Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | December 13, 2020
Luke 1: 47-55
Years ago, on Christmas Eve I went to the grocery store to pick up a few last-minute items. I was in no particular hurry. If you go to the grocery store on Christmas Eve, you will find people who are in a particular hurry. Their shopping carts were full.
This was around the time that chip and pin debit cards were first coming into use. Once people get the hang of new technology it speeds things up like it’s supposed to. On this Christmas Eve people hadn’t quite mastered the new technology. More than one person would get flustered when they missed some part of the process and had to start over.
Usually when I’m in line and someone ahead of me starts slowing things down, rather than get frustrated because they are wasting a few precious seconds of my life, I try to see the situation as a story. What’s going on here, I wonder. It’s interesting to see how people react. Are they impatient or kind, helpful or rude? What’s the human dynamic at work in the situation at hand.
Ahead of me in the line there was a woman with an active toddler. She couldn’t get the chip and pin machine to work. The grocery store employee couldn’t get it to work either. Lots of punching buttons to no avail. The line was growing longer. There was a cash machine in the store and that wouldn’t work for her either. She came back to the grocery check out and said, “I guess this just isn’t working for me today.” She took her child and left.
Sometimes the other people in the line in these situations will give each other a knowing look. A shared, “can you believe this?” moment.
I don’t know what anyone else was thinking. That’s one thing about real life; it’s not interpreted for us. It’s just there. Real life presents itself with clarity and we have to figure it out and live it.
If this were a pretend scene from a Hallmark moving, then maybe all the players on hand would have their thoughts wrapped in neat packages. One character would think, “Good grief, you would think that if someone were going to buy groceries, that she would at least be organized enough to know whether or not she had the money to do it.”
Another one would think, “There are agencies to handle this kind of thing. Why doesn’t she check into that?”
And another would think, “Finally, it’s my turn.”
Because it is a holiday story, someone would step forward and say, “Excuse me miss, but I see that you’re in some distress. These darn computers. Why don’t you let me pay for your groceries?”
And she would say, “Oh I can’t let you do that.”
And the kind stranger would say, “Ah but I insist, after all, tis the season . . .” And as others in line stepped forward to help out, there would ensue a heartwarming finale about the wonders of Christmas and the joy of helping strangers.
The kind stranger and the young woman might end up falling in love. Or it could turn out that they are long lost relatives.
One thing about real life is that the stories we live are not so easily scripted. Life is not a greeting card, nor does the day to day reality of it always live up to the ideals of a holiday sentiment. But we share the sentiment, because it’s what we hope for.
There is plenty of sentimental value in Christmas. Even in church, where we always try to remind ourselves of the “real” meaning of Christmas, we have our sentimental side. There’s something just too heartwarming to pass up about the baby Jesus and children donning angel wings and shepherd costumes and reciting their lines in front of the church.
Sometimes the play becomes the reality. When I was eleven years old, I volunteered to be a character in the Sunday School Christmas play at Temple Baptist Church. I don’t remember what character I played, but it did require me to wear a bathrobe, so maybe I was as a shepherd.
I had one line to say, something about a star appearing in the east. In rehearsal, when it came time for me to say my line, I gave it all the authority and gravitas that my eleven-year-old self could muster. The pastor was passing through the sanctuary just then and he paused and said, “John, with a voice like that, you could end up as a preacher.”
I thought about it; and I kept thinking about it and eventually it came to pass. One of the lessons I gained from that experience is to be careful what you say to children, because they are listening.
In a way, in our theater of worship, every act of worship is an act of pretending. We are acting out our hopes. We are acting out our joys. Within these walls we rehearse the lines God gives us. Our hope is that we learn them well enough to take them out into the world. To make our play practice an everyday reality. We use our imaginations to dream new possibilities. Our hopes soar on eagle’s wings, and at this time of year, on angel’s wings.
The life God gives us contains a great deal of our own wishful thinking. We hear of peace and justice and we think, “If only it were so.”
Peace on earth, “If only . . .”
Do unto others as you would have them do unto to you, “If only . . .”
The greatest of these is love, “If only . . .”
In some sense God presents us with new realities of life, saying, “This is the way it is now that I have become one of you.” And in that new reality God presents us with a challenge. “This new life is real, and you may choose to embrace it.”
Mary’s song is a declaration of the way things are now that God decided to be born into the world in person. It’s a simple declaration –
God’s mercy is for those who fear God.
God scatters the thoughts of the proud.
God brings down the powerful from their thrones.
God lifts up the lowly.
God fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty.
Mary’s song sets the stage for what follows in the life of Jesus. How in the stories of Jesus we see that God comes into the world through the back door. God identifies with the concerns of the poor and needy, with the outcasts and the sinners. In all the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, the Scriptures we read, and the messages we hear, we are presented with this new reality. We face the challenge to move from the rehearsal to the actual performance.
There are some worries about moving from play acting the gospel to really living it.
When God announces mercy to those who fear God, it is we who need to embrace the awesome reverence for God in our hearts and minds.
When God announces the scattering of the proud, it is our self-aggrandizement that needs to fly to the wind.
If we approach God from the perspective of our wealth and power, offering to God a tid-bit of our lives, we will be sent away empty-handed.
This story of Mary shows how God works. God decides to redeem humanity once and for all; to do all these wonderful and awesome things by bringing to bear a completely new reality. The kingdom of heaven come down. But there’s just one hitch, one little wrinkle that has to be ironed out before any of it can happen.
God takes the fate of humanity and places it in the hands of a young woman who was probably around 15 years old. The most profound and radical act of hope was when God left it up to the faith response of a young woman named Mary. What did she know? What could she know? How would she answer? God and all the legions of heaven waited for her to decide.
She said, “Here am I; the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
If we are to identify with this story in any way at all, we must begin exactly as Mary did. And not just with the birth of Jesus narratives, but all of it, the whole story. Everything that follows, every challenge to receive the gospel and to make it real; it all begins as it did with Mary, saying, “here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
When we honestly embrace that truth, then we move from the rehearsal to the reality.
Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. Amen.