Dec. 9, 2018

Prayer of the Day
God of grace, your eternal Word took flesh among us when Mary placed her life at the service of your will.  Stir up our hearts for his coming again; keep us steadfast in hope and faithful in service, until we receive the fullness of your coming kingdom through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Isaiah 61:7-11
Psalm 89
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 1:26-38

Title:  Surprise! You Are Highly Favored

Last week I called to our attention that surprises abound:  surprises in the way God works, surprises in this season of Advent, and surprises that fill this first chapter of Luke’s gospel.  And today does not disappoint this promise of a season and chapter of surprises as we get another angel visit, another promise of a baby, another assurance that God has not forgotten God’s people or all of creation, for that matter.

But the bigger surprise for today is found in answering the questions:  Why there?  Why her?

I mean, last week’s surprise angel visit was in an appropriately holy place – the temple in Jerusalem.  And not just the temple, but in the holy of holies where sacred encounters are understandable, hoped for, maybe even, (do we dare say?), expected.  But this week, the setting of this unexpected angel visit is in Galilee.  If I wanted to get an appropriate reaction from you in our modern North American context, I might suggest that the setting is some backwater county of Mississippi. (Am I sounding like a big city snob?  Cultural elite?  Not my intention to insult, just to highlight the image Galilee had in that first century.)   And to add to it, let’s say that in that backwater county of Mississippi, there is a barely-on-the-map town.  Keep in mind, we’ll hear just what kind of reputation Nazareth had from Nathaniel in John’s gospel.  When Philip says that they have found the messiah and it is Jesus from Nazareth, Nathaniel responds sardonically: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  So, with the encouragement and affirmation from Jesus’ contemporaries we can ask:  why Galilee?  Why Nazareth?  But, as we all well know now, Surprise! That is exactly where God goes to find the couple who bring the incarnate word into the world.

And then there is the second question, the more profound and challenging question.  So challenging that the church over time felt a need to go beyond the Biblical story and create theological doctrine that would help to explain this miraculous surprise.  That second question is:  Why her?  Why Mary of Nazareth?  Why is she the one chosen to join God’s Spirit in bringing our Savior into the world?  Unable to live with the idea that perhaps Mary is the human equivalent of that nothing-spectacular-town of Nazareth, the church developed the idea that Mary must have been someone extra special such that there was no surprise at all in her being chosen.  In their thinking, she must have been born for this role.  The teaching of the immaculate conception (which does not refer to the virgin birth of Jesus), the doctrine of the immaculate conception teaches that Mary was born without the stain of original sin (or as the orthodox church puts it, she was human but had no personal sin).  The rationale for such a doctrine is the idea that only one without sin would be worthy to birth Jesus, the word of God made flesh.  They sure know how to take the surprise out of it.

And yet, we have story after story that bears witness to how God works and who God works with.  A quick survey of the parade of the called proves my point.  Abraham:  sure a great man of faith who answers the call to start a new nation in the wilds, yet he is so frightened along the way that on numerous occasions he tries to pass his wife off as his sister so that he won’t be killed.  Jacob is a scoundrel and a cheat, just ask his brother and his father-in-law.  Moses is a murder yet brings new life to the enslaved people.  Rahab is a prostitute.  The great king David, carefully chosen from all his better brothers, turns out to be an adulterer and a murderer.  Elijah has a wicked temper.  Jeremiah wants to have nothing to do with any of this.  And that’s just a sampling from only the Hebrew scriptures.

Then look at who Jesus calls as disciples – fishermen, tax collectors, deniers and betrayers.  Look at who he shares a table with – sinners and prostitutes.  He touches the unclean, the lepers, and the dead.  He gives attention and compliments to children, women, and pagans even.  And he only has words of warning and condemnation for those the world judges righteous.

Then there is the work of the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ unorthodox earthly ministry is complete.  Saul who is murdering believers becomes Paul the builder of the church.  The message of Jesus is spread beyond the confines of the Jewish people such that Gentiles are included, the uncircumcised.  An Ethiopian eunuch and a Roman soldier and his family are baptized and told that they too are included in this spreading reign of God.

And that is just the Bible record.  Then you have 2000 years of church history that proves my point time and time again.  You may have heard it before but it is a good day to hear it again:  God does not call the qualified, God qualifies the called.

And just from the Christmas story alone that we will hear again in 15 days, we know that God does not make good preparations.  God is sort of spontaneous.  If it were different, there would have been reservations waiting for Mary and Joseph when they arrived in Bethlehem.  Not to mention the line of unworthies continues as those rough and rowdy shepherds are the first to hear, and those pagan magicians from the east come to worship.

Time and time again, God shows up where we least expect:  blooming gardens in the wilderness, filling dry gulches with clean water, standing among the enslaved, the exiled, and the imprisoned, with the powerless and the marginalized.  God shows up helpless in a manger and broken on a cross.  If all of this is how God works in the world, then certainly a sinless one is not required for God’s incarnation.

Some may say:  But the Angel greets Mary with a “you have found favor with God.”  To which I say, all those other sinners and scoundrels that I listed have found favor with God as well.  So have we.  By the grace of God in Christ Jesus, so have we.

The story of a sinless person being worthy enough to participate in God’s reign coming to earth, just does not fit the story that God is weaving with chaotic creation, with faulty and frail humanity.

You need not be perfect or sinless to carry the word of God into the world.  If that was a requirement, this movement started by Jesus and the witnesses who encountered him would never have gone anywhere.  It would have never changed the world.  We would not be here today.  We would not have been baptized into the new life of Christ.  We would not be sharing in his meal, confident that he is present with us, and walking with us each day.

Over two thousand years the understanding of just how inclusive this call of God is has grown, it keeps evolving and expanding.  In just the 160 years that St. John’s has been here in this sanctuary, on the always changing Christopher Street, the awareness of how radical God’s welcome and call has changed in earth shaken ways.  (I have been known to say to folks that if the German founders of St. John’s knew who was leading their congregation today, they’ be rolling in their graves, but then I serve the one who rose from his grave.)

By the grace of God, I say to you what the Angel said to Mary: “Do not be afraid.  You have found favor with God.”  The word of God is born in you through the waters of baptism and fed at our Lord’s table.  How blessed are you!  What peace is ours.

The Rev. Mark Erson,



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