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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Advent Four

December 18, 2011
Good morning and welcome to this Fourth Sunday in Advent. As you recall, Advent is a time of waiting, of preparing, and, as our scriptures the past weeks have reminded us, it is a time of joy and hope. Now, our waiting is coming to and end as we move toward Christmas.

Perhaps the greatest joy one can experience is the joy of childbirth. It’s truly a miracle, As a father, I can recall those early years in our home as expectancy and hope as you consider the future in front of you and your new family. As a mother, I know Brenda has fond memories, not perhaps of the childbirth itself, but of the family we have been blessed with.

Perhaps mothers everywhere can relate to the experience of Mary as told in scripture—of her love, her faith, her courage. Luke is the only Gospel writer who tells this story. According to research I found, the Gospel of Luke has often been called the Gospel of womanhood because Luke has many positive stories of women. In fact, there are eight. Other than the birth stories, we also hear of Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene and the woman who anoints Jesus’ body for burial. In the Book of Acts, believed to have been written by Luke, we hear positive stories about business women, such as Lydia, the maker of purple linens.

Today’s story actually begins with the virgin Mary visited by the angel Gabriel, who gives her shocking news.
Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus.”

Mary had much to ponder, but her response to the angel was instant. “I am the Lord’s servant. May it happen to me as you have said.

The next few months of expectant waiting must have been hard on Mary and Joseph. Mary, after all, was betrothed to Joseph, and the prospect of having a child outside marriage may have been weighing heavy.

We pick up this story today as Mary travels to the hill country of Judea to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. Considering all Mary had been through so far, learning from the angel her cousin was also about to give birth miraculously, it makes sense to look for the support of someone who knew exactly what Mary was facing.

In the Magnificat from our liturgy, we have Mary’s response to remember for all time. “My soul praises the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” I like the version we use in the Book of Common Prayer that says “My soul magnifies the Lord. And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Here again, we read “my” three times, as this is an intense personal experience.

The words “looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” are significant, as God has chosen Mary to fulfill his purpose to bring the Messiah into the world. Mary was nothing more than a slave girl, the lowest on the social scale of the time, her father’s property when she was a part of his household and engaged to Joseph.

This is also an eternal truth, that God works through those we might see as the lowliest, in order to achieve His divine purposes. The statement draws attention to the fact God chooses the foolish to shame the wise, the poor more than the rich, the sick more than the healthy.

This point is driven home in the Magnificat, as we read “He has stretched out His mighty arm and scattered the proud with all their plans,” or as the BCP version states, “In the imagination of their hearts.” I like that phrase as well. Any wisdom, any wealth, any position we have in life is given us by God. When we forget that, when we believe our own talents provide all of this, we can be devastated when crisis befalls us.

Martin Luther once said of the Magnificat that it “comforts the lowly, and terrifies the rich.” In the Magnificat, God changes the order of things—the top goes to the bottom and the bottom to the top. God changes the way we think and act and live. The Magnificat reminds us of God’s economy and his compassion for the poor and the weak. When we truly acknowledge the Lord within our lives, that same spirit drives us to compassion.

At this time of year, you can see evidence of that as the Food Banks get refilled, hampers are filled, banquets are laid out for the homeless and more reach out to give. It is the essence of Christmas, the spirit of giving and it comes from the spirit of Christ within us. The love of Christ within us naturally moves us to do compassionate and loving things.

If you listen closely to the news or scan through the daily paper, you will see fitting examples of love in action. There’s this story, for example, given us from Theresa Patel in Gimli. She writes:

“I want to thank three special people who “stood guard” at my car a few weeks back. I was doing some last-minute shopping at Cabela’s on Ellice Avenue. My car was full of gifts from my day of shopping. In my rush to get into the store, I must have accidentally pressed both the lock button and the trunk opener on my key pad, leaving the trunk open.
"My three special people noticed my wide-open trunk. Two of them stayed at the car, while the third person came in to inform the store manager who then made an announcement about the make of the car and the license number.
"I was apprehensive as I left the store wondering what had happened, and standing there, at the back of my car, trunk wide open, were these three wonderful people. Thankfully, nothing had been removed and they were making sure I was there before they would leave.
“I just want to say a very special thank you to these people for taking the time to wait for me. They saved me from what could have been a very expensive shopping trip! It makes the Christmas season even more special.”

This unselfish love is the love of Christ. This is the challenge of the season, to remember the love Mary had, that unconditional love that says “Let it happen to me,” that love for our Lord that gives us unending joy and moves us to praise and witness through our actions. Thankfully, today, we are blessed with the very presence of Jesus in our lives, through the Holy Spirit. God has had a plan of salvation from the beginning of creation. That plan was only partially revealed in the Old Testament. Yet, as we read in the epistle of Paul to the Romans, the plan is fully disclosed in Christ.

Through the Holy Spirit, we have the strength to continue to work with God, to partner with our God in bringing salvation to the world. There is Good News for us to share, that God so loved you and so loved me that He sent the greatest gift of all to us, His Son Jesus, to the end that all who believe will not perish in sin, but have eternal life.

In John’s Gospel, we are further reminded that in the Father’s House are many mansions, and that He has a room prepared for each and every one of us. The promises of salvation are fulfilled and live in us as we come to believe. Jesus is not a myth or a fairy tale. There is no gray in our understanding here. Either He exists or He doesn’t. For us, as Christians, we believe that Jesus exists and lives within us. This brings us true joy at Christmas. It gives us hope and it gives up purpose for life, to love unconditionally and to serve as Jesus served.

Are we prepared, this season, to acknowledge the presence of Christ in our lives and to allow the Holy Spirit to move us to unconditional love? Are we prepared to look into our hearts and to repent of those actions that take us away from God? Are we prepared to follow Mary’s example of obedience and trust in our Lord? Are we prepared to welcome the birth of the Messiah?

With God’s help, we can make a difference in our world, and often that difference begins one person at a time. May we be open to the working of God in our lives and may the joy within us lead our souls to magnify God this season!

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