2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Sermon Briefs: Luke 1:26-38 Part 2

Hail, Mary, Full of Grace,1 by Peter Gomes invites a healthy and important Protestant examination of the mother of Christ. As Gomes observes, we children of the Reformation simply do not know what to do with Mary. Yet it is impossible to consider the advent of our Lord and the will of God in that advent without considering this woman who becomes for us the means of the new creation. Such consideration must first recognize that too often the question is wrongly put; it is not so much what we are to do with Mary as it is what God does with Mary. How is she used as an instrument of his purpose?

What God does, of course, is to call Mary through the angel Gabriel. Mary is confronted with a message from God. Gomes says that it is not an easy thing to be confronted with a message from God. We pray that God will hear our prayers and draw near to us; we pray with ease, and some of us with frequency. But it may be that we pray with such ease and relative frequency because we do not expect any response. As Gomes points out, good and faithful people have got along quite well enough with God where God ought to be; the trouble begins when God seems to have more than God's usual distant commerce with us. Mary was surprised by the call of God.

The summons to Mary was really no different from the summons to Moses, Abraham, Isaiah and Jeremiah. They all found themselves not only surprised but also annoyed, suggest Gomes. Annoyed not so much at their own unworthiness for such a high calling, for that would come later, but annoyed at the more practical level of inconvenience. Moses, Abraham, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Mary, especially Mary, all had other things to do, important, urgent things, the fulfillment of their own destinies, the carrying forth of their own lives, choices, options and challenges. Mary joins the line of unwilling and troubled prophets for whom God's call is an unsolicited interruption of the routine: "She was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be."

"Why me?" "Why now?" "Why Mary?" As the sermon unfolds Gomes helps us understand that God chose Mary, and chooses us, to fulfill God's purposes not because we are worthy of such a choice but for reasons only known to God. To be God, says Gomes, means never having to explain why. Further, any god can make something good out of the exceptional and the extraordinary. It is our God who makes out of nothing, something; who takes nowhere and makes it somewhere; who takes nobody and makes them somebody, and it is this power of transformation that made prophets of the ordinary people of Israel.

What is of importance in this text is Mary's action, and of even more importance, God's action. Mary did more than sit there. She did something. She became what she was meant to be: the one chosen by God for the birth of God's son. God choosing and God's people answering yes, responding to God's call out of our own gifts, is the message Gomes delivers from this text. As Gomes shares at the end of this sermon, Mary deserves her titles, her monuments, and her place not because of what we do with her and because of what she does for us, but because of what God has done in her for us.

Fleming Rutledge offers a sermon on this text entitled, The Bisecting Messenger.2 Rutledge has paired this text with 2 Samuel 7:4, 11, 16 and begins by identifying her favorite Old Testament hero, David. For Rutledge, the biblical narratives make David come alive for us as few other people of ancient times. Here is a real man's man, and a woman's man too—handsome, sexy, magnificent in statecraft, a brilliantly gifted poet and musician and so much more. However, the deathbed scene of King David is as pathetic as his life is titanic. He has become so feeble that he cannot leave his room, and he shivers with cold constantly.

Rutledge shifts from the tenth century BC to the twentieth century AD. She shares a reflection by John Updike that he published in The New Yorker upon his return from a five-day trip to Finland. It is August, but raining constantly and so cold that even the hardy Finns are wearing caps and gloves. He finds the language utterly mysterious and is treated rudely by a saleswoman in a candy store. He tries to sleep in his sterile hotel room, but lies awake for hours, jet-lagged and struggling with a nameless dread. He goes out on his rainy balcony in the middle of the night and looks at the sleepy town; "Nothing moved," he writes, "not even the clouds moved—yellow layers of nimbus that seemed the hellish underside of some other realm. I had never before been... this far north on the planet and the arrangement of reservations and obligations whereby I would make my way home seemed impossibly rickety and precarious. The precariousness of being alive and human was no longer hidden from me by familiar surroundings and the rhythm of habit. I was fifty-five, ignorant, dying, and filling this bit of Finland with the smell of my stale sweat and insomniac fury." Rutledge notes that as Advent draws to its close, the special nature of the season summons us to somber reflections on the "precariousness of being alive and human."

Returning to the story of David, Rutledge reminds us that God's promise to establish David's kingdom forever seems to have gone unfulfilled. The house of David collapsed into ashes and David's greatest achievement, the United Monarchy, was divided and conquered, first by the Assyrians, then by the Babylonians. The children of Israel were humiliated and carried off to foreign lands where they did not speak the language, where the salespeople mocked them, where nothing moved and the yellow underside of the clouds cast a hellish glow over the world. Yet Israel continued to hold on to the promise. Why did they do that when it was so crazy to continue to believe it? They did it for one reason and for one reason only; the message was said to be, not from man, but from God. It was said that the Lord had spoken to the prophet Nathan. God stated that God was not in the least dependent on rickety human arrangements.

This understanding shifts the focus away from human arrangements and obligations to the initiative of God. The fourth Sunday of Advent is the right day to remember the meaning of the term Annunciation. Annunciation means that God is saying, "Stand back and see what I am about to do!" Rutledge invites us to discover that angels come into the kingdoms of this world from the kingdom of our Lord with the message that something has happened: that God has moved. An Angel, to use a phrase of Emily Dickinson's, is a "bisecting messenger."

Doug Hood

NOTES

1. Peter Gomes, Hail, Mary, Full of Grace, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom For Daily Living (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998), pp. 9-15.

2. Fleming Rutledge, The Bisecting Messenger, The Bible And The New York Times (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), pp. 43-48.