December 21, 2014 | The Fourth Sunday of Advent

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

It always amazes me to see all four candles lit
on the Advent wreath,
and how quickly it feels like it sneaks up on us.

At the beginning of Advent,
there is so much time;
we have four weeks, after all;
but these weeks are always so full,
with shopping, and friends, and family coming into town,
and then, suddenly,
you’ve barely taken a breath,
and the whole wreath is ablaze.

This year, we light the last candle,
and begin our journey to Bethlehem,
to the birth of Jesus,
which is announced in today’s Gospel.

It is a remarkable thing to see Mary today;
she’s engaged to be married to Joseph,
which means that Joseph has already paid the bride price,
the money that due to to Mary’s father
for the right to marry Mary
(this is why in Matthew’s Gospel,
Joseph decides to quietly dismiss Mary,
even though they had not yet been married;
that’s how engagement worked in those days).

The other remarkable thing is that
these marriage contracts were,
in Mary and Joseph’s time,
entered into when the bride was between
twelve and twelve-and-a-half years old;
it was truly a different time;
nowadays, women are typically
more than twice that age before they consider marriage,
and then they decide to get married on their own.
In the US today,
most children turn twelve when they’re in sixth grade.

But for her time, Mary was of marrying age,
and was preparing to make a life with Joseph,
and then into that world crashes the Divine.

Gabriel shows up to her,
with some amazing news:
she is going to have a child.

This wasn’t the first time God had announced an amazing birth:
both Hagar and Sarah spoke to angels
about the birth of Ismael and Isaac;
the birth of Samson was announced to the wife of Manoah
(whose name is lost to history);
and Elizabeth was visited by Gabriel
to announce the birth of John the Baptist
(well, actually, Zechariah was visited,
but one would certainly hope
that even though Zechariah couldn’t talk at the time,
he somehow communicated to Elizabeth
that she was going to be pregnant,
despite her advanced age;
what a shock to her if he didn’t!).

But those women were all older,
and infertile;
Mary was still a virgin:
this “something unheard of” was new.

And her response is remarkable:
first, she asks “How is this possible?”
which is perfectly understandable,
if not almost precocious;
then she says “Here am I, the Handmaid of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary, a sixth-grader by our understanding,
was saying yes to God in a way
that is amazing,
and changed the world for all time.

Because after all,
Mary was agreeing not only to raise Jesus,
to carry him to term, and love him,
but to co-creating with the Holy Spirit
the Divine breaking-in to the world,
Jesus, God’s own self,
born as a human, and in the world to save it.

Mary must have known that she was exposing herself
and her family to scandal;
how the tongues would wag,
given how small Nazareth was,
when Mary turned up pregnant before her wedding.

She must also have known
that being God’s son,
and born to a poor family like hers,
would not go well for Jesus;
the life expectancy for prophets in Israel
was pretty bad,
and wasn’t likely to be any better for Jesus.

Mary was saying “yes” to raising a son
who would deny her,
saying “I have no mother, only a Father in heaven;”
she was saying “yes” to following him to Golgotha,
to the place of the skull where Jesus was crucified;
she was saying “yes” to watching his death,
and grieving his loss;
she was saying yes to carrying in her mother’s heart
the ugliness of human existence,
all of which Jesus encountered,
and ultimately redeemed,
but at an ultimate cost.

It’s truly amazing what Mary does in today’s Gospel.
But it’s equally amazing what God does in today’s Gospel.

Though Gabriel,
God is not only breaking into the human world,
both by sending Gabriel to talk to Mary,
but also by telling of Jesus’ birth;
not only has God come into the world,
but God has chosen to come into the world
on the side of the poor, and the oppressed;
after all, Mary was not of a wealthy family,
nor was Joseph.
Jesus was to be born to a poor family,
raised the son of a handyman;
a far cry from the royal birth we saw last year
of Prince George of Cambridge.

Mary’s song reflects this truth:
“He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts
and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty-handed.”

God has chosen the poor,
and Mary is an example of this;
Mary, who was not particularly favored in our world,
as a girl, as someone without means,
one of the most lowly in her culture,
is most favored by God.

In Mary, God is siding with those on the margins,
something Jesus does consistently
throughout his ministry.

God has just turned Mary’s world upside-down,
and will do the same for us,
if we give him the chance.

After all, as Gabriel says to Mary,
“Nothing is impossible for God.”

Even though for humanity,
so much seems impossible;
in Mary’s time,
just the idea that Mary would be favored,
or that Rome might not rule Israel forever,
or that the hungry might have food,
would have seemed impossible to us,
but nothing is impossible for God.

In our time,
just as much seems impossible;
globally and nationally,
we are as divided and paralyzed as we’ve been
in several generations;
and each of us individually
knows our shortcomings,
the things that feel impossible for us,
the things that drain our hope,
and feel insurmountable.

But none of it is impossible for God.
God, who breaks into human history—
into our history—
God, who chooses the poor and the marginalized,
who gathers up the lowly;
God, whose kingdom promises justice,
and love, and peace, and hope—
nothing is impossible for God.

Regardless of your political persuasion,
I think it’s we can all agree
that we ‘ve made a pretty good mess of the world.

Looking over the two thousand years
since Jesus’s birth was announced to Mary,
(and for the thousands of years before that),
humans have a pretty spotty track record.

And Gabriel proclaims in today’s Gospel
that God will right the wrongs,
and God’s reign will restore and redeem
the mess that we have made:
for with God, nothing is impossible.

That’s what the lights of the Advent wreath
mean for us today:
that God has entered into the world;
that God has chosen to be with us,
as flawed as we are, and as messy as we can make things;
that for God, nothing is impossible.

It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a sixth-grade age girl,
and even more to put on a baby boy,
who will be born to a poor family in a barn;
but God is capable of surprising us,
and turning everything upside down,
in amazing, delightful, and terrifying ways;
but it’s not too much for God,
and it’s not too much for us,
with God’s help.