Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent December 20, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Some people have already started complaining about the new Star Wars movie, for being too simplistic and predictable, but that’s one of the things I liked about it. If you want to see a searching examination of culture, politics, and the human condition, see something else. This is a simple story that is engaging because it is simple, because it distracts us from the real world, which has always been subtle, convoluted, and frustrating. It has also always been worth engaging with.
All through scripture, we see a complex relationship between the mundane and the cosmic, everyday worries and transcendent realities. The relationship is far more sophisticated and intriguing than the black-and-white morality of Star Wars or the dualistic spirit-good, matter-bad philosophy of ancient pagan cultures. Like our Hebrew ancestors, we recognize that God created the world, and all that is in it, to be good, and that God has used material things to accomplish holy ends ever since God used a rib to crown creation with its last, most perfect addition, and called her descendant to bring the full goodness and glory of God into the world.
Mary did this, with the utmost grace. Therefore, we can say without exaggeration that Mary’s mission was a bigger win than the Rebel Alliance blowing up the Death Star. We get a glimpse of Mary’s flawless execution of God’s plan in today’s Gospel, where Luke recounts the event we now celebrate as the Visitation, where she travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who herself is carrying John the Baptist in her womb, fulfilling another part of God’s plan. Now what we don’t understand today is that in those days, it was unheard of for a woman to make a long journey by herself, or on her own initiative. Mary makes the journey “with haste,” and when she arrives she apparently continued ignoring custom and went directly to greet her cousin. But how? Mary didn’t have a rickety starship or droid companions, although — I would totally see that movie.
She didn’t need them. Mary had recourse to something more powerful and more useful than the Force. Mary has pure and complete faith, an unimpeded relationship with God. Consequently, she has clarity about her mission and she carries out God’s will without regard to fear or danger or social mores or gender roles or anything that could stand in her way. With this mindset, she can walk the path God has set out for her as if the valleys had been lifted up and the mountains had been made low. Unlike the rest of the world, Mary does not accept the status quo, she prophetically and poetically describes a bright, just, and joyful world that lives in the unity and harmony that only God’s love can create. Rather than follow a simple plot dreamed up by her husband or her father, a reiteration of the cycle of her society, Mary carries out her holy mission on her own terms.
The missions to which God calls us are quite different from what we see in the movies. For one thing, our lives have lower budgets. For another, our lives don’t have to make sense to society’s lowest-common-denominator audience. Our stories aren’t packaged and simplified down to a formulaic two-hour narrative with a beginning, middle, and end that has passed studio clearance and test audiences. God calls us to lifelong missions that crisscross and weave together into a unified vision of a creation completely and harmoniously reunited with its creator. Through prophets like Mary, God outlines what this achievement will look like, in order to encourage us and support us in a world that has become cluttered with distractions and obstacles. We don’t have all the pertinent facts about the present, let alone foreknowledge of the mission’s outcome, but to God, the victory has already been won.
One other distinction between the Christian mission and the smaller missions of the world is especially interesting. For Christians, the line between preparation for mission and execution of mission is very murky. Our own spiritual growth is a noble end in itself, but it also prepares us to engage with the world. Likewise, our experiences of showing the face of Christ to the world and building up his kingdom only achieve their full purpose in communication and spiritual contemplation, as we tell the world what God is doing and consider anew just how great a God we serve. Some people feel much more strongly drawn to the life of the spirit and the mind and others to concrete acts of service, and that is not only normal, but worthy of celebration.
The two sides of the Christian life support and sustain each other, and even those of us who lean strongly in one direction have at least a little of the other in us. Saying “yes” to the vocation, the mission, to which God calls us is always worthy of celebration, just as Elizabeth rejoiced in Mary and praised what God was doing in her, and through her. The Church herself exhibits this integrated nature, as she not only serves millions of people through direct works of mercy, she also lays the foundations within each of us of love of God and of neighbor and week by week renews the relationships between ourselves and between us and God.
As this glorious season of Advent, this gift of the Church, draws to a close, consider, if you haven’t already, how you might purify your conscience. Consider how you live out your mission in concrete and intangible ways, and consider where some work of improvement will yield the greatest result. Make this examination in the faith that God is with you and will give you all you need, until your relationship with God is so secure and intimate that you will no longer see a cluster of needs, but rather a clear path forward. That path will lead you back to God, the God who first came to us, and who is also the path itself.