After I printed my last Advent sermon, I went back to save the file and managed to delete the text in the document before I saved it, which left me with nothing. Tonight, after scanning the printed manuscript to a PDF and then copying it back into a Word document, I was able to recreate it without retyping the whole thing.
I hope it speaks to you. Thanks for traveling through Advent with me. Merry Christmas.
When I was given an assignment in school, one of the first things I did was to see when it was due and then plan accordingly, which meant figuring out how long I could wait before I had to get started- a habit I had to change at least somewhat as I learned that creativity requires preparation. Improvisation is not the same thing as impulsivity.
Still, I like the adrenaline rush of getting down to the wire and getting the job done.
Advent is a season on a schedule: four Sundays and then Christmas. Except this year today conflates two days into one and has left me feeling a bit like I did in those days before I learned to plan how to meet a deadline. I feel rushed. In our scripture for this morning, Mary is still months away from delivering Jesus and when we come back this afternoon, she is going to give birth.
Part of the panic is the way the gospel writers tell the story. The first chapter of Luke begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah finding out they were going to have a son. Then the angel appeared to Mary and told her she would be the one to give birth to Jesus. Then Mary went to see Elizabeth- the verses we read this morning- and then John was born. Chapter Two, which we will read tonight, tells the story of Jesus’ birth, but by the end of it he is twelve years old and growing; by Chapter Three, he is thirty years old and being baptized by John in the Jordan.
No wonder we feel rushed. And when we feel rushed, we often miss details. We breeze past the familiar stuff, the things we think we know down pat. Over the centuries, the Church has given names to most of these events that make them sound explainable: the Annunciation, the Magnficat, the Presentation, and so forth. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we do. As we’ve talked about before, the gospel writers are often short on details. Even our passage today, which is specific about Mary’s song, casually mentions that she stayed with Elizabeth for three more months and says nothing about why or what happened.
We don’t know how Mary told her family she was pregnant, or how that first conversation with Joseph went when she told him. We don’t know how she dealt with the gossip in Nazareth. Maybe that’s why she stayed with Elizabeth.
Even more, we don’t know how Mary was transformed from the quiet teenager who asked Gabriel, “How can this be?” to the formidable young woman who sang for her cousin about the way God was going to work in her life to take down those in power and transform the world with love.
If we are willing to slow down and look at the details and the gaps that we have, we see that the story we are telling is a tenuous one. There were no guarantees, and maybe no good reasons to believe, that things could happen the way Gabriel said they would. Most everyone in the story is at risk, most of all Mary. She was the one giving birth.
All of that is beautiful and powerful and it’s still kind of heady. That is one of the creative tensions of theology: how do we take big ideas and tum them into something we can feel?
For example, the candle we lit today represents “transforming love.” What do we mean by those words? Who do we think will be transformed? Us? Someone else? What kind of details illustrate how transforming love gets lived out day to day?
As I was struggling to answer these questions in a way that did more than explain, Ginger said, “Tell a story; give an example of what transforming love looks like.”
The first memory that popped into my mind was an afternoon when I was in tenth grade. I lived in Fort Worth, Texas that year because my parents were on leave from their mission work. We went to University Baptist Church, and there I had the chance to be a part of the youth group.
In tenth grade, I was about five-foot-two. I felt short, round, and out of place. (That wasn’t what I looked like, but it was how I felt.) I can remember sitting on the edge of my bed and looking in the mirror and wishing I were someone else. Anyone else.
My youth minister was a man named Steve Cloud, who was everything I was not: he was tall, he was handsome, he was athletic, and, well, he wasn’t me. One afternoon after school I was in his office, mostly because I had nowhere else to be, and because he acted like he cared about me. He called me Flash. Steve said, “Let’s go shoot some baskets.” I agreed and we walked out to the parking lot where a backboard was attached to one of the light poles.
I am and was a terrible basketball player. (I know that surprises you.) I took one shot and missed everything. The ball rolled across the parking lot. “You get it,” I said to Steve, and he did. When he got back to where I was standing, he said, “Let’s go back to the office.” As we walked, he put his arm on my shoulder and he said, “Flash, one day Trish and I are going to have a kid, and we when do, I hope they tum out exactly like you.”
I was transformed by his words—by his love. It didn’t erase my problems, or change many details, but I saw myself differently because of how he saw me. I got through high school on what he said to me that afternoon.
When Gabriel first visited Mary, she responded by saying, “I am God’s servant; let it happen just as you said.” But when she got to her cousin’s house and Elizabeth exploded in exuberance and love—”Blessed are you among women”—Mary was transformed much like I was by Steve’s words. Elizabeth gave Mary a new sense of herself; she saw who Mary could become.
Mary was transformed by Elizabeth’s love in ways Gabriel couldn’t do. He delivered his message and left. Elizabeth said her words and then hung around to watch Mary come into her own.
And Mary became the mother of Jesus.
She raised him. She saw him every day. She fed him. She got him ready for school. She lived out years of details we never hear about so he could see who he could become.
We must remember the story we are telling is not, primarily, about a baby. We are celebrating Jesus’ birth because of the person he became. Two of the gospels, Mark and John, skip the birth and begin with Jesus’ baptism. The Christmas story matters because it shows us how God was transformed by love to not only become human, but to enter the world in one of the most vulnerable ways—as a baby born to a young, unmarried, poor woman in a small village.
God was also transformed by love—by God’s love for us. Let’s not rush past that. God was transformed into a human being by love.
Life keeps moving quickly, whether we are checking our schedules or looking at the church calendar. We only have one Sunday in Christmastide and then Epiphany and the celebration of Jesus’ baptism fall a day apart. Ash Wednesday is on Valentine’s Day this year (that should be fun); and Easter is the last day of March.
But let’s not rush ourselves. We can keep the schedule and still be transformed by the story. The point of worship, the point of being a church together, the point of life is not simply to check the boxes that we did the right things on the right days. The point of opening our hearts to God is to be changed, to be transformed. To leave different than when we arrived. To live and act as if love can transform our world—as if we can transform each other.
One of my favorite songwriters, Jason Isbell, sings,
I know you’re tired and you ain’t sleeping well
uninspired and likely mad as hell
but wherever you are I hope
the high road takes you home again
to the world you want to live in
Life is short, dear ones. We are all on a schedule of sorts; we all have a deadline, if you catch my drift. As time flies, let us ground one another in love, saying the words and doing whatever we can to help each other grow and become those who will help the world to tum. God is always needing to be born. Amen.