December 24, 2017 The Fourth Sunday of Advent


2 Samuel 7:1–11, 16, Canticle 15, Romans 16:25–27, Luke 1:26–38

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the name of the One who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

On this Fourth Sunday in Advent, as we anticipate our Christmas celebration beginning this evening, a couple of things must be understood unequivocally. First, God does not want prisoners for followers. God does not push, coerce, threaten, or bully people into being followers. Such tactics elicit responses based on fear, which, as scripture teaches us, is the opposite of love. Since God is love, as scripture also teaches us, you can be sure that any tactics that attempt to push, coerce, threaten, or bully people into faith are not of God. (Still, many so-called Christians and Christian organizations employ these tactics to keep people in line. If you come across them, call them out and oppose them for what they are: self-promoting false prophets who pedal lies and deception in the name of God. “They will receive their reward,” to quote Jesus.) Rather, “God invites…; God insistently holds out God’s hand and eagerly welcomes us as participants in God’s own artistry, but God never forces or compels us. The ‘yes’ must be our own…” (Kristin Johnston Largen, “December 24, 2017, Fourth Sunday of Advent: From a Scholar” in Sundays and Seasons Preaching: Year B 2018, p. 31.)

A second thing that must be understood clearly is that far from being a nice story that warms the heart with visions of stars and babies and angels and shepherds and sheep, the Christmas story into which we enter today is a very subversive story; and Mary, far from being the naïve teenager who is the passive recipient of the design of an aggressive God, must give her consent to God’s plan before the plan can ever come to pass. (Remember, God does not want prisoners, but willing agents.) What is so surprising, then, about Mary’s consent is what it could cost her. Consider, for a moment, that she lives on the margins of the empire. She and her people have been colonized by a foreign power, Rome, and know the brutality of oppression, particularly to those considered foreign and poor, as she was. Everything about her—her dress, her language, her religion, her gender—was suspect. Beyond foreign oppression, she is oppressed also by her own religion, being subject to Hebrew patriarchal laws that dictate the rules and rites of matrimony. “To violate the norms and conventions of her people or of Roman law is to seek expulsion or worse, the death penalty.” (Jay Alanis, “December 24, 2017, Fourth Sunday of Advent: From a Preacher” in Sundays and Seasons Preaching: Year B 2018, p. 31.)

If she publicly claims her child to be the “Son of the Most High,” as the angel Gabriel told her, for instance, she would face certain death as a traitor at the hands of the Roman authorities because the only one who could claim such a title in her world was the emperor. In fact, it was a matter of loyalty that all in the empire needed to claim allegiance to the emperor by participating in the emperor cult in which he alone was acclaimed “Lord” and “Son of God.” (This is why the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate aggressively questioned Jesus as to his claim to be the Son of God; and why the earliest Christians got into so much trouble because they refused to attribute the title “Lord” to any but Jesus; as a result, both Jesus and many of his earliest followers were executed as traitors by the state.) Further, the very fact that Mary was pregnant without a husband was to violate Jewish law and risk banishment. (Indeed, in Matthew’s version of the nativity story, Joseph considers quietly breaking his betrothment to Mary when he discovers she is pregnant. It took nothing short of angelic intervention to keep him from banishing Mary!) In short, “[a]s a woman from the margins [Mary] has a lot to lose if she betrays her cultural norms or does anything out of the ordinary. She is expected to conform if she is to exercise any agency of her own. The law is at stake. It is the rule of life. One lives by the law in order for the community and the nation to flourish.” (Ibid., p. 32.)

This, then, is why Mary’s “yes” is so significant. Notice that she is not pushed, coerced, threatened, or bullied. Rather, the angel Gabriel lays out God’s plan: she will become pregnant, bear a son, and call him Jesus (which means, “God saves”); the child will be called the Son of the Most High and will be given the throne of the great King David to rule over God’s people forever. Even when Mary questions the viability of God’s plan—“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”—Gabriel shares more information: the Holy Spirit will bring about the pregnancy so that the child will be called the “Son of God”; and further, as an additional sign of God’s overflowing richness, Gabriel tells Mary that her cousin Elizabeth has also conceived a child in her old age—a friend with whom she can share in this miracle! Given these facts, Mary must choose. Will she consent to God’s plan of action, or will she bow out? We don’t know how long it took for her to respond to Gabriel’s news. The text doesn’t say, but I think it is safe to assume that she was likely overwhelmed by the information. The presence of an angel itself would be enough to stun anybody; then add on top of that the life-changing news of a pregnancy that would land Mary into hot water with her betrothed and the religious authorities, and the news of the identity of the child that would threaten the secular authorities and place her very life at risk with them, and I think it’s safe to assume that Mary at least toyed with a “No” rather than a “Yes.”

In the end, however, Mary does say “Yes” to God and so becomes a co-creator with God in God’s redemptive vision for the creation. She gives her consent though she knows the risks that lay ahead of her. Why would she do that? I’d like to suggest that her “Yes” to God comes from the “inner strength that comes from living on the edge. Her people have been colonized and know the burden of oppression…She carries within herself the internal oppression and oral history of her people—the traditions, rituals, and faith forged in the crucible of exile, diaspora, and the bittersweet memory of their liberation from the cruel yoke of slavery under the Egyptian pharaoh…She is a young woman who has heard the stories and reenacted the Passover ritual ever since she can remember. And with every telling of the story, she has carried within herself the hope and dream and promise of a liberator messiah whose reign will extend as far back as her ancestors Abraham and Sarah and as far into the future as her imagination will allow.” (Ibid., p. 31.) In short, Mary said “Yes” to God willingly because her belief in the steadfast love and trustworthiness of God was greater than her fear of either the secular or religious authorities. Perhaps she could not see how her yes would lead to anything but trouble for her, but she trusts that her God is greater than the realities of religion and empire; and so, she gives herself willingly for God’s vision trusting that God will create in her and in the world what God needs to get God’s will done.

The story of Christmas is really a story of allegiance. We, like Mary, are asked to say “Yes” to God’s plan for the redemption of the creation—to participate in bringing about God’s vision for the world through our willing consent to live as God’s agents of redemption in the world. And as with Mary, what God asks of us will likely put us at odds both with various religious authorities and the workings of the empire in which we live. Make no mistake, our consent to God’s call will make us uncomfortable at the least and quite possibly fearful more often than not. We may not feel up to the task; we may not possess the courage, the stamina, the faith, or the resolve we need or desire. But remember this: “Mary recognizes that God’s choice of her says more about God than about herself; and in her response to God she praises God, not for recognizing her greatness but for making her great; not for rewarding her holiness but for making her blessed. Mary does not assume that this honor God bestows upon her is somehow the result of her special faithfulness or goodness; Mary knows that the source of this gift of grace is God. God does not look for what God needs in us; God creates it.” (Largen, p. 31.) Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

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