Sermon of the Week
On the Way to Christmas: Leap for Joy!
Keywords: Elizabeth and Mary, Gabriel, Holy of Holies, Car Accident, Where is God in this Mess, Disruption, Advent.
Disruption is never easy for us.
Isn’t that true?
We spend a lot of energy making our lives predictable, or controlled.
That’s one definition of luxury, or privilege, maybe, depending on how you look at it,
the ability to know what’s coming and handle it, be ready for it.
Human beings have a remarkable ability to look into the future, to anticipate.
Some philosophers have said that this is one of those things that make us unique.
Sure, our dog Annie thinks ahead to her next meal,
which any visit to our house an hour before her scheduled dinner will tell you.
But she’s not thinking ahead to college, or retirement,
or even to the visit to the veterinarian
we have planned for her next month.
We, on the other hand, anticipate.
A lot of the time things go according to plan.
But then there are times when everything we plan for,
everything we think is going to happen,
gets jarringly interrupted.
Pregnancy is a good example.
Sure, sometimes parenthood is planned out:
a couple has gotten things in order,
maybe they’ve got some school under their belt,
a safe home,
went ahead and bought all those plastic safety plugs thingies
that go in the electrical outlets,
tied up all the dressers and bookshelves with tethers to the wall.
But I’ll tell you, in part from my own experience,
you can do all that,
and then become pregnant
(or, in my case, that would have been my wife, not me)
and then become pregnant
and your world still gets turned upside down.
You have no idea what is to come.
Particularly true for your first child, (or, again, in our case, children,)
but no less true for later kids that come your way.
Easy pregnancy or difficult pregnancy or sometimes, mournfully, a lost pregnancy.
Those first moments alone with your kid in the dark,
muttering what in the world have I gotten myself into?
Onesies and diapers and warming bottles and sleepless nights,
and then just wait till those kids get to middle school.
Or maybe you plan for all of that and it doesn’t come.
Pregnancy doesn’t come.
That happens too, sometimes.
Or something happens along the way.
Bad things. Good things. Disruption.
We spend a lot of our energies trying to shape and control our lives
and sometimes we’re reminded that we don’t really have much control over anything
no matter how much we work at it.
My reminder about all that this week came to me on Tuesday,
when I had a car accident on the way in to work.
You do all the things you can, you know—
my car was in good shape, good tires, everything checked out,
it wasn’t that busy, it wasn’t raining, I was going the speed limit
my cell phone was tucked away safely,
both hands were on the wheel—
and then someone decides to take a left turn right in front of you
and you get to experience what-they-design-everything-that-way-for:
the airbags and the crumple zones and the seat belts.
So in one sense everything we planned for worked out, right?
I turned out to be ok,
and so did the driver and passengers in the other car.
It was a detail not lost on me,
this week that we’re thinking about Elizabeth, and Mary,
that the driver of the other car was a teenager, and pregnant.
She had just been to the doctor.
Could that have been on her mind? Maybe.
But one minute she’s leaving her physician,
her world turned upside down,
and then another minute she’s involved in a jarring collision.
I can’t imagine…
Even as I’ve heard that she’s ok, that they’re all ok
and I am grateful that I turned out to be ok too,
I’m reminded about how fragile our day to day lives are:
one minute going about your business,
next minute everything completely different,
all of it, somehow, in God’s hands.
John Buchanan, a now retired pastor from Chicago,
tells a great story about one of his most cherished Christmas memories
a day, long ago now, when
“attempting to counter all the commercial hullabaloo about Santa,
I sat down at the kitchen table with one of my youngsters
in the middle of December
and undertook the project of assembling a cardboard cutout crèche:
stable, manger, baby Jesus,
Mary and Joseph,
sheep, cows, shepherds, and the wise men—
‘fold on dotted line, place tab A in slot B.’
It was a disaster” Buchanan said,
“nothing worked the way it was supposed to.
The kitchen table was littered with torn, bent, useless figures.
Apart from Scotch tape
this was not going to work.
Surveying the disastrous scene on the kitchen table,
the four-year-old who was my partner
and to whom we were trying to explain the real meaning of Christmas—
that Jesus is God’s Son—
said to me: “So Daddy, where is God in this mess?”
It is not only one of my favorite Christmas memories,
it remains the quintessential Christmas question:
“Where exactly is God in this mess?”
I suspect everyone asks that question about this time of year.
The thought crossed my mind as I was exchanging insurance information
on the side of the road.
Or when I was talking with a friend who works in Human Resources for a firm out east
and she’s faced with telling devoted, dedicated, longtime employees,
people who are respected colleagues and friends,
that their jobs had been eliminated.
“Where,” she said one of them seemed to say when she looked at her,
“Where is God in all of this disruption and uncertainty and tragedy?”
The claim, of course, is that God is right there in the middle of the mess:
the mess of a long journey when you are nine months’ pregnant,
the mess of no place to stay for the night,
the mess of giving birth in a stable,
the mess of a census,
the mess of a political situation so fragile
that any hint of a threat to the current authorities and power brokers
was seen as a warrant to kill all the babies just in case,
which is what King Herod did when he heard about the birth in Bethlehem.
The Christian claim is that
the holy, omnipotent, omniscient creator of the universe
chose to assume the limitations of human life,
to enter human history in, of all things, the birth of a baby.
The theologians call it the “Scandal of Particularity.”
And it is a scandal.
We prefer God off in the sky, on a throne,
watching life on earth,
or God as an elegant philosophic abstraction,
the ground of being, the first cause, the primal mover.
But a baby?
God coming among us in a human birth
and a human life
and a human death?
Where is God in this mess?
The central character in the narrative
is the one who conceived, carried, and bore him,
Mary of Nazareth.
Here, according to Luke, God’s angel Gabriel
appears to a young woman who is engaged to a man by the name of Joseph
and tells her she will bear a child,
but it’s not Joseph’s exactly, because they are not yet married.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel tells Mary,
which, of course, she is. Disrupted.
The annunciation is a great moment,
and artists have created incredibly rich and beautiful reflections about it.
The Italian Renaissance artists were fascinated by the annunciation
and painted it in gorgeous pastels:
Mary is demure,
holding a flower
or reading a book,
the angel’s wings shimmering, gold, red, blue.
Sure. That’s how it happened. Demure and calm and reading a book.
Maybe closer to the truth is this great literary characterization
by the author Frederick Buechner, who wrote about it this way:
She struck the angel as hardly old enough to have a child at all,
let alone this child…
He told her what the child was to be named
and who he was to be
and something about the mystery that was to come upon her.
“You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,” he said.
As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice
that beneath the great, golden wings
he himself was trembling with fear
to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.
Mary apparently has a decision to make, and she makes it.
“Here I am, the servant of the Lord: let it be to me according to your word.”
The artists and our imagination rightly turn to Mary,
but there’s Elizabeth, also,
Mary’s relative, the text says, maybe her aunt,
someone who was now past the typical age for bearing a child.
Like many other figures in the Hebrew Scriptures,
Elizabeth and her priest husband Zechariah
had no children.
I suspect that they had made their peace with this fate.
But then came an event that would change everything.
Zechariah received an honor:
he won the jackpot,
and was chosen to go light incense in the temple in Jerusalem.
This was a big deal.
Some priests spent a lifetime of service,
never to draw the right specially marked stone from the jar,
never to be so fortunate to enter the room where God was thought to reside.
That’s partially because of the ancient stories
about what happens if you try to approach the holy of holies
with a not-quite-right spirit
(you can go look that up:
some of Aaron’s sons, for instance, were burnt to a crisp one fine day
while on incense duty. That lovely tale is in Leviticus.)
But the point was to tend to your business,
to get your spiritual house in order, so to speak,
as best you could.
And he goes in, and Gabriel is there,
and he’s told that Elizabeth will have a child too–
that’s John the Baptist—
and no matter what he had prepared for,
no matter what he thought was coming
Zechariah wasn’t ready for THAT.
So Mary went “With Haste” to the Judean town in the hill country,
where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived.
I think I would have done something like that, too,
if I had just been told that I was going to bear God’s son,
and had my world turned upside down.
I’d go to the other people in my life that were in the same place,
maybe my aunt who no one thought would ever have a child
but who now was six months along.
That’s what we do. We go to our people.
Thank God Mary had Elizabeth.
Thank God Elizabeth had Mary.
These faithful women, loving and supporting each other.
Mary walks in and greets Elizabeth,
and maybe they embrace and smile,
and John kicks his mother at the encounter: JOY!
Blessed are you, Mary!
As soon as you came, the child inside me leaped for JOY.
Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment
of what was spoke to her by the LORD.
Elizabeth knew something about that blessing, too:
God coming in the middle of all this mess,
and making something miraculous, live affirming, life giving out of it all.
My soul magnifies the Lord
and my spirit REJOICES in God my savior.
What to make of all this?
We might begin by watching and waiting and expecting God
to show up in the middle of whatever mess
the life of the world
and your life, or my life, is.
Be open, Mary’s story says.
Enter what the philosopher Paul Ricœur called a “second naïveté.”
to become like children, wide-eyed with wonder, willing to believe.
Open yourself to the unexpected and improbable and unimaginable.
God comes, God appears,
God works and heals and reconciles
through the likes and lives of ordinary people — people like you and me.
Mary’s story is a reminder that God is in the mess,
this life, with you and me, in this world,
this beautiful, amazing world
now made holy because Mary birthed her child into it.
That is an idea so simple
and yet so profound
that sometimes we need a poet to say it for us.
So Wendell Berry,
going about his chores on his small farm in Kentucky on Christmas Eve, wrote,
Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see. . . .
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own white frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.
It is, finally, to trust:
in the middle of the mess that is our life in the world,
the joys and sorrows,
the hopes and fears,
the successes and defeats,
gains and losses,
birth and death, to trust, to trust deeply the giver of it all,
the God who came in the birth of a baby in Bethlehem.
Joy to the world, the lord is Come.
Joy is the song of our hearts trusting in the God who cares for us,
the God who holds life together,
this uncontrollable, untamable, unpredictable life of ours,
no matter how hard we try to keep it together,
to keep it the way we want it to be.
That God holds it together,
and does so for our Good,
so that the world might be a stronger, better, healthier, more loving place.
And God does that through the joy of expectant mothers,
and the speechlessness of shocked and expectant fathers,
and the witnesses of shepherds and innkeepers and wiseguys,
and every one of us in between,
looking, with amazement,
at the coming of God unfolding in this world…
We’re on the way to Christmas, my friends.
May our hearts leap for Joy at the one who comes.
May it be so.
 From a sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago entitled “Where is God in this Mess.” Elements of this sermon borrow from Buchanan’s work here.
 Citation from “Gabriel” found at http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2016/9/24/gabriel where it says “originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words.” (Accessed 12/16/2018)
 See the sermon “Head of Household?” by Scott Black Johnson, December 17, 2006.
 From A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997 (Counterpoint, 1999)
Image: Federico Barocci, Annunciation. Available on wikimedia at: