By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 1:26-45
When Britt and I lived in Gary, we had a Doberman, Eirene. She was a wonderful dog, although prone to give speeches. Britt was finishing up his PhD. He would go in one day a week and spend the entire day attending classes, doing research in the library, meeting with other students or his faculty advisor. Since he worked from home the rest of the week, Eirene missed him on those days and, around mid-afternoon, she would plant herself on a bench in the living room positioned in front of a big window. From there should would wait and watch for doggy daddy to come home. The only problem was her attention was also captured by anything that moved outside that window: the mail carrier, other delivery people, children playing, teens walking down the street, people walking their dogs. You name it; she felt the need to make a speech about it. One December evening I had the Christmas lights and decorations up in the living room and wanted to enjoy them as I was reading. Eirene’s barking was driving me crazy. I’d scold her each time, she’d stop, but then, in time, something new caught her attention and another speech ensued. Finally, I’d had enough. I stood up and walked to my study down the hallway. The windows were high and at the back of the house. I firmly called Eirene’s name and she obediently came. Once she entered the study, I turned on the light and shut the door. About ten minutes later, I returned and opened the door. Head low, she trotted back to the living room but didn’t bother jumping up on her bench. She plopped down on a dog bed with her back to the window and let out a disgusted sigh.
That’s a cute little story because it involves a dog whose “punishment” was nothing more than a ten-minute “time out.” But it would not be so cute or humorous if it involved people. In fact, some people spend their lives anxious and on high alert, perhaps even frequently “barking,” for something they greatly desire that seems to keep eluding them. Their happiness depends on getting what they want. In their fixation, they become frustrated and miss out on other joys and blessings because they are so obsessed with that thing they want but do not have.
Today is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. Each year on this Sunday, we celebrate the announcement of Jesus’ birth. In Luke, the announcement is made to Mary. We ought to be aware that Mary would have had precious little authority in her culture. She was young in a culture that valued age. She was a woman in a culture that viewed women primarily as property and saw little value in them except in that they could deliver sons. And, her family was likely peasants, since there was no middle-class and very few wealthy people in 1st century Palestine. She belonged to an ethnic group that had been conquered by Rome, swallowed up by their mighty empire.
This Advent morning we also lit the candle of joy. On the surface, it wouldn’t appear that Mary would have much about which to be joyful. In biblical times, being pregnant out of wedlock was considered a crime punishable by stoning. In truth, stoning rarely occurred by this time in history. But, without a doubt, Mary’s perceived promiscuity would have brought dishonor to her family and she would have been shunned. No other man would ever marry her, her family would put her out, and unable to work or provide for herself, she would have been relegated to prostitution or begging. And yet, when Mary goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, she pours out a hymn of praise to God that begins with the words: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…”[i]
One might wonder how Mary could be filled with joy in such a vulnerable and precarious position. The short answer is: Mary found great joy in submitting to God’s purposes knowing those purposes would bring salvation to God’s people.
In his book, Celebration of Discipline, author Richard Foster identifies submission as a spiritual discipline or practice. In my book, Companions on the Journey, I define spiritual practices as those things we do “to open ourselves to God’s grace; to make our lives like fertile soil.”[ii] For most of us, when we think about spiritual practices, we think of things like prayer or worship or the study of scripture. In fact, submission is something often viewed negatively because it has been misconstrued. First of all, for something to be a spiritual practice, it must be something we take upon ourselves; that we enter into freely. So let me be clear: submission should not be confused with oppression. Oppression is sinful and there is nothing voluntary about it. It robs others of their volition and freedom. Oppression works to undermine and prevent an individual’s ability to respond to and cooperate with God’s grace. So submission is not oppression. Neither is submission self-deprecation. While oppression involves one person undermining another person’s value, self-deprecation is a disparaging or devaluing of oneself. In this case, one has difficulty even embracing the possibility that the grace of God could be at work in them and through them.
However, in submission, we recognize and celebrate that God’s grace can and does work through us. And that, in submitting to God, we become – like Mary – worthy of praise because we have recognized that the purposes of God are of greater and more enduring value than our human plans and goals.
When the angel announces Mary’s pregnancy, she is utterly baffled. This is something incomprehensible and illogical. But the angel explains: this will be the work of God’s Holy Spirit; a Spirit able to make what is impossible possible. At the announcement that this will be the work of God’s Spirit, Mary submits, saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[iii] In fact, Mary finds great joy in submitting to God’s purposes. She rejoices in the work of salvation that God will accomplish through the child she will birth. Submission means relying on the wisdom and the power of God’s Holy Spirit, rather than our own wisdom and talents. In fact, my friends; control is mostly an illusion. Many people spend their lives trying to control the uncontrollable; trying to control how others behave, how others perceive them, what others say.
Friends, we cannot have joy unless we are submitting to God. Desperate desires to control, lead to perpetual frustration and anxiety when we discover that life in general, and other people in particular, are uncooperative with our plans. But, submission leads to joy. When we submit to God, we discover true joy and we, too, birth God’s grace into the world.
Now again, I want to be very clear. The anxiety I’m talking about here is not clinical anxiety. In fact, I have mild clinical anxiety. It is related to our brain chemistry. It is not a spiritual or emotional defect. And that’s not what I’m speaking of this morning, not clinical anxiety that we are usually unable to control without medication or therapy. Rather, I’m talking about anxiety that we can control if we choose to think and live differently; if we choose to live from a place of submission to God.
Friends: if our joy is dependent upon our personal achievements, we are going to find ourselves frequently living in a state of anxiety and frustration. Now that’s not to say we shouldn’t have dreams and goals and a sense of purpose. But nothing that we ever pursue for ourselves should mean more to us than the purposes or will of God. The spiritual practice of submission allows us to hold our own plans and desires lightly, being willing to lay them down and surrender them when the Holy Spirit comes upon us and the Spirit of the Most High overshadows us. Holding our own desires and plans lightly allows us to rejoice at God’s call and to respond with delight saying as Mary did, “Let it be with me according to your Word.”
Again, Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline writes,
What freedom corresponds to submission?
It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of
always needing to get our own way. The obsession
to demand that things go the way we want them to go
is one of the greatest bondages in human society today.
People will spend weeks, months, even years in
a perpetual stew because some little thing did not go
as they wished. They will fuss and fume.
They will get mad about it. They will act as if
their very life hangs on the issue.[iv]
I once pastored a church where a member had an accident at work and was injured. Another employee had left something where they shouldn’t have and that was the cause of her injury. She had a high-powered job and was quickly climbing the corporate ladder. Her injury meant she was off work for quite some time as she recovered. She was angry and she just couldn’t let it go. Now, she had the right to be angry and sad. She had the right to hold the company accountable for her medical bills. But she refused to move on with her life. She became so angry and bitter. She nursed the grudge of what she’d lost until the day I moved from that church. Perhaps she is still nursing it today. She became so unpleasant to be around. When I was in my church office and heard her voice in the lobby, I actually could feel my stomach tighten. Her goal of professional success had been disrupted by circumstances beyond her control and that seemed to be the only thing she could think about and talk about.
Friends, all sorts of unexpected things happen in our lives – some are God’s will and others are just random results of living in a sinful, broken world where things don’t go as we’d like or hope. And when those unexpected things throw us a curve, we have two options. We can either rail against it and clench the dream of what have been and live in a perpetual stew of anxiety and frustration. Or, we can offer our situation up to God. We can seek out the Spirit in whatever is taking place. We can offer ourselves as servants of God. Scripture tells us that all things – good, bad and otherwise – can be worked out for good by God[v] if we are willing to submit to God. None of us is going to birth the Messiah; but God’s good and gracious will can be brought into the world by us when we are willing to say, “Here am I.” What joy and delight we discover when we are willing to submit to God. Just imagine how different the world might be if all of us no longer held on for dear life to our personal goals and desires; but were willing to surrender our desires, our ideas, and our position in submission to God. Think of how differently we might interact with one another. Friends, our willingness to engage in the spiritual practice of submission to God probably won’t fix the gridlock in Washington. But it can give birth to joy and grace right here and now.
This morning I want to end my message with a prayer; a prayer of holy indifference. Spiritual indifference is also often misunderstood. It’s viewed negatively as apathy. But spiritual indifference simply means that we do not lock on to our own ideas, but submit to God’s purposes. St. Ignatius of Loyola taught about the prayer of holy indifference. The prayer of indifference is a spiritual practice of submission in which we pray to be indifferent to anything but God’s will; we pray that God might “bring us to a place where we want God’s will, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.”[vi] It goes beyond ego gratification and personal advantage. It is a prayer in which we offer ourselves up to God, as Mary did, saying in effect “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your Word.” The prayer of indifference I’m praying on our behalf this morning is John Wesley’s Covenant prayer which we will pray in unison during worship on January 5. Let us pray…
I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low by thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
[i] Luke 1:46-47. NRSV
[ii] Companions on the Journey: Foundational Spiritual Practices by Tracey D Leslie, Wipf and Stock, 2019. P. xi (intro)
[iii] Luke 1:38. NRSV.
[iv] Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster, Harper Collins, 1988. p. 111
[v] See Romans 8:28.
[vi] See Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups by Ruth Haley Barton, InterVarsity Press, 2012, pp. 171-175. Also see https://static1.squarespace.com/static/581be9d0e4fcb5a09255f003/t/594b140df5e231ce2f5ba1d4/1498092557299/The+prayer+of+indifference.pdf
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