A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, December 24, 2017
Text: Luke 1:26-55
A Contemporary Word Encountering Angels Morton Kelsey, The Drama of Christmas
Most of us think we might like to have an encounter with a friendly angel. We forget that any such encounter strikes humans with a combination of awe, wonder, and terror. An experience of a real angel would be like looking over the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time and seeing below us the ageless rocks laid out in a vast panorama; we would feel insignificant, a mere fragment of both space and time. An angel – an awesome, mysterious, numinous reality – would give us a feeling of the ineffable Holy, and we would need to be reminded in any such encounter that we have nothing to fear. The Holy not only gives humans an overwhelming sense of being loved but also makes demands on them just by appearing to them. I knew one man who started a practice of praying and keeping a journal and was making great progress, and then he stopped; he told me he had seen some light, and he didn’t like it.
A Contemporary Word Christmas Traffic U. A. Fanthorpe, Consequences
Three, two, one, liftoff
Signals mission Control. And off they go
To the dark parts of the planets
In their pressurized spacesuits,
Cocooned in technology, the astronauts.
Mission control whispers in someone’s ear.
Yes, she says, I will. And in due time
A different traveler makes a quieter journey,
Arriving hungry, naked, but true to instructions,
Docking on Earth, taking one small step.
Oh, Mary, what an eventful year in your young life! How in the world did you manage it all? Tradition teaches that you were a teen, somewhere between twelve and fourteen. It was common in those days and in that place for girls of your age to be given to a man in a pre-arranged marriage. There’s no reason for us to assume anachronistically that you weren’t ready to be wed. You were already betrothed to Joseph and your life was laid out for you as his wife. There were no surprises here.
We don’t know much about you, actually, only what we can infer from scripture and tradition. Some Christians put you on a throne and call you the Queen of Heaven. Maybe it is so, but we Baptists turn away from any notion of worshipping you. Some see you as a sort of submissive vessel through which God has his way. Too many of us Baptists have used this a rationale for devaluing and subjugating women generally.
Oh, Mary, what can we say about you on this Sunday when the lectionary texts focus on you and your role in the birth of Jesus? There you were, going about the business of a young, peasant bride-to-be in the Galilean village of Nazareth. Did you feel you’re your wings had been clipped too soon? Were you resigned to your fate? Were you excited with prospect of being married to a good man, a solid member of the community? Were you looking forward to having your own home and family? What were the thoughts of a young girl about to be wed in Galilee in the first century?
We just sang a song that suggested you might have been a child who “wandered wild along the sea. A holy child, alone was she, and they called her Dreaming Mary.” Were you a dreamer, Mary? Did you have an independent streak, along with a deep and holy bent, even at a tender age? Did you have any inkling that you were special, that amazing things were about to transform your seemingly unremarkable existence?
Oh, Mary, there he was, appearing suddenly before you in all his radiant splendor, Gabriel, the angel of God. Were you stopped in your tracks? What does one say to an angel who bursts on the scene unannounced? I would guess not much, having been struck dumb with a combination of awe, wonder, and terror. So, the angel spoke first, uttering the standard assurance, “Do not be afraid.” That’s easy for the angel to say but I imagine it would be difficult for you or me or Mary to just stuff our fear. This is beyond whistling a happy tune in hopes your fear will vanish.
It’s important to note that Mary does not flee in fear. Whatever is before her, she stands her ground – a good sign from a strong young woman. Her mind began to process what was before her. What had the angel said? “Greetings, favored one! The Holy One is with you.” There certainly was the possibility of good news in that greeting. Unlike Morton Kelsey’s friend, she did not turn away because “she had seen some light, and didn’t like it.” In fact, she seemed drawn to the light with a simple, natural curiosity. She wondered about the affirmation in the angel’s greeting.
When he shared the rather remarkable news that she was to bear God’s son, she still did not flee in terror. Yes, she had practical concerns. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel explained things as best he could, and, as was her wont, she began to ponder these things in her heart. When God’s representative came calling with a challenging proposition, she did not turn away in fear or indignation. She took the time to consider what this all meant. “Am I truly favored? Do I feel the Holy One with me? Is this the word I’ve been waiting to hear all my brief life? Am I worthy? Am I ready?”
As Kelsey notes, “The Holy not only gives humans an overwhelming sense of being loved but also makes demands on them just by appearing to them.” But here’s the thing, Mary was free to say, “No, thank you,” and I think she knew that. She also knew she would have to explain all this to Joseph and the family and there was certainly the possibility of scandal. Oh, Mary, what are you going to do with such an invitation, to bear the Son of God?
In the end, her willingness to consider something radically out of the ordinary bode well for her – and for us. Her life is shaped by this great faith claim, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Clearly, she had some deeper understanding of this proclamation. “Then let it be so,” she responded. “Here am I, the servant of the Holy One; let it be with me according to your word.” I hear no subjugation here, no resignation to a fate she couldn’t control. These are active words of her acceptance of what is being offered. “Mission control whispers in someone’s ear. Yes, she says, I will.” Maybe, I’m too quick to read excitement and joy into her response but they seem real to me.
The writer of Luke affirmed the excitement and joy of this time in Mary’s life when he had her cousin, Elizabeth greet the young, pregnant girl, “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by God.” Blessed is one who believes God’s promises and acts to make them real. Oh Mary, what was it like to be so blessed, the chosen of God. To take up such responsibility?
Filled with the very presence of God, Mary, her voice growing stronger daily, sang her own amazing song. “My soul magnifies the Holy One, 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.” Excitement, joy, wonder to be chosen, to be blessed, to have God move in and through her.
Whether the rest of her hymn sprang from the depths of her own being, or Luke thought so highly of her he gave these prophetic words to her, is less important than the actual proclamation, “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 hearts. 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 forever.”
Oh, Mary, thank you for your faith to follow and your willingness to act to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to life among us. Maybe we take heart from your willing witness and do likewise. Amen.