A Sermon for 20 December 2015 – 4th Sunday of Advent
A reading from the gospel of Luke 1:24-38. Listen for God’s word to us in what I assume is a very familiar story to us. Listen.
“After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” 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 forever, 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.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
The story continues with a reading from the gospel of Luke 1:39-56. Listen for God’s word to us.
“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 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 forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
I’ve been captivated of late by Macy’s. . . . If you know anything about the department store, then perhaps you’re familiar with their Believe campaign. It’s been going on for nearly a decade and they splash it all over their red shopping bags. “Macy’s: A million reasons to Believe!” . . . It’s a confusing message – at least in my mind – because it seems an ad just to get us to buy more, maybe even as a sign of our belief? . . . My last few years of living in Chicago, I made it a personal ritual to visit Macys the mid-December day of their big sale on Christmas Frango candy-cane chocolates. Yum yum! They’re the best thing about living in Chicago! In the Macys stores there, you have to go downstairs to the candy counter to get the special Christmas mints which sit next to their jolly Santa display. “Believe!” says the red mail box in which we’re encouraged to drop our letters to Santa. It’s hard not to read it all as that whole “give me what I want, Santa,” thing. You know: his naughty and nice list, and the joy of jolly ole St. Nick bringing us exactly what we deserve this Christmas! For Macy’s it’s most certainly tied to that classic Christmas movie which declares: “There really is a Santa Clause, Virginia!” . . . Believe.
A few years ago, Macy’s even declared a National Believe Day. This year they introduced a magic believe pen as a part of it all too. And I so wanted to buy one just to see if, as in the commercial, the magic pen would brighten everybody’s day. For every letter dropped into the red Letters-to-Santa Believe box and a portion of every pen bought, Macy’s promises to donate to the Make a Wish Foundation. Then, on National Believe Day – which was two Fridays ago this year – through the Make a Wish Foundation, Macy’s makes wishes of children come true. Again: it might be a marketing ploy to get us in their doors – I know it makes me wanna race over to the mall to write my letter to Santa. Their donations are one way Macy’s is showing that the spirit of St. Nick is alive and well.
You know the legend, I hope of the Greek Bishop of Myra of the Fourth Century who during the night used to drop off gold coins and other items to families in need. That’s where Santa Clause came from, though it’s gotten way outta control in our market-driven economy. Macy’s National Believe Day, with their gifts to struggling children seems a perfect example of the generous spirit of giving which Saint Nicholas began. That’s something in which we all can believe!
The first time I learned about National Believe Day, was the year the whole nation learned of a place called Sandy Hook. The mass shooting at the elementary school there was three years ago. Something none of us ever wants to believe as a possibility in our world. Something entirely unacceptable, enraging to behold. Emergency vehicles everywhere. Parents searching. Children single-file holding hands as their teachers led them out safely to the fire station next door. We’ve seen the scene over and over since then – far too often. But it’s especially chilling to see such an atrocity at an elementary school among some of the youngest children of our country – all on National Believe Day. . . . Even this time of the year, we know it can be extra difficult to believe. Believe this Christmas will be merry despite the difficulties your family might have experienced this year. Believe the pain will dissipate – if only for those 24 Christmas day hours. Believe it’s all going to be ok.
Believe. . . . What we believe is so very important. What we believe shapes our choices. Our actions. Will we too give generously to another – especially one in need? Will we find a way to endure in the midst of the un-endurable? Will we hold our leaders to the promises they’ve made to us to ensure every child grows well into adulthood? . . . What we believe shapes our very lives. . . . And the truth we’re reminded of, especially today, is that every now and again, we need someone else to believe for us. To hold the torch of faith while our weary spirits doubt. It just might be so, that another’s belief, over time, can inspire us to believe again.
We hear it in Luke’s gospel. This lovely scene recorded alone by the gospel of Luke. . . . We don’t really know how pregnant Mary is at the time. It’s in Elizabeth’s sixth month that Mary is visited and asked to believe herself a part of the most impossible to believe. At some point after that, Mary scurries away. I wonder how long the trek took her – a week or two traveling to the hill country. . . . We don’t really know why she went. Was she trying to escape what most certainly would have been a lot of doubt-filled, shaming stares? Did her parents send her away, as used to be the case with so many other unwed teens? Maybe Mary was afraid to face Joseph so she split. Or did she just need time to herself to process how all this could be? Even the most certain among us second-guesses God’s mysterious ways now and again. . . . One commentator has suggested that Mary needed a little affirmation and went with haste to see the miracle of her old Aunt Elizabeth’s big belly (Feasting on the Word, Michael S. Bennett, p.94). The baby in Elizabeth’s barren womb was proof indeed that the God enlisting Mary in this most marvelous plan was the One able to turn the whole world upside-down until at last it all would be re-set aright.
It is wise old Elizabeth who hallows Mary first. When Elizabeth heard Mary had arrived, the one to be called John went crazy kicking in his mother’s womb. Elizabeth broke out into her own proclamation: “Blessed! Blessed are you! And blessed indeed is the little one growing in you, Mary! . . . Blessed is she who believed! (Luke 1:42-45). Maybe Mary had been rehearsing her song the whole trek long. I know a lot of us need to believe the mother of our Lord never wavered. Others of us take comfort in the plausibility that Mary’s own belief needs Elizabeth’s insistence. Kinda like all of us need now and again. Believe. . . . Believe in the goodness of God. In the favor God has for us. In the mercy God is that causes God to turn upside-down the wrongs of this world until it is re-set aright. . . . To believe that even what seems the most impossible is not beyond the possibility of our God.
It’s our job, O church, to believe. With Elizabeth to proclaim – especially during this season. For a world of people still find themselves in darkness. So many are filled with unbelief: the circumstances of their lives clouding their spirits so they feel as if there is no hope. Even us who doubt along this path that can throw us such curvy, windy ways. . . . We all need each other to believe.
It might seem unlikely. All the evidence may point to the contrary. Still, we can believe. We must. Emmanuel . . . God is with us. For us. In us – forevermore.
May our spirits be ready with Mary to rejoice! Our souls all set to magnify! For the Mighty has done great things for us. The promise is fulfilled. . . . This Christmas, let us all believe!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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