A sermon by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
for November 29, 2015, the First Sunday in Advent
Based on Isaiah 7:14-16 and Luke 1:26-38
Just as the advent wreath reminds us of years past, we remember when Jesus took human form, even being born as an infant. Just as we await Christ, the tree awaits its decorations. Advent is a season of calling us into a new stance of being – a faith that is filled with hope, a readiness to see God at work in new ways. We are called at this time to name our expectations, our dreams, even our renewed understanding of God at work in our lives.
For about a month now I have been thinking about one of my seminary professors. In the last weeks of my days as a seminary student she thanked me for our relationship. She said “Just as it is only a child who can make a person a parent, so too it is only a student who can make another a mentor. Thank you accepting me as a teacher, but even more thank you for making me a mentor.” I wonder if at the time she know it was the kind of comment that would shape my identity as a religious educator.
The status and privilege of a meaningful relationships, especially in those relationships where power is not equal, is often granted by the person with the lesser amount of power. It is the child who calls the parent into their new role. It is the learner who calls the mentor into their role. It is often the player who calls the coach into their role. It is often through the one in need that God calls us to our responsibility and the roles of responsibility.
Time after time the gospel commands us to go and meet the needs of other people before trying to meet our own needs. Like Mary being called by the angel, we will be perplexed at the greetings we receive when we seek to introduce others into God’s realm.
Let’s look at the Angel’s message here, because it follows the formula of most of the messages angels deliver. If you look in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, angels usually deliver their news in 5 points.
1) “Do not be afraid!” The Greek here for afraid is the root word phobia – so we could translate this as “do not be phobic” or even “Do not become anxious.”
2) God is doing great things – which means things are going to change.
3) This affects you.
4) God is in charge.
5) Trust God.
Mary’s responses follow the typical response of the prophets. First they protest: “There some reason why I can’t do this.” And then, “Here I am, servant of the Lord.”
Now, these parts get rearranged as angels and prophets talk back and forth. But listen again to the gospel lesson for these different parts.
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. 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.”
Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
I think Lyonsville Congregational is caught in its own Advent call. I think we are hearing God’s messengers tell us that God is doing great things – which means things are going to change. This affects you – both in the singular and the plural. God is in charge. Trust God.
And it is my observation that you, as a congregation, are doing really well fulfilling the first part of the prophet’s response: “There’s good reasons why we can’t change right now:
Attendance has decreased.
Some long-time members have left or died
Pastor Bob left.
We’re still adjusting to a new pastor’s leadership.
Offering income is lower.
Bills are higher.
We can’t get enough people on a committee to make it work.
When we try to get a committee together, no one will take initiative.
A lot of us are feeling burned out.
We don’t seem to have a clear vision.
We’ll wait until a settled pastor arrives.
So you have a card in your bulletin. On one side, draw a picture – and let me stop right now. Yes, I am asking you to draw. Once upon a time you knew how to draw, and you didn’t worry at all what others’ thought it looked like. In fact, you took your drawings to others to show them what it looked like. “Mom, look, I drew a picture for you.” “Pop-pop, look at the picture of you and me weeding your garden.” You know how to draw. Nobody but you and God need to see this picture – and I have it on good authority that God loves stick figures. So I am asking you to draw as an act of worship.
On one side of the card draw a picture of what prevents Lyonsville Congregational from moving forward in ministry. Draw something that is unfair in the world. Draw something that holds you back from responding to God.
Now, hold that card in your hands. Let us pray. God, we acknowledge our fears. We recognize we let some things hold us back from fulfilling your call on our lives. Help us face our fears, and help us make the world a more fair place to live. Amen.
I am praying this advent that the angels are able to speak louder than our protests. I am looking forward to hearing what the angels have to say about God being in charge. I am looking forward to hearing how God is communicating to you, how angles assures you to trust God in taking on a new mission. I am looking forward to hearing what fears you are naming before God and how God is challenging you to set aside your fears in order to live more completely in God’s realm. I am looking forward to hearing how God is filling you with pregnant expectation.
And while we’re looking at that sense of pregnant expectation, let’s not assume it is something only for the young people in our congregation. There’s two pregnancies in our Gospel this morning. Mary is a young woman, engaged to be married. Her relative Elizabeth has entered menopause. Like the Hebrew matriarch Sarah, Elizabeth desired to have children, was barren, had grown old, and everybody assumed God had withheld from her the role of being a mother. She is surprised when God answers her long-time prayers and that she is now pregnant late in her life.
As we move away from pregnancy as the literal interpretation of being with child to being expectant of a new relationship to life, God does not consider our age as God offers us new ways of living. Just as some prophets complained they were too young or too old for God’s mission, and just as God told them age is not a matter for fulfilling my call, we too are being challenged: we are neither too young nor too old to take on God’s new mission here.
That means we are neither too young nor too old as a congregation: it does not matter how old our building is in relationship to other buildings in the township, it does not matter how long we’ve been active compared to other groups, it does not matter how long we have played specific roles in the community. God is calling us to a new way of living.
It also means we are neither too young nor too old as individual members. It does not matter if we are youth or retirees, it does not matter if we are young adults or middle aged adults. It does not matter if you are at the age when others call you grandparent, parent, ma’am or sir or cousin or just hey you: you are at the right age to be called by God to serve faithfully.
It should also mean that we are neither too young nor too old in our membership: it does not matter how long you have been a member here, God is calling you to faithful service.
So now turn your card over. You are going to make a second picture. On this side, draw you doing something to fulfill God’s call. Draw something unfair in the world being made fair. Draw a picture of you acting without fear. Draw the thing from the first side of the card being courageously changed.
God, we listen for the angelic voices in our lives telling us to not be afraid! We listen for the assurance that you are doing great things – which means things are going to change. We accept that the changes you are making affect us individually and as a congregation. We say you are in charge; let us know it in our hearts and stomachs. Help us learn to trust you. Amen.
Before we sing out reflection hymn, hear the final words of the angel to Mary: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. … Do not be afraid: you have found favor with God.”