Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday Sermon

Advent 4: "The Third Miracle"

"The Lord is with you." That’s what the angel Gabriel told the young woman – Mary – so long ago. "The Lord is with you." To our ears, there might seem nothing exceptional about this greeting. After all, we say something similar to one another every week here at worship. "The Lord be with you/And also with you." That’s the way we greet one another near the opening of our worship services. These are deceptively simple words, words that we say to one another each week, so that perhaps we don’t think much about what they mean. And yet to Mary, hearing "The Lord is with you" from the angel Gabriel, these words are nothing short of a miracle, and they cause her to wonder – just what sort of a greeting this might be.

"The Lord is with you," the angel’s words to Mary – just what sort of greeting is this and what exactly does it mean? To Mary’s ears, this greeting is nothing short of a miracle, something beyond her imagining – and she doesn’t even realize the full implications of what it might mean– and neither do we. To understand a little more the meaning of this phrase, we need only to turn to our first lesson today, the reading from 2nd Samuel. The King is talking to the prophet Nathan about his plans. He is musing about the fact that here he is, living in a fine house, a palace even, and the Lord is living in a tent. That’s what the tabernacle was, really, it was a kind of a tent for the ark of the covenant. And David says to the prophet, I think that I will build a house – a temple – a permanent building – for the Lord. Nathan replies to the king with these words, "The Lord is with you." What he means is: go ahead and build that palace. God will bless this project. God will be with you in this. So what he says is, "The Lord is with you."That’s what the greeting really means. It means: you are blessed, and your work is blessed; God’s will is going to be done through you. "The Lord is with you."

The two things the angel says, "Favored one!" and "The Lord is with you" really mean the same thing – and they are nothing short of a miracle. "The Lord’s will is going to be done through Mary – a young girl, only 12 or 13 years old. That’s even more incredible than Nathan’s word to David, because David was a king and was used to thinking that God worked through his actions. But Mary was a humble and ordinary person, like you and me, and the angel told her, "The Lord is with you." And that’s nothing short of a miracle.But this is the season for miracles, isn’t it?
This is the season for miracles, both sacred and secular. The sacred stories we hear in this season are full of miracles – but in this season we have become used to throwing the word "miracle" around a lot, so that it seems that things as natural as snow on the tree branches andas fantastic as Rudolph’s red nose are all called "miracles." It is the season of miracles, and some of them bring tears to our eyes, and cause lumps in our throats. But maybe that’s because, if we will admit it to ourselves, we need a miracle or two – especially right now — at this season and in this time. We could use a miracle or two right now, when we hear about and see the many kinds of cruelty there are in the world. We could use a miracle or two when we are still reeling from death and terror in India, when we continue to be involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We could use a miracle or two right now, when so many are losing their jobs, and when men like Tom Petters and Bernard Madoff are accused of cheating and using many people who trusted them. The truth is, we could use a miracle or two right now.... if our family is torn and in need of reconciliation, if we are grieving, if we are not sure how to make ends meet, if we are hungry for something we cannot even name. The truth is, we could use a miracle or two right now, maybe even three, and that’s why some of the many stories of the season touch our hearts.
Today’s gospel story is full of miracles, as Martin Luther noted in a sermon he preached long ago, on the Annunciation. I love the way Luther talks about Mary. Here are some of the things he writes: "Quite possibly God might have gone to Jerusalem and picked out Caiaphas’ daughter, who was fair, rich, clad in gold-embroidered raiment, and attended by a retinue of maids in waiting. But God preferred a lowly maid from a mean town. Quite possibly Mary was doing the housework when the Angel Gabriel came to her. Angels prefer to come to people as they are fulfilling their calling..." Later on Luther writes: "To this poor maiden marvelous things were announced: that she should be the mother of the All Highest, whose name should be son of God. He would be a King and of his Kingdom there would be no end. It took a mighty reach of faith to believe that this baby would play such a role." And he goes on later to tell us, "St. Bernard declared there are here three miracles: that God and man should be joined in this Child; that a mother should remain a virgin; that Mary should have such faith as to believe that this mystery would be accomplished in her."– The last is not the least of the three.
I agree with Luther. The third miracle is not the least. It is, in fact, the greatest miracle. It is the miracle of faith, of trust – the miracle of Mary’s faith – and ours. As Luther writes, "This is for us the hardest point, not so much to believe that He is the son of the Virgin and God himself, as to believe that this Son of God is ours.""The Lord is with you." – "God’s will is to be accomplished through you." And Mary believes – she trusts that God is going to accomplish God’s will through Mary – just as God accomplished God’s will through King David, so long ago. But not in the way that David thought. David thought that he would be doing God’s will by building a temple, a great and permanent house for God. But it turns out that God had bigger plans. God had plans to dwell in the midst of God’s people – not in a temple or a palace, but in a person – and in people. God had plans to dwell in the midst of God’s people, to be held in a mother’s loving arms, to be fed and clothed and loved – and to hold and feed and heal us, too. God had plans to dwell in the midst of God’s people, to feed and to clothe and to heal and to love the world through Jesus – and through us.
Author Katherine Paterson tells the story of a night watchman working in a warehouse on Christmas eve. He’s also a father with three young children, and he’s almost happy to be working on Christmas eve because he has nothing to bring home. He feels like a failure.
He lost his job, and this was the best one he could find. He sits in the empty warehouse on a cold night, and thinking about his life, and dreads going home. He doesn’t think it will be a merry Christmas at all. The quiet is interrupted by suspicious noises. It’s his job to investigate suspicious noises, but when he goes to check them out, he finds nothing – nothing but a box – a box that wasn’t there before. However, inside the box is a note – and a baby. The note reads, "please take care of my baby. You are my last chance." He doesn’t know what to do.
He doesn’t feel like he can take care of the family he has, and now – this little one has been dropped in his lap. He is nervous to take the baby home with him, knowing what a burden it will be, but he doesn’t know what else to do. So, at the end of his shift, and with nothing else to offer, he heads toward home.His girls greet the baby with joy – the greatest gift they could have asked for. There is some confusion about where the baby came from – but even his wife begins to hope that they can take this child in – that somehow it is a sign that someone has faith in them.
Maybe, the watchman wonders, he is not such a failure after all. Maybe, instead, "the Lord is with him," and has asked him to do this important work, to raise this child. Maybe he can even do it.

"The Lord is with you." Like Mary, we participate in God’s great plan of salvation when we believe, when we trust that God is working in our lives. We participate in God’s great plan of salvation when we take bold risks to heal and restore one another. We participate in God’s plan of salvation when we pick up the burden and blessing of Christ, when we believe what he has told us – and when we tell one another –"The Lord is with you."
I’d like you to turn to the person next to you right now, and say these words to him or her. Look at them and say, "The Lord is with you." The Lord is accomplishing his will through your life. (Give them time to say it.) The third miracle is indeed the greatest one – to trust God’s love for us, to trust God’s call to us.
Here we are, servants of the Lord.
Let it be with us according to God’s word. AMEN
Luther quotes from The Martin Luther Christmas Book, ed Roland Bainton
story from A Midnight Clear, by Katherine Paterson


Barbara B. said...

Excellent sermon, Diane. (And I agree: We do need a miracle or two.)

Jennifer said...

Here's to miracles!

LawAndGospel said...

Thank you so much for these words. After my own Sunday of preaching and an arguably rough week as a chaplain, these words were a great comfort to me.