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Advent 4B December 20, 2020

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm 89:1-4. 19-26
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

This morning, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we begin with Canticle 15, the Magnificat, Mary’s song about God’s kingdom of justice and mercy. 

Then we read in the Second Book of Samuel about how David has built a house and is settling down after years of going from place to place. David thinks to himself that it would be a good idea to build a house for God. He discusses this with the prophet Nathan who also thinks it is a good idea. But then God speaks to Nathan and tells this faithful prophet that God will build a house for David. God will establish David as a King over God’s people. It is from this royal line that the Messiah will come.

And then we have Psalm 89, a song about God’s love. “Your love, O Lord forever will I sing; from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness.”

And then we go back over two thousand years. Here is Mary, a young woman. She is engaged to Joseph, a faithful man, a man who is very gentle, yet very strong and protective. We know that Mary, too, has a strength that is almost beyond belief, and her faith is deep and abiding.

She lives in a little town that is far from the centers of power. She is just an ordinary person going about her daily routine, like so many people before her—Moses, tending his father-in-law’s flock, David, tending the sheep, Amos, the dresser of sycamore trees. As she is going about her household chores, the angel Gabriel suddenly appears. 

Here I fall back on Madeleine L’Engle’s descriptions of angels as tall, towering beings pulsating with light and power. “Greetings, favored one!” he says, “The Lord is with you.” Here is this luminous messenger of God talking to a young woman in a little out of the way town like Sheldon or Montgomery or Fletcher or Franklin and calling her “favored one,” telling her she is beloved of God. And he is telling us, too, that we are beloved of God. And then the angel Gabriel tells Mary and you and me that the Lord is with us. And then, seeing the look of shock on Mary’s face, Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” And God is saying that to us as well. “Do not be afraid. God loves you. God is holding you in the palm of God’s hand.”  

And then the Angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will be the mother of God’s Son. And Mary asks, “How can this be?” And Gabriel tells her that her cousin, Elizabeth, who is far beyond childbearing age, will be giving birth to a son. We know that this is Jesus’ cousin, John, who will grow up and baptize people in the Jordan River and call them to “prepare the way of the Lord.” It all seems beyond belief. Gabriel seems quite aware of this for he tells Mary and us,  “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

And then Mary responds. Throughout this mind-bending conversation with Gabriel, she has remained calm and grounded. We see in her the steely courage that she will show at the foot of the Cross. She joins many of her ancestors, people like Abraham and Moses, who said to God, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” Trusting completely in God’s faithfulness and love, Mary says “Yes” to this ministry.

Soon after, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. The child John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when he senses the presence of the baby Jesus. We often say that Christians go two by two, as our Lord sent out the disciples to spread the good news. Mary had the good common sense to seek out her cousin Elizabeth so that they could guide and support each other as they went on their journey together. Their sons would change the world forever. They gave birth to the transformation of the world.

In addition to the Magnificat, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” we can also sing Psalm 89. “Your love, O Lord, forever will I sing; from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness.”

The light is coming into the world. This past week, we watched the news and saw people being inoculated with the new vaccine from Pfizer. Other vaccines are on the way. The Moderna vaccine has already been approved. Many scientists, researchers, physicians, lab technicians, and other dedicated people have worked evenings, weekends, nights, and holidays to create these life-saving vaccines. People gathered to clap as they were shipped out of the plant in Michigan because this is something to celebrate.

As Christians, we believe that God gives us the gift to reason and learn and carry out research. Our faith is based on what we call the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. God gave us minds so that we can use them to discover things that will help people to have better lives. We believe that these discoveries are a manifestation of God’s love. “Your love, O God, forever will we sing.”

Because God gave us minds and calls us to use them, we know that we must continue to practice the basics of public health in a pandemic—wear masks, keep social distance, wash our hands often, don’t gather in large numbers. We know that it will take several months to get all of us vaccinated. But, if we follow safe practices, eventually enough people will be vaccinated that we will all be safe from this virus. Our faith also teaches us to be patient. It will take time. We are very happy that Keith and Sara are in Pinellas County, Florida, the first county in that state to receive the vaccine. To me, that feels like a special gift from God.

We have been through some very difficult times, and it is not over yet.

But the end is in sight. The light, the love, is coming into the world. Let us make room for the light and love in our lives. Let us make room for Jesus in the inns of our hearts. Even though there are challenges ahead, let us take time to celebrate the light and love of God in our lives and in our world. “Your  love, O Lord, forever will we sing; from age to age our mouths will proclaim your faithfulness.” 

Let us continue to walk the Way of Love, with joy and hope in our hearts.  Amen.

Advent 4 December 23, 2018

Micah 5:2-5a
Canticle 15 The Song of Mary p. 91
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

All through Advent, our readings from the Hebrew scriptures have proclaimed hope in the face of daunting, even devastating circumstances. The author of this morning’s first reading is Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, whose ministry took place between 740 and 701 B.C.E. This was during the time that the Assyrians conquered neighboring areas and finally captured Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E.

It is possible that our reading is addressing that horrible defeat by King Sennacherib of Assyria, but many scholars think this portion of Micah’s book was actually added later, at the time of the Babylonian Exile.

At a time of crushing defeat and suffering, God is going to raise up a liberating king, not from Jerusalem, the center of everything for God’s people, but from little Bethlehem, the city of David. That king, according to Micah or a later editor, “shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord.” For us, that king is Jesus.

Just before our gospel reading for today, we read about the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to the Savior. Gabriel also tells Mary that her cousin, Elizabeth, is now pregnant. In announcing the births of both Jesus and John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel says, “With God, nothing is impossible.”

Directly after her encounter with Gabriel, Mary does a very wise thing. She goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary has the wisdom to know that she and Elizabeth are having unique experiences that are going to be challenging. Elizabeth is having a baby when she is far past the usual childbearing years. Mary is having a baby when she is engaged, but not yet married. In both cases, tongues are sure to wag.

Scholars point out that Luke usually takes great care to tell us exactly when and where things happen, but in this case, the village is not named. Mary enters the house,  greets Elizabeth, and little John the Baptist leaps in the womb of Elizabeth. Elizabeth bursts into a song of praise that will later become the beginning of the Hail, Mary. She then addresses her cousin as “the mother of my Lord.” Both Elizabeth and her son recognize that they are meeting their Savior. Even in the womb John the Baptist recognizes and honors Jesus.

Then Mary sings her song of praise, the Magnificat, which is a poetic and prophetic blueprint of God’s Shalom. God scatters the proud in the imaginations of their hearts. God brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly. Valleys are exalted, and hills are made low. God feeds the hungry. The reign of God turns things upside down.

God is doing a new thing, and these two women from little out of the way places are the ones God has chosen to give birth to this new order. They are already cousins, members of a large extended family, and they are going to become sisters in faith. We all need support when we are responding to God’s call. We all need friends and sisters and brothers in the faith when God calls us to do a new thing, to walk a path that no one has ever walked before. Mary and Elizabeth were able to offer each other that support.

“With God, nothing is impossible,” says the angel Gabriel. In many ways, we are quite similar to God’s people under attack from either the Assyrians of the Babylonians. There is growing evidence of an attack by Russia designed to fragment our country and turn us against each other. Climate change is a huge threat to our planet. Violence is everywhere. And on and on it goes. And yet…

We pray today that our Lord Jesus Christ “may, at his coming, find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” “With God nothing is impossible.” May we make room for God. May we be a people of hope. May we help to build God’s shalom.  Amen.

Advent 3A RCL December 11, 2016

Isaiah 35:1-10
Canticle 15
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Our opening reading from the prophet Isaiah is God’s word of hope to the people who have been in exile in Babylon. They are going to come home. The desert will bloom. “Waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” There will be springs of water everywhere.

It is a joyful thing to return home, but it is also a fearful thing. God will strengthen the weak hands and the feeble knees, and, perhaps more importantly, God will help us in our fears. Our God tells us to be strong.

And what does God do? God heals the people. The blind see; the deaf hear; the lame person leaps like a deer; those who have not been able to speak sing with joy.

There is going to be a highway in the desert. No one is going to get lost on the way home. No lions or other animals will be there to eat people. The people of God will be able to walk home singing for joy.

The coming of God means a restoration of the earth, healing of the people, peace, and safety.

In our canticle for today, the Magnificat, Mary sings of our God who lifts up the humble and lowly, casts down the mighty from their thrones, feeds the hungry and tells the rich they already have enough.

In our reading from the Letter of James, we are given more guidance as we prepare for the coming of our Savior. We are called to be patient. But this is not a passive waiting. We have the example of the farmer, an example we know very well. The farmer plants the seed, but he or she does not simply sit around and wait. The farmer works hard to do everything possible to help that seed grow. We are called to be patient, but this is an active, aware kind of patience. We are called to be awake and ready for our Lord to come to us, We are called to do everything we can to help his kingdom to grow just as the farmer helps the crops to grow.

In our gospel, we meet John the Baptist once again. This time, the situation is very different. John is no longer on the banks of the River Jordan baptizing people. He is in prison because he confronted King Herod, who had an affair with his brother’s wife. King Herod used his power to put John in prison.

John is wondering about this. If Jesus is the Savior, why am I in prison? I thought the Savior was going to separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. I thought the Savior was going to get rid of the bad guys.

Let us remember, there are two strains in the Hebrew scriptures when it comes to describing who the Savior is. One strain says that he is a mighty military hero who comes in and throws the Romans out and  kills all of his enemies. The other one says that his is a kingdom, not of might and power but of healing and compassion.

John sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the Savior or if someone else is going to come along. And Jesus tells them to go back to John and tell him what Jesus is doing—healing people, giving them hope and new life. What Jesus is doing coincides with Isaiah’s description in our first lesson.

And then Jesus tells us that John the Baptist is a great prophet. John is the one sent to prepare the way of the Lord. Yet the least person in the kingdom of Jesus is greater than John. This comment by Jesus reminds me of that wonderful line from the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts. (Zech. 4:6.) It also takes us back to the Magnificat. God exalts the humble and meek.

Mary Hinkle Shore, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul Minnesota, writes,  “The kingdom of heaven is the message and ministry of one who enacts God’s will, not by laying waste to his enemies, but by ‘giving his life a ransom for many.’ “

She says, “When being arrested in Gethsemane, Jesus does not appeal to his Father for ‘more than twelve leagues of angels’ (Matt. 26:53), but goes quietly with his accusers. …To our friends who want to know why things are not better if God’s Messiah has already come, we can say that God’s Messiah chose to combat evil with his innocent suffering and death. This does not answer every question about persistent injustice, nor does it absolve Christians and others from working for the good of all their neighbors. Yet the choice Jesus made for the cross over those legions of angels is testimony that God’s justice, mercy, and peace are probably not as likely to come by means of unquenchable fire as they are by means of suffering love.” (Shore, New Proclamation Year A 2007-8, p. 24.)

As we have noted before, Christ’s kingdom has begun but it is not yet complete. We are living in that in-between time. Part of our work in Advent is looking for signs of God’s justice, mercy, and peace and helping individuals and groups who are working to build God’s kingdom right now. We are blessed to be able to give to the United thank Offering and to Episcopal Relief and Development, and I know that all of you are sharing God’s love in many ways each day.

Years ago a dear friend and colleague gave me this prayer by an anonymous mystic writing in the fifteenth century:

Thou shalt know him when he comes
Not by any din of drums—
Nor the vantage of His airs—
Nor by anything he wears—
Neither by His crown—
Nor His gown—
For His presence known shall be
By the Holy Harmony
That His coming makes in thee.     Amen.

Advent 4B RCL December 21, 2014

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Canticle 15
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

In our first lesson today, King David tells the prophet Nathan that he wants to build God a house, a temple. Nathan supports the idea. But then God lets Nathan know that God has done just fine without a house all these years, traveling with flexibility in tent and tabernacle, and, in fact, God called David when he was just a shepherd boy and made David a king. God says that God is going to make God’s own house, and that is going to be the House of David, that is, the kingship of David and his descendants.

Out of respect for God, we make houses for God, and this is a good thing. But Herbert O’Driscoll writes, “In our Western culture we have certainly moved God out of anything resembling a tent into countless great houses. Are we paying a price for this, now that we once again need to be freed up to discover new ways of communicating Christian faith and of forming Christian community?”

He goes on to say, “Sometimes small groups work quietly with a low profile. Could we call this the ‘tent mode’ of doing God’s work? Sometimes the whole church becomes involved, acting publicly or even politically. Could we call this the ‘temple mode’ of doing God’s work. This is not an ‘either-or’ but a ‘both-and’ situation.”

As we know from history, David’s son, Solomon, did build God a temple in Jerusalem.

Once again, we say the Song of Mary, this week in the contemporary version. The shalom of God turns the world upside down.

Then, in our epistle, Paul is concluding the Letter to the Romans with a call to the obedience of faith in Christ Jesus.

In our gospel, we have one of the most powerful role models for obedience, Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Here is this very young woman, engaged to an older man, Joseph, a carpenter, a men of deep faith. An intelligent, intuitive, and courageous man. Here is Mary going about her life, maybe doing the washing or the cooking, and the angel Gabriel comes to visit her! She is not an Important Personage. She lives in a little out of the way place called Nazareth, in that borderline region called Galilee, definitely not a center of any kind of political or other power. In the Bible, angels are not as they are on TV and in movies. They don’t look that human. I think of them as huge beings pulsating with light and power, but I owe that concept to Madeleine L’Engle. The point is, Biblical angels are scary.

Gabriel’s greeting is positive, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you! Just imagine Mary. An angel, one of the chief angels at that, is coming to tell her the Lord is with her? Most people would faint. Mary doesn’t. And we are not surprised, for we know that the steel within her enabled her to stand at the foot of the cross later on

The angel tells Mary that she is going to give birth to the Savior. This is like an angel going to some very out of the way place and telling a young hotel maid that she is going to be president. It is mind-boggling. Mary remains centered. Her mind does not go out the window. In this situation,most of us would be numb. We would not be able to think clearly. But Mary does not lose concentration. In fact, she is actually able to ask a logical question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel tells her that the Holy Spirit is going to do this. Furthermore, Gabriel tells Mary that her cousin Elizabeth has conceived in her old age.

God’s creative and saving Spirit is breaking in. Miracles are happening all over the place. “Nothing will be impossible with God,” says our gospel.

And Mary, still completely centered, replies, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” “Here am I,” the same words Abraham uses when God calls him to pull up stakes and start w hole new life in the land of Canaan. The same words all faithful servants of God use to say, “Yes, Lord, I am here. I have faith in you. I will do your work.”

Right after this, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. She is a wise person. We know this from the unwavering faith and determination she shows throughout her life. She goes to visit her kinswoman, her sister in the faith. They are both having similar experiences. They will be able to support each other. Mary knows that we should never make the journey of faith alone. We should always seek wise people who can understand our experiences because their journeys are similar to ours.

God is on the move. God choses the most unlikely people and places to do miracles. God loves the little people and the little places. God exalts the humble and meek.

Christmas Eve is coming. We will gather to celebrate the birth of our Lord, who knows exactly what it is like to be human because he was and is one of us, and he is also the Son of God, He is fully human and fully divine.

God is still doing miracles. Don’t be surprised if an angel drops by to visit you. Don’t be surprised if God calls you to do something you would never have dreamed of. God is full of surprises. God is full of miracles. “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Amen.