Sunday, December 6, 2015

Sermon: "ADVENT-ure: Being Divinely Defined", Luke 1:39-56 (December 6, 2015)


(Video of this sermon)

When Andrew asked me who I’d like to preach on during Advent, I said, “Well, why don’t I preach on Mary, so she can be preached from a woman’s perspective?” He looked at me, surprised, and said, “Okay…that’s fine…I guess you haven’t gotten to that point in your career yet where you’re sick of being expected to preach ‘a woman’s perspective’ whenever the scripture’s about a woman…”

Frankly, it never occurred to me that I should ever be sick of preaching from a woman’s perspective. I mean, that’s the perspective that God has given me, so why should I ever see things any other way? But I get his point. It can become tedious when you’re only ever asked your point of view as a token, a representative of your entire gender, race, sexual orientation, economic level…you get the idea. When people only care about what you have to say if something new and different happens, and you’re suddenly expected to speak up and give voice to an entire population. Tedious and exhausting.

There are plenty of reasons why this tendency to pigeonhole people can be distressing. No one wants to be defined by a single characteristic, one individual can never be entirely representative of a diverse group of people, it’s offensive for your opinion to only be valued in limited contexts, and so on and so on. However, I think that many of these objections and frustrations can be boiled down to the fact that they offend our sense of identity. When someone only asks you to speak on a topic due to a narrow view of who you are, THEY are defining YOU based on what they want to see, their needs and expectations. They’re taking a snapshot of your existence and naming it as you. And, aside from your ability to accept or decline their request, it’s an occurrence that’s largely outside of your control.

Part of the reason this sort of assigned “snapshot” identity is so frustrating is that our identities aren’t something that just happen to us. Whether we realize it or not, we work hard to figure out who we are, and, once we do, to live into that understanding of ourselves. Those of us who haven’t blocked out our teenage years remember that part of what made them so turbulent was the fact that we were right smack in the middle of this figuring-out process—some of us still are. Who we are involves so many factors, from our heritage to our talents to our choices to the people we surround ourselves with, that boxing us into one tiny corner immediately strikes us as simplistic, hurtful, and wrong.

So imagine how Mary must have felt when an angel of the Lord appeared to her and immediately began to redefine her. Here she was, a young woman—a girl, really—who had quietly followed all the rules and done what was expected of her throughout her entire life. Suddenly, this Gabriel character shows up and starts in on this “Blessed are you, highly favored one” stuff—must have been quite a shock to a meek little Jewish girl. Indeed, scripture tells us that it’s these celebratory words that set off Mary’s sense of alarm: although we often translate it “puzzled” or “perplexed”, Luke uses a Greek word that more properly means “troubled” or “agitated” to describe Mary’s state of mind immediately following this angelic greeting. Now, granted, this may have had something to do with the fact that a spiritual being sent directly from God was addressing her personally, but scripture tells us that she was specifically troubled by his words, so I think my theory must have at least some merit.

But this greeting was just the tip of the iceberg. Gabriel went on to tell the story that is so familiar to us by now: that Mary would give birth to a child who would be the Son of God, and that she would name him Jesus. Interestingly, although Gabriel had finally gotten to the good part, nothing in the rest of Mary’s conversation with the angel gives us any inklings about how she was feeling. Aside from the description of her as troubled by the angel’s greeting, the only other action the annunciation narrative ascribes to Mary is speaking. Not exclaiming, not whispering, not challenging, not asserting—just saying. In this passage, the angel is in the driver’s seat. So there’s a bit of speculation that I think we’re justified in undertaking here. We can probably all agree that there was likely more going on here for Mary internally than meets the eye.

When God chose Mary to be the theotokos, the God-bearer, her sense of identity must have been upended and changed forever. Suddenly, she would no longer be able to live out her days in the relative peacefulness of obscurity, a lowly girl of no consequence. She would be responsible for nurturing God in flesh, raising the Messiah, and ultimately, bearing the pain of losing her son so that the world may be redeemed. All that aside, she would no longer be “Mary, the girl from Galilee” or even “Mary, Joseph’s wife”. From that moment onward, she would be “Mary, the mother of Christ”. An honor, to be sure, but definitely not what she had planned. And most likely, an identity that it was hard to wrap her head around.

Mary’s most profound journey, then, was not the one she took to Bethlehem to birth the child, nor was it her later flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. It was the one that she undertook at God’s insistence, to submit to being redefined and embracing her new identity. It doesn’t sound like a big deal the way the text narrates it, but if we’re completely honest, there is no way it couldn’t have been. In Denise Levertov’s poem “Annunciation”, the poet observes:

We are told of meek obedience. No one mentions courage./The engendering Spirit did not enter her without consent./God waited./She was free/To accept or to refuse, choice/Integral to humanness.

Although Mary was being redefined by God’s very self, even though she may not have felt that she had a choice, SHE DID. And part of making that choice was her journey of coming to terms with the consequences.

So, even as she spoke the words, “Let it be with me according to your word,” she was wrestling with what her decision, her new divine definition, would mean for her. And just as many of us would do, she immediately went to talk it out with her relative Elizabeth, who was apparently in the process of being divinely redefined herself. I chose this passage, traditionally called “the Magnificat”, as our Scripture reading for today instead of the Annunication because I see it as the climax of Mary’s internal journey of redefinition. Read through it again: this is the moment when Mary chooses to experience her new identity with delight and excitement. Elizabeth’s greeting to her echoes Gabriel’s, but this time, instead of experiencing agitation, Mary reacts with a song of joy. In Luke, the text of the Magnificat immediately follows the text of the Annunication, with no narration in between: nothing has changed except for Mary’s perception of her new identity.

What’s particularly remarkable about the Magnificat is that at this, the apex of Mary’s journey, the moment where she goes from accepting her divine definition to embracing it, the narration comes to a complete stop.[1] At the pinnacle of her adventure, the action seems to freeze, and all of the movement is within Mary’s heart. At the point where her internal journey reaches its climax and her physical journeys begin, there is a pause, a suspension of activity, for the sole purpose of welcoming God’s plan for her unabashedly. Mary takes a deep breath and gives her identity fully over to the Lord.

What if we chose to journey like Mary? What would a faithful response be, in this day and age, to being divinely defined? Levertov’s poem continues:

Aren’t there annunciations/Of one sort or another/In most lives?/Some unwillingly undertake great destinies,/Enact them in sullen pride,/Uncomprehending./More often/Those moments/When roads of light and storm/Open from darkness in a man or woman,/Are turned away from in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair/And with relief./Ordinary lives continue./God does not smite them./But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

Levertov describes what happens when we DON’T accept God’s invitation to take the journey of redefinition like Mary. Part of being a Christian is choosing to willingly submit to God’s redefinition every single day. From sinner to forgiven. From individual to community. From self-serving to self-sacrificing. From powerful to vulnerable. These redefinitions aren’t easy. They often run counter to our instincts of self-preservation and they require hard work. But God never stops asking us to make the choice, to take the journey.

And like Mary, we don’t journey alone. If you look carefully, there are Elizabeths in your own life—those who have already taken the first step and are eager to share encouragement and remind you of the many blessings that go with being divinely defined. Yes, it will be difficult. Yes, it will be exhausting. Yes, it will be frightening. But for those who trust in God, for those who believe, it will be worth it. As we respond to Jesus’ great commission GO, BAPTIZE, TEACH, and REMEMBER[2] through Advent and the rest of our lives, let’s not forget that these aren’t just instructions for how to shape our actions, but challenges to mold our very identities. And let us follow the example of she whose heart first submitted to God’s redefinition. Amen.
[1] New Interpreter’s Study Bible, NRSV.
[2] Matthew 28:19-20.

No comments:

Post a Comment