Today began a new church year. This is my favorite season. We launched a daily Advent devotional at church with a daily email with Christmas songs and lots of other ways to engage the season. Sign up for it here.
I also preached today, and had the strongest response I have yet had from the congregation. A couple of people asked if I had a shareable version of the sermon, so I am posting it below to share. I hope that Advent treats you well, and that you find some peace and conviction in these strange, scary times.
November 27, 2016
First Presbyterian Church Norman
Rev. Jessica Dixon
Conspiring in Advent
on Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-25
Happy New Year!
Ok, So today is the first day of the new church year. Are you ready for it? The idea that the church year begins in November confuses a lot of people each year who are unaware that our church calendar is different than the secular Gregorian calendar. In the end though I don’t think the two are so different from one another, as these first four weeks of the church calendar, and then the Christmas season that ends on January 6th are in many ways about anticipating newness, getting ourselves ready, dusting out the scrooge-filled corners of our hearts, and making a space for the baby- and not, until Christmas Eve at least, about celebrating that the new thing has come.
And that is why Advent, and its counterpart Lent, are my favorite seasons of the church year. I have always been the one who loved waiting for a new movie or book by a favorite author or director to premiere- more than I often enjoy the book or movie itself. I’m the one who loves giving gifts more than getting them- I get to work on the gift, know that the person will enjoy it, anticipate their enjoyment and then give it to them. I only get to receive a gift once.
So when Barry and I decided I would get to preach the first sunday of Advent I was really excited, and when Molly and I worked hard to get a new very fun and interesting Advent daily devotion ready (sign up for it at http://eepurl.com/coa4pn) for us all to do this year that was even better.
I got to anticipate the season of anticipation... Aren’t you jealous?
The next four weeks in one of our education options at 9:30 we will explore a series called the Advent Conspiracy. The core of this series of four lessons is to refocus our Christmas- to re-contextualize all the tinsel, bows, ornaments, trees, carols and most of all the shopping, spending, wrapping and giving of gifts so that we remember why, and for whom we celebrate when December 24th and 25th finally get here. The point of this ‘conspiracy’ is not to win some fictitious war on Christmas or to reclaim a season that already belongs to us, it is to remember that we are Christ’s followers and that in the coming of Jesus we already have the greatest gift we or our families could ever get. As such we can let ourselves off the hook for some of the busyness we make for ourselves in this season, if it does not serve to help us celebrate the birth of Emmanuel. It is about anticipating the birth of Jesus counter to the way the world nearly forces us to with red and green (the church color this season is purple) everywhere, and lights, and so much to do and be that it can be overwhelming and distract us from the power and love of the season. So let’s start this conspiracy, this anticipation, where God starts it in our midst...with Mary and Joseph.
Our story begins, this story of God coming to join us as one of us, with a teenage girl...I know it’s great right...I have always loved Mary because she was a woman I heard about all the time at church who I could relate to as a girl, as one who was trying to figure out what God was doing, and who tries to be faithful.
But then when I got older and really read her story I began to wonder, if I do actually relate to her...yes she is a young woman, a faithful one... who God uses to come into the world. Woah. Not sure I could handle that. I think maybe she has more faith than I may ever have. Lets see what I mean with today’s story.
So an angel comes to Mary and confuses her and says ‘rejoice favored one the Lord is with you’..... What on earth could that mean? …..I am sure that Mary at the time- a young woman living her life, engaged to a man named Joseph, was just doing what she thought every girl did. So an angel appearing seemingly out of nowhere and telling her that she is favored and that God is with her would be quite shocking and probably very very confusing. She is so confused in fact she wonders what this greeting might mean but says nothing at all. I imagine her standing in her bedroom in her pjs (angels seem to only appear in this story at night, so while we don’t know, that’s how I always imagined it), agog at this thing that has just appeared in her room, silently staring with her mouth open, unable to say anything at all... it is indeed an odd way of greeting- in fact the angel doesn't say ‘hello’, there's no preamble, we don't even get the standard Angel greeting of ‘do not be afraid’ ..the angel is calling card... until the next verse. No, it starts out by telling her that God is with her. Huh? I imagine she just decides to go with it, listen for a while to figure out what the heck is going on.
Next the angel goes on to explain that she has been chosen by God, and that as God’s chosen she will conceive and give birth to a son... and that his name will be Jesus... that he will be great, and in quoting the prophets, that he will be called the Son of the Most High... that God will give him the kingdom of his ancestor David... and that he will rule forever.
...Now let's think about this for a minute- an
Angel appears and tells you that God is with you... that's weird enough on its own
but then the angel goes on to talk at length about how you will
give birth to a baby and
he will be the king like David
he will be God's son
...who on earth (literally) would believe it?
So even faithful Mary says to the angel ‘how can this happen?’ and she goes on in a very pragmatic manner and says ‘how can this happen if I have not had sex’? (since that is where babies come from)
And the angel, in the same way being practical, tells her that the Holy Spirit will come visit her, and “will come over her” with the power of the most high God (whatever that means) and that in this way the one that will be born (Jesus) will be holy, he will be called God’s Son. The angel goes on to explain that this crazy thing could happen to Mary because even Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who is too old to have a baby, has conceived a son as well, she is a woman who was labeled unable to conceive...and she is now six months pregnant...the angel says these two things prove that nothing is impossible for God.
OK so at this point if I were Mary I would be on major overload...
the Holy Spirit's going to come,
it's going to make me pregnant,
the baby I'm going to have is going to be the king of the people of Israel
and have power in the world
and all of these things and on top of that, my cousin who is in her older years is having a baby too
I suppose at this point I would either have to believe it all...or not, either think this whole thing is crazy and not possible... or decide that God is indeed able to do anything. And we know from the story that Mary decides everything really is possible for God, because while none of that sounds like something that would happen in the real world…. instead of exclaiming skepticism, or asking what I am sure is thousands questions in her head, or offering fear Mary says ‘I am the Lord’s servant let it be with me as you have said’ and the angel goes away.
So this is how Mary's Advent begins. A visit from an angel to tell her something entirely unbelievable.
While we always think of Mary as beautiful and serene I would imagine that any 14-year-old girl, or really anyone, no matter how faithful, goes on from this angle visit to have a few days of freaking out- after all she has to tell her parents, and the rest of her family, and her community, what has happened. Not a conversation I would look forward to. Would she even expect to be believed?
“Hey mom and dad- I’m a teenager and engaged and all, but an angel came last night to let me know that I am pregnant with God’s son” how would your parents have reacted? Would they have believed that it was God’s doing? Would they have been angry? Would they have gone in to ‘fix it’ mode? Would they cry, yell, sit in stunned silence? None of that sounds fun. She has to tell everyone she knows and then wait for the possibility of ostracism and even of the community deciding, in line with the law of the community, that she deserves to be stoned to death because that is what the law requires when a woman is pregnant and not married. Who would believe that God would do such a thing with a teenage girl? Would the community believe her? If they didn’t what should she do?
And somewhere in there she has to tell Joseph- and hope that he understands and believes her. The story is so unbelievable in fact that Joseph, when he finds out, doesn’t believe her...well it seems that he must actually care for her too, because he cares for her enough to try and keep things quiet instead of publicly shaming her (which is his right)- he decides that he needs to break off their engagement because clearly whatever has happened she has not been faithful to the laws of her community and to their relationship if she's pregnant then clearly someone else must be involved. Clearly Joseph doesn’t believe her, he wants to end things and send her away. If he believed her story I would imagine the angel would not have to visit him. But it does.
So here comes the angel again, this time with the standard angel calling card ‘do not be afraid’ and goes on to quote Isaiah 7, the angel uses both its authority as a messenger from God and Joseph’s faith in the scriptures to convince him that this whole thing is really what Mary says it is. Even in his love or care for her, he does not believe it until an angel not only visits and says it’s true but points out where the prophet has said it will happen.
That girl must have had some serious strength to face all that, even for God.
So now we are rolling in our Advent conspiring, Mary and Joseph, and presumably all of Nazareth, know what is going on. This baby is coming and he is God’s son, ‘or at least that whole family says that’s what is happening, but who knows’. Advent has truly started, there is serious expectation, anticipation of the coming of a child- one who will be loved and cared for, but one whose life throws some serious monkey wrenches into the plans of his young earthly parents.
This year the thought of this anticipation including a fair measure of fear and uncertainty, and requiring some grit, makes sense to me. This year Advent anticipation comes to me with a big side serving of anxiety and even fear. We are living in a time of anticipation of new beginnings-
a new president, and the end of our time as a nation with one we have had for 8 years, a change that no matter your feelings about our president-elect means the coming of change of the political party in charge, as well as lots of shifts in policy and new people in office aside from the president. A difficult thing any time, but particularly hard for many of us this year.
A time as a state where lots of other social and political and educational realities make life unsure and the future unclear.
And here, at First, we face new beginnings as a church- the commencement of a Pastor Nominating Committee in the new secular year, and the first steps toward hiring a new long term pastor, and all the anticipation and uncertainty that can come with that process.
Lots of these anticipations could be good, some of them are scary or at least anxiety inducing for many of us. And all of it seems totally appropriate as a place to begin Advent. Just like Mary and Joseph, we are asked to believe some unbelievable things, to trust... but to act, to find newness and renewal in the midst of times that are uncertain.
And like both Mary and Joseph in their walk toward Bethlehem and a manger and the coming of this miraculous child, we are asked to find hope in the midst of the mess, to stick together in the days to come, to believe messengers of hope when the come- if they are angels, magicians or poor migrant strangers… and the only way it will happen is if, just like Mary and Joseph we can find and create love.
Mary and Joseph love their history, trust that it is true and that the witness of the prophets, the lineage of David, and the presence of God in their history are true, real, and relevant to their lives. They show this love in trusting that history and the words of those prophets are indeed coming true and coming to life before their eyes.
And we must trust that our history, as murky and often problematic as it is, has love to display, and truth to illumine so that we might act well in the days ahead.
They love their community of faith enough to stick with them all the way through
strange trips away from home,
exile and return home to save their son,
and all the way to a cross on a hill and a son murdered by the government and with the consent of their faith community.
Even then, Mary loves Jesus and her community both enough to stay with them, to remain faithful to her love as a mother, and her love of her faith even in the scariest and most heartbreaking of times.
We are asked, just as they were, to stick with our people in love...to call out injustice and difficult truths, to speak truth to power, but to remain faithful to the love we are shown in our communities. Wherever they are.
They love God enough to do all of this because God asks them to. Because God does indeed send them a son, and trusts and loves them enough to know they will take care of him in the face of a world that never really wanted him to exist. God entrusts them with God's son, with God’s self, and with the love a parent has for a child. And they live up to the task and the love.
May our love of God help us to see what we are called to do- not just to sit and wring our hands when times are hard and scary, but to do what God calls us to. But it takes preparation, discernment, and even sometimes words from strangers, to make it clear.
And Mary and Joseph love one another enough to believe this crazy story and stick together through gossip, censuses, no room in the house so they have to sleep with the animals even when she is 9 months pregnant, murderous kings, being refugees in a foreign country, returning home, and eventually parenting a sassy teenager, and then faithful but opinionated, strong willed, and countercultural son- watching the world hate him, dismiss him, and eventually kill him.
This is a story of anticipation... of the unknown… of faithfulness and hope... of the world’s contempt... and God’s enigmatic presence... but ultimately, as with all stories of God and humanity, it is a love story.
It is the story of the reality of love, not love like valentine cards and candies, not heteronormative patriarchal monogamy and love defined by who and how we choose to love...no this love is something else entirely- love that can include unwed teenage mothers, impoverished nomadic shepherds who rejoice at its presence, Asian academics who will travel from far away to see God’s love embodied and give gifts of love and kingship, love that creates fear in the hearts of the world’s leaders, and is so hard to believe that the world exiles its beloved, this is love that fights hard to stay in the world, even when the world doesn’t particularly want it.
It is the love of a mother who carries it under her heart, who doesn’t hide it from family and her fiance, but has enough love and grit and tenacity to include them in it.
This is revolutionary love, infectious love, love that finds its way into all of our hearts too if we will let it. We tell this story every year, we tell it so well and so loudly even the secular world knows it, but do we, do they, really know it?
Every year we return to it and- if we truly listen- it renews us, it finds new places in our spirits to light up, and it connects us to one another and the whole world.
It asks us to have the faith and love of Mary and to trust that the things God is calling us to do in the world will be hard, will get us in trouble, but they are more than worth it.
It asks us to have the righteousness and love of Joseph and to do what God asks even when everything and everyone in the world tells us they are the crazy thing to do.
And the story asks us, just like all of its characters from Mary and Joseph to the shepherds and wise men, to act... To wait first, to pay attention, to prepare ourselves, to go where we are called, and once God asks, to act in the name of love and faith even, and especially, when the world tells us that love and faith are weak and silly, to act and prove that nothing is stronger than love, and nothing is more rewarding than faith in a world that reduces both to greeting cards and mythology.
So as we leave worship today and return to our daily lives, may we all have the grit of Mary, the vision of Joseph, and the love of God...as we await and prepare for the birth of a baby, the coming of a king, the indwelling of Love in the days of Advent and always. Amen.