This week I am preaching at the church where I serve as Acting Associate Minister. The text I inherited from the former associate minister is the gospel text. No big surprise and no doubt the one I would have chosen myself. It is a story of mystery and surprise. A story of transformation and mystical acceptance of God’s presence. What to say about it? Should we not just tell the story and let it soak into our souls? Yet it the order of worship asks for a sermon.
I find myself particularly pondering the angel’s greeting to Mary, “Greetings, favored one! God is with you.” And the question that Rev. Kate Huey posted on the UCC Sermon Seeds Facebook page yesterday in relation to this week’s texts, “What is God doing today, here in our midst, that is too wonderful for our imaginations or our words?”
To answer this question I know that I must allow my soul to hear and absorb the angel’s greeting. “Greetings, favored one! God is with you.” The texts that lead us to this astonishing “hello” assure us that “God has made God’s home among mortals” as we hear at the conclusion of Revelation. God tells Nathan the prophet to announce to King David that God is establishing a name, a house and kingdom before that shall be forever. Psalm 89 echoes this assurance with the very important remembrance of the covenant God has made with God’s people. Paul assures the church at Rome that God strengthens them according to the revelation of the mystery of the ages – Jesus the Christ who extends the covenant to all people. And the Luke passages tell of the revelation – first to a young, peasant girl who then sings of the revolution of world order that the revelation brings. Not will bring but brings now! The covenant is fulfilled and being fulfilled.
I am not a first century peasant girl…compared to the social status of Mary I might be one of the mighty as an educated, white middle class woman of the 21st century. Yet I hear the greeting of the angel ringing in my ears through the ancient assurances in our texts. “Greetings, favored one! God is with you.” Might I, too, be a “favored one” of God? And as a clergy leader who preaches that God is with us all at all times…will I allow my heart to receive God more fully during this Advent? So I may say joyfully with Mary, “ I am the servant of God. Be born in me!”
Only as I allow God’s presence to seep deeper into my heart will I be able to pose Kate’s question to the congregation I serve. “What is God doing today, here in our midst, that is too wonderful for our imaginations or our words?” Will we allow our imaginations to open to the glorious mystery of God’s love? To be born anew in us despite the worry, fear, pain and violence of the world? If not, then what are we doing with our precious God-given lives? I take to heart the words of Meister Eckhart, 14th century mystic:
“We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? Then, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.” http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/december-21-2014.html
Along with the sermon on Sunday, I will be telling a story at Children’s Time that I learned from the book, Angels, Angels All Around by Bob Hartman (Lion Books, 1993.) Accompanied by the full of wonder illustrations of Robert Rayevsky, Hartman retells many of the biblical angel stories. The story of the Annunciation is titled, “The Surprise.” (You can find many of Bob Hartman’s Bible storybooks at Amazon.com.)
Below is a brief telling of Hartman’s story in my own words. How would you tell the story of the Annunciation from the angel’s point of view?
“The Surprise” (adapted from the story by Bob Hartman)
The angel Gabriel did not like surprises! They were much too startling! Sometimes people jumped and screamed. Or held their breath and fainted. Or burst into tears. Yet God was always sending him to surprise unsuspecting human beings with announcements of news from God. How did he get this job?
Now he had been sent to surprise an unmarried teenage girl who was simply minding her own business, tending her garden, sweeping the floors, baking the bread for the evening meal. Her name was Mary. He was to announce to her that God had chosen her to be the mother of God’s son, Jesus. What an unbelievable announcement to make! Though he knew that with God nothing is impossible. It was sure to shock her. How could it not? She might faint, fall down and hit her head. She might start to cry uncontrollably! She might run away! What would he do if she got so upset that she couldn’t hear God’s love for her and God’s loving instructions?
The angel tried to think of all the ways he could appear to her without scaring her….just knock on the door? No, what if the neighbors saw him standing there in his wings? Write the words, “God is with you” in the flour on the table where she was making bread? Too weird! Whisper the news in her ear? Sing a special song that only she could hear? What if she thought she was going crazy hearing strange voices?
While he stood there in her little house, thinking he could not be seen and wondering what to do, he suddenly looked up and saw that she was looking right at him with curiosity and wonder. She could see him! Most people couldn’t! He stepped out completely from the curtain between heaven and earth. He managed to squeak out, “Hello, favored one of God. Do not be afraid, God is with you.” She nodded her head with a puzzled expression. He rushed on, “And God has sent me to tell you that you will have a baby, a boy, his name will be Jesus and he will be the Son of God most high and savior of the world.”
She was quiet for a moment considering his words. “How can this be?” she said. “ How can I be someone’s mother when I am not married yet?
“God’s Holy Spirit will wrap you in God’s love and the child will begin to grow inside you. He will be holy and blessed.”
Her brow furrowed and she frowned a bit as she thought about this.
The angel continued, “ Have you not heard that your cousin, Elizabeth, who everyone thought would never bear a child, is pregnant? Six months! With God nothing is impossible.”
Mary sat down in a chair and studied her hands for a moment. Then she raised her brown eyes to the angel’s face and said, “I love serving God in any way I can. I will do it. I will be who God invites me to be.”
Gabriel nodded. And let out a long sigh. He did not realize he was holding his breath. As he turned to pull back the curtain between heaven and earth he saw his hand was trembling. This girl had certainly surprised him with her confidence and calm. He looked at her again and she smiled at him. “Do not be afraid,” she said. “God is with you.” And they both laughed! Gabriel said goodbye pulling the curtain back into place. “Maybe surprises weren’t so bad after all,” he thought.
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2014. To be reprinted with permission only.