Monday, December 19, 2011

A Wink and a Smile from the Virgin Mary

December 18, 2011
Advent 4

Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. 

Number four is lit. It's the fourth Sunday of Advent and the countdown is nearing the end! A season of waiting, watching, and wondering is about to culminate in a grand celebration of the birth of Jesus. And as we have for the past three weeks we again ask ourselves the question "What does this mean?" What does it mean that the savior Jesus Christ has come and is coming to our mind? What does it mean that the anointed one has come and is coming to our hearts? What does it mean that the holy one has come and is coming to our spirits? As we wrestle with that question we open the Bible today to Luke 1:26-38 where we find Mary, the Mother of our Lord, in her own wrestling match. She is caught in the fight between promise and peril. She is caught in the tension between opportunity and disaster. Between adventure and catastrophe. All because of a little child.

Several years ago when Karin and I moved into the house we still live in with our three kids, I would take Fridays off for household chores, shopping, and naps. One particular Friday I happened to be in the nap phase of the day when the door bell rang. Then someone knocked on the door and then rang the door bell, again. Not entirely overjoyed to have my nap interrupted, I opened the door to find one of my neighbors with a real look of concern and worry on her face. She said "I just thought I stop to let you know that one of your kids is on your car." I said "What?" Again she said, more slowly, "One of your kids is on your car." So I followed her around the front to the driveway and sure enough there Rachel was standing on top of the car. Actually I was impressed. All of seven years old, it took some real strength and dexterity to climb that car. I just winked and smiled at Rachel, and thought to myself "That girl is going do something with her life." But when I looked at the neighbor lady, she definitely was not smiling. She was alarmed and concerned about the danger she was in. The promise and peril of life is all around us.

Across the street, neighbors put up a basketball goal for their young son, eager for him to work his body, eager for him to develop some skills, eager for him to enjoy his home, eager for him to realize his full promise and potential in the world. Not only did they put up a basketball goal, they also set out big orange construction zone cones at the end of the driveway to stop the boy should he lose control of the basketball into the street. And next to the street they set out one of those flat florescent lime green figures that holds a bright orange warning flag for all cars to see and be aware that there were children playing. The promise of a young boy developing in mind body and spirit playing with a ball and a hoop in the driveway next to the street.

We all live our lives in the constant tension between promise and peril, between adventure and disaster, between opportunity and danger. But not just we ourselves, but today in Luke, Mary. For in today's story of Mary promise and peril are all around.

The angel Gabriel appears to her and says "Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you." And he goes on "You have found favor with God" so much so that 'he has chosen you to bear his son.'  He is the long awaited one, the anointed one, the holy one of Israel. He is to be called Jesus. He is going to free people from their sins. This is it! The promised one is coming into the world and you, Mary, are his instrument. The promise God made to Abraham, the promise to bless all the nations through his descendent is now coming to pass. The promise of everlasting life, the promise of the healing of the nations, the promise that heals the brokenness of each individual life, the promise that overcomes the divisions in society, the promise that heals the planet, but not just the planet . . . the entire cosmos. That promise Mary is now upon the world, and you have a front row seat to its happening.

Any devout Jew with a modicum of understanding of the scripture and of the promises of God, would have seen this announcement as the earth shaking, time-altering adventure it was. And no doubt, Mary did.

But that is not all Mary was aware of. It wasn't just the promise, the possibility, the opportunity that ran through Mary's mind. She was also struck by the peril, the risk. Not only was the angel's announcement bursting with promise, it was also shadowed by danger.

That's probably why when the angel made the great announcement of good news, the Bible says in verse 29 that Mary was "much perplexed."

The NIV translation says this:
"Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be."

The Message translation says:
"She was thoroughly shaken."

JB Phillips says,
"Mary was deeply perturbed."

The New Living Bible Translation says,
"Confused and disturbed,"

New Jerusalem Bible
"deeply disturbed"

However you look at it, everyone agrees that the angel's announcement left Mary shaking in her boots. When you think about it, it's not hard to see why. In spite of all that the promise of God meant for the world and all that could go right, there was plenty that could go wrong.

In the first place, you think about all the physical risks and perils involved in child birth. Make no mistake about it, having babies is dangerous stuff. The physical risks are too many to count. In our day and age, we have all kinds of experts, and resources, and helps to mitigate the risks of childbirth. We have prenatal care that includes special vitamins, special diet, and regular check-ups with the OBGYN. At a certain point you go in and they pull out some an electronic seeing-eye that slides across mom's greasy belly and produces an image on the screen. The sonogram techie points to the screen. "There's a foot. And there's a hand. Look at the head and wait, what is that? . . . horns? a tail? No, I'm sorry, that's not a tail, he's a boy." You're having a boy.

And then once you get into the delivery room and it's time for the big show, there are all kinds of specially trained professionals and equipment, for JUST IN CASE. Just in case what? Just in case something goes wrong. Like what? Like with my first kid. She didn't want to come out. She was cozy and comfortable in her mommy pad and was just fine thank you. After about 19 hours of labor, the doctor attached some sort of suction cup to the top of Rachel's head, put one foot on one side of the delivery bed and one on the other and began to tug. Of course that brings with it certain risks. Another risk in childbirth is when the cord is wrapped around the baby's neck like happened with our second kid. The doctors had to do some fancy maneuvering to take the noose of her neck before she could make it through the shoot. Another risk in childbirth is fluid in the lungs like our third kid had. He came up for air a little early inhaled some fluid. Of course they were right there with all the suction hoses to vacuum him out. Later on he got that RSV virus and spent a few days in the hospital where me and the boy watched the Super Bowl together from within an oxygen tent.

What can possibly go wrong? Everything! Having babies can be a dangerous proposition. It is a matter of life and death. Now consider for a moment Mary's world. The odds of someone dying, mother or child, in childbirth were astronomically higher. Infant mortality rates were frightening. To become pregnant for any woman in those days was a near death experience either for the mother or the child and many times, for both. No wonder the thought would shake her up.

In the second place, there were all sorts of relational perils. Becoming pregnant without the benefit of marriage is a hard thing. People look at you differently. They wonder about you. They gossip about you. Talk about what might have gone wrong in your life. It's a scandal. I had a distant cousin get pregnant when she was 14. You think that didn't rock her family's world. Imagine Mary going to her parents and saying to them "Mom . . . Dad . . . I'm pregnant." Their response "What!?!?" "How?!?!" "Who!?!?" How did this happen? We thought Joseph was such a nice boy. I'll kill him." Mary comes back, "No. It's not his." "Then whose is it?" they ask. And she says . . . wait for it . . . "it's God's. He says 'I'm favored.'"

One of the things families feared most in Mary's day was public shame and disgrace. And here she brings it in spades. No wonder she was shaking in her boots when the angel announced the glad tidings.

And in the third place, the promise brought political peril.
The angel tells her his name will be Jesus. He will assume the throne. He will reign. His kingdom will never end. He will be the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah, the Son of God. That's is what you will call him. In Mary's day, everyone knew that there was already a Redeemer, Savior, Messiah. Everyone already new who the Son of God was. And it wasn't the baby of a Jewish peasant girl.  It was the Roman emperor. He was the son of god. If you didn't believe, just read any one of the coins in circulation. If you didn't believe it read any of the inscriptions on his statues throughout the empire. If you didn't believe it then they'd give a inside view of the Colosseum as you faced the gladiators or lions. Rome was eternal and the emperor was its head. Talk of a Jewish redeemer, king, ruler, messiah was treason. No wonder Mary shook in her boots. Her baby would become an enemy of the state, a target for assassination.

No, there can be no doubt that Mary was caught in a pressure cooker between the promise and peril.

And to be honest with you I don't think there can be any doubt about the fact that everyone of you are caught in the same bind. You have a sense that there is so much potential to life. You have a deep seated belief that there is great opportunity in the world before you. You are inspired by the promise that life presents to you. And you come to church, to learn how to live into the promise. You gather week after week to try and embrace the moment. You get yourself up out of bed to open yourself to new opportunities. Yet, in the air lurks the shadow of peril. Do you take it? Do you take the leap Mary took?

Seven years ago, I took my family on a trip to Mexico. It was a three month sabbatical to the Yucatan. Amazing and wonderful. One place we visited was an outdoor all natural water park. One feature of the park was cliff jumping. There we stood as a family, me, Karin, Rachel who was twelve, Hannah was 10 and Aaron was 8. The cliff towered about 40 feet above the water. And the water was so beautiful. Maybe you've seen the beautiful waters of Mexico, so clean, aqua green, shining like an emerald. It was inviting, even calling to us. As you get close to the edge of the cliff feeling the weight of your body moving to the emerald like water, captivated by the beauty and at the same time in the back of your mind asking yourself have I lost my mind. I jumped and it was so far down that if I had brought a magazine, I could have read it from cover to cover and had time to renew the subscription before I hit bottom. But I couldn't have really read because I was too occupied screaming like a little girl. After I came up, I looked up to the top and yelled out "It's awesome! Jump!" When she heard my voice, she jumped, Rachel, screaming at the top of her lungs. Then Hannah. Then Aaron. Karin wasn't feeling well and didn't make the jump. But the kids and I did it over and over again.

Each and every one of you live everyday on the edge of promise and peril. At the launching point of adventure and disaster. On the verge of opportunity and danger. And oftentimes we find ourselves unsure, like Mary. There is a moment of hesitation, of pondering, of being perplexed, of being conflicted. You've taken risks before and lived to regret it. You've accepted the invitation to try something daring and been bruised. Sometimes we're not so sure we want to take another risk.

But let me share something with you.
The difference in a good risk and a bad risk is the one who is inviting you to take it.  My kids knew my voice and trusted my call to them. Mary knew God's voice and trusted God's call. She heard in the angel's words the voice of her heavenly Father. Then she jumped. She embraced the promise and lived with the peril. And the world has never been the same since. We tell her story over and over again. As you embrace the promise, your world will never be the same. And you, too, will have stories to tell, stories of how God lead you along the edge of adventure, like Mary. And when you get to heaven and sit across the table from her at the heavenly banquet, don't be surprised if when you look her way she gives you a knowing wink and a smile.


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