The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Luke 1: 39-55
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Holy Mystery beyond our imagining and as close as the beating of our own heart, draw along side of us I pray, illuminate the words that I speak and the meditations of all of our hearts that we might catch a glimpse of you today. Amen
Last week was our Hanging of the Greens service. It is a much loved tradition at the Union Church, one that I had never experienced before coming here. On the first Sunday of Advent, as we turned our eyes towards the manger with the anticipation of Jesus birth and the renewal of our relationship with the one who comes in the name of Love, we prepared this house. We hung wreathes, we placed holly on the altar, we filled the chancel with poinsettias and we decorated and lit the Christmas Tree. Over the course of our service last week, we transformed this house. We made it ready. We did this as we stepped into this season of Advent, this season of preparation — of making ready.
It is good to be prepared. It is good to make ready. Not just during Advent. Being prepared is a good life skill at any time during the year. The necessity of being prepared is something we teach (and teach and teach) our children and something most of us practice day in and day out. Being prepared means knowing what is coming and doing what is needed to be sure that one is ready to handle what is coming. Being prepared means that we have on hand what we need, that we have practiced what the situation will require, that we know what to do, what to say, how to be. Being prepared can make the difference between falling on ones face or soaring through.
I have been a church goer my entire life but it was not until I became a pastor did I realize how much preparation goes into these 60 minutes on a Sunday morning. My father in law a Presbyterian pastor used to say that for the sermon it took an hour of preparation for every one minute of that sermon preached. And he used to preach 20-25 minute sermons – so how about that calculation!! And then there is the preparation that goes into choosing the music and rehearsing, and placing the numbers of the hymns up on these boards, and producing the bulletin and lighting the candles, it goes on and on. But the payback for preparation is that when, whatever one has been preparing for is at hand, it can be engaged almost effortlessly precisely because one is so prepared. Preparation is key to competence.
So we plan. And we plan so that thing will go well and pretty much according to plan. It is amazing that for the most part, things do. Thing mostly do go according to plan.
Seeing clearly what is on the horizon and having a plan for handling it is exactly what the Prophets were all about. Perhaps that is why I love the prophets so. You will never hear wobbly language from the prophet, no “maybes” or “could be’s” from them. No their’s is clarity of vision and calls to preparedness. Our passage this morning from Isaiah which is full of “shalls” and “will be’s” is a good example of it.
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,. They shall see the glory of the LORD. “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come. The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
In a world that can feel so uncertain, having such a clear vision is comforting, empowering, hope giving. We need the prophets who have that clarity of sight and the power of proclamation to see and give voice to that which we may not be able to see, what we need to do, where God is and What God is doing and most of all, most of all that everything is going to be alright.
But as much as I love the prophets, as such as I love being prepared and as much as I treasure this time of Advent, I realized this week that I think I might have gotten it all wrong. I think our emphasis on preparation may be missing Advent’s mark. Preparation I am coming to see, may very well have nothing whatsoever to do with Advent. I am coming to see that in fact the power and Good News of Advent may lie in what is exactly preparations opposite.
For everything that happens leading up to Jesus birth and right after it, everything about the Christmas story happens to people who were completely unprepared for it. The Christmas story is not one of preparation but instead one of disruption. It is a story of things not going according to plan. Of people facing situations they could never have imagined. The Christmas story is not about having everything in control but instead it is a story about when everything falls apart and is out of control.
Mary — She had had a plan. She was engaged. She had a plan for how she was going to find some security in an uncertain world. Joseph was a good man. They could make a life together. It would be a hard life but one that would not be without love. Mary had had a plan until…
Until the angel Gabriel stepped through the veil and spoke her name. Until that message of God spoke of a child and everything turned. Mary went from a clear vision and certainty of what her life would be to having that all swept away.
Joseph – can you imagine how he felt? Here was his beloved pregnant with another’s child. There could be no wedding now. The future he had envisioned and planned for evaporated. There must have been anger, shame and so much pain.
The shepherds that night where certainly not prepared for the heavenly host interrupting their evening and sending them off to Bethleham to see the Christ child. And clearly the inn keeper was not expecting something miraculous that night or I am sure he would have reserved a room.
We can prepare all we want, but the time will come, I am sorry to say, when we will be turned from what we had expected only to come face to face with something we never planned for, something that we did not see coming, something we never imagined, something that changes our life forever.
So if Advent is not to be about getting oneself prepared to receive the Christ Child, what is it about then? If the Christmas story happened to people who were totally unprepared for it what is the message in this story for us today?
When the angel speaks to Mary about the child she will bear, Mary questions “how can this be for I have been with no man.” To which the angel replies, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” It is with that assurance that Mary gives her consent.
“Nothing will be impossible with God.” This is a declaration that will be Jesus’ lived reality. He will experience over and over again in his life and even in his death that nothing will be impossible with God and the angel’s declaration are words that he himself will say to those seeking to follow him. (Matthew 19: 26) .
“Nothing will be impossible with God.” I have heard those words from the angel every Christmas season for as long as I can remember but for some reason I had always hear the angel’s declaration as “Nothing is impossible for God.” That makes sense right, because God is all powerful. God can do anything.
But that is not the message at all. The whole point of Christmas, the whole point of incarnation, of God entering our world and our lives is not to do it for us but to do it with us. God with us – that is what Emmanuel means. God comes into the world in the most unexpected way to people totally unprepared to receive God in order that we may have the lived experience of realizing that when we are with God, nothing is impossible.
That does not mean that everything is going to be rainbows and unicorns. We know that it is not. But it is to say that when the hard, unexpected, things happen to us God will be with us and when God is with us even the impossible becomes possible. We can walk through the sudden death of a loved one, we can find beauty even in the midst of a terrible diagnosis. Nothing is impossible with God.
And the thing that bring tears to my eyes every time I read it is that “God with us” means also the ways we are with each other. For as we hear in our passage this morning it is when Mary, Mary whose life has been turned upside down, it is only when she goes to Elizabeth her cousin and receives Elizabeth’s affirmation and love that Mary can step into her new reality and sing the song that echos across the ages and is known to us as the Magnificat.
God with us means – being with each other with hearts that are open to God. It means listening to each other and honoring what we hear. It means affirming each other and loving each other even in the midst, especially in the midst of what we may be totally unprepared for. God with us, Emmanuel means the christ child who needed Mary and Joseph long before they realized how much they needed him. And it means each of us realizing how much we too are needed and how much we too need each other to be with us in all that we too face.
So if this is actually the season of the totally unprepared then I am hereby canceling all choir and pageant rehearsals, scrapping all sermon preparation, tearing up all bulletins and deleting all plans. Joking Daon, joking so sorry if any of you are finding it hard to breathe right now.
Rest assured. We are going to prepare. We are all going to do our best. We are going to scan the horizon line with a prophets vision and make ready.
But the good news that the story is asking us to step into once again this year, is that we need not fear. When the unexpected of which we are totally unprepared happens, God will be with us and when we are with each other and with God, nothing is impossible.
So let our walk to the manger continue and as we do may we come to know we have what we need to face whatever it is that comes. Thank be to the one that even now is waiting for us. Amen.