Sermon: A Brief Pause

December 24, 2017
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:26-38

With this morning’s reading, it’s as if we’re stepping back nine months in the story of Jesus’ birth, and then tonight we’ll step forward that same nine months again. For here we have Luke’s description of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel brought word to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah. Tonight, we’ll read from both Luke and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus birth some nine months later.

There is, incidentally, a special day on the church calendar to celebrate the Annunciation. It’s March 25th – not because the date was recorded (Jesus’ birthday wasn’t either), but because it’s nine months earlier in the year than Christmas.

I giggled for about ten minutes when I realized that.

For us, as readers of an old, old story, we’ll take just a brief pause, less than nine hours rather than the nine months Mary waited between the angel’s visit and the shepherds’ visit. It’s a brief pause, just a brief pause. That’s the advantage of reading about what happened as opposed to living it.

But most of us are familiar with living through those pauses.

Debie Thomas writes about a “gap” in the story: “’Then the angel departed from her.’ This is the ‘gap’ in my life with God that I both recognize and dread. It’s the moment when the prayer ends, the vision recedes, the certainty wavers. It’s the moment after the ‘yes,’ the moment when the mountaintop experience fades into memory, and life in the valley begins.”

The library shelves are full of the experiences of devoted, faithful people who have experienced great revelations from God – and then felt their epiphanies close down around them as the “normality” and banality of life resumed. They all ask some variant on the question, “Did I really experience what I thought I did?” And, “Should I continue on this course I’m on?” And, “Will it happen again?”

At its worst, these spiritual “dry times” can feed depression. The “dark night of the soul” comes into our language from a poem by St. John of the Cross, written in the 16th century. I wonder how Mary felt a few weeks after this encounter with Gabriel. Did she find the hard realities of being pregnant for the first time, with friends and family probably suspicious of her story of a miraculous conception, and with so much ahead of her unknown?

Did she at all regret her assurance to the angel, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord”?

This wasn’t the only pause in her life between the promise and the fulfillment. Tonight we celebrate the birth of the baby announced in this morning’s story. But the thing about babies is, as wonderful and delightful as they are, they show none of the characteristics of a Messiah. A being that can’t feed itself, that can’t communicate except through tears, that relies entirely on the activity of those around it, is not a Savior. At least, not yet.

Mary had to wait through Jesus’ infancy, and childhood, and adolescence, and into his adulthood, to see the first signs of the fulfillment of the angel’s promise. In fact, Jesus didn’t start his ministry until he was thirty, which seems young to me now but I started my ministry when I was twenty-five, so by that standard he was a late bloomer.

On the scale of geologic times that’s a brief pause, but it must have seemed like forever to Mary, especially since she did so much of the work in those thirty years. Right, moms?

That exposes one of the attributes of these pauses, however, after God’s revelations: they’re filled with work. God’s obvious presence may have receded, but the path God has put us on is frequently one that needs to be laid out, cleared, leveled, and paved.

We get to do this amidst the diminishing assurance that we’re building the right path in the right direction to the right destination. It’s scary. It can be frustrating. It’s often confusing. And sometimes we lose our way.

What we rarely get is a pause. In fact, it’s these moments of clarity that are the pause in our muddled, confusing world. These moments of clarity renew us for the next encounter with all the distractions we’ll face tomorrow.

We may not feel that way, though. Karoline Lewis writes, “Mary exposes how we tend to react to God’s intrusion in our lives. Because God’s interruption is often thought of as inconvenience. God’s impossibility is all too frequently met with disbelief. And God’s intrusiveness is all too frequently met with resistance and conflict.”

Does that sound familiar?

She continues: “But, when God breaks into our world, into our lives, our response needs to be Mary’s – who says, ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord.’ Because when God intrudes, how can you not? I mean, what else is there to say? God intrudes when God must. God intervenes when God’s Kingdom is in peril. God interrupts injustice. God interferes when power oppresses. And so we say, ‘Here we are.’”

Dr. Lewis’ words make me think of our interfaith effort to end family homelessness on Hawai’i Island. The Rev. Paul Normann of Amida Hawai’i Sangha keeps telling us that we can and should do this by the end of next year. I tell you, every time he says it, I shudder. I want to hide. Because I can imagine the work. And I can conceive of the resistance. And part of me does not believe that the work will be completed and that the resistance will be overcome.

But what else is there to say but, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord”? I mean, really, what else is there to say?

What else is there to say?

Ashley Cook Cleere writes (in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1), “Perhaps Mary’s words deliver God’s Christmas wish, that followers of Christ will believe that nothing is impossible with God, and invite the Holy Spirit to work with them to attain miracles.”

Well, then.

As we walk with Mary through these brief pauses, let us take the clarity of our calling into the ambiguity of the world. Let’s invite the Holy Spirit to work with us to attain miracles.

Let’s make my friend Paul proud, and end family homelessness on Hawai’i Island by the end of the year.

Let’s make peace within our own households, where conflict and anger has divided us.

Let’s love back the forces of selfishness and greed and racism and sexism and heterosexism, so that all people have a full voice and a full place in our society.

Let’s heal the sick, and clothe the naked, and house the homeless, and love the unlovable, and do so in the name of this yet-to-be-born, this newborn babe, this twelve-year-old arguing with the teachers, this ordinary working man, this wandering preacher, this crucified Messiah, this Risen Lord.

The angel told Mary that nothing is impossible with God.

So let’s invite the Holy Spirit to work with us. Let’s attain miracles.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon:

Please note that the prepared text and the recorded sermon are not, and probably never will be, identical.

The image is of the Annunciation mosaic in the Basilica San Marco, Venice. 

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on December 24, 2017

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