Q Word of Love (Advent 4) ~ 12/24/17

A Word of Love
Text: Luke 1:26-38
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
December 24, 2017 ~ Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B)

“After Annunciation,” by Madeleine L’Engle:

This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
there’d have been no room for the child. [1]

Had Mary been filled with reason, she might have asked:

What exactly is it that I’m supposed to do?

What does it mean that this child will be “the Son of the Most High?”

How exactly is this pregnancy supposed to happen?

When will this make sense?

But she didn’t ask those things. She did ask, “how can this be?” but that wasn’t a question that demanded a technical answer. It was a question that simply gave voice to awe, wonder, confusion, puzzlement.

We, who like to consider ourselves to be full of reason, may hear this nativity story and find ourselves asking:

Was Mary really a virgin, or had she and Joseph – or maybe she and someone else entirely!! – been up to some extracurricular activity? Where did that DNA come from, really?

Did the angel foretell the baby to Mary, as Luke tells it, or to Joseph, as Matthew tells it?

Do angels really foretell anything? For that matter, do angels really exist?

Did the emperor demand a census, which led to Mary and Joseph traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born in a stable, as Luke writes? Or did they already live in Bethlehem and was Jesus born in their house, as Matthew tells us?

Were there shepherds in a field who came to visit Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on the night of Jesus’ birth, as Luke would have it? Or were there no shepherds, but an untold number of magi who came from far-off places in the East maybe as long as two years after Jesus’ birth, as Matthew describes? Were there really strangers interested in the birth of this baby at all?

Was there really a star? Or was it maybe a comet? Or Venus? Or nothing at all?

And so on.

We like to be reasonable, rational people.

But this is the irrational season, and this is an unreasonable story.

A reasonable story would be historical – it would tell us the who/what/when/where with accuracy and certitude. A reasonable story would be scientific – verifiable and reproducible in another setting.

But Luke wasn’t writing history or science. In Luke’s time and place, people were not preoccupied with such things as we moderns often are. No, Luke was writing theology: the story of how God relates to the world, and how the world relates to God. Theology is not necessarily expressed in science and verifiable history – although, I would argue that sometimes it is. More often than not, theology – explorations of how God relates to the world and how the world relates to God – is better expressed in parable and poetry, in image and in music.

And we human beings, when we’re honest, know that there is very little that’s rational or reasonable in relationships!

Take, for example, the love of a mother for her child. That baby nearly tore her in half trying to get born, keeps her up beyond the boundaries of sanity, nurses until her nipples bleed, and makes demands on her that are nearly impossible to meet. And yet that mother loves her child with a depth and might that cannot be expressed in words. There is nothing rational or reasonable about love.

Or take, for another example, the love of a child for his mother. That mother sometimes weeps with exhaustion, doesn’t always understand what he needs or respond the way he wants; she sometimes speaks harshly out of frustration and often doesn’t know what she’s doing. And yet that child loves his mother with a depth and might that cannot be expressed in words. There is nothing rational or reasonable about love.

Irrational and unreasonable love – that’s what Luke’s theology is about. God’s irrational love for humanity, love for us beyond all reason – and God’s hope that we will love God in the same way.

Luke’s is an incarnational theology. That is to say, Luke tells us that the way God loves us – or one way, at any rate, a tremendously important way – is by becoming incarnate: by being an embodied, in-the-flesh, living-and-breathing human being, born as a vulnerable and tiny child to an almost equally vulnerable and barely-more-than-a-child mother.

Since Luke is writing theology, he will spend most of his time telling stories about Jesus – the divine one who is also human. But first Luke has us meet the theotokos, the God-bearer, the one who made the incarnation possible. That is, Luke has us meet Mary.

And it is with Mary, that barely-more-than-a-child mother, that we spend some time today.

We at Second Congregational have actually given Mary a fair amount of attention in recent years. There is so much beautiful music to be sung – settings of her own song, The Magnificat, as well as songs about her. And there is such gorgeous art and profound poetry – and we in this congregation do very much love our theology to be delivered in art and poetry and music. But most Protestants don’t spend a whole lot of time with Mary, other than during the Christmas pageant. We mostly leave her to the Roman Catholics, and truth be told, their veneration-bordering-on-worship of Mary makes many a Protestant uncomfortable.

But did you know that the great Reformer Martin Luther was deeply drawn to Mary? Lutheran pastor and scholar David Lose says:

It wasn’t Mary’s goodness or innocence or beauty or even her willingness to serve God that Luther focused on. Rather, it was the plain and simple fact that God chose Mary to bear the Christ child. And that fact, to Luther, is not simply plain and simple but also surprising, perhaps even shocking. God didn’t choose a royal princess or holy priestess, but a plain and, at least to the world’s eyes, utterly insignificant young girl. God chose her. God elected her. God addressed her and honored her and elevated her. Nobody would have expected this. [2]

Nobody would have expected this. Not even Mary herself. When the angel appears to her, she is perplexed, startled, confused. Her question, “how can this be?” isn’t a technical question; it’s little more than a baffled, “who, me?”

What if Mary had refused? What if she had said, “no, not me, I’m not strong enough, rich enough, powerful enough, influential enough, good enough”? What if she had said, “no, not me, there’s too much danger, I don’t know what will happen, it’s too scary. Choose someone else”?

That is, if Mary had been reasonable, there might never have been a child.

But this is the irrational season and this is an unreasonable story.

This is the season when miracles happen. This is the story of God’s utterly unreasonable love for all the world, birthed by a woman named Mary and given the name Jesus. This is the season when salvation is born again – and we remember what we have learned, that salvation in the Bible is another word for healing and for wholeness here and now, and has nothing to do with one’s status in the afterlife.

And most perplexing of all, this is the season when we are invited to birth some healing and wholeness into the world.

It was the very fact that no one, not even Mary, expected her to be chosen that Luther loved so much. For if even an insignificant girl in an insignificant town living an insignificant life could be chosen to bring salvation into the world, then who’s to say who God will choose next?

Can it be that God has already chosen, elected, spoken to, honored, and elevated each of us? It’s fair to assume that we aren’t going to give birth to an actual child; Mary already did that. But can it be that each of us has a little bit of God that we have been entrusted to bear into the world? Can it be that each of us has a unique piece of healing and wholeness to offer to others?

That’s irrational, to be sure. Unreasonable, even. But then…’tis the season.

“Young Mary” by Madeleine L’Engle:

I know not all of that which I contain.
I’m small; I’m young; I fear the pain.
All is surprise: I am to be a mother.
That Holy Thing within me and no other
is Heaven’s King whose lovely Love will reign.
My pain, his gaining my eternal gain,
my fragile body holds Creation’s Light;
its smallness shelters God’s unbounded might.
The angel came and gave, did not explain.
I know not all of that which I contain. [3]

My guess is that most of us know not all of that which we contain. But I would venture to say this much: we are each and all chosen, favored, elected to bring love into the world. After all, as the angel said: nothing will be impossible with God. Thanks be to God.

[1] Madeleine L’Engle, “After Annunciation.” A Cry Like a Bell (Wheaton, IL: Crosswicks, 1987) p. 58.

[2] David J. Lose, “Advent 4B/Christmas Eve: God’s Surprising Choices,” 21 December 2017.

[3] Madeleine L’Engle, “Young Mary.” A Cry Like a Bell.

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