SERMON 12/22/19 Advent 4A St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL
Today’s gospel speaks of Joseph’s role in the birth of Jesus, but today, I want to divert for a moment and talk about others who answered God’s Call. Pearl Bales was a kind, gentle, loving woman from my childhood. When my parent’s store became so busy that the work hours extended into the early evenings, Pearl stayed with us until Mom and Dad got home. I called Pearl “Mamaw Bales,” because she was like an adopted grandmother to me. I loved her so much. She taught me the alphabet, how to count, and even how to read a little, all before I went to first grade. Mamaw Bales was more than a babysitter to me. She introduced me to faith in ways I cannot begin to explain. She taught me what love incarnate looked like, and she instilled in me, at a young age, the desire to be Christ for others.
There have been other special people, who came into my life, just like Mamaw Bales did. There was Brother Greg Howell, my first youth minister, whose calm loving demeanor and that of his spouse Mary, showed me an example of a loving marriage that I did not always see in my own home. There was Evelyn Bryan Johnson, my first flight instructor, whose mention of the beauty of God’s creation as we flew over Morristown, TN, provided me with glimpses of God’s presence in our lives in nature.
Fred Craddock, professor of Preaching and New Testament Emeritus in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University offers us a theological perspective on how people like these represent God bursting into the world. Fred writes, “Advent assures us God will continue to come to us, and in surprising ways; sometimes in cosmic convulsions, sometimes in a child (in his mother’s womb).” (4) God always comes to us through ordinary people, whose faithful response to God’s call, results in God being with us, in ways we cannot imagine. Mary, the Virgin Mother of Jesus of Nazareth was one among us, who first bore Christ to others.
Mary: the Mother of God
In the sanctuary of the Episcopal Church in my hometown, there is on the East wall, an icon of the Blessed Virgin and in her arms, the infant Jesus. I have to admit, I was surprised when I saw the icon on my first visit, because the practice of honoring Blessed Mary in that way was far from my non-Episcopal faith upbringing. However, over time, I came to realize the significance of Mary in the whole plan of salvation. Her special place became clearer to me in seminary when in my New Testament class, I first heard the term Theotokos, a title for Blessed Mary. Theotokos means mother of Jesus, used especially in Eastern Christianity, which translates as “Mother of God” or “God-bearer” or “Mother of God Incarnate.” (1)
This was all new to me because in the tradition I grew up in as a child, they only ever casually mentioned Mary. She often seemed to be a mere fleshly container for the Babe in the Manger or the mere caretaker of the God child. Then, I realized that if I were going to believe that Jesus was God incarnate, God in flesh, and Mary bore God in her womb as a baby, I needed to spend some time thinking about Mary as the Mother of God; the Theotokos.
Mary bore God Incarnate into the world, however, my postmodern, scientific, educated self has over time, struggled with this whole idea of virgin birth. I mean what does that facet of Jesus‘ nativity mean to salvation, and for Mary’s special place in salvation history? Maybe some of you have had that same struggle.
From “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church,” it states that “there is some indication in Christian writings that the term “Virgin Birth” can be understood as a way of helping to understand Jesus’ humanity and divinity. Belief in the Virgin Birth was not completely accepted by all early Christians. Some Christians today question it as a historical fact.” (2)
So, if you struggle with accepting the virgin birth as fact or truth, maybe it is because honestly, it might be disproven by the science of DNA or it may be rejected by mere logical scholarly research. Nonetheless, we are not talking about science here, we are talking about the mystery of God and thus, maybe this virgin birth concept requires some consideration.
Anglican scholar and Bishop N.T. Wright wrote this about a belief in the Virgin Birth, “Matthew has taken care to draw our attention to the peculiarities of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Batlisheba … to warn us that something even stranger is coming; or perhaps to enable us, when the news is announced, to connect it with God’s strange way of operating in the past. He is hardly likely on this occasion, however, to have made up the story of Mary’s being with child by the Holy Spirit in order to “fulfill'” this theme.” (5)
In other words, historically, God has in miraculous ways and through normal, faithful people, revealed God’s presence working in and through creation. N.T. Wright asserts that God’s miraculous work often stands in contrast to what we require to be scientifically provable in order to trust it. Wright states, “Miracle,” in the sense of divine intervention “from outside,” is not in question.
What matters is that the powerful, mysterious presence of the God of Israel, the creator God, brings Israel’s story to its climax by doing a new thing, bringing the story of creation to its height by a new creation from the womb of the old. Whether or not it happened, this is what it would mean if it did.” (5) God’s presence becomes known miraculously in simple earthen fleshly vessels, and in us, God transcends time and space. God calls we normal people to make him known, to be prophets of Good News, just like Mary.
Mary the Prophet; Mary the Evangelist
Like Moses and other prophets of old, the Blessed Virgin Mary received a prophetic call from God, and in scripture, these prophetic calls follow a specific pattern. First, the setting of the call is a brief statement of what is happening in the moment. Mary’s call began with, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.”
Next, there is a theophany, or appearance of or representative of God present. The angel said to Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Next, there is the announcement of a specific task the prophet is to do. The angel said, “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” He added, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”
Next, there is usually a “not me” objection by the prophet who rejects the call. However, this is where Mary’s call diverts from prophets like Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and others. Mary’s response to the prophetical call defines her special place in the narrative of salvation because she did not object at all. Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary was the faithful servant of God who accepted the task without objection, and thus showed each one of us, how we are to respond to God’s call on our lives. The truth is my sisters and brothers, we all have a prophetic call for ministry, a call from God to be the bearers of God to the world, but we often struggle to answer the call.
We are God Bearers
Mary, a poor peasant girl from first century Palestine carried the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of Life as we know it. Think about that for a moment. Think about the miraculous new way God burst onto the scene 2000 years ago and made all things new. Imagine how Mary felt when that truth of her life’s mission was revealed to her. She was chosen as the one to bring to all creation the Savior, the Messiah, the Son of God. She walked with him from day one, and through her ministry, others have come to know God in the flesh; God in her flesh.
Now, what if you, like Mary are called to bear God for someone else, because the truth of the matter is you are so called. Like Pearl Bales, Greg Howell, Evelyn Johnson and those God bearers in my life, and the God bearers I am sure you can name in your life, we may be the only Gospel many people will ever hear. You have a great high calling of God, by virtue of your baptism by water, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit given you in the sacrament of baptism. The Holy Spirit is in you and thus, you bear God in you each and every day.
Your prophetic call is before you. The setting of your call is your everyday normal life The Theophany of presence of God happens in the sacrament of communion, in prayer, in the beauty of creation, and in the people you encounter. God has given you a task. “Proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Christ.” Now, it’s your turn, and what comes next is your response.
Do you trust God who says to you, “Do not be afraid” and do you believe that “Nothing will be impossible with God.” If so, you know the response you must give. So, go live each day knowing you are a God bearer. Accept the high calling by simply, and through how you live each day, respond like our sister did, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who answered God’s call not with a “ but not me,” but by saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.”
(4) Craddock, Fred B. “The Surprise and Joy of Advent.” The Living Pulpit, vol. 6, no. 4, Oct. 1997, p. 6.