Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Monday, December 09, 2013
Mike Turgeon Outside the box: “Mary” December 18, 2011
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."
But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "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.
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. 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." Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1:26-38
Outside the box: “Mary”
As a pastor, I have been asked more than once to sum up the bible in one sentence. The first time someone asked me this I gracefully changed the subject. The next time, however, I took a stab at it, saw it as a challenge, getting me to think outside the box, to attempt to distill the meaning of God’s message down to a few words. My take was this:
“The bible is God’s word that seeks to identify where, how and why God meets us.”
Now I thought that was pretty creative, until someone pointed out that Thomas Merton, noted monk, religious thinker and scholar is famous for saying virtually the same thing. I didn’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed.
According to Merton, there is a deep point of absolute poverty, a place of holiness in each of us that belongs entirely to God.
By poverty he means a spiritual condition, a place of holiness, something that cannot be touched by our intellectual fantasy or our ego trips. When God has access to this sacred space, our spirits are fed, enriched and nourished like spring water flooding a meadow.
Why would God do this to you or for you? Because you are the crown of God’s creation. How does God do this? In the form of the love of Jesus Christ.
Thomas Merton further contends that all this is possible with God, but we must unlock the door to that spiritual center. There’s a fancy name for all this, related to Mary’s acceptance as the one who would birth Christ into the world, it’s called incarnation, the divine taking on human form.
I hope all this is not too theologically dense because there’s more. Merton’s take is but one side of a 100 year-old theological debate; the question is this--do fallible humans, that would be you and me, do fallible humans possess the means necessary to receive God’s glory and grace on our own or must God intervene?
I say “yes” and “no” to both ends of the debate. Yes, we have the means to let God in, and no, God won’t invade us, we must be willing to offer an invitation.
Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement in this morning’s passage happens to be the most grace-filled human acceptance and invitation of all time:
“Let it be, Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”
Can you recall the last time you surrendered so well or so completely? Me neither. We struggle with just being human; sometimes it feels like holiness is completely out of reach. Friday morning’s paper had a little editorial describing the results of a Consumer Reports survey in which they estimated that 35 million Americans dread ‘having to be nice’ for the holidays.
And 24 per cent who took that survey said they most dread ‘seeing certain relatives.’ I’ve been there, we’ve all been there. This is a reflection of the human condition, not God’s condition-ing.
Outside the box: “Mary”
If you were to line up all the elements of Luke’s Gospel that we’ve been studying in the month of Advent, and line these elements up in a certain way, there’s a trajectory that goes from the heavenly sublime to the humanly personal.
Luke introduces the appearance of an Angel of the Lord, and the piercing Star of Bethlehem; there’s the noble Wise Men from the East; the shepherds in their fields; a teen-age maiden with not many prospects.
And Luke uses historical information to set Jesus’ birth in political time--Jesus was born when Herod the Great was King of Judea and Augustus was Emperor. Then he sets the birth of Jesus in relative time,
“...six months after Elizabeth and Zechariah have been told they will be parents...”
We’re not sure how old Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin was, but old enough for this news to be shocking.
The element of surprise is everywhere in this text. Where Elizabeth’s pregnancy is astounding, Mary’s pregnancy is at the other end of the surprise spectrum. Bearing children back then was a tribal survival strategy. The more offspring and the earlier, the better chance the family had of making ends meet. That is still true in most of the world.
So the surprise is not the pregnant teen-ager part, the surprise is God’s choice of vessels for salvation.
By weaving the political with the personal, the heavenly with the human, Luke has our attention as he zeroes in on the big moment--the time and place where God meets us in Jesus Christ. How big is this moment?
“...He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
With this ‘house of Jacob’ reference, Luke is answering another theological question of that day, the one that was being asked in the synagogues: When would the Messiah come, from what lineage would he be, and what would be the result of his coming? Let me sum this answer up in seventy five words.
When King David brought the symbol of God’s presence, the Ark of the Covenant
into Jerusalem, it marked the end of hundreds of years of wandering. By establishing one place to worship the one God, David’s dynasty then became linked to Jacob’s house; Jacob, the patriarch of the Israelites. David wanted to build a temple but God had other plans--a temple built not with timbers and adornments but with the lives of people, making it a dynasty that will last forever. There! 75 words.
And I’m sure I’ve exhausted your tolerance for theological debate and discourse, so let’s fast forward again to Mary, the one chosen to birth a Savior for mankind. The biggest deal ever, delivered in the most unexpected way, through an unwed, unknown, uneducated and un-credentialed teenager.
Outside the box: “Mary”
Here is our hope--between the enormity of God’s plan for salvation and the obscurity of its beginning in Mary, there lies this decision to be willing; it’s your decision and my decision, God will not make it for us.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the eminent Buddhist priest said this about our ability to be holy: "We are all children of God, but we are also mothers. God is birthing something in each and every one of us.”
What part of God’s plan is being birthed in you? How much more willingness is God going to need from you in order to carry that plan to fruition? The ordinariness of Mary was perfected by her response to God.
"Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
She claims her servant-purpose, and then the Holy Spirit magnifies her soul. Her spirit took flight when God’s purpose became her purpose.
The Good News here is that God can work with your willingness, too. But God can’t work with your resistance.
Pastor Bruce Larson tells how he helped people struggling to surrender their lives to Christ.
In his diary, he writes, for many years I worked in New York City and counseled at my office any number of people who were wrestling with this yes-or-no decision. Often I would suggest they walk with me from my office down to the RCA Building on Fifth Avenue. In the entrance of that building is a gigantic statue of Atlas,
a beautifully proportioned sculpture of that mythical figure who, with all his muscles straining, is holding the world upon his shoulders. There he is, the most powerfully built man on earth, and he can barely stand up under this burden.
'Now that's one way to live,' Larson would say to his companion, 'trying to carry the world on your shoulders.‘
Then he would take them across the street to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. There behind the high altar is a small shrine of the boy Jesus
and with no effort he is holding the world in one hand. Larson’s point was illustrated quite graphically. (Bruce Larson, Believe and Belong.)
Most of the time we go through life playing tug of war with God, resisting and insisting on carrying the world on our shoulders. We have a choice, every bit as much as Mary did--we can allow God to birth something new in us. But we have to unlock the door to our poverty. Willingness or resistance, which will it be?
The angel declares that
“...nothing will be impossible with God.”
God can even turn your resistance to surrender, but it will have to be a team effort.
I know the angel’s announcement here assumes a lot, but God never coerces, God only waits until we are ready.
It’s why these four weeks of Advent are so precious. God waits for us to wear ourselves out. God waits until we have had enough of banging our heads against the wall; God waits until we have tried every trick in our meager books.
And make no mistake, the Bible’s message through Mary is clear, God’s place is already at the center of your being, waiting to be unlocked, waiting to be expanded, waiting to be empowered.
Can we trust the birth process? Is that even possible? Is there a more violent trauma than birth? A pre-natal fetus must endure horrendous pressure to its system as it is forced through the birth canal. A crying newborn is reacting to the violence of birth that leads to…life.
The moment of birth, where do we go from there?
You are fully free to choose light or to choose darkness. Mary was ready to be invited into the light, a willing participant in God’s plan. How is it with your soul?