Sunday’s sermon: Mary, Did You Know?

annunciation

Texts used – Psalm 126; Luke 1:26-55

  • Reminder of our Advent sermon series this year (since we missed last week … thank you, laryngitis!)
    • In the midst of all the busyness and activity of the Christmas holiday season, Advent = special, sacred time of waiting à time to pause – to take a breath or two – and focus on our thoughts and words and actions in this in-between time
    • This year: considering familiar songs/hymns of the season and how they help us wait
  • Now, before we listen to our song for this week, I want to touch on where we are in the Advent cycle. During our Advent candle lighting this morning, you may have noticed something a little different. For the past few weeks, we’ve lit only purple candles, but today, we lit the pink one as well. That’s because today is a special Sunday in the Advent cycle. In many traditions, it’s called Gaudete Sunday.
    • Each Advent candle = dedicated to a theme → themes vary BUT most common: 1st) hope, 2nd) peace, 3rd) joy, 4th) love
    • Back in the early days of the church, Advent was treated more like Lent
      • Time of repentance and atonement
      • Time of intense self-reflection
      • Somber, earnest season → far cry from lightheartedness we often seek to experience in this season today
      • And in the face of all this serious reflection and repentance, this 3rd Sunday of Advent – Gaudete Sunday – became a bit of a break: a time to relish the joy and lightness of the coming of the Savior.
        • “Gaudete” = “break” in Latin
    • But we have to admit that sometimes, that’s easier said than done. Sometimes, that seriousness, that severity, that darkness – of the world around us, of the headlines that vie for our attention every morning, of the thoughts and worries that consume our day-to-day … sometimes we can become too overwhelmed by all of those fears and unanswered questions to be able to fully acknowledge and appreciate that joy.
      • Part of the reason = we are functioning with a confused definition of “joy” → If I were to ask you what “joy” means, I would guess that a lot of people would tell me something like, “Joy means happiness,” or “Joy means being happy.” But the late Henri Nouwen – priest, prolific author, and spiritual mentor – outlined the crucial difference between happiness and joy: Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away. Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us.[1]
  • And especially in light of our New Testament reading this morning, that definition – “joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing can take that love away” – brought Mary starkly to mind for me this week.
    • Mary, mother of Jesus = interesting figure in religious history
      • Mentioned only a handful of times throughout Scripture[2]
        • Vast majority of those times happen during the birth narratives in Mt and Lk
        • Two brief appearances early in Jesus’ ministry
        • Disappears until we see her again at the foot of the cross
      • And yet, despite this sparse Biblical presence, Mary has been a point of fascination and great theological development and debate for millennia.
        • Especially lifted up in Catholicism – veneration began as far back as the 4th CE and was declared doctrine at the Council of Ephesus in 431[3]
        • Quick and simple Amazon search for books on “virgin Mary” = 5333 hits
    • As Protestants, we probably think about Mary, the mother of Jesus more during this time of year than any other. But how often do we really think about the circumstances that Mary was facing?
      • Very young woman (marrying age at that time was early teens)
      • Engaged (probably an arranged marriage at the time)
      • Suddenly visited by an angel and told that she was going to bear the child of God → So Mary was going to be pregnant … and unmarried … at a time when any kind of pre-marital relations was a punishable offense – punishable almost exclusively on the part of women, might I add.
        • Text: The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule of Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. …” Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.[4]  → “Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us.” What was running through Mary’s head at that moment? What was she unhappy about? What fears and worries plagued her heart? What crucial questions sprang to her mind just after “the angel left her”? We cannot deny that even in all her grace-filled obedience, Mary is put in a truly difficult position here. She was already engaged to Joseph. She most certainly had a life that she had been envisioning – plans and dreams and expectations. And I think we can be sure that a pre-marital baby from God wasn’t a part of those dreams. That was a lot to come crashing down on Mary all in the span of a few seemingly-simple sentences: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. … The one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.” And yet, in the face of all of that, Mary expresses JOY.
          • Words to Elizabeth: With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.[5]
            • Echoes the words of our psalm → ancient words of Hebrew worship with which Mary would have been familiar: When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better, it was like we had been dreaming. Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter; our tongues were filled with joyful shouts. It was even said, at that time, among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them!” Yes, the Lord has done great things for us, and we are overjoyed.[6]
    • Not surprisingly, as I think about Mary and all that she may have been going through, the more recent Christmas song “Mary, Did You Know?” came to mind. [PLAY “Mary, Did You Know?” sung by Pentatonix[7]]  → The song itself is powerful in the way it’s written – the way the music progresses, the strength and haunting quality of the minor key in which it’s written. But while the musicality of the song draws us in, it is the words that catch us and hold us and tug at our hearts – the potent combination of joy and anxiousness that they convey, the questions that I wish I could ask Mary myself. Yes, Mary was told by Gabriel that her child would be called the Son of God. Yes, Mary was told by Gabriel that her son would be “great … He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” But did she know …
      • The miracles that Jesus would perform?
      • The healing that would come from his very fingertips?
      • That he would not only be called the Son of God but that he would indeed be God Incarnate?
      • Did she know about the fate that awaited her precious baby boy? The arrest, the mocking and torment, the horrors of the crucifixion, the unimaginable glory of the resurrection? Gabriel didn’t mention anything about the specifics of what Mary was in for raising this Son of the Most High. He simply told her that she would be blessed … and she trusted. She believed. She even rejoiced.
  • End today with a picture of Mary that I want to encourage you to ponder: part of poem “Annunciation” by Denise Leverov

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite wisdom and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,
Spirit,
suspended,
waiting.

 

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy.’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Amen.

[1] http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/reviews/excerpts/view/14116.

[2] http://home.earthlink.net/~mysticalrose/marian17.html.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veneration_of_Mary_in_the_Catholic_Church.

[4] Lk 1:30-35, 38.

[5] Lk 1:46-50.

[6] Ps 126:1-3.

[7] “Mary, Did You Know?” as performed by Pentatonix from the album “That’s Christmas to Me,” RCA Records, 2014.

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