Sunday, November 29, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Angels"

Luke 1:26-38

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 

30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” 

34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” 35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37 Nothing is impossible for God.” 38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Common English Bible)

“The Nativity Scene: Still Life Coming Alive in Advent,” Week One

It was a marriage that was—and would be—controversial today for a great many people.  The bride had been previously divorced, and the groom was marrying her purely so that she could avoid being deported from England.  In America, it was what we would have called a green card marriage.

Except that this was not simply any random pairing of people looking to flout the law just because they could: the groom was C.S. Lewis, perhaps the most celebrated Christian author of the 20th century, and his bride was a former atheistic communist-turned-Christian Joy Davidman.

Shortly after their civil ceremony, Davidman was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, and the couple—who had gone from being more than the best of friends to being genuine spouses—sought to have a Christian ceremony; despite the rules governing divorce in the Church of England during the late 1950s, a priest who was a personal friend of the couple performed the ceremony in 1957.

Joy Davidman died of her cancer only three years later, in 1960.

In writing pseudonymously about his sheer, unadulterated grief over losing his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote these words:

She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign, and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow soldier.  My mistress, but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me.

Perhaps more.

When we think about the most basic role an angel of God is expected to fulfill—that role of revelation, of revealing a message from God to the human hearer—it is altogether easy (in fact, seemingly too easy) to see those who in our lives dramatically change shape and role from something common to something uncommon, something everyday to something extraordinary, as someone who has become in our eyes an angel.

And we would not to be wrong for doing so, for such a person who inspires such a change in our regard for them is someone capable of likewise changing our regard for God, if we were to let them.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Advent, what we colloquially think of as the “Christmas season,” but in fact the Christmas season in the church traditionally refers to Christmas Day and the eleven days afterwards between it and the Epiphany—the day the Magi arrive in Matthew 2 to worship the newborn Jesus and present Him with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Advent, rather, is much like the pre-Easter season of Lent in that it is meant to be a season of preparation—of preparing for the death and resurrection in the case of Lent, and preparing for the birth (“preparing the way for the Lord, (to) make His paths straight,” as John the Baptist puts it, by quoting the Old Testament prophets) in the case of Advent.

This Advent season, we’ll be doing so by going through the characters one by one in the nativity scenes that we all know and love—the setting of Jesus in the manger surrounded by His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds and the angels who herald His birth—and this Sunday, we begin with the angels, and not just any angels, but the archangel Gabriel and His message to Mary that she is to bear a child who will one day bear the name Son of the Most High.

It is a powerful and profound story, and likely not for reasons that we are truly able to fully appreciate today, I think.  Unwed mothers have it tough in so many ways in 21st-century America: the judgmental stares in the supermarket checkout line, the juggling of schedules without the help of a significant other, and, well, I don’t need to tell you—many of you were or are single moms yourselves.  It’s hard, and I should not, cannot, pretend to know what it is like, because I don’t.

But nor do we really know what it was like, how harrowing it truly was, to be a single mom in first-century Israel.  It meant that she was completely unmarriageable, completely without the intrinsic worth of the only thing that defined her worth back then: her virginity.  Back before the days of paternity testing and Maury Povich, the only way families could determine that their heirs were in fact their own was through virginity, and for obvious reasons, a pregnant woman was assumed to not be a virgin no matter how truthful her claims were of the Holy Spirit overcoming her and the power of the Most High overshadowing her.

She could have—and likely would have—been ostracized, demonized, and functionally exiled, putting her in an infinitely more dangerous place and probably dying even earlier than she otherwise would have due to the lower security of her livelihood.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We’ll talk more about Mary as a person when her sermon arrives.

Yet, you can understand why some of Gabriel’s very first words to Mary are “Be not afraid” Be not afraid, Mary, of what I am about to tell you, of this fate that would mean almost certain isolation to any other woman.  Be not afraid, Mary, of who I am about to tell you your son really is.  Be not afraid, Mary, of me, of who I am, of a being sent to earth solely to reveal God’s goodness unto you!

Be not afraid, Mary!

It’s ironic, then, that these are the words that Gabriel perhaps least needed to speak.  Mary was not afraid, or if she was, Luke certainly does not know it or convey that to us.  No, what Gabriel is instead delivering is indeed what he says is a cause for rejoicing: rejoice, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  Rejoice, Mary, for you shall give birth to He who will save us all.  Rejoice, Mary, because God’s ultimate expression of love for humanity is going to arrive through you!

Rejoice, Mary!

Could we rejoice were we in Mary’s place?  Dare we rejoice were in the place of a teenaged girl visited by an angel to deliver her news that may be welcome to the world but potentially terrifying to her personally?

If God were made known to us by someone whom we did not know, who had to introduce themselves to us by saying “Be not afraid,” would we be able to live out the promise that God’s angel makes to us in that moment?  Would we be able to even see God’s Word in something so unexpected, told to us by someone so unexpected?

My prayer is that we would.

For weeks now, since the Paris terrorist attacks by the Islamic State, it seems we desperately need to be told to be not afraid—be not afraid of our Muslim neighbors, be not afraid of the refugees from Syria, be not afraid of those who simply do not look like us.  And in truth, the shootout that took place this past weekend over in Colorado Springs, at the Planned Parenthood affiliate there, ought to teach us that lesson with bitter tears: the terrorist who killed a law enforcement officer, wounded four more, killed two civilians, and wounded nine more, was not a Muslim, or a Syrian, he was a corn-fed, red-blooded American just like you or I.  Just like the terrorists who shot up Charleston, South Carolina, Aurora, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut, and so many other sites of such tragedy.

Be not afraid, says Gabriel.  Perhaps it is impossible for us to be truly unafraid in this world we now live.  But certainly we must still try, and certainly we must learn to not be afraid of people whom we need not fear.  Gabriel is telling Mary she will soon become a mother with a child upon her back, like so many of the Syrian refugees—need we fear Mary?

Of course not.  For as an angel of the Lord says to her, the Holy Spirit will overcome her.  May we too find those in our lives for whom the Holy Spirit can show us a new reality, a new life, a new way of living.  Joy Davidman did that for C.S. Lewis, perhaps the most popular Christian thinker of the past 100 years.  Think of what you could do just for one another, never mind someone famous or of renown, but simply for the person sitting across the sanctuary or across the world from you.

Can we serve in that selfsame role of angels for one another, even if we do not think we can?  Because were we to do so, then it shall truly be as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews famously said: that by welcoming in strangers, we have indeed unknowingly entertained angels.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 29, 2015

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