The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio
Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free. From our fears and sins release us. Let us find our rest in Thee. In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this fourth and final Sunday of Advent, it seems clear that we’re coming to the end of our Advent journey, that time in which we are called to wait and watch and hope and be expectant. So this morning it seems appropriate to ask you, are you ready for Christmas? It is tomorrow, by the way. But when I ask that question, I’m not asking about the things that keep us busy and stressed. Are your Christmas cards done? Are your gifts purchased and distributed? Do you have the food together for the meal that you plan to share with family and friends? The question is actually deeper than that. Have you prepared yourself internally: in soul and heart and spirit to receive the gift, the greatest gift that God ever gave the world in the form of God’s own Son, Jesus, because this time of Advent is one in which we are preparing to have born in us, again, the hope and the blessing that God intends for each one of us, no exceptions.
Why is it that we sometimes don’t feel ourselves prepared? What is it that gets in the way? Sometimes I think it’s a sense of unworthiness. Or perhaps, in this season when you seem to look all around and people are ready to sing joy to the world, you’re not quite feeling that. For a lot of people, the holidays are a blue time, a time when you’ve lost a loved one and you’re grieving or you’ve lost a job or perhaps you’ve received a medical diagnosis that you weren’t expecting. Or if you’re a government worker, perhaps you’ve unexpectedly been furloughed and you don’t know when and how your next paycheck is coming.
It can be a complex time and I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that and be sensitive to it. But the great good news for you and for me is that there is a way and an example for us to reclaim our worthiness, to prepare ourselves to receive the gift that God intends for you and for me. Looking at our gospel lesson today is a good place to start. As we look at Mary, who we know from our study of scripture was poor and a peasant and no one had designated her most likely to succeed.
She was ordinary and yet God blessed her to do the extraordinary. If you back up in the story in Luke’s Gospel a little bit—and I think it’s important for context—Mary, we know, was betrothed and seemingly in that period of time, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, Gabriel appears on her doorstep and says, “Greetings, favored one. Have I got news for you! God’s chosen you and you are going to conceive and bear a son and not just any old son, the Son of God!” Mary, not surprisingly, pushes back a bit and said, and how is that to be since I’m a virgin? And here’s the important message in Gabriel’s response. Gabriel sort of explains that the Holy Spirit will come and overshadow her and that she will conceive and bear a son, Jesus, who will be the Son of God, and then he lifts up another miraculous example.
He immediately switches and says, and at this time, your older kinswoman Elizabeth is six months pregnant. And here’s the key: for with God, everything is possible. With God, everything is possible. It is with that affirmation that Mary then says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Mary, the poor peasant. In his book, Jesus James Martin says that Mary is the forerunner for those of us in the Christian life, who by human standards would be deemed unworthy of God’s grace, but that God has other ideas. The forerunner for you and for me—that what happens to Mary, in a different way of course, happens and is capable of happening to us, to you and to me.
Then we pick up today’s gospel lesson and it says that newly pregnant Mary immediately goes to her older kinswoman Elizabeth. Now it’s important to note that that wasn’t a neighborly drop by. Elizabeth was 80 miles away. Mary made that trip on foot. It was intentional. Scripture, however, is silent on why, but I think we can imagine why that might be the case. Womanist theologian, Renita Weems, in her book Just a Sister Away, has a chapter dedicated to Mary and Elizabeth and she uses biblical scholarship and her own imagination to help fill in the blanks where scripture is silent. She notes that those two women have more in common than one might think.
Mary, has received a blessing she didn’t ask for and one she can’t begin to explain because we know from the culture at the time Mary would have been about 12 years old and when one was betrothed, there was a one year period of an engagement where there were no sexual relations. How in the world would Mary explain to her family, to Joseph, to those around her, what had happened to her? I mean, can you imagine her trying to say, well, you see, this angel named Gabriel showed up and said the Holy Spirit was going to come and I would conceive and I would bear God’s Son, Jesus. Who would believe that?
So Weems posits the view that she goes to Elizabeth, who also has been blessed by God in a miraculous way, to seek her wisdom, to seek her counsel. It had to be a frightening state of affairs for Mary. And look at what Elizabeth has to offer, not just to Mary, but to you and to me. In that time and in that culture, if a woman was barren, it was believed that it was due to some sin, some horrible something she’d done in her life. Elizabeth knew that she had done nothing to merit her being barren and she models for us how to live a faithful life when it seems as if our prayers are unanswered. So those two women who have received the blessing of God that at times raises more questions than it answers, find comfort and strength and solace and wisdom, one in the other. Isn’t that true of us sometimes, that we feel God’s called us to something and it’s frightening? Know that God will send someone your way to accompany you on that journey.
What has God in this Advent season been birthing and prepared to birth in you? God intends a blessing for each and every one of us, no exceptions, irrespective of whether we feel unworthy or not ready. What has God planted in you to prepare for you to do, to be a messenger to the light of Christ in the world?
I want to leave you with one more spiritual tool, if you don’t feel quite ready for Christmas and quite ready for what God may have planted in you. I think so often in life we are in this cycle of remembering and forgetting and I want to offer for you a tool to help you remember for those times when you’re feeling alone or afraid or unworthy. You can take your cue from churches or this cathedral because contained within this cathedral is the story of our faith, God and God’s people: God’s faithfulness from the beginning of time. You see our story in the stained glass. You see our story carved in the stone. You see our story carved in the wood. In St. Mary’s Chapel, which is just on the other side of the Great Choir, is the most exquisite altarpiece above the altar. The fancy churchy word for it is reredos. In that altarpiece, the artist has captured moments in Mary’s life when God was very near, and if you look at it, you can imagine your own altarpiece with those moments in your life where God was very near and came to you in unexpected ways.
In that altarpiece it captures the Annunciation when Gabriel came to Mary. It captures the Visitation when Mary and Elizabeth are together. It captures Jesus’ first miracle of the wedding at Cana of Galilee, when Jesus turns water into wine. It captures the moment when Mary is gathered with the disciples in the Upper Room waiting for the Holy Spirit to descend upon them and to send them out proclaiming the good news of the resurrected Christ.
What would you put in your own altarpiece? What frames would you use to capture the moments in your life reminding you that God’s been with you from birth, and that even in those moments when you can’t quite feel it, you know that God is there always as near as your next breath.
There are a few hours left in Advent to help you prepare. Don’t worry if you’re feeling a little pressed for time. God works on a different timeframe. Unlike Amazon or Fedex, there’s no limit on delivery and shipping. The blessing is waiting for you. The question for you is, will you receive it? Be prayerful. Mother Teresa said, prayer makes your heart bigger until it is capable of receiving the gift of God himself. If you need a little inspiration this morning before you head back out, stop in St. Mary’s Chapel. Look at those moments in Mary’s life that had to be frightening when she was reminded that God was as near as her next breath. Know that that’s intended for you. Winston Churchill once said that the future is unknowable, but the past should make us hopeful. Let it be so for you and for me.
Come thou, long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free. From our fears and sins release us and let us find our hope in Thee.