Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sermon, Advent 4B, Luke 1:26-38

Today's gospel is the second of two annunciation stories in Luke; the first being the annunciation of John to Zechariah. These two stories of God's intervention are very similar. Gabriel is the messenger in both. He has to tell both people to not be afraid. In both stories, he announces a pregnancy to people who shouldn't be having babies. He tells both people what to name the child. And both people question the angel.

But these stories are also very different. Zechariah and Elizabeth had a priestly lineage that they could trace back to Aaron; Mary is simply a young, anonymous woman who eventually married into the royal lineage. Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in Jerusalem and he served in the temple; Mary lived in a country village. Zechariah and Elizabeth were counted as righteous; nothing is said about Mary's spirituality or worthiness. Zechariah questions; Mary ponders. And it is that last difference that I want to focus on.

Here are two annunciation stories with two characters that question Gabriel about the birth of their respective children. Yet in one, the questioner is struck mute by the angel, and in the other, the questioner is given an explanation of how this is to take place. That difference perplexed me. Why was this? How could two similar questions lead to two dissimilar results?

The answer is that it's about faith. What exactly is faith? There are two definitions for faith. The first is objective and refers to the faith of the Church. The faith of the Church refers to such things as the creeds, councils, and teachings of early Church fathers and other saints. And it has to do with that which is revealed in Holy Scripture.

The second is subjective and has to do with personal belief systems. We have faith in God and the life everlasting, for instance. Faith is also a spiritual gift; and for St. Paul, it's one of the big three -- faith, hope and love.

Faith is also relational. When we enter into a relationship, whether as a friendship, a marriage or even with a church community or with God, we commit ourselves to the other person. We give up a piece of ourselves with the faith that we will be respected, appreciated and loved. We give up some of our control. Not only that, but we willingly abandon ourselves to another person whom we do not, and cannot know completely. Archbishop Desmond Tutu points out that in this regard, even atheists have faith.

Faith plays an important part in our lives, and it plays an important part in these two annunciation stories. As I said, I was perplexed as to why Zechariah was struck mute while Mary got off scot-free, so to speak. And what it came down to was attitude and faith.

The annunciation of John to Zechariah led to a question that demanded proof. "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years." How will I know? Prove to me that this is so. Give me a sign. Prove to me you're the Son of God and throw yourself down from the temple. Prove to me that you're the Messiah and come down from the cross.

One of my commentaries has a rather amusing take on the annunciation of John that goes something like this: When confronted with Gabriel's news, Zechariah responds, "How will I know this? For I am an old man . . ." And Gabriel responds, "And I am Gabriel! I stand in the presence of God. Don't mess with me!"

So there you have it. Zechariah, a man of priestly lineage, a man who served at God's high altar, a man who should have known better, showed remarkably little faith and asked for proof instead.

Now, contrast this with Mary and what we heard today. The annunciation of Jesus to Mary also leads to a question; but that question doesn't ask for proof. That question doesn't ask for a sign. Instead, that question asks for understanding.

"How can this be, since I am a virgin?" It can be because nothing is impossible with God. Nothing is too wonderful for the Lord. With God, all things are possible.

This is akin to the difference between, "How do I know you love me," or, "How do I know that I am welcome here," and, "How is it that you love me?" or, "How is it that you welcome me into this place?" We may wonder at these. We may ponder them in our hearts, and that's okay. If we don't question and wonder, then we are done searching.

Mary questioned, "How is this possible?" And the answer she got back is often the answer we get, "It just is. God will do what God will do. And God wills to work through you."

So there stood Mary -- not particularly righteous, no royal or priestly bloodlines, not from a metropolitan crossroads -- just a young, anonymous woman from the back country. And that young woman gave us the greatest gift of all: she gave us the example of saying, "Yes." She gave us the example of faith. I don't know why. I don't know how it will come to pass. I don't know what God has in mind. But I am willing to insert myself into God's story. I am willing to let God intervene in my life. Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be.

The story of the annunciation isn't really about a virgin conception or birth. The story is really about faith. Faith is our human response to divine truth. What the story of the annunciation asks is this: Are we willing to abandon ourselves to God? Are we willing to give up our control and desire for proof? Are we willing to be used by God? Are we willing to say, "Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

And if we are willing, how might that change this church and this valley?


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