Fourth Sunday of Advent
The Christmas story has its own vocabulary. This week’s Gospel passage has been called the Annunciation, which means ‘announcement.’ Not in the sense of ‘before we get started, let me share a few announcements,’ but more like ‘we interrupt this program to bring you an important announcement.’
A mysterious messenger breaks into the life of a young, poor, unmarried woman, telling her she will have a baby. About the baby, Gabriel said, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David.”
Suddenly Mary has a primary role to play in God’s age-old love story. God had made an extraordinary, unconditional promise to David. David would not build God a “house” (temple) but God would build the “house” (dynasty) of David. Walter Brueggemann calls this astounding promise the most crucial theological statement in the Old Testament, the taproot of evangelical faith and messianic hope that with a coming David God’s work would become visible within the historical process. (See Brueggemann’s Interpretation: First and Second Samuel, pp.243-264 for an exceptionally insightful discussion about the tension between the conditional “if” of the Mosaic covenant and the unconditional “but/nevertheless” promise to David, and the unavoidable ambiguity between ark/temple; royal theology/political calculation; genuine faith/self-serving ideology).
An astonished Mary is told that her life is called to be caught up in that promise. She responds, “Let it be to me according to your will.”
More simply, Mary said yes.
There is a crucial turning point in Tolkein’s The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins has been made a part of a fellowship undertaking a mysterious journey. He’s not at all sure about his role. But on the last week of autumn, right before winter begins, the group comes to a mountain. The dwarves announce to Bilbo that at the heart of that mountain lay a chamber containing countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, silver red-stained in the ruddy light. The catch is that the treasure is guarded by Smaug the dragon. Because of Bilbo’s size and because he has the ring (as in Lord of the Rings), it is up to him to make the journey to that dangerous chamber deep in the earth.
He sees a red light ahead, getting redder and redder. The temperature gets hotter and hotter; wisps of vapor float by him, and he begins to sweat. He hears the unmistakable gurgling noise of some vast animal snoring in its sleep.
Then Tolkein writes:
It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.
During the last month the Kassig family from Indianapolis has given the world a stunning testimony. Most people know Peter Kassig to be the one who was murdered by Islamic State extremists and have heard bits and pieces of his story from the headline news loop. A former Army Ranger who served in Iraq, he later returned to Lebanon. He was so moved by the staggering scope of suffering by internally and externally displaced Syrian refugees (might the Holy Family be among this unfathomable upheaval?) that he first volunteered as an emergency medical technician then founded an aid organization to provide food and medical supplies to refugees. He was abducted in October 2013 on his way to deliver supplies.
During his captivity, he converted to Islam, changing his name to Abdul-Rahman, meaning “Servant of the Merciful.” The captors’ demands, at the threat of Kassig’s life, were that US airstrikes stop, demands which his parents said they did not have the power to do. Peter Kassig was beheaded last month.
Peter’s parents, Ed and Paula, honored their son’s conversion in calling him by his Muslim name and holding a Muslim funeral as well as a joint Muslim-Christian service. Then they chose their own church, Epworth United Methodist Church, where they have been members for decades, to make a public statement about their son’s death. Their statement began with the words of Jesus and ended with words about forgiveness and healing.
Such a response cannot be summoned up with the snap of a finger. It is evident that long ago, they said “yes.” Because they did, they now speak, in the hour of severe testing, out of a deep peace that the death of their only son is not the end of the story.
With each airstrike and with each grisly execution, the noose tightens in the agonizingly vicious cycle of revenge and death. Human sacrifices mount up on both sides and there seems to be no way out. The Kassigs’ response, of seemingly hobbit-like proportion against the backdrop of the forces of death that have been unleashed, breaks the absolute hold of darkness. Theirs is truly a humble, non-triumphalistic triumph.
In James Alison’s striking words, the Gospel is
the Happening [that] has essentially the form of sacrifice in our midst, a sacrifice in which God sacrifices himself to us, and we discover that we are the wrathful divinity in the equation. Shock waves go out from that particular sacrifice, in which God proved his goodness to us, and show us about ourselves and how we can be free (Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In, 8).
These shock waves draw people into a fellowship “according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations…” (Romans 16:25f.).
Notice in the video that the Kassigs speak from their church’s welcome area, now forever connected with their remarkable announcement. Notice also the board containing name tags. The Kassigs’ witness transforms what is often a tired attempt at forced familiarity into the weekly practice of being addressed, called by name, prepared and made ready for all sorts of greetings and annunciations.
So by all means let us pay attention to any and all of God’s ways of getting through. Let us be mindful that most of the time the settings and messengers look very ordinary. Singer Bob Franke appears to be in his own den, far from the stage lights of a Christmas pageant. In fact, the light that shines is from a computer screen reflected in his bifocals. His Christmas blessing is interwoven with words about checking a website. Nevertheless, his musical message is crystal clear. May our lives be interrupted by that special announcement, and may we say “yes.”