(A sermon for Advent 4C–December 23, 2012–Luke 1:46b-55)
It’s been a pretty grim December. Snow turned to rain, the sky has been gray, lots of foggy days, and that’s just the bad weather news. Early in the month, I went to the 7-11 near my house for gas first thing in the morning and witnessed the arrival of some panhandlers. In Portland, there are organized teams of men and women who stand at busy intersections with signs, taking turns throughout the day. There are more than usual at this time of year. They drove up together. One man filled the gas tank of a car they left parked in the lot. Two went inside to buy coffee. They left the fourth member of their group to stand on the median strip. She was a very young woman, really little more than a girl. She was thin and looked tired, and she was inadequately dressed for the weather. Her sign read, “Out of work with a family to support.” A cigarette drooped on her lip.
I felt the tension between sympathy and suspicion as I drove away. How did she end up at the intersection? How did she end up in that condition?
Long ago and far away another young girl faced a crossroads in her life. She received a visit from an angel, and even though I like the sound of angels, the idea of a visit from one is fairly terrifying. After all, they always start by saying, “Fear not!” This angel asked Mary to take on an unbelievable task, a lot more dangerous than standing at an intersection. The angel asked Mary to become the mother of God’s child, to become the mother of part of God’s own self. It’s a mystical notion; we can’t understand it very well. Really, we may not want to think too much about the technicalities.
But in her hometown, within a few months, there would surely be people asking the question, “How did she end up in that condition?”
For Mary it was a matter of faith. She agreed to what the angel announced. “Here I am,” she said, “the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me as you have said.” In the song we read today, she sings praise to God and prophesies that all generations will call her blessed.
She sounds so accepting, but don’t be fooled into thinking she was passive. The words we read this morning are a call to revolution. Mary makes a claim that God has changed the world in the past and by coming into the world will change it again.
And she will be a part of it, nurturing the child who will grow into the man, Jesus. I often say I take comfort in knowing that God understands our challenges and our sorrows, because Jesus lived them. But God also knows the love of a mother because Mary gave it to Jesus. They blessed each other, the mother and the son. God received and gave real, human love, expressed in touch and tears and probably the feeling of being cautioned against bad behavior, and certainly the feeling of being held tight when the troubles are over.
God didn’t just love us from far away; God loved us up close.
And even though that time may seem far away, we can feel and be God’s up close love for one another.
This church shows love, God’s love, in many ways. Just in the past few days, our church family has staffed the Community Food Pantry in Cumberland, gathered gifts for a family facing challenges here in North Yarmouth, and opened the Pet Pantry to people in need. The stars hanging behind me represent your financial gifts to the Food Pantry. We don’t do these things just because it’s Christmas. Your gifts to the Deacons Fund and your pledges to our church’s Local Mission make it possible for us to show love in practical ways throughout the year. There is nothing mystical about these material expressions of love.
It’s also not a mystical notion that our time together is coming to an end. Pretty much every route I take, every person I see, and every conversation I have has been mentally marked “possibly the last time.” So I have been paying special attention, drinking in the moments to remember later. As I try to say goodbye to each of you, I have to admit that while love never ends, the opportunities to express it are time-sensitive. Time can run out for showing it. Don’t let that happen. Tell the people you love how you feel. Better yet, show them.
And although it’s tempting to think, at Christmas, of the gift you ought to buy, there are other, better ways.
Yes, love is time-sensitive, but love is also outside of time. We still feel love from people who are gone, remembering their kindness to us and the ways they changed our world or changed the world for all people. I remember my grandmother the activist. You remember the teacher who cared about you. This church remembers blessed saints, like Ros and Gladys and Bud. We remember people of faith in the wider world who brought about change of just the kind Mary describes, opening schools to children of all races, bringing peace where there had been war, reminding us ever and always that God is on the side of the lowly and not the powerful. Our actions have the same power: to heal, to console, to encourage, to bless, and to change.
Love varies in its expressions. On Friday morning, fifteen of us gathered here for a time of remembrance. We lit the Advent Wreath; we prayed; we kept silence. Next door our neighbor watched the bell from her kitchen window, telling me later, “I knew more than one person had to be there. Thank you.” If you’ve ever rung the bell here, you know that it takes a good hard pull, and sometimes it rings twice even when you pull only once. Four people went up into the balcony to ring the bell while the rest of us witnessed. We heard the quiet movement of their feet as they shifted to let each other have a turn. Love varies, like their pulling on the bell rope. The way you show it may look or sound different than the way I show it, but it’s still love.
Love is touch. I finally cried over Newtown when I was watching the news Monday night and saw the story about the Comfort Dogs. These trained therapy dogs, part of a Lutheran ministry, traveled from Chicago to Connecticut, and their job was simply to be present in the midst of grief and distress. Petting the dogs makes you feel better, said one little girl. National Geographic.com reports:
One boy confided in the gentle-faced golden retriever about exactly what happened in his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School that day—which his parents said was more than he’d been able to share with them. A little girl who hadn’t spoken since the shootings finally started talking to her mother again after petting one of the “comfort dogs.” Groups of teenagers began to open up and discuss their fear and grief with each other as they sat on the floor together, all stroking the same animal.[i]
Surely that is God’s up close love.
Love is real, and real love will turn our world upside down. It will move us where we never thought we would go. It will open us beyond all perceived possibilities. It will strengthen us for whatever comes our way.
God’s up close love changed Mary’s life. It put her in a condition she never expected: mother of God’s own self. She raised him with love, in the best way she knew how, and watched him go out into the world. Mary lived to see her son die, a hard reality no one wants for a mother. We’ve seen too much of it. But we still call her blessed. She opened herself to God and brought forth God’s child out of love.
Out of love, Jesus stood against the proud and for the lowly. He embraced the unacceptable. He stopped at all sorts of crossroads and intersections; he felt no tension between suspicion and sympathy. He talked to people we drive past regularly.
He showed us God’s love is real, up close.
God has done a great thing for us. In all generations, we are blessed. Amen.