December 23, 2018 – Advent 4

Update By: Norm Barr
Date: December 23, 2018

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays

There’s no good time to admit something like this, but recently, I let myself down. I crossed a line I promised myself I would not cross. And in my defense, it was a moment of emotional intensity, it was dark, and everyone else was doing it, and it all happened so fast. Before I could stop myself, I joined in. Not that any of that is an excuse. Thursday night, at a service at another church… I sang Christmas carols in Advent.
While I’ve never been the kind of person who was impressed by the self-appointed Advent Police, I do believe that the season and its themes, intriguingly both provocative and mundane, are valuable. We shouldn’t get down on ourselves, and certainly not on other people, who can’t resist jumping ahead to Christmas. After all, even Mary herself “went with haste” to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
But we need Advent. We need time to prepare for Christmas. We need to consider what the world was like before Jesus, how Israel remained faithful in a time of great suffering. We need to be reminded, vigorously, that Christ will come again, and that his return is cause for hope, not fear. And we need to remember that waiting can be holy, for while God can intervene abruptly in the world, more often, God works deliberately, patiently, and often just beyond our awareness. Rather than obstacles, times of waiting can be gifts and opportunities, especially opportunities to know God better.
My friend Laura Shatzer is ordained in the United Church of Christ but works at Common Cathedral. She took on the discipline of writing a poem every day of Advent and one of them I found especially touching. So although it kind of talks about the birth of Christ, for me at least, that train’s already left the station, and more importantly, its imagery and themes are well suited to the season. She wrote,

The Light of the World
came first from the darkness,
the protective cave of Mary’s belly.
Isn’t this how all good things begin?
In the earth, the roots bending and stretching
until the first shoot breaks forth.
In the womb, the feeding and flourishing of
flesh and bone until the first gasp of air.
In the night, the knowledge born of restlessness
and the restoration of deep sleep and a dream
pregnant with meaning.
In the light we can see things as they are
but in the darkness,
we really get to know them.

I think her poem is not just beautiful, but insightful. When we don’t have all the answers, we can attain real spiritual growth because we are forced to think, feel, imagine, and engage with God. So let’s savor the moment and try that with the Gospel reading today.
Why did Mary visit Elizabeth? St. Luke doesn’t say. He does tell us that at the time Gabriel asked Mary if she would be Jesus’s mother, Gabriel also told her that her cousin Elizabeth was also miraculously conceiving a child — that’s John the Baptist, remember. Elizabeth’s conception of John was miraculous not because she was a virgin like Mary, but because Elizabeth was well into old age at that point. She had been waiting so very long, and she stayed faithful. So while maybe Mary just figured Elizabeth needed some extra help, I think there’s more going on.
While Mary is certainly the sort of person who would want to help out in what must have been a challenging situation, I think Mary was moved to visit Elizabeth much more because God was acting in both their lives, and because literally no one else on Earth could understand what they were going through. So then, why did their meeting take such an ecstatic turn? Why does Mary abruptly burst into song? Luke’s Gospel is all about redemption, but it’s not a musical. Outside the nativity story, St. Luke doesn’t tell us of anyone breaking into song, and there are no dance numbers at all.
The answer, again, is that God was acting in their lives, and when that happens, people tend to act a little weird. Way weirder than singing Christmas carols in Advent, just saying. Mary and Elizabeth had every reason to respond to their reality with fear, despair, or panic, but because they took a moment to consider what God might be doing, their strong faith was rewarded. They realized that God was doing something enormous and truly wonderful, and so ecstatic praise was the only sensible reaction.
Mother Mary and Mother Church teach us to cultivate our own strong faith by their words and examples. As our faith grows, we become more aware of what God is doing in our lives, and how God is doing those things. When our faith grows, we grow in wisdom, and even when we are in the dark, wisdom helps us to know when to act, when to wait, and how to make the most of every moment, whether urgent or tranquil. And we learn that hopeful, faithful, productive waiting not only glorifies God, but also works to our… Advent-age.
Praising God, both in our waiting and in our activity, is both a cause and an effect of growing faith, even when what we’re doing, or not doing, seems out of step with the times. Mary and Elizabeth were completely out of step with their dark time, but closely in sync with God, and we remember them, not their contemporaries. Their praise of God engaged them with what God was doing, and therefore their faithfulness has endured through every season, no matter what anyone else thought. By the grace of God, I pray that the same might be said of us, for God is still doing enormous and wonderful things.

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