Fourth Sunday of Advent
A few years ago I traveled to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. First impressions led to mixed reviews. The structure is imposing. Construction of the massive church surely kept the concrete company happy for a long while. Travelers pass scores of ornate Marian mosaics, gift from the faithful of many countries. The newer church is constructed over the ruins of an older Crusader church, so things get more interesting as you descend into the remains of the older structure. At the deepest point in the church, ancient cave dwellings are preserved–enlarged depressions and small caverns that once housed people and animals. In one of these dwellings, declared our guide, the angel came to Mary. Could this be the place?
Frederick Buechner ponders the possibilities in Secrets in the Dark:
We all want to be certain, we all want proof, but the kind of proof we tend to want… proof that would silence all doubts once and for all-would not in the long run, I think, answer the fearful depths of our need at all. For what we need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind that keeps the whole show going, but that there is a God right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars but who in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around down here knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world. It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want but, whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of God’s presence. That is the miracle that we are really after.
Allow the annunciation story to ask: Does the same God who sent the angel Gabriel to a young woman so long ago still show up in our world today? Is God still at work and active in our lives?
Scripture is full of accounts of the God who is, who observes, who cares, who has feelings. But it is also the long description of the God who acts…who gets involved with the world. There is no more powerful example of this interaction than Luke’s account:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 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 ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
Talk about being called upon to cooperate with God! Yeow! The angel greeted Mary, calling her “favored one.” Being asked to cooperate in God’s actions in the world is a sign of God’s favor. Mary’s reactions are revealing: She was perplexed at this news—What? Who? Why? Why me? She was naturally inclined to be afraid to get involved in this surprising act. And she had questions:
Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’
Mary has questions about the seeming physical impossibility of the Angel’s words, but she had other troubling questions as well. Who was she—an ordinary, unknown, peasant girl—that God should choose to visit her? We can only imagine how this visit rocked her world, caused her head to spin. Still, she was made of stern stuff, and courage settled her fluttering heart. She believed that God did indeed work in the world, and invited her to participate.
Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
Do you believe that God still acts in the world, favored ones? Does God still interrupt people in the midst of whatever it is they’re doing and pick them out to participate in putting the world back together? Can we imagine how many challenging tasks God wants to get done in the world, and can we imagine that God might have work for us to do? There are people to see. There are words that need to be spoken. There are acts of kindness and goodness and healing that need to be accomplished. There are hard, seeming impossible deeds that need to be done. There are structures to build, children to raise, lessons to share, wrongs to right. God has favored us, asking for our cooperation to get things done. Will we say, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord?” Let’s participate in the great Christmas miracle: God is working with humans to change the world.