Bearing Hope to the World

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Advent 4B (Luke 1:26-38, 46-55)

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”[1]

Thus begins some of the most beautiful poetry of our Scripture.  Hearing these words, I think first of the Ave Maria sung so beautifully by the Angel Gabriel who, oddly, sounds just like Perry Como. Then Mary responds with these words, The Magnificat, sung to the beautiful music of Mozart, Bach, or Vivaldi. Travel forward one week when we will be transported to the idyllic scene of Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph smiling sweetly at the newborn Jesus.  The cattle and sheep quietly sleeping nearby.  A star shining brightly in the sky above as choirs of angels – usually between the ages of 5 and 10, dressed neatly in cassock and surplice sweetly sing “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night.”  What could be more perfect, more pristine, more innocent, or more – dare I say it – unrealistic?  Do not misunderstand me, the retelling of the beauty of the nativity has its place – and in important one – because ultimately there is nothing more beautiful than the birth of a child – any child – let alone the child who is to be the Savior of the world.  And perhaps the romanticism around that holy night provides exactly the right context for the praise and adoration that follows.  But here, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we are encouraged to go deeper, to look at the harshness of the story and to find our place in its telling. 

Mary is likely a 12 or 13-year-old servant girl when she learns from the angel that she will soon be pregnant.  She is engaged, but not yet married, to Joseph.  According to the Jewish laws recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, if a woman is not a virgin when she is to be married, the town leaders “are to take her out to the entrance of her father’s house, where the men of her city are to stone her to death. She has done a shameful thing among our people by having intercourse before she was married, while she was still living in her father’s house. In this way you will get rid of this evil.” Or, in the case of a woman who is engaged at the time of her pregnancy, the historians, write that both the man and the woman are to be taken “outside the town” to be stoned “to death. The girl is to die because she did not cry out for help, although she was in town, where she could have been heard. And the man is to die because he had intercourse with a girl who was engaged. In this way you will get rid of this evil.”[2]  The consequences of being an unwed, pregnant woman in early 1st century Judea are dire.  There is, however, no mention of this in Luke’s gospel. Instead, the angel Gabriel declares to Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God”[3] and Mary “magnifies the Lord” and “rejoices.” 

Of course, we might say, but Mary knows this is God’s going. The angel has spoken to her and cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant and that too is a miracle. And yet, what will the neighbors think?  Will they really believe that a servant girl has been chosen by God to bring the Messiah into the world?  If Mary has even a thought of this reality – of the danger of her situation – there is no mention of it.  No word of trouble or terror; only a song of faithfulness and responsiveness to God’s calling in her life.  How is it that this young girl finds the strength, the courage, and the faith to say yes to God, to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[4]  This is not Mary, meek and mild, sweet and innocent, this is Mary the God-bearer, pregnant with the hope of the world.

And it is from within this larger context of Mary’s understanding of what this birth will mean to the world that we get the rest of the Magnificat.  What begins as a song of praise and thanksgiving moves quickly into a description of Mary’s understanding of salvation history and the role her child will play:

“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation
          to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
     he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
     and lifted up the lowly;
     he has filled the hungry with good things,
     and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
     in remembrance of his mercy,
     according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
     to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.”[5]

Mary Foskett in her book A Virgin Conceived writes, “not only is Mary cognizant of God’s plan, she is moved to declare it openly.”[6]  Mary’s words have more in common with the words of the prophets – Isaiah, Micah, Amos – than the words one might expect from a young girl. And indeed, Mary is a prophet bearing God in the world through her womb and her words, bearing hope to the world through her womb and her words.

In a few moments, we will initiate by water and the Holy Spirit, Eliana Amaya Greene, into Christ’s Body the Church.  In doing so, we will have the opportunity to renew our baptismal covenant in which we will promise, with God’s help, to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” – that is, to be the bearer of hope to the world.  We will promise, with God’s help to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” – that is, to be the bearer of hope to the world. We will promise, with God’s help, to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” - that is, to be the bearer of hope to the world.  Let us be prepared for and open to the possibility and the promise that this seemingly innocent and simple ritual may have revolutionary power, turning values on their heads, turning the world upside down.  Let us once again put our hope in the Word made flesh.

[1] Luke 1:46-49.
[2] Deuteronomy 22:20-21, 23-24.
[3] Luke 1:30.
[4] Luke 1:38.
[5] Luke 1:50-55.
[6] Mary F. Foskett, A Virgin Conceived: Mary and Classical Representations of Virginity, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2002 p. 14.


The Strength of Our Convictions

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

“Who are you?” the priests and Levites ask.  John replies, “I am not the Messiah. . . . I am not Elijah and I am not the prophet.”  “If you are not the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet” they ask him, “Why then are you baptizing?”[1]  A footnote in The New Oxford Annotated Bible states, “John was challenged because he lacked a status recognized by the religious authorities and engaged in a ritual not sanctioned by them.”[2]  John the Baptist was challenged by the priests and Levites from Jerusalem because John the Baptist’s ministry challenged them.  While John’s gospel focuses on the Baptist’s practice of baptism, last week’s gospel reading – from Mark - also emphasized the Baptist’s unusual appearance:  “clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”[3]  John’s words, John’s behavior, and John’s appearance challenged the assumptions of the day.
Tonight St. Mark’s will host the next gathering of our Confirm not Conform[4] class – about 20 young persons from the congregations of St. Matthew’s and St. Mark’s.  The premise of Confirm not Conform (or CnC) is that not all participants will choose to be confirmed.  We are accepting the possibility that when we invite our young persons to open their hearts and minds to ask what it is they really believe, to truly explore questions of faith, to ask tough questions, and search out answers, there is a chance that confirmation may not be the answer for them at this time in their journey of faith.  The program itself has three phases: demolition, design, and construction.  We are in the midst of Phase One – demolition – where we are inviting the youth to challenge assumptions and, in fact, to rebel (just a little bit).   Tonight’s bit of rebellious deconstruction is to share with one another information about our favorite heretic. 
Heresy is defined by The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church as “the formal denial or doubt of any defined doctrine of the Catholic faith.” [5]  And while it is anachronistic to use the word as a label for John the Baptist, he certainly raised the eyebrows of the religious authorities – the priests and Pharisees – of his day.  What must it be like to see things that others don’t see? And what must it be like to have the courage to act, to have the strength of one’s convictions, in the face of opposition? 
Do you remember the movie Field of Dreams? Iowa famer Ray Kensella (played by Kevin Costner) plows under his most lucrative crop to build a baseball field because of a voice he first hears while working in his corn field: “If you build it, he will come.”  As Ray begins to share this bizarre experience – first with his wife, then with a neighboring farmer at the grain and feed store – as we might imagine, his story is met with ridicule.  And yet, Ray finds the courage to follow the dream, to build the baseball diamond, and to wait for Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other seven players from the Chicago White Sox – later dubbed the Black Sox - who were banned from the game for throwing the 1919 World Series match against the Cincinnati Reds.[6] 
Hearing – or seeing – things that others don’t cannot be easy.  In the first place it raises some big questions about one’s sanity.  I find it remarkable that so many people came to the Jordan River to receive baptism from a man wearing camel’s hair, chewing on locusts!  But more than that, it can force one to make some costly decisions.  The decisions John the Baptist made would ultimately cost him his life.  And yet, the Baptist hears a call to do something in a world that does not hear the call.  And rather than conform to their expectations he follows his faith, sticks to his conviction about who he is.
“I am not the Messiah. . . . I am not Elijah and I am not the prophet.”  “If you are not the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet” they ask the Baptist, “Why then are you baptizing?” His response is calm, and clear, and confident: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ . . . I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”[7]  I am not any of those you might have expected or wanted or needed me to be, but I am who I have been called to be and I do what I have been called to do.  Even under pressure from the authorities the Baptist does not seek to conform to their expectations that he be someone he is not or that he stop being who he is called to be.[8] 
John the Baptist is among a long line of individuals in Scripture who are called to be or do something that is beyond the everyday expectations – sometimes even beyond their own expectations for themselves.  God calls out: “[Moses], I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”[9]  God calls out: “O mortal, [Ezekiel], eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go speak to the house of Israel.”[10]  God calls out: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”[11]  God calls out: “[Mary], you will conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”[12], [13] Moses, Ezekiel, Joseph, Mary, John the Baptist, each responds in their own time and in their own way, “Yes, God!”
Where is God calling us?  What is God asking us to do?  John the Baptist points the way: he baptizes with water and points to the one who will come after him.  Next Sunday Eliana Amaya Greene will be baptized with water and the Holy Spirit and we will have that opportunity to renew our own baptismal covenant.  And, my prayer is that each of us will boldly take the risk, defying all cultural expectations, and promise again to follow the path set before us, not knowing fully where it will take us but trusting that it will lead us ever closer to our God.  And when those around us might ask us who we are, may we have the strength of the Baptist to say with clarity, “I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am not the prophet. I am simply one who testifies to the light of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.”

[1] John 1:6-8, 19-28.
[2] Footnote at John 1:25 in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version, 3rd edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 
[3] Mark 1:6.
[4] Confirm not Conform (CnC) is a curriculum available for purchase from Church Publishing Group. More information is available on the CnC website accessed December 10, 2011.
[5] “Heresy,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edition, ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
[6] Field of Dreams, dir. Phil Alden Robinson, perf. Kevin Kostner,  DVD, Universal Studios, 1989.
[7] John 1:23, 26-27.
[8] In a family systems context, we might call John the Baptist a well-differentiated “self.” For a concise overview of self-differentiation and other concepts of Murray Bowen’s family systems theory see Michael E. Kerr, One Family’s Story: APrimer on Bowen Theory, Washington, DC: Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, 2008.
[9] Exodus 3:10.
[10] Ezekiel 3:1.
[11] Matthew 1:20.
[12] Luke 1:31.
[13] Inspired by Susan K. Bock, “Hearing God Speak: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent,” Liturgy for the Whole Church: Multigenerational Resources for Worship, New York: Church Publishing, 2008, p. 35-37.