Saturday, December 17, 2011

Who, Me? (Advent 4, December 18 2011)

Homily:  Yr B Advent 4, Dec 18 2011, St. Albans
Readings:  2 Sam 7:1-11.16; Ps 89:1-4, 19-26; Rom 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Who, Me?

This week as I was surfing the Internet to get some background on today’s readings, I came across something in a commentary for preachers by David Lose that caught my attention.  David wrote, “I want to ask you a question, and I suspect that your success, your effectiveness as a preacher, depends on how you answer this one simple question.”

At that point the page said “to continue reading click here”.  I was hooked, so I clicked.  And this was the question:

“Do you believe that God is still active in the world today?”

And it occurred to me that the answer to this question doesn’t just determine the effectiveness of preachers.  It affects all who call themselves Christians.  So I want to ask you a question, and I suspect that the vitality of your faith, your effectiveness as a disciple of Jesus, depends on how you answer this one simple question.

“Do you believe that God is still active in the world today?”

Notice that I’m not asking you if you believe in God.  I expect most if not all of you do.  At least 3 out of every 4 people in this country will say they believe in God.  But for the most part, the God we believe in is, well, kind of passive.  God is out there somewhere, watching us, hanging out in the background, maybe doing a bit of encouraging or comforting or supporting.  But few people, and this includes those of us in the church, few people imagine God to be an active character in the story of our lives.  We pretty much agree with the Bette Midler song from a few years ago:  God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us . . . from a distance.

How we answer that question, of whether God is active in the world today, will also affect how we react to today’s gospel reading of the annunciation of Mary.  In today’s gospel, the angel Gabriel is sent by God to Nazareth to tell Mary that by the power of the Holy Spirit she will conceive and bear a son who will be called the Son of God.  This is the story of a God who is active in the world.

When you hear it, do you hear it as a historical and theological curiosity, a one-off event that happened long, long ago in a land far, far away?  Or do you hear it as an example, yes a unique and special example, but nevertheless, still an example of something that is going on all the time, here in Ottawa, in the year 2011.  Do you hear it as the story of something that could happen in your life, or perhaps something that is happening in your life and that you’re in the middle of right now, trying to figure it out in the same way that Mary in today’s gospel tries to figure out what’s going on?

Do you believe that God is still active in the world today?  That God still sends messengers, because that’s what the word ‘angel’ means, that God still sends messengers to speak to people and give them work to do as part of God’s plan for this world?

And if you do, if that’s what you believe, then I suppose the next question would be, do you think that God is talking to you?

One of the things that strikes me in the gospel that we just read is that Mary is more shocked and afraid when Gabriel greets her than she is when Gabriel tells her that she will conceive and bear a son.  Isn’t that interesting. The text tells us that Gabriel came to Mary and said to her “Greetings, favoured one, the Lord is with you.”  But Mary was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be, and she was afraid.

Who, me?  Are you’re talking to me?  Did you say God wants me? 

It’s one thing to believe that God is active in the world.  It’s another to believe that God wants to be active in the world through me.

After all, look at the track record.  This is the third time that the angel Gabriel appears in the Bible.  The first time, he appeared to the prophet Daniel, the King’s chosen governor in the great city of Babylon, capital of the empire.  The second time that Gabriel appeared, just six months ago, he spoke to the priest Zechariah, in the holy city of Jerusalem, in the temple sanctuary as Zechariah was offering incense to God.  Kind of makes sense doesn’t it, that God would send his messenger to speak with prophets and priests.  Isn’t that what we would expect?

But this time, Gabriel goes to Nazareth.  Nazareth.  A tiny village in a remote region of Palestine that is of so little significance that it is never mentioned in the Old Testament, nor in any other writings about ancient Israel.  And who does he visit?  Not a prophet, not a priest, not anyone of any position or stature.  No, a young girl, perhaps 13 years old.  And so when this strange messenger arrives, Mary isn’t expecting it, and she’s afraid.  When he tells her that she is God’s choice, his favoured one, she is perplexed.

Are you talking to me?

Yes I’m talking to you says Gabriel.  And this is what is going to happen.  You will conceive and bear a son and you will name him Jesus.

And at this point you’ll notice that Mary doesn’t say yes right away.  Her initial reaction is one of questioning.  “How can this be?”

Gabriel explains a bit more how this will all come to pass.  He tells her about her relative Elizabeth, he reassures her that even though this all sounds quite impossible, with God nothing is impossible.

And then, and only then, does Mary agree.  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord;  let it be with me according to your word.”

There is a space between “How can this be?” and “Let it be”.  A space of unknowing, a space of wondering, a space of questioning.  I bet you that some of you in this church are in that space right now.  For Mary, at least the way Luke tells it, that space doesn’t last too long.  For some of us it lasts much longer.

The first person to say to me that I should become an ordained minister was a 13 year old girl at the church that I was a member of at the time, about 10 years ago or so.  She just came up to me during coffee hour after the service one day, and said to me “Mark, I think you should become a minister.”  Looking back on things, I guess you could say she was my angel.   And you know what my reaction was that day?  I laughed.  Maybe that was my way of saying “How can this be?”  But the seed had been planted, and I entered into that space in between “how can this be?” and “let it be”.  And I spent about 5 years in that space, before I was ready to say “here I am, the servant of the Lord;  let it be with me according to your word,” and I signed up for the theology program I needed to go into ordained ministry.

Some of you are in that space at this very moment.  Others may still be waiting for their angel to visit.  Still others are faithfully doing the very thing that God called you to, maybe yesterday, or perhaps many years ago.  For each us the timing will be different,  our vocations will be different, God calls us each differently.  I don’t suppose anyone here will be asked to bear a child who will be the Son of God.  But Mary’s story, though unique and special, is the story of something that is happening all the time, in this city, in this century.  It is the story of a God who wants to be an active character in each of our lives, of how he calls us and of how we can respond.

Here I am, the servant of the Lord.  Let it be with me according to your word.


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