Fourth Sunday of Advent
I love the way Luke and Matthew begin their Gospels. Both tell us of these plain, ordinary people, Mary and Joseph, who obeyed God, and through whom God begins the extraordinary work of salvation for all people.
Traditionally, the church has called Mary the first disciple. She was the first to believe and obey. And even though Luke tells her story with a bit more drama than Matthew’s telling of Joseph’s, we still get the message that here was an ordinary young woman – really a teenage girl – who embodied extraordinary courage and faith in God to be able to say, “Let it be to me according to your will.” Or to put it more mundanely, Mary said yes.
More than one theologian of the church over the centuries has said that the great miracle that surrounded the birth of Jesus was not the miraculous conception of Jesus or the virgin birth, but that Mary and Joseph believed and obeyed.
An old rabbinical story says that when there was a crisis in the life of God’s people, the great rabbi, Baal Shem Tov, would go to a particular place in the forest, build a great fire, say a particular prayer, cry to God for salvation, and the story says, “It was sufficient; for God saw the fire in the place, heard the prayer and heard the cry, and God saved his people.”
A generation passed and another grave crisis came upon the people. Rabbi Maggid of Mezeritch, a disciple of the great Shem Tov, went to the same place in the forest and cried to God for mercy, “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And the story says, “It was sufficient. And the miracle was accomplished.”
Still later, another generation passed and another crisis came upon the people. Moshe-Leib of Sassov, a disciple of Rabbi Maggid, would go to into the forest and say, “I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient and the miracle accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient (from Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters by Elie Wiesel, p. 167).
For Mary, and Joseph too, the great miracle was the simple act of obedience, of saying yes to God. Perhaps they knew a lot of Bible and were well versed in theology but I doubt it. Perhaps each of them was well situated in the religious life of Nazareth, but nothing is said about any of this. All we know is that each of them said yes to God. And it was sufficient.
Thinking of Mary and Joseph’s simple obedience to God reminds me of many of the ordinary and faithful people with whom I’ve served as their pastor: Sarah preached her first sermon in our congregation when she was eleven years old. I later baptized her and a few years after that performed her wedding, and still later presided over her ordination. She is now a gifted minister in another city in the state. Laddie climbed utility poles for most of his adult life to make a living, but his life was going around to all of the elderly and widowed women in the church making home repairs and cutting firewood so these same women would have enough firewood to keep them warm through the winter.
There was Dude who raised ten children and cooked for what seemed like the entire church. She taught the young women in the church that when cooking for a church supper that you do two things – cook your best “because it’s for the Lord” and cook a lot “because it’s for the church.” (Man, could she cook!) Or Stan, a professor of dance and deacon who consistently and unobtrusively makes weekly visits to all the shut-ins, or Joe and Steve, who started recycling wine bottles by cutting and polishing and turning them into beautiful wind chimes, bird feeders, candle holders, and such, selling them at a little booth at the local Farmers’ Market and giving the proceeds to Habitat for Humanity. In two years they’ve raised over $10,000 for Habitat and have the City coming to ask them for advice on starting a glass recycling program, and our Baptist church parking lot and their yards are full of empty wine bottles because every restaurant and bar in town brings us their empties.
Each and every one of these people said a simple yes to God. They didn’t set out to know all things, change the world, or even change our town. They simply said yes to God. And God said it was sufficient.
And it was sufficient. Amen.