Sermon: How Can This Be?

At the heart of the Annunciation is the declaration that God isn’t here just in the extraordinary times. God isn’t here just when we need divine providence. God loves us, and calls us, right here, right now, right where we’re at in our ordinary, everyday lives.

L'_Annonciation, Philippe de Champaigne (1644)
L’_Annonciation, Philippe de Champaigne (1644)

Sermon: “How Can This Be?”

Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, December 21, 2014; (Fourth Sunday in Advent).

Scripture Readings:
Luke 1:26-38 (NRSV) 

I’ve been considering Mary’s question in this morning’s reading from Luke, where Gabriel tells her that she will soon have a child, a son; that he’ll be a great King, and that he will sit on the throne of his ancestor, David.

Mary responds by asking “How can this be?

As Christians, this is a question we often ask ourselves, or perhaps others ask of us: How can this be?   It’s a question we ask about the birth of Christ, about why we believe, about why we find ourselves in various situations. And, as we read this passage in Luke, we see that a lot is wrapped up in this simple little question of Mary’s: How can a baby be born of a virgin?  Why is God doing this?  Why does it matter?

I begin by asking myself “what was Mary thinking when she asked this?”  What I do know is that the common assumption, that she’s wondering how a virgin can give birth, is not what she is perplexed about.

Continue reading “Sermon: How Can This Be?”

The Magnificat

Third Isaiah is a text that deals with disappointment, of a restoration gone wrong, of a reality that does not match up with the image that hope had inspired in the minds of the people. They thought the future was here, but now realize it will take much longer to realize the vision. So, we are forced to admit, with disappointment and frustration, that the future is still not here, yet! We are also facing doubt and division over the way forward, and finding that our vision for the future does not match that of others. The future is much cloudier than we thought. Things are not going well, and we are struggling to figure out who is responsible for failing to implement the dream. We are coming to realize that bringing the dream into reality is far harder than we we ever imagined.

Janvier_2014__La_Visitation_de_Champaign_4ce186db1bThis week we will be celebrating the Third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday.  Tradition tells us it is “…a day to be joyful even in the midst of long waiting and keen awareness of suffering.”   

Advent begins with a focus on the future: “The reign of God is coming. Prepare!”  And ends a little over a week from now with a focus on the past: “The Messiah is about to be born in Bethlehem. Rejoice!”  Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, is named using a Latin word meaning “to rejoice” in the imperative – meaning we are commanded to rejoice.

Last week’s reading from Isaiah 40:1-11 was the Second Isaiah’s comforting of Jerusalem because the restoration from exile of both God and the people was at hand.  That morning’s sermon focused on the need to prepare in anticipation of that return, to reflect upon our own failings and sin, and admit to ourselves that we needed God to heal (or fill) the gaps and holes in our own lives.

This coming Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is from the third set of prophesies in the Hebrew Testament’s book of Isaiah: prophesies that mainly concern themselves with the situation in Jerusalem after the exiles have returned from the Babylonian exile.  Just as the second set (chapters 40-54) are referred to as “Second Isaiah,” scholars refer to these writings (chapters 55 through 66) as “Third Isaiah.”  Like the second set, those who compiled the Book of Isaiah felt it important to include the prophesies of “Third Isaiah,” along with those of “Second Isaiah” to follow the complete (three generation long) narrative arc of exile of Judah to Babylon: from the First Isaiah’s prophesies of future doom and destruction for Judah’s distancing itself from God; to Second Isaiah’s call for compassion and redemption in the present as the seemingly impossible dream of restoration comes to pass; to Third Isaiah’s focus on the disappointment, discord and disillusionment that followed the return of the exiles to Jerusalem a generation earlier.

The story of Advent follows a similar arc: our emphasis on the future declines as our emphasis on the past increases.  Our readings for Advent begin with a mature Jesus teaching us about the reign of God, and they close with the unborn Christ Child in Mary’s womb.

This movement reflects our Christian understanding that the sacred story, to be understood fully and correctly, has to be told backwards.  The birth and ministry of Jesus are incomprehensible until we know of his death and resurrection.  To put it another way, our understanding of the past is muddled and incomplete until we grasp the nature of the future and purpose of History.  Christianity sees History as having a definite start, a definite end, and that it reflects the plan and purpose of God, reaching its crescendo in Christ.  In other words, while we have (incomplete) knowledge of the past and present, we cannot make sense of what we know of them until we know the whole story, including the end.

Continue reading “The Magnificat”

How Can This Be?

Presented at West Boylston (MA) UCC Church, December 18, 2011.

Readings:
       2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
       Romans 16:25-27
       Luke 1:26-38

I’ve been considering Mary’s question in this morning’s reading from Luke. Gabriel tells Mary that she will soon have a child, a son; that he’ll be a great King, and that he will sit on the throne of his ancestor, David.  Mary then asks “How can this be?

As Christians, this is a question we often ask ourselves, or perhaps others ask of us: How can this be?   A lot is wrapped up in that simple little question: How can a baby be born of a virgin?  Why is God doing this?  Why does it matter?

I begin by asking myself “what was Mary thinking when she asked this?”  I’m not so sure the common assumption, that she’s wondering how a virgin can give birth, is what she is so perplexed about.

Continue reading “How Can This Be?”

Oh, THAT Prayer!

A Classmate gave a sermon in “Preaching Class” that made me realize how my current experience parallels that of Zachariah (the father of John the Baptist, in the Gospel of Luke) in some ways, and how thankful I am for the grace of God in my life.

In “preaching” class recently, a fellow student gave a message that was deeply moving and poignant.  The text was Luke 1, the story of Zachariah, father of John the Baptist.  She talked about how Zachariah had been chosen to burn incense on the altar in the Temple and pray.  Then, an angel appeared and said “your prayers are answered.”

Then she asked “which prayers were being answered?”  At the time, Zachariah was praying as part of a public ritual, he was not praying solely for himself.  He must have done a double-take, thinking “Oh, THAT prayer!” when the Angel said “Elizabeth will have a son” instead of saying something like “the Messiah is coming and Israel will be restored.”

Zachariah was old, as was his wife.  Would they have bothered talking about wanting a child to anyone, any more?  Was that long-unanswered prayer one that they only thought-about in the dark hours of the night, when sleep could not find them, when (as my classmate said) they stared at the empty spot in the corner where they had once hoped a cradle, someday, would be?

These are the types of prayers that we hide and bury down deep because we can no longer bear saying them out loud.  Was God answering a prayer that Zachariah had given up-on himself?

His response to Gabriel seems to indicate this was the case: “How will I know this for certain?”  At this point in the sermon, a whole train of thought hit me: All those unanswered prayers of my own broke upon me, and I completely lost track of the rest of her message.

All of us can identify with Zachariah’s “hidden prayers” all too well.  We have all spent many lonely nights, remembering those earnest prayers that never seem to have been answered.  And yet here, those hopes were answered in an unexpected way, at an unexpected time: Zachariah was completely unprepared for it.  What can his story teach us?

First, God’s timing is not ours.  Zachariah had given up on his hidden prayers being fulfilled.  There was no longer any reasonable expectation that they could be:  Zachariah certainly didn’t expect it, nor did I when my own such prayers were answered.

Second, that God’s means of fulfilling those hidden and buried prayers is not ours.  If someone, on July 9, 2005, had told me that my life would be anything like where I am today, I’d have (bitterly) laughed in their face: at the time I felt that all of my life’s prayers were beyond reach, any hope of attaining them gone forever.  Yet, a day later, my feet were firmly on the path to the life I have now.  Like Zachariah, the change was sudden, startling, and irrevocable.  For me, the path forward was not clear, nor was there any certainity to it, but I knew that the path forward could only be far better than where I had been.

Third, that attaining the fulfillment of those hidden prayers is not easy – even once the door opens.  There was a high cost, at least for me and Zachariah.  Yet, I don’t think either of us would think about paying it all over again if we had to.  For us, every step of that journey has been worth it.  In Zachariah’s case, it was the birth of a son.  For me, it has been a whole multitude of things, not the least of which is my wife, my new (and restored) family, and the opportunity to pursue the career that itself had been a hidden prayer for many years.

Finally, the journey is not done.  The need for God’s grace and presence didn’t end with Zachariah’s naming his son “John”.  Although we are not told the rest the story, I am certain that John’s walk towards becoming a Prophet was marked by unnumbered examples of God’s grace and guidance, and that his parents were on their knees frequently: thanking God and praying for their son.  In my own case, a similar journey is one of several that are just beginning for me.

Other “hidden prayers” remain in my own life, as in all of our lives.  For me, one unanswered prayer that I think about every day, if not several times a day,  is seeing the relationship with my daughter healed and restored: a hidden hurt that has become all the more poignant for me, now that her brother’s birth is imminent.  I pray that the gulf between us is somehow bridged, so that I can at least know that my constant prayers for her safety and happiness are being answered.

But, maybe those prayers aren’t as hidden and forgotten as we think: from Zachariah’s example, we know that those prayers are not hidden from God, and so that hope of their fulfillment never needs to die.  But, we can also be sure that God will fulfill them in a way and time of His own choosing, not ours.  So, I will also remember what Romans 8:6 teaches us: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”  If we focus on worldly means of achieving our prayers, as Zachariah and I did, those hopes will die.  But, by staying focused on the inner witness of God’s Love for us, we will have peace even when all worldly hope is gone.

 

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Amen!