Sunday, December 21, 2014

4 Advent

December 21, 2014

Luke 1.26-38

+ I know it’s hard to believe. But, I went to a very conservative seminary.  But…to be honest…it was kind of a good thing for me. Even people who are more progressive can be a bit close-minded about things at times as well. And I was a bit of close-minded progressive before I went off to seminary.  I learned a lot there.  A lot about how to deal with people who have different views and different thinking than my own. I didn’t necessarily have accept those views, but I did understand why people had those views.

I also learned some interesting practices at my seminary.   At the seminary I went to—Nashotah House in Wisconsin—something happened three times every day. Three times every single day the big bell in the bell tower—named Michael—would chime, once in the morning before Morning Prayer, once at noon and once in the evening before Morning Prayer. Whatever we were doing at that moment, we were expected to pause and quietly pray as the bell chimed.

The traditionally thing to do was to pray the Angelus as the bell rung. The Angelus consists of three Hail Mary’s—the prayer based, yet again, on our Gospel reading from today—interspersed with vesicles also from our Gospel reading today. It begins with:

V. The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary.
R. And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Say the Hail Mary

V. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
R. Be it unto me according to your Word.

Another Hail Mary

V. And the Word was made flesh .
R. And dwelt among us.

Another Hail Mary

Then it ends with a wonderful collect that summarizes the Incarnation for us:

Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that as we have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel to the Virgin Mary, so by his cross and passion we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Angelus has a long tradition in the church.  No doubt you’ve sent the very famous painting called “The Angelus” by Jean-Francois Millet of the farmers pausing in the midst of their field work to bow their heads in prayer as they hear the Angelus bell. I always loved the Angelus, because in a very real, it is a theological microcosm of what we will be celebrating this coming week.   And it is an important week on which we are about to embark.

Today, of course, is the last Sunday of Advent.  The big Day—Christmas—is now almost agonizingly close.  On the surface level, we, hopefully, are as prepared as we can be.  Presents are hopefully bought (I still have a few to buy).  Cards have been sent. Menus have been prepared. But spiritually, where are we?

This time of Advent was a time for us to prepare ourselves spiritually for this glorious event.  Has it been worthwhile?  Are we prepared spiritually for this big day? The truly honest answer to that question can only be another question: are we ever truly prepared?  Or maybe even more honest would be the question: what exactly are we preparing ourselves for?

The answer to the first question finds its answer in the second question.  What are we preparing ourselves for?  What do we believe about this day that is about to dawn upon us?  Do we believe it is just another holiday full of trinkets and caroling?  Or do we believe that this Day is an awesome Day—a Day in which, truly God draws near to us.

And there, I think, is the gist of it all. This day we celebrate this coming week is not some sweet, gentle little holiday, just involving a smiling, bright-faced baby in a barn.
Not for us, anyway, who called ourselves Christians.

This day is about God coming to us. God, in the form of this baby. That is what we are hearing about in today’s Gospel reading with the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary and that is what we are celebrating this coming week in the birth of Jesus.

In the Gospel reading, we are looking back roughly nine months from now.  We are looking back to that moment when God came to us, when God moved—and it all happened because Mary said “yes” to the Angel.

Incarnation—God with us and among us—is at the heart of what we as Christians believe.  For us, Jesus isn’t just some nice teacher like the Buddha. (and to be clear, I greatly respect the Buddha) But Jesus isn’t like the Buddha or any other great teacher.  

For us, in Jesus God has come to us.  It is the defining belief among us.  It is what makes us different than our Jewish brothers and sisters.  Yes, we believe in the same God.  But we believe that this same God has taken on human flesh and come among us.

It is also what makes us different than our Muslim brothers and sisters.  Again, we believe in the same God.  Yes, they revere Jesus as a great prophet and Mary as a truly holy servant of God, but they cannot quite accept the fact that God has become flesh in the person of Jesus, that God would have a child.  We, as Christians, do believe this.  We profess it every week in our Creed.  We celebrate it in our scripture readings.  And we partake of this belief in a very tangible way at the altar when we share Holy Eucharist with each other.  And certainly it also a major part of our outreach and ministry.

Because God has come to us in Jesus, we now see God present in those we serve. Every person—no matter who or what they are—is holy and special.  And we can even see God present in own selves.  Everything we do as Christians proclaims the fact we believe that, in Jesus, God has come among us.

The fact is, most of us probably haven’t given this whole idea of God-with-us a whole lot of thought.  Even the early Christians struggled with this belief and defined it in various ways.  For us, though, as Episcopalians, we do believe in this remarkable fact.  And we celebrate it at every opportunity we can.

Certainly every Sunday we celebrate it—here at the altar.  Our Eucharist is a remembrance of the fact that, yes, God continues to come to us, in this bread and this wine.  

In Jesus, God has become present with us.   He also encompassed everything we longed for and hoped in.  He was—and is—God. In Jesus, we find God breaking through to us. In Jesus, God has come among us and dwells among us as one of us, speaking to us as one of us.  And although many of us are still resisting it, those of us who recognize it and see it, realize that God has truly broken through to us.

It’s all, of course, a mystery.  It is beyond our understanding and our rational thought that God could do this.  

But at the same time, for those of us who have faith in God, we can just easily ask the question: why not?  Why couldn’t God do just this?  Why couldn’t God come among us and dwell with us as one of us.

Certainly this is the reality we face this coming Wednesday night and Thursday.  For those of us who have been preparing ourselves spiritually for this day, this is what we are forced to examine and face.  Our faith might not be quite at that point that we believe all of it.  But what our faith does tell us is that, whatever happens on that day, it is God breaking through to us in some wonderful and mysterious way.  And all we have to do is not be stubborn or close-minded and cold-hearted.  Rather, all we have to do is be open to that breaking through to us.

The Word was made flesh.  And dwelt among us.  Our response to that word should be the words of Mary when this incredible mystery descended upon her. Let it be with me according to your word.

God has broken through to us.  Let us meet God at that point of breakthrough rejoicing.  And let us come away from that breaking through to us with God’s word being proclaimed in our own voice.

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