary is simply "a virgin." Greeted by an angel of God as "full of grace," as "favored one," Mary is not described as extraordinarily holy but could be an ordinary person like each of us. She's a small-town girl, with her life moving along the quiet, ordinary path of an arranged marriage. God, however, works wonders in every place, at the centers of power and in distant corners, on the margins, we might say. Ashley Cook Cleere writes: "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, just as it is dismantled by television broadcasts of school shootings and forest fires, or small towns that take pride in the accomplishments of members of their communities" (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1).
Not that being an "ordinary" girl in a small village makes Mary without spirit or strength. William Brosend sketches a somewhat different picture of the traditional Mary, meek and mild, suggesting "more fearless and less humble" as better words to describe her. When that angel appears before Mary, talking about God being with her and then assuming that she's afraid, Brosend notes that she has a right to be a bit perplexed (who wouldn't be?): "Give the girl a chance, Gabriel! Her question is not an expression of doubt but an effort to understand the extraordinary words of the angel" (New Proclamation Year B 2005). (Who wouldn't need a few minutes to process that kind of information?) We read this account only once every three years in the lectionary, but it's a familiar and beloved story, even though it perplexes us, too. The dialogue is spare, and we never really know for sure what Mary is thinking or feeling, at least until she sings her song of joy at Elizabeth's house.
Commentators wrestle especially with the question of Mary's acceptance, or is it surrender? And what is she accepting, an invitation, a request, or simply information about what's going to happen to her, and is it a good thing that's about to happen? In her lovely sermon on the text, "Mothers of God," Barbara Brown Taylor observes, "The angel did not ask her how that sounded to her and whether she would like to try out for the role; he told her" (Gospel Medicine). Gabriel twice recognizes her as "favored," but then offers what R. Alan Culpepper calls "a strange blessing." We thank God for our blessings, although many believe, Culpepper says, that those blessings are "the things we equate with a good life: social standing, wealth, and good health. Yet Mary, God's favored one, was blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a criminal. Acceptability, prosperity, and comfort have never been the essence of God's blessing" (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible). Culpepper's claim directly contradicts prosperity theology, but then, so does Mary's life, rich in "strange" blessings.
In both of these stories of conception and promise, however, it's really all about God and what God is doing. John the Baptist won't preach his own message but, like all good prophets, will call the people to repentance in order to ready themselves for what God is about to do, and to prepare the way for the One who is to come. And Jesus, Gabriel says, will be not just a great man but the Son of the Most High God. While many people, when hearing these words, turn to the Old Testament text of "a virgin shall conceive and bear a son" (Isaiah 7), William F. Brosend suggests that we really ought to look instead to the promise to Sarah and Abraham in Genesis 18: "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" (New Proclamation Year B 2005). Indeed, that part of the promise sounds very much like Gabriel's own parting words, "For nothing will be impossible with God" (v. 37).
And that brings us to how God is doing such wonderful and seemingly impossible things here in this story about Mary and an angel's astonishing announcement. We note that it isn't called "The Request," or "The Invitation," but "The Annunciation." And we suppose that God could have chosen to save the world, to fulfill God's promises of old all on God's own; after all, nothing is impossible with God. However, this humble but earth-shaking conversation tells us that God wants humanity to be part of the effort, even if it makes things much more complicated and even difficult (which it does): "God intends to draw Mary and all of us into what God is doing," Brian K. Peterson writes, "and God apparently is not willing to do this behind our backs or without our own participation" (New Proclamation Year B 2008). And this is what, in some mysterious way, makes Mary's story our own, or at least it makes her story something we can understand much better.
Scholars help us to make this connection, shining the light of this gospel text on our own lives, on the mysterious ways that God works. Ashley Cook Cleere finds intersection between Mary's story and our own: "Although the details are rarely readily apparent, God takes part in the unfolding of human existence from before the moment of conception." This is a staggering thought, that we were in God's thoughts before we ever came to be. "The awareness," Cleere writes, "that we are not fully in charge of our destiny ebbs and is revived repeatedly throughout our lives." Pastoral care is enriched by this insight, that, like Mary, we need "time to adjust to astonishing news, to question whether or not trials and tragedies, or God's magnificent promises, are for real, and to contemplate potential repercussions. The query 'How can this be?' is a reverberating refrain that shapes our faith by reminding us...how much is hidden from us. The exclamation of these four words may well signify the nearness of God" (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). In hospital waiting rooms, at the bedside of the dying, or in hearing a good report from the doctor, in a hundred different settings of human life where we are especially aware of "the nearness of God," these words express our conviction that God is involved in our lives in ways that are mysterious indeed, just as God's ways were mysterious to Mary that day and every day that followed.
Barbara Brown Taylor, not surprisingly, addresses with great insight the question of Mary's "choice," her freedom to respond in this most unusual situation, and our freedom as well. Yes, Taylor has said that the angel announced the impending birth and didn't ask Mary for her assent, but there is a choice for Mary, "whether to take hold of the unknown life the angel held out to her or whether to defend herself against it however she could." We have a similar choice in our own lives, Taylor says, to say "yes or no: yes, I will live this life that is being held out to me or no, I will not; yes, I will explore this unexpected turn of events, or no, I will not." You can say no to your life, Taylor says, "but you can rest assured that no angels will trouble you ever again." And then she takes a bold turn that calls for courage on our part, if we say yes to our lives: "You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body" ("Mothers of God" in Gospel Medicine). How are you bearing God in this world?
As Advent comes to an end and Christmas approaches, we look at our lives and the life of the church and ask, What is God doing today, here in our midst, that is too wonderful for our imaginations or our words? What is the hope of your congregation on this last Sunday in Advent? What extraordinary and grace-filled things have happened in your life, and what extraordinary and grace-filled things may yet happen? What is our role in the midst of what God is doing, and are we willing to say "yes" to that role?
Trusting that all things are possible with God requires a leap of faith, not only for Mary but for us today. And, like Mary, we will still have questions. William Brosend, for example, wonders, "If nothing will be impossible with God, why does so much in the lives of the parishioners seem such a mess?" He responds, "That nothing is impossible with God does not mean that God will do anything and everything. On this Sunday it means that God will do this thing. Which makes everything else possible" (New Proclamation Year B 2005). So for us in the church, we understand Mary's words, "For nothing will be impossible for God" as "the creed behind all other creeds. The church should recite it often," Fred Craddock writes, "not only at the manger, not only at the empty tomb, but on any occasion for reflecting on its own life, joy, and hope" (Preaching through the Christian Year B). Really, this little story contains two recurring biblical messages - "Don't be afraid," and "Nothing is impossible with God."
Joy and hope, and trust: the virtues of Advent, it seems. In this Advent season in particular, we're caught, suspended between fear and hope, on the edge of a new day but facing formidable challenges: war, poverty, persistent economic crises, harm to the earth...so many problems, and many of them mirrored in our own personal lives in broken relationships, ill health, money worries, troubled consciences. Kimberly Bracken Long assures us that even "the state of our warring world or the state of our broken lives," no matter how hopeless things may appear, can be healed. In fact, "it has already happened. Because of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the holy continues to break into our lives, to bring us closer to the completion of creation and the already-and-not-yet reign of God" (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). Where is the holy breaking into the life of your church, into the life of your community, into the life of the world? Where is the holy breaking into your own life?
In the midst of war, longing for peace as we do each Christmas, we might reflect on how we define or describe true peace. Does it appear that peace is impossible, whether between nations, spouses, friends, families, or next-door neighbors? Can you "cry peace" this Advent season? Is that our Advent message in the church?
Of all the commentaries, Dianne Bergant's reflection brings us most elegantly to the closing edge of Advent, longing toward Christmas and its own promises: "According to ancient Christian writers, God waits for Mary's yes; creation waits; Adam and Eve wait, the dead in the underworld wait; the angels wait; and so do we. With Mary's yes, hope is enlivened and history is changed. There is an unimaginable future for all people, a future that comes from God. All nations assemble in justice, compassion and gratitude. Salvation is created among us, and the fate of history is altered by a godly presence. This salvation resides in the hearts of those who believe in the gift and who stay awake eagerly to know it is coming. With David we await it, with the nations we long for it, and with Mary we behold it" (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B). And so, let it be with us, according to God's will.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
For further reflection:
Meister Eckhart, 14th century, quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor in Gospel Medicine
"We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? Then, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us."
Anne Lamott, 21st century
"Joy is the best makeup."
Jerry Van Amerongen, 21st century
"I feel like a tiny bird with a big song!"
Taylor Caldwell, 20th century
"I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the message of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses."
Rumi, 13th century
"When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy."
Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, 20th century
"One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar."
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
"Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God."
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent." Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you."
But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?" Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.
Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.
And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever."
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
I will sing of your steadfast love, O God, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness
to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love
is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
You said, "I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to my servant David:
'I will establish your descendants forever,
and build your throne for all generations.'"
Then you spoke in a vision to your faithful one, and said:
"I have set the crown on one who is mighty,
I have exalted one chosen from the people.
I have found my servant David;
with my holy oil I have anointed him;
my hand shall always remain with him;
my arm also shall strengthen him.
The enemy shall not outwit him,
the wicked shall not humble him.
I will crush his foes before him
and strike down those who hate him.
My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him;
and in my name his horn shall be exalted.
I will set his hand on the sea
and his right hand on the rivers.
He shall cry to me, 'You are my Father and Mother,
my God, and the Rock of my salvation!'"
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.
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, favored 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 favor 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.
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Advent and Christmas
The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ's return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. Some Advent wreath sets include a rose candle. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. White is also used for Easter and Sundays following. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.)