Before Bethlehem, Nazareth. Before Gloria, Magnificat.

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year B]

Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 1:46b-55

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Tonight—we all know it—the focus is going to be on the baby, the child that is born to save. But this morning the focus is on the mother.

And when we think about where that baby will be we know that tonight the spotlight will shine “away in the manger,” that feed trough for livestock that will hold that baby. But today we find the spotlight shining on a womb. We will remember the first place that Son of God will ever be held is inside the body of a young woman.

Tonight, tonight we’ll be taken to Bethlehem. We know it well. The hopes and fears of all the years are met there. It’s the city of David, a small little place, and we go there because Joseph is descended from the house and lineage of David. And in Bethlehem we’ll be out in the back of some inn there, an inn that didn’t have any room. But this morning we are still in Nazareth of Galilee, an even smaller town, even farther away from Jerusalem. And though we’re not given any details about where in Nazareth we are, there’s a good chance it is in the bedroom or the humble living quarters of this young woman. A private space where strangers do not visit. A great many artists who have painted this scene in Nazareth even depict the young woman on her bed, legs dangling off the edge, the sheets all strewn about as if she’s been interrupted during a nap. No room in the inn, but room there in her bed.

Adam Pomeroy
“Annunciation” (Adam Pomeroy)

Tonight we’ll hear a song. We’ll even sing the song! It goes, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.” Tonight’s song is a loud song, made up of hundreds of voices, and it fills the whole night sky. Angels from heaven sing it, and it’s so powerful that is sends some shepherds to Bethlehem to see that baby who is in the manger. But this morning we hear a song, too—and sing it—and it’s a powerful song, maybe filled with more power than any other song in the Bible. But it’s sung by one voice—that woman—and only one other person hears it. It starts “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” And it goes from there to talk about the mighty being cast down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty and the poor being filled with good things.

The reality is that before we can really hold the baby we have to behold the mother. Before we can gaze upon the manger, we have to take stock of the womb. Before we can settle down in Bethlehem with the shepherds and the inn and the people crowding around for the census we have to stop by that simple bedroom in Nazareth. And before we sing “Glory to God in the highest,” we need to hear, “He has looked upon his lowly servant.” Before there is the birth there is the annunciation. Before the gift comes the asking. God does not just plop his Son from out of nowhere into the hay, although God certainly could have. God approaches a young, unmarried woman in a backwater town and says, “I’m going to need your help.”

There’s a short little poem called “After Annunciation,” by Madeleine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, that goes,

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.

Of course, the point is we can imagine that if Mary had been thinking purely rationally—or selfishly—at this moment then we might not have the parts about the manger and the angels. If Mary had only focused on what this might have all entailed for her in the moment (and for the next nine months, perhaps), then she may not have responded, “Here I am, let it be with me according to your word.” The Greek, Roman and other ancient cultures of that time had plenty of stories about gods that would come down from the heavens and take advantage and even assault women for their own purposes. Here we have a God who sends an angel to approach a woman peaceably and in an unassuming manner. Even though the way Gabriel announces the conception makes it sound like it is a done deal, Mary gets the final word. The fulfillment of it all hangs on her response.

When we tell the story of Jesus Christ, God with us, God among us, it is important to remember that it is Mary’s faith and courage that paves the way for it all to unfold. As Father James Martin points out in his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Mary doesn’t ask her father for permission or Joseph for his input. “A young woman living in a patriarchal time makes a decision about the coming king.”

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“The Annunciation” (Fra Angelico, 1437)

To some degree, all decisions to take part in God’s coming kingdom require courage and faith. Our calls to follow and bear Christ in the world do well to follow Mary’s example. We let faith—wonder, mystery—enter into the equation. We prepare ourselves to understand that God does not work principally through the great and the strong, but through the humble and meek, that he looks upon the lowly. We think less selflessly about it all and where God’s call might take us.

I think this is one reason Mary sings that all generations will call her blessed. She’s says this not just because she was the one person who carried the Eternal God in her flesh. All generations will also be blessed by her example of responding to God’s call to bear Christ. When I think of Mary being blessed I think of all those who are currently in the call process who are considering a new congregation to serve. I think of those who, in the secret chambers of their heart, contemplating going to seminary. But I also think of each person who has ever pondered a role or a moment where they might, like Mary, carry Christ into a situation. There are moments all the time, each and every day, where God might approach us and say, “I’m going to need your help.”

Before we get the Jesus in the manger we have the person who brings him there. And before we have the song of the angels, we have that song of Mary’s. This past week I met with a group of senior men in the congregation and for devotions I was a bit unprepared. I knew I was going to have us look at Mary’s song and discuss it, but I was worried that it might be a little too obscure or abstract. I find that most of the time I’m better at presenting things like Jesus’ parables or stories about people doing things, not songs with deep meaning. I thought I really needed to find an angle to get the conversation going and I didn’t have time to come up with one.

However, I found that as soon as I read it to them, they had thoughts and questions of their own. When Mary talks about the mighty being cast down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty these men brought up current events about world dictators and the intricacies of nuclear disarmament talks. We talked about principles of good leadership and how humility is an important ingredient to political stability. And we all agreed we really did want to live in a world that looks like what Mary sings about. We long for a time when the hungry are filled with good things and the lowly are lifted up. We shared that we are all drawn to a God, like Mary is, who actually acts in the world, who brings about change for all. Mary taught me a lesson this past week at the men’s lunch group. She’s still singing.

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Before we rush to Bethlehem and join the angels, we need to stop in Nazareth and spend time with Mary. The gift of Christ is not just something that glows within the cockles of our own hearts, assuring us alone of eternal life and the merits of giving, as if Jesus came just to make you and me better people on the inside. Mary tells us more than anyone what God’s kingdom is going to be like. The powerful and the proud have their days numbered. But the kingdom of God will have no end. It is both Mary and the manger that will point us to Golgotha where we see even more vividly that nothing is impossible with God. We see that God loves to present himself to us in surprisingly humble ways, that God offers himself up over and over again to this risky world and asks us to join us in bearing him in all our vulnerability, with all our faith. So that when God approaches us in Nazareth…or Bethlehem…or here at Epiphany and says, “I’m going to need your help,” we can respond “Here we are! Let it be with us according to your word.”

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

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