Mystery, Mess and Miracles
Scripture: Luke 1:26-38
Preached by Tracey Leslie at Trinity United Methodist on Dec. 7, 2014
At a Christmas Eve service a few years ago, a pastor made an announcement just before the worship began. He had an elderly couple at the back of the sanctuary stand as he announced that today was their 60th wedding anniversary. He praised their commitment to one another and led the congregation in applauding them. Now let me say that 60 years of marriage is a wonderful thing to celebrate. But I was uncomfortable with the way in which we celebrated. And here is why…
One year just a few weeks before Christmas, I’d visited with a woman who was terminally ill. During our visit, she spoke of her family. The one she spoke of most was her daughter, Liz. Several years prior, Liz had moved to the other side of the country due to her husband’s employment. The children were young and adapted quickly making new friends at school. But Liz was an introvert and it was a difficult adjustment for her. Just a couple of years later, Liz’ husband filed for divorce. She missed the support of her family hundreds of miles away. Split custody meant that the children would spend Christmas Eve with their dad and Christmas Day with mom. Leading up to Christmas, as Liz and her mom spoke on the phone it was obvious how lonely and discouraged she felt. So here was her mother’s very sincere advice and urgent plea: don’t spend Christmas Eve alone; go to church. She pleaded with Liz. She knew she didn’t feel like going to church or anywhere that night. But, her mom assured her, going to church would help. She would feel better, feel comforted, if she took the step.
And so, that Christmas Eve when the pastor lauded and the congregation applauded that sixty-year wedding anniversary, Liz came to my mind. I looked around the sanctuary. There were lots of people I didn’t know. What if one of them was in the same boat as Liz had been? What if someone had come to church that evening grieving a broken marriage? What if, just like Liz, that’d been urged to go to church and told it would make them feel better?
Mike Slaughter in his book A Different Kind of Christmas points out that we all want our Christmas to look like a Norman Rockwell painting. We run ourselves ragged to get everything just right: the gifts, the decorations, the food. We strive to create one perfect day in an otherwise imperfect year. But, for many, that perfect picture isn’t reality. Even here in our small congregation, I would venture to guess that we could fill our service time sharing the burdens that people carry this season: loneliness from a loved one lost, fear over financial instability, regret over relationships that have fallen apart, anxiety that a family member being treated for addiction or mental illness might not hold up under the stress of this season; memories that haunt us and fears that alarm us gather round like Scrooge’s ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. We want everything to be perfect; and yet… it is not.
If you were in church last Sunday, you remember me saying that the very first Christmas wasn’t perfect either. It was somewhat of a mess. The stable, the animals and the shepherds are all so beautiful and clean on the cover of our Christmas cards. But, picture perfect wasn’t their reality either.
Already exhausted from their long journey, Mary’s “delivery room” wasn’t exactly what one would hope for… even in the first century. Surrounded by smelly, dirty animals; they didn’t even have a crib for the baby Jesus. So they had to lay him in one of the animal’s feeding troughs.
Likewise, this morning’s story of the angel’s announcement to Mary has been portrayed by many an artist over the centuries as something so beautiful and serene. After all, artists love angels. I have one of these Willow Tree angels. It’s just so cute. But you know, I don’t think the angels of our scriptures were quite so cute and sweet. And I’ll tell you why; because, almost invariably, their introductory words are “Do not be afraid.” Time, distance and the familiarity of this story have caused us to romanticize it just as we romanticize giving birth in a barn. When we think of this story we might be tempted to think how nice it would be to have an angel visit us. And, what an honor Mary was given. But, we may not stop to think about her vulnerability and what it really meant for Mary to say “yes” to God’s coming into her womb and her life. Mary, though hardly mature and worldly wise was no dummy either. She undoubtedly understood that her saying “yes” placed her at great jeopardy.
You see, in Mary’s day, betrothal was a done deal. When you were engaged, you were as good as married. Marriages were pre-arranged by the fathers. That meant that Mary didn’t know Joseph. In a village the size of Nazareth, they probably knew of one another; but they didn’t know one another personally; so Mary could not have begun to guess how Joseph would respond to this shocking and confusing news. Now, engagements lasted for about a year and if the woman was found to be with another man during the course of this time, she was considered to be an adulterer and deserving of the punishment for adultery – which was, death by stoning. And yet, in response to the angel’s announcement, Mary accepts, even embraces, God’s call upon her life. Mary says “yes” to God’s advent, his coming within her and through her. Mary knows this is a miracle; but it is a messy miracle and somewhat of a mystery. “The Most High will overshadow you”; I mean, what kind of explanation was that for conceiving a baby? The whole thing is a long way from picture perfect.
Yet, there is something of far greater value than perfection. Let me say that again for all us over achievers: there is something of far greater value than perfection. And that something is grace; specifically, God’s grace (which covers a multitude of our imperfections). Unlike perfection which we strive to attain, grace is a gift. The angel’s message to Mary is an assurance that she has received grace or favor from God. Although we can’t tell in English, the word used when the angel greets Mary as “favored one” and informs her that she has “found favor with God.” Well the word used there for “favor” is usually translated in our scriptures as “grace:” God’s inexplicable desire to pour out his mercy and kindness on us. When the angel delivers this message to Mary she seems to comprehend that what she is being asked to do, what she will be used to do, will reveal an outpouring of God’s grace. She has been favored; graced by God. And so she says, “Let it be; let it be with me according to your word.”
Friends, you have heard me say before that, although we like to think of ourselves as generous givers; our very identity as Christians depends completely on our ability to receive, to receive the grace of God. In order to give to others, we must first be willing to receive. We have nothing to offer up to others until we receive and accept the manifestation of God’s grace in our lives; although it might not be what we expect and it doesn’t always come in the ways we expect it to come. Grace isn’t a ticket that we redeem for a lifetime benefit of being healthy, wealthy and wise. Grace isn’t a power we can harness to take over the world. Grace is what God does for us, to us and through us. It is mysterious and miraculous, but it doesn’t come wrapped up in a neat and tidy bow. Sometimes it looks pretty messy from the world’s perspective. Imagine the Savior of the world showing up as a baby: the baby of a poor peasant couple; a baby raised in a tiny agricultural village; a baby born to a virgin out of wedlock.
As you know, we are in the season of Advent. The word “advent” means “coming,” but it is not exclusive to God’s coming as a baby long ago in Bethlehem; for God continues to come to us and through us if only we will say “let it be with me according to your word.” When we are willing to say “let it be” God can do amazing things with our lives; and not just the successful, impressive, “got it all together” pieces of our lives. God can take our failures, our sorrows, our fears, even our screw-ups and transform them into a manifestation of his grace. Christmas, my friends, is God’s reminder that even in the midst of the messiness of our lives, God shows up. In the midst of grief or death, sickness or sorrow, broken and strained relationships; no matter what we are struggling with, God is with us just as he was with Mary. You are God’s favored one; the Lord is with you… and you, and you… and me. Nothing in this world can disrupt the nearness of God’s presence or thwart the power of God’s grace. It miraculously brings peace where there is conflict; purpose that dispels confusion; joy that is unending; hope that overcomes despair; and a sense of wholeness, wellness, that reveals God’s salvation.
Friends, you may feel weary this Christmas, or discouraged, or question that God has a call for you; but he does. Not because you’re perfect; not because you’ve got it all together; not because you’re brimming over with all kinds of abilities and resources. But simply because God is with you and his grace is being poured out over your life. You are one of his favored ones. And so, God wants to make his advent, his coming, known to others through you. And, all that God needs from you is your willingness to say, “Let it be... Let it be, God according to your Word, to your purpose, to your desires. Let it be not about me, but about you; because it is your birthday after all.”
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