December 23, 2018 - Rev'd. Kevin Corbin Smith
SERMON – ADVENT IV, YEAR C, 2018 ST. CLEMENT’S CHURCH, SEATTLE KEVIN CORBIN SMITH, RECTOR AND PREACHER
As we approach the great feast of the Incarnation,
we’re expected by culture and even Holy Mother Church
to have a sense of excitement, of expectation of the joys brought by this holy season. I’ll admit that it’s not the Hap-hap-hap-piest time of the year for many people.
This is the time of year when in the midst of the darkness
life gets nostalgic and mystically dark whether we like it or not.
And in the Pacific Northwest, it’s even worse.
And yet, this morning’s Gospel is about joy –
joy in the midst of the messiness of human existence.
It’s about the hope that is truly hope because it’s based on the promises of God.
This was certainly not the hap-hap-happiest time of the year for Our Lady – finding out that she’s pregnant and only engaged and not married.
While SS Joachim and Anna are portrayed as the kindly, understanding and elderly parents of Our Lady through the Tradition of the Church,
my suspicion that “An angel of the Lord visited me” story wasn’t an excuse that anyone was buying.
Truth is, the Gospels themselves are unclear about the matter.
The Aramaic word “almah” means “young woman,” not “virgina intacta”
implied by the Greek “Parthena” and later the Latin “Virgine”
In truth, the concept of the Virgin Birth has nothing to do with the Blessed Virgin.
It’s a doctrine that attempts to underscore that the fruit of that birth, i.e., Jesus, is both fully human and fully divine.
In a very real sense,
the Early Church Fathers really didn’t care whether Blessed Joseph
was the biological father of our Lord or not.
They were concerned about the identity of the child that came forth.
Luke the Evangelist,
writing this poetry some seventy to ninety years after the events
never knew either of these two women.
He uses sacred fictional poetry to set forth at the beginning of his Gospel
the point of his writing.
He understands who Jesus was and is – about his mission –
about the significance of his birth
as well as his ministry that follows on the way to the Cross and the Empty Tomb.
While he knows the difference between the Aramaic Almah and the Greek Parthena, he too is trying, through poetic license,
to make the point of the divine and human origins of Our Lord. However, it’s not that simple.
Luke is also telling us how Jesus was perceived
around the time of the writing of Luke’s Gospel: the Holy One who comes to earth
and gives his life to break down the barriers that separate us from each other, ourselves and God
and to proclaim, at least from God’s point of view, that those barriers do not and never have existed.
If Mary’s parents weren’t buying the “angel visited me” story,
Mary may have had the idea to get out of town as quickly as possible.
According to the Torah, Mary was up for being stoned to death for her indiscretion. Notice, Joseph – another account of uses and thems,
gets off Scott free according to the law. So, before things become too public,
Mary decides to escape to the home of her “cousin,” Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, was a priest
so both of them must have been significantly older than the fourteen-year-old Mary, possibly a cousin of one of her parents.
Elizabeth too is pregnant
though in the usual and socially acceptable manner.
Now, while this may seem rather insignificant and rather ho-hum, Mary’s predicament is the whole point of the story,
in fact, the whole point of Jesus’ ministry: that there are no “uses” or “thems;”
that the taboos which separate categories of people
are human devices for which humans give God the credit
in order to enforce their biases.
The whole point of Jesus’ coming was to tear down these categories
and proclaim the eternal truth
that in the eyes and heart of God there are no “uses” or “thems”.
The story then goes on to tell about the joy that Elizabeth’s soon-to-be son, who will become John the Baptist,
who leaps in Elizabeth’s womb at the presence of the soon-to-be Messiah presently taking up residence within the flesh of a fallen woman.
But more importantly,
Luke places on the lips of the Blessed Mother the words of The Magnificat,
the job description of her Blessed Son.
Except for one phrase, The Magnificat isn’t about Mary.
It’s about her son.
It’s about the fact that the child to whom she is about to give birth
will change everything even her own status as a fallen woman.
The one phrase in The Magnificat, “All generations shall call me blessed,”
is another way of saying,
“All generation will call even ME, a fallen woman, an unwed mother, blessed!
The mission of the Messiah
is to turn the whole social and religious establishment on its head.
God is not the God of judgment and condemnation. God is the God of freedom and new life!
In essence, Luke puts these words into the mouth
of the one who will later in history become the powerful Virgin Mother of God
not only because they are the job description of her son,
but because they are the very things that reside in the heart of God.
Indeed, this fourteen-year-old girl will come to symbolize the very feminine side of the very Being of the Divine.
So, after the future John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, Elizabeth blurts out:
And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord by way of the Angel.
Literarily, this is followed by a non-sequitor as Mary burst out into The Magnificat proclaiming the glory of God.
Essentially Mary says,
My very being rejoices in God! I sing out in songs of joy and gladness and my spirit rejoices in the fact that God has embraced me
even though people say I am a sinner.
God has looked on me, a woman – and a fallen woman at that –
so that one day all people will call me the Blessed One!
Blessed be the name of the Lord, the God of Israel!
Those who stand in awe before this Holy God understand the origins of compassion. God has no time for the arrogant and the greedy
and demands they repent and change their ways
because what they stand for is not what God stands for.
Those who think they have power actually have none because God’s power, which is true power,
is a totally different story:
God’s power lies with the poor and the outcast,
with widows and orphans,
with those who advocate for them
and those who make peace.
God’s heart rests with those who are hungry and homeless –
The rich are so concerned with their possessions that they have no idea what life is really all about
and in defending what they have cause untold grief and misery
for those they are called to defend in my name. 4
God has come to the aid of a small, backwater kingdom ruled by the mighty fist of the Roman Empire
because God is alive and well with the small and insignificant.
God couldn’t care any less about those who claim military and political power
who really only care about themselves
and their own agenda and their pocket books.
And now are fulfilled the promises God made with our ancestors in the faith, to Abraham and Sarah and their children for ever.
Now is the time when the promise is to be fulfilled for I, the God of the Universe,
will come and live among you – full of Grace and truth.
In this one, simple poem,
Luke lays out the very meaning of the Universe:
that we matter;
that we matter to the very Creative Energy that gives life to all that is, seen and unseen;
that at the heart of that Creative Energy,
all living things have a place in the heart of God;
and that God plants that place in the heart, that love,
inside each living creature
and is fully incarnate in humanity itself.
And when humanity lives out of that perfect love lived fully in Mary’s Child
all life dovetails,
it finds itself in sync with the meaning of all things:
there are no outcasts; all are included;
the rich are converted;
the poor are no longer poor;
the hungry are set a banquet fit for a king; joy overflows;
peace finally comes.
This is the true meaning of Christmas. This is what the Incarnation is all about.
This is where the joy about which I started this sermon screamed from the housetops.
Because these eternal truths told in sacred poetic fiction are all about you! They are about me.
They are about us.
They are about each person who has ever lived, lives now
or will live far into the end of time.
How often do you feel like you’re on the outside looking in? How often do your imperfections find you
deep in the valley of isolation or separation from others or even yourself or, even more importantly, even the very being of God?
How frequently are you trudging up the mountain of despair
of not measuring up to whatever standard someone has imposed on us
or on you in particular?
If you’re like the vast majority of the American and human population,
the answers are either, “frequently” or “constantly.”
That’s why people seek out counselors and therapists in droves.
And rightfully so.
Mary’s proclamation and the Gospel itself
is that God came to earth in usual manner –
from the flesh of his Mother –
in order to experience the messiness of human existence.
And from that experience,
God in Jesus turns the world upside down
by destroying for us the barriers and categories
and things that separate us and cause us untold emotional and spiritual suffering.
The Incarnation fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah:
every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low;
the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.
And all flesh shall see it together for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it! 6
Joy is ours!
Joy is YOUR’S!
The reality is that God has restored all things and brought all things into one. No matter what, you are not a category.
You are not a them. There is only us!
The us for whom the Word was made Flesh of the Ever-blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God,
as the Orthodox call her, the Theotokos – the God-bearer. This is the reason God pierced the heavens and became one of us:
to proclaim the truth that we are all one in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.