The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 21:39-56

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
(No audio is available)
The Season of Advent, the liturgists say, calls for four weeks of quiet watchfulness. It should reflect a mood of hushed tranquility, a joyful but solemn time, centered in preparation and self-scrutiny, and leading to repentance and renewal. Wonderful.

The only problem with this pre-incarnational preparation is that the Gospel readings for the last three weeks have offered us anything but sweet soundlessness. Not much comfort or stillness at all.

Week one opened with Luke’s version of “Apocalypse Now.” Jesus is coming back, and sweetness and light are not to be had. When he returns on clouds of glory, in the might and majesty of the parousia, the whole cosmos will shudder and shake. It will be a scene so mind-shattering, says Luke, that the world, except for believers, will faint with foreboding.

And the next two Sundays, things don’t get any better—or quieter. John the Baptist thunders onto the stage of salvation history with all the tact of a fire-breathing dragon. & If the earth doesn’t shake at his message, you can bet the people who come out for his baptism of repentance do. “You brood of vipers!” he screams at them. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

With veins bulging from his neck and leathery skin from years of windblown desert life, John kicks up a racket among the people that is as unsettling as it is unforgettable.

But then, week four comes. And the Advent scene suddenly takes a far-reaching and unforeseen turn. It is a mood shift of gigantic proportions.

All the cosmic activity of the apocalypse and revivalistic preaching have passed away. The knotted brows and clenched fists vanish. A certain soundlessness takes hold, and a calm settles over the rough seas of Advent.

Is it the eye of the hurricane? The still before the storm? The breathless anticipation that precedes the fiery Judgment? No, it isn’t any of that. Yet, it isn’t what you think–unless the familiarity of the drama has dulled us into making Christmas just another chapter in a world of “cliched existence”—seasonal emotions.

Advent Four ends all of that! Suddenly, mystery replaces mastery. Willingness takes the place of willfulness. Miracle overshadows the mundane.

It begins with the telling of a mystical experience that happened to a teenage girl, minding her own business in an obscure Jewish village, in an insignificant part of the Roman Empire. The hinge of human salvation history hangs here–in this place, at this time.

Without warning, the archangel Gabriel—the heavenly being charged with delivering the meaning of salvation history to God’s people—announces the unthinkable. The unimaginable. The Incarnation.

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” So says the writer of Hebrews. (10.31) And there seems to be little in Scripture to refute that notion. But just imagine how this “fearfulness” must have been compounded in Mary.

The rabbis had set the minimum age for marriage at 12 for girls and 13 for boys. The whole concept of what we Westerners call “adolescence,” or “prolonged entry into adulthood,” was unheard of at the time of Mary.

When nature determined that Jewish children were ready to marry and have a family, then a marriage took place. Not high school or college or graduate school, not traveling abroad, and certainly not kickin’ back and chillin’ for a couple of years.

So there she was. Barely a teenager, who used Clearasil in the morning and talked on the phone half the night. A girl who hung out with her friends until the mall closed, who longed for the day she would get a driver’s license, or dreamed about who would ask her to the prom, or how much money she could make baby-sitting for the kids next door. (Or, at least, the equivalent of teenage girl like that.)

In a world that understands the “blessing of God” mainly in terms of personal gain—getting a good job, having good health or good luck or all the creature comforts—it’s hard for us to understand how Mary, in her position, felt blessed, felt “favored.”

How “blessed” could it have been for her to be pregnant with no human father to share the blame, in a community which viewed unwed mothers with utter disdain?

How “favored” could she have been to have a son whom her hometown folk later regarded as having “gone out of his mind.” How “fortunate” would it have been for her to watch her son be repudiated by the Jerusalem leadership as a blasphemer, and then watch him die, inch by terrible inch on the cross. Blessed? Favored?

Madeleine L’Engle in an essay, “The Other Side of Reason” raises the question each of us must ask if we truly seek to understand the “blessedness” of Mary: What would have happened to Mary (and to all of the rest of us) if she had said No to the angel?”

She had the freedom to run. She could have asked for more time to decide, to talk it over with the more significant people in her life, and then get back to God at a less stressful time.

But she didn’t. Even though she couldn’t have understood what it all meant or would mean. And yet, Mary was obedient to God. And it is this obedience that makes her the Mother of Believers.

One doesn’t have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding—that intellectual understanding which we are so fond of—there is a feeling of rightness, of trust, of knowing things which we are not yet able to understand.

You know what I’m saying? Like Holy Communion. We don’t understand it, but we know what it’s about. Like grace. Like faith. Like blessedness.

As long as we know what it’s about, then we can have the courage to go wherever God asks us to go, even though the way may be filled with danger and questions and pain and mystery.

An ordinary girl saying “yes” to God becomes the means of grace for the healing of the world.
Ordinary people—you and I—saying “yes” to God in our own callings, mirror the essence of Mary’s witness made real in our own lives as believers.

To be as obedient as Mary to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, perhaps not through angelic visions but through the nudges and whispers, dreams and intuitions, given us, is to be a Godbearer in the world. It is to be an extension of the Incarnation—& the means through which Jesus enters the world afresh and anew.

Contemplate that—gently, quietly, personally—over these next four days, as we await the coming of Christ. Ponder these things in your heart. And be blessed, in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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