Sunday, December 21, 2014

Be Born In Us Today

(A sermon based on Luke 1:26-38 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2014)

Mary seems to have resolved in a few minutes a matter that some of us have been trying to resolve for a lifetime: can I receive Christ into my life?

I’m going to say that what happened in Mary can in a sense happen in us. But first, let’s note that there are at least two crucial differences between Mary and us (beyond the really crucial difference that she was the mother of the Christ child and we are not).

The first difference has to do with the state of our spirit.

We may have been trying to get Christ to come into our life; we may even have been doing so to a point that we have become anxious about it. Mary, on the other hand, made no effort and expended no energy; she was just going about the activities of her life when suddenly she learned that Christ had come to her. The coming of Christ into Mary’s life was, in other words, a gift of God’s grace and not a reward for some kind of super piety on her part. Oh, I have no doubt that Mary was a faithful worshiper of God and that she was among those who looked for the coming of the kingdom of God, but I also have no doubt that she was flummoxed by the news that she was to bear the Christ child.

So far as I can tell, if Mary had one quality that led God to choose her to be the one to bear the child it was her humility. A humble person may hope for much but she expects little.

Perhaps, then, one key to having Christ be born in us today is for us to relax and not worry about it so much. Maybe it’s those who don’t think they deserve to have him come to them who have the best chance of having him show up. Maybe it’s those who think they do deserve it who have the lesser chance.

The second difference between Mary and us has to do with the state of our mind.

We have a troubling tendency to think that we have the ways of God figured out; we have certain categories in which we think about how Christ can and even must come to us. We think we have to pray a certain prayer or follow a certain formula or experience a certain feeling when in fact Christ can come to us in any way that God pleases to send him to us. Mary, on the other hand, had no reason to think that Christ would ever come to her--the Messiah was to be a king and she was a peasant; the Messiah was to be powerful and she was weak; the Messiah was to be obvious and she was obscure. And yet when Christ came to her he came in ways that defied all of her understanding and overturned all of her preconceived notions.

It can be the same way with us—God is God, after all, and how God does what God does is up to God. It is the most extreme kind of hubris to think that we have God’s ways figured out.

Mary’s journey toward resolution began when she heard these words from the angel Gabriel: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Interestingly, Mary did not seem perplexed to hear from an angel—let’s face it, we’d never get past that! She was perplexed rather at what the angel said to her. Why would she be favored? Why would the Lord be with her? After all, who was she? She was just a young girl in an obscure town in an obscure country; her engagement no doubt brought her some hopes for the future but they were likely not extraordinary hopes because there was nothing extraordinary about her, her situation, or her prospects.

Her pondering seems to have led her in the direction of fear since the angel told her not to be afraid. Are we afraid to hear from the Lord, too? When we hear from the Lord, whatever the circumstances, it is an act of great grace on God’s part. Mary heard from the Lord through an angel, which means that she heard from a messenger of God. We might hear from one of God’s messengers, too—from a friend, from a preacher, from a teacher, from a loved one, from a stranger, from an opportunity, from a crisis, from a book—or directly from God’s Spirit to our spirit.

Mary, the angel said, was not to be afraid because God’s grace was upon her. Because God’s grace was upon her she would bear the child who would be the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, and the Savior of the world. (It is worth observing that Gabriel’s assurances sound a lot like reasons to be afraid!) Mary asked, very reasonably, how this could be since she was a virgin.

That’s always a good question to ask: “How can this be?” How can it be that Christ can come to us? How can it be that Christ can be born in us today? How can it be that Christ can come to me? “How can it be since I am …?” and we can all fill in the blank for ourselves, although I suspect that usually our words will carry a more negative connotation than “virgin.” For many of us, the question will be “How can it be that Christ will come to me given that, when it comes to the things of the world, I am anything but a virgin?”

The word that came to Mary is the word that comes to us: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Christ wants to be born in all of us—even in you and me.

And so we come to Mary’s wonderful response: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Yes, there are a lot of ways in which we are different than Mary and there are a lot of ways in which our situation is different than hers. But the fact is that Christ can be born in us today just as surely as he was born through Mary into our world. He comes to us not because of our worthiness but because of God’s grace.

There is no one to whom Christ cannot be born today—even you, even me.

All we have to do is to be available. All we have to say is “Yes.” Not “Yes” to what we have done. Not “Yes” to what we deserve. Not “Yes” to what we can earn. Just “Yes” to what God has done in Christ; just “Yes” to the grace and love of God …

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