A Sermon for 17 December 2017 – Third Sunday of Advent
A reading from the gospel of Luke 1:26-55. I trust these verses will sound familiar to most of us. Listen for God’s word to us.
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 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. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 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. 36 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. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 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. 39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Today is Gaudete Sunday. Maybe you know all about it. How until the fifth century, Lent was the primary preparation season of what would become the liturgical calendar. When the early church finally decided that the feast of Christmas, like Easter, needed a similar period to prepare; Advent became a forty day fast beginning the day after the feast of St. Martin in November (November 12). Imagine in the 21st century in the United States, starting an Advent fast two weeks into November through to the eve of Christmas! . . . Like Lent, Advent was meant to be a time of penitence. Hence in the lectionary readings, all the pleas from John the Baptist to repent of any wrongdoing in preparation for the Way of the Lord! And like Lent, Advent was more somber. Evidence exists to show that, like Lent, no organ music and no flowers were to be included in worship. Except for one special Sunday mid-way through the season. As Advent, until the ninth century, wasn’t shortened from five to the four Sundays we know of it now; Gaudete Sunday falls on the third Sunday of Advent. . . . We can consider it a mini-break from the serious examination of the rest of the sorrowful season – which, like Lent, is supposed to be the time in which we are searching our hearts to be cleansed of that which keeps us from living God’s ways in the world. . . . But on Gaudete Sunday – mid-way through the season of Advent – clergy marched in in pink. Rose-colored vestments really. The organ hit its first chord in weeks as the procession began with the mighty imperative to rejoice! In the words of Philippians 4:4 -5, the priest implored the people to “Rejoice! In the Lord always! Again, I say: rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near!” No longer was the church merely invited to adore “‘The Lord who is to come.’” On Gaudete Sunday, the people were called upon to “worship and hail with joy ‘The Lord who is now nigh and close at hand’” (www.newadvent.org/cathen/06394b.htm). Legend has it that the Pope himself broke the flower fast to hand out pink roses on Gaudete Sunday – making it a festive celebration mid-way through the season. Everyone was called upon to lift up their hearts in exceeding joy – not just for the remembrance of the birth that is almost here. But also for the coming again of Christ in glory. Ready to return to restore all creation. “Gaudete in Domino semper” the priest would sing as the mass began: Rejoice in the Lord always!!! (Ibid.).
It’s part of why every third Sunday of Advent the lectionary always allows for the reading of mother Mary’s song. “My soul cries out, with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great,” proclaims the hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes. The Magnificat! A young girl’s response to the work of God in her life – and for the life of her people. Imagine being a teenage-girl whose marriage already has been arranged. When suddenly you find out you’re pregnant, which is something you’re smart enough to know cannot be since you’ve hardly even seen your husband-to-be, let alone been left alone to be intimate with him or any other boy. As a good Jewish girl, you’ve been taught the stories of your people. You know the promise of one to come from the throne of David. A Prince of Peace who would restore the fortunes of your nation. Bring back the dignity of freedom to your people. Save ya’ll from the bitterness of foreign rule. The shame of endless armies having their way with whoever, whatever, and however they want. You’ve heard the ancestors say the Holy would intervene – could intervene to make a way where no way seemed possible. But what sort of craziness does this one called Gabriel speak? How in the world could it ever be?
When I was young, Mary didn’t have a great reputation for me. It’s mid-way into life that I’ve come to appreciate her – more so since visiting the honored sites in the Holy Land of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and Mary’s Well and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. I’m not sure if it’s some sort of anti-Catholic thing for a lot of Protestants, or just a primary focus on the child to be born. As if the Christ child provides the only inspiration during Advent, the heroism of Mary often is overlooked. Joseph sometimes gets a little more credit, but that’s another sermon.
About the endless depictions of this scene, beloved preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Somewhere in the annunciation scene you can usually find a dove, a sign that what is happening is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But down below, everything depends on Mary. Gabriel is not standing over her; he is kneeling in front of the girl upon whose answer he, and God, and the whole creation depend” (Gospel Medicine, 1995, p. 151). . . . Thanks be to God she said: yes! It might seem as if she had no choice, but we all have choice about the circumstances that crop up in life. We can’t control what will happen to us – any more than Mary could have run away from the emissary or wrestled herself away from the Holy Spirit when the power of the Most High overshadowed her. . . . Events in life take place. Happenings we can choose to fight against or to embrace. . . In a post entitled “More like Mary . . . and Joseph,” blogger Jane Hugo Davis encourages: “Don’t ever underestimate the importance of being still, listening to God’s messengers, following (the) guidance even when it doesn’t make sense or doesn’t fit into our plan. The joy that’s experienced when we live and love as God has called us to will overcome any fear or question or doubt in our minds. It may not be easy, but it’s worth it” (https://thesoulinthecity.com/2017/12/11/more-like-mary-and-joseph/).
Mary shows us that it is well worth it to say yes to God. To take hold of the unknown unfoldings in our lives. To open ourselves to whatever’s yet to come. . . . Of Mary’s yes to the unanticipated work of God in her life, one preacher writes: “You can decide to say yes. You can decide to be a daredevil, a test pilot, a gambler. You can . . . listen to a strange creature’s strange idea. You can decide to take part in a plan you did not choose, doing things you do not know how to do for reasons you do not entirely understand. You can take part in a thrilling, dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body. Deciding to say yes does not mean that you are not afraid . . . It just means that you are not willing to let your fear stop you” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, 1995, p. 153). . . . Then, it seems life becomes a great adventure. An opportunity to be a part of something much larger than we ever could orchestrate. A reason, daily, to rejoice! To lift up our voices in great thanksgiving! To proclaim the marvelous movement of God’s Spirit in all of our lives.
Today is Gaudete Sunday. We light the pink candle. We hear mother Mary’s famous song. We take a mini-break from preparing ourselves to allow the Way of Christ to be re-born in us. We gather with exceeding joy for the ways we see God working to restore the Way in the world – through every last one of our responses: yes! . . . Gaudete in Domino semper, brothers and sisters of Christ! Rejoice in the Lord Always! Let your life be a yes!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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