(Luke 1:26-38, 47-55) By Rev. Rick King—It’s a tough time to be optimistic, with great uncertainty in the world and a feeling that something is deeply amiss in our nation. Christians and religious people generally, are not speaking with anybody except those with whom they agree, because it doesn’t feel safe to do so. Not exactly a favorable climate for a sunny outlook!
Into this morass comes the promise of the birth of a Savior, as it does every year—of God doing a new thing in our midst.
But how is this to happen, with all that’s going on? We may feel out of energy, powerless to change certain things. And we tend, sometimes, to get “stuck” on the things we’re powerless over, and begin to feel like we’re “being acted upon by reality.”
But we are a people of HOPE, not just optimism, as our Advent theme reminds us. That’s one of the big reasons we’re a church, after all, and not something else—we’re looking for hope. In the “Biblical Grounding” time on our agenda at the dinner meeting we had at Executive Board Tuesday night, I shared this text from Luke’s gospel that we heard just now—about how CELEBRATION can be an act of RESISTANCE against despair and the feeling of powerlessness; we celebrate not just when we have obvious reasons to do so; we celebrate no matter what is happening in our lives. It’s one of the ways we practice our faith.
But still, if you’re like me, you struggle with staying focused on the “half-empty” part of the proverbial glass. There are lots of inner messages, old tapes that play, powerful, inherited myths that shape our ability to receive hope, and hold onto it, when it’s so much easier to let it slip through our grasp like a fleeting thing, rather than the bedrock that it’s meant to be.
That’s why, on this Fourth Sunday in Advent, coinciding with Christmas Eve Day and three days after the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, the story of the Annunciation to Mary that she’s pregnant with Jesus comes at just the right time, illuminating hope and promise in the midst of despair and need. And Mary’s dialogue with the angel, and the process she goes through in receiving this news can show us a way to receive the hope that is hope, not just optimism and Christmas cheer.
First of all, Mary is perplexed. She’s confused when the angel comes to her and greets her with, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Now, Mary was about sixteen years old. How do the teenage girls you know (or teenage boys, too), react when somebody notices them? If I let my imagination go for a bit, the dialogue might go something like, “As if! Why are you coming to me? You and I both know I’m not favored….What do you want from me?”
Obviously, I’m paraphrasing freely! But the important thing is, Mary doesn’t run away, or push the angel away. She holds the door open, and engages. When Mary “ponders what sort of greeting this might be,” she’s taking it seriously, not dismissing it. So, perplexity is a positive because she engages with this holy messenger. We don’t know why, but she does.
And she receives reassurance: “Don’t be afraid, Mary…” and also a promise: “You will conceive in your womb…and you will name him Jesus…and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.” Something is about to happen, and it involves this teenage girl. She’s about to become an agent, instead of someone acted upon by her circumstances.
The second thing that happens is that in response to the promise of what is to come, she doubts, as in, doubts her own abilities. How often have you and I had opportunities present themselves and immediately focused on ourselves rather than the opportunity? Focusing on all the reasons why we could never do this, not in a million years. “I’ve never done that before. I don’t know anything about how to do this. I feel overwhelmed. Shocked and dismayed that I would even be considered. Almost like the reassurance disappeared before it could make a difference. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” is Mary’s retort. Essentially, “God, are you crazy? These things don’t happen.”
But there’s even a good side to this: It shows us about ourselves that, when the confusion clears some, and we begin to see what’s being laid on us, we are apt to feel our falling-short. In these kinds of situations, nobody has to tell us to “get real!” We’re already there. And so is Mary. Pollyanna is gone. We have replaced our rose-colored glasses with some “hard-reality” ones, emptied of all pretense.
And yet, this self-emptying, of all our pride in our own accomplishments and powers and capacities, presents the perfect opening for what comes next, to Mary and to us, in these situations: Realizing We’re Not Alone.
This comes in two ways: Number One, community—“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, unable to conceive.” And Number Two, seeing that it’s not about us! Some Higher Power, some unseen force, Something or Someone much bigger than us, is already at work, doing what we cannot do by ourselves.
So, Mary might have thought to herself, “This is happening to somebody else, too? And somebody even less likely than I am?”
Community—finding others in a similar situation, no matter how implausible it seems at the time—can help us realize that the Power beyond ourselves is at work, as the angel says, “For nothing is impossible with God.”
Mary is now in a position for the next step in receiving hope—Saying Yes. A radical yes! She’s realized that she and Elizabeth are partners, not just with each other, but with God—partners in the “new thing” God is doing. And Mary says, “Here am I…let it be with me as you have said.”
And then, Mary goes to Elizabeth, and they have this meeting of minds and hearts and wombs (because Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, leaps inside of her at the news of Mary’s pregnancy). And then Mary, the demure teenager, a Nobody of unimportant lineage, previously believing herself to be insignificant—Goes Public with what has happened, in praise and exultation. And the Magnificat is her song of celebration. Her words have echoed for centuries among the downtrodden and advocates alike, “for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.”
We receive hope by being real and open to God, open to life on life’s terms, in all its grit and splendor, and by engaging with God—no matter what. If holy men and women have struggled toward blessing, then struggle we will! We can’t go around our own barriers to hope; we have to go through and over them.
This season, no matter what, you and I are invited to engage with the God of Hope, who promises to be with us. Amen.