4th Sunday of Advent — 24 December 2017
Trinity – 7:45, 9:00 & 11:00 am
2 Samuel 7:1-11,16 | Psalm 89:1-4,19-26 | Romans 16:25-27 | Luke 1:26-38
As we approach Christmas, we are surrounded by many familiar artistic images – from copies of great paintings to simple line drawings. Perhaps the most common is the manger scene of the nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem. Another common one is the three wise men. Still another image common at this time is actually not of this time but of an event a day short of nine months ago (do the math), the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. In the Church Year we celebrate this event every March 25, but on this Fourth Sunday of Advent this year we also read this in the Gospel today.
So familiar a story, from Like’s Gospel, from paintings medieval, renaissance, baroque, romantic, modern, that I suspect we have forgotten what a very strange story this is, and what (I think!) is its most important point.
(I’m going to put the issue of the historicity of this story aside; historicity is an issue, but not for today. Perhaps some other time.)
For all its familiarity, we may not always completely notice that the angel, God’s messenger (that’s what angelos means), is not delivering a divine command. Gabriel is not a bailiff from the heavenly courthouse with a summons. God is asking for Mary’s cooperation. It is God’s purpose for the redemption of fallen humankind to become incarnate, to become enfleshed as a human being in the human world. But that requires a human consent, because that’s how God does things. God is not a puppetmaster.
Mary could have said no. Do we take that seriously? Mary could have said “No.” Maybe Mary wasn’t the first young woman whom God asked! Maybe Gabriel had gone to Amber (let the reader understand), and Amber said “WHAT?” Mary could have said, “You’re kidding, right? Are you crazy?” Remember, in the context of turn-of-the-era Galilee, what God is asking this young woman is a Really Big Deal. (In fact, in any context to be the mother of the Incarnate Word of God is a Really Big Deal.) We can well understand it if Mary had said, as I myself often do, “Don’ wanna, don’ gotta, ain’ gonna.”
But Mary didn’t. Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary was not only holy, she was gutsy. And she was willing to share in God’s plan of peace, justice, and healing. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior,…for he has remembered his promise of mercy.”
You may recall the brief instance later in St. Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus is teaching, and “a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ But [Jesus] said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’” [Luke 11:27-28] Jesus is not changing the subject away from Mary his mother, but focusing our attention on the real reason Mary is blessed. “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.”
There are a lot of things to be learned from today’s Gospel reading. One of the things that I’m not sure we always catch on to is what it says about who God is and how God deals with us and our world. An important teaching in Christian (and other) theology is the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God. And that’s true. We believe that ultimately, God rules. The problem with the way we often understand that, and I suggest we see it especially in the Calvinist tradition (although that’s unfair because we’re all guilty of it) is that we think that God is the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe in the way that we would be Sovereign if we were Ruler of the Universe. We all too often are control freaks. We would love to be puppetmasters. But God is not us. And God is not a control freak. God is not a puppetmaster.
God is love. I hope we realize that I don’t mean that God is a warm fuzzy feeling. (Indeed, God is very often not warm and fuzzy!) But God is self-giving. That is the very nature of God. God’s own internal being is self-giving, and that underlies what we articulate as the doctrine of the Trinity (but I’m not going there today). Externally, God’s self-giving expresses itself in creation. God created the universe out of love, and love respects the freedom and the autonomy of the beloved. Love does not control. The 17th and 18th century Deist philosophers were not completely wrong: God created the universe with a structure of what we call scientific laws, and God doesn’t fiddle around with them. God lets them be. God does not manipulate the world. The universe is what it is and does what it does.
(We now know what the Deists did not, that the laws of the universe do include a certain amount of chaos. But I think that’s just part of the autonomy with which God endowed the universe. Some modern theologians have suggested that chaos theory is how God can sneak in “miracle,” but I’m not at all comfortable with that. It sounds too much like a reversion to the “God of the gaps” which too many religious people have used to avoid taking science seriously. But I am digressing…)
The big mistake the Deists made was they thought that the Great Clockmaker of the Universe had just wound up his Creation to set it running and then walked away from it and is no longer involved with it. Au contraire, say I. Yes, God does not manipulate the physical workings of the universe; God’s actions in the world are not expressions of what in St. Thomas Aquinas’ scholastic philosophy would be called “efficient causality.” God works in the world, and specifically among human beings, not by manipulation but by grace; grace, God’s own loving self-communication. Grace empowers, but does not manipulate. (Modern neoscholastic theologians speak of grace as “quasi-formal causality,” and thirty years ago I understood what that meant, but now I’m an old guy, and I forget!)
Here’s the point (finally!): The Gospel reading today is about God’s grace. God created the universe as an expression and as the object of the divine love, and God created us to be God’s stewards of this little corner of the universe. But, as we say in one of our Eucharistic Prayers, “We turned against you, and betrayed your trust, and we turned against one another.” So what does God do about that? Does God manipulate us all to better serve God’s will? Does God attach puppet strings to us so God can control us? Does God take us down to the basement and put us on the workbench and disassemble us and change out a few parts and tighten our screws? Does God remotely access us to upgrade our system? No. God’s purpose is to come among us, as one of us, to share God’s life and God’s love, to show us God’s love, to invite us into God’s love, to pay the price of love. And so God asks us. That’s how God works. God offers the divine presence. God offers grace. In an obscure corner of the world, God visits a young peasant woman, and presents the divine plan, the divine hope. And she says Yes. “Let it be with me according to your word.”
That’s who God is. That’s how God is.