Advent 4, Year B
December 21, 2008
First sermon preached as an ordained Lutheran pastor, and as Associate Pastor of Resurrection Evangelical Lutheran Church in Arlington, VA.
Grace, Mercy, and Peace be to you from God the Blessed Trinity. Amen.
It wasn’t quite what I had expected,
not really like what I had envisioned . . .
Years ago, when I first gave serious thought to becoming a pastor,
I would try to picture my ordination and the days immediately leading up to it.
I imagined that perhaps I’d go on a retreat to a monastery for prayer and reflection,
or perhaps take a few days away to a mountain retreat
for rest, prayer, and devotion prior to ordination.
I had these visions of setting myself apart,
of gearing up in a holy way for a holy thing,
of preparing for this ministry with a prelude of piety and prayer.
Well . . . . this week wasn’t quite like those prior visions of pious preparation.
In lieu of meditation and prayer,
my week was marked by moving to a new house –
quite a lovely home, by the way. Thank you very much!
This week also saw me getting an MRI for my bum left knee,
and registering my daughter Talitha for kindergarten
over at Tuckahoe Elementary School.
That is, rather than setting myself apart by doing so-called holy things in so-called holy places,
I found myself doing rather ordinary, day-to-day things in ordinary places.
And here at church, my first week was much less of a deliberate, well-planned orientation
to Arlington, to Resurrection, and to this ministry,
than it was an immersion in the joys and sorrows of ministry . . .
a Christmas pageant from our Bible Bunch children,
an outpouring of love and fond memories at the funeral of Lyn Beamer,
a Christmas party with one of our circle groups,
and a meeting with the bishop and local church leaders
to plan a symposium on Middle East peace.
That is, this week was not a carefully planned period of preparation for pastoral ministry,
but a real, and rather typical, nuts and bolts week in the life of this congregation.
Welcome to ministry.
I wonder if Mary had envisioned the birth of her first child
prior to that visit from the Angel Gabriel.
I wonder if, like so many of us,
she had day dreamed about the birth of her child,
about becoming a mother,
about the joys and challenges of parenthood.
How did she imagine childbirth, motherhood . . . .
How did she anticipate bringing life into the world?
Surely, surely she wasn’t expecting this . . . a visit from an angel,
a grand pronouncement about the child she would bear,
a virgin and pre-marital pregnancy,
an experience of childbearing unlike any other,
unlike anything she could have ever imagined.
And yet, simultaneously, it was something so ordinary.
This gift, this favor, this grace didn’t come unto her after intense preparation or prayer –
unlike the miracle bestowed on Elizabeth,
who presumably with her husband, the priest Zechariah,
had asked in prayer for a child.
This gift, this favor, this grace didn’t come unto her owing to her great stature –
a young woman disconnected from the power people of ancient Israel,
far from palaces and royalty.
This gift, this favor, this grace came to her yes, in extraordinary circumstances,
I will not try to explain away the Angel Gabriel and the virgin birth as ordinary
but this gift, this favor, this grace came to her,
a rather ordinary woman,
in a rather ordinary setting,
in rather ordinary circumstances.
And so I love that irony, that contrast, that paradox –
the extraordinary nature of this Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel –
the same storied angel who spoke wisdom and understanding
to the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament,
and who proclaimed words of promise to Zechariah in the New Testament,
and who, Muslims believe, delivered the Koran to Muhammad,
that is, an angel whose business it is to deliver God’s promises –
contrast this angelic proclamation and the miraculous thing proclaimed,
with the ordinariness of Mary, her life, and all that she represents . . .
Dear friends, therein lies the Good News, the scandal of the Gospel –
God finds favor with his people,
God comes among us,
God promises to be with us,
to enter into our lives, to break in,
to become incarnate in our lives and in this place
precisely in the ordinary and day-to-day rhythm of life.
It’s so easy to miss the radical nature of this story,
of this inbreaking of the divine into the profane,
for we’re so used to seeing the story depicted in hand-painted hummels
or carefully cut wood carvings . . .
in neon light lawn displays
or as a component of a shopping mall advertising campaign . . .
But . . . but before they were a picturesque nativity scene,
this collection of animals and shepherds gathered around a baby
was a radical encounter of the divine with the ordinary,
of God’s extreme love and grace coming to God’s people where they’re at –
in the stuff of daily life,
in the pain and joy of childbirth,
in a smelly barnyard,
among ordinary people in an ordinary setting . . .
What would God’s extraordinary encounter with the ordinary look like to you?
How would God be born among us, among you, today?
What would the incarnation look like today, in Arlington?
Country singer Collin Raye wondered this question several years ago,
in his song “What if Jesus Comes Back Like That.”
It’s a beautiful song asking a poignant question –
will we recognize Jesus when he returns?
Raye sings of the town hobo, living under the county bridge,
arriving there by riding stowaway on an old freight train,
and then sings of the town’s rejection and derision of this man . . .
Later Raye sings of a young child born hooked to illegal drugs,
left alone, abandoned by her parents and rejected by society . . .
What if Jesus comes back like that, he sings.
on an old freight train in a hobo hat?
What if Jesus comes back like that, he asks,
two months early, hooked on crack?
Would we let him in, or turn our backs? Oh, what if Jesus comes back like that?
He ends his song with a verse describing the nativity of our Lord,
the birth of Jesus in rather a humble setting,
to a rather ordinary woman . . .
A hobo, a drug-addicted baby, a birth in an animal stable . . .
for Raye, encounters each with the divine.
Jesus does come back to us, each and every day,
in the ordinary stuff and muck of daily life.
At home, at work, out and about in your daily tasks,
and yes, in this place,
the Lord comes to you.
The favor of the Lord is pronounced to you.
You, dear friends, are called – like Mary – to be Christ-bearers in the world.
You are called here, yes,
; but also – and especially –out there, in the world, in your daily life,
in your ordinary world.
Fancy prayer retreats are wonderful, and, yes,
grand liturgies of ordination with the Bishop presiding are quite special . . .
even our weekly service of Holy Communion is time set apart,
time marked by great tradition, ritual, and ceremony . . .
such opportunities should be treasured as formative, nurturing, and grace-filled.
Yet . . . yet our liturgies, traditions and rituals are nothing if they don’t point to Christ,
as John the Baptist,
they are for naught if they don’t proclaim the promises of God, like the Angel Gabriel,
they are but empty gestures if they don’t form us to receive the promise as did Mary,
who accepted Gabriel’s pronouncement with wonder,
perhaps some confusion, yet with a faith that allowed her to say,
“Here I am, the servant of the Lord.
Let it be with me according to your word.”
Here you are, dear people of Resurrection.
No. Here we are, God’s people at Resurrection Lutheran Church.
Called, each and every one of us, to be servants of the Lord.
Called in the extraordinary moments of this liturgy,
of Word and Sacrament,
of bread and wine formed into body and blood . . .
of gathered people of God formed into the Body of Christ . . .
An extraordinary calling of yet ordinary people,
leading otherwise ordinary lives,
in an ordinary place . . .
Here we are. Called, like Mary, with Mary, to be servants of the Lord.
Let it be with us according to God’s word.