A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 18, 2011.
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Luke 1:26-38
I can hardly read a passage of scripture twice, even a familiar one, without finding something new and different in it. Is that the way it is with you? It may just be a word or phrase, something you’ve read many times. But all it takes is this one time for it to convey something you’ve never thought of before.
Advent and Christmas, however, present a real challenge. This is the season of the year when just about everything has a familiarity to it. You bring out the old, treasured ornaments. You hear the same songs, and even when a new one is introduced, by the time you finally decide that it is worthy of having a place in your list of favorite Christmas songs, it has become so familiar that it’s almost as if you have been hearing it all your life.
If there is ever a time of year when the familiar feels good and right, like a favorite pair of well-worn blue jeans, it is now… right now.
The same goes with the stories in the Bible that tell of Jesus’ birth. The one we read a few moments ago from Luke’s gospel certainly fits the bill. “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God… to a virgin… (whose) name was Mary… ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you… Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God… you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great… the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…’”
And what does the young Mary say in response? “Here am I… let it be with me according to your word.”
You could almost say it by heart, couldn’t you? You are that familiar with the story. So am I, and frankly, I find it harder every year to find something new and fresh to say about all this. My guess is that just about any preacher will tell you that this is the time of year when we ask ourselves, “How can I possibly say something that I haven’t said before?, that they haven’t heard before?”
But then, in reading this story again, something new and fresh did indeed come to me and I share it now with you in hopes that you will see it too. It is that very last statement that is so obvious we tend to overlook it. Luke, the writer of the gospel, tells us, “Then the angel departed from her.”
Talk about stating the obvious. What else is he going to do? Hang around and become a permanent house guest? Hardly. This is an angel who has a lot to do. He still hasn’t made his visit to Joseph. He’s a busy angel. Can’t you just see Mary, trying to absorb all this? And when she looks up all she can see is the angel’s robe blowing in the wind as he heads out the door!
“Then the angel departed from her.” That’s evidently the way angels work… they deliver their message – and when an angel gives you a message you can be assured that your life is about to undergo an abrupt and seismic change – and then they take off for parts unknown to see what they can do to bring upheaval to someone else’s life.
It happened to Abraham and Sarah. You know that story, don’t you? Old and decrepit, they had given up on ever seeing God’s promise fulfilled in them. You talk about the familiar. Why, they’ve been promised a family so many times they’ve got it memorized by heart. But every time God says it, it breaks their hearts all over again because it never comes true. And then, one day, while they’re simply trying to stay comfortable in the heat of the day, cooling themselves in the shadows of the oaks at Mamre, three strangers come walking by and give the elderly couple the promise yet again. Except, this time it is different. In nine months, they tell them, in nine months God’s promise will come to fruition.
If you do know the story, you will be aware that Abraham is 99 and Sarah is 90. How old are you? I see some gray hairs in this place today, and it was just this morning that I looked in the mirror. Those of you whose hair color resembles mine, how would you like to be told that you’re about to become a parent? That’s the sort of things angels do… deliver the kind of news that makes the earth shake under your feet.
The angel visited Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. Pretty much the same story. This couple’s been around the block a few times, and the old man is so incredulous at what the angel tells him he begins to doubt what he’s hearing. So, the angel, evidently the kind of angel who isn’t very patient with those who take exception to what he has to say, strikes Zechariah speechless until the day his son is delivered. Angels tend to do that sort of thing as well. Patience doesn’t seem to be their strong suit, nor do they suffer fools gladly.
The angel spent some time with the befuddled Joseph. The carpenter had just found out that Mary, his betrothed, was with child. Joseph was as upright as they come and put a lot of thought into what he was going to do about this situation. One thing for sure, he knew he wasn’t the father. He didn’t want Mary to be disgraced publicly – he still loved her, after all, loved her dearly – so, as Matthew’s gospel puts it, he resolved to “dismiss her quietly.” I suppose that’s a euphemism for finding her a place away from town where she could give birth without all the ugliness that accompanied such a thing in a place where she is well known and where tongues wag and people look with disdain upon those girls who have become sullied. That’s when the angel shows up and fills him in on how all this came to be.
We are not told that Joseph said anything in response, as Mary had done. He just took Mary and got out of town as quickly as possible.
Just look at them. Look at them all, these recipients of the angel’s news, and see the expressions on all their faces as they watch the angel leave the room. When the angel departs, you can know that life is never again going to be the same.
We put these cute little angels on the top of our Christmas trees… so benign and… well, so angelic! But I’m not sure that’s the way it really is. According to scripture, when angels come, they change things. When angels come, they bring the kind of message that disrupts, turns one’s life upside down. When angels depart, they leave people confused and wondering. Angels seem to be really good at delivering messages, but they don’t stick around to tell you what to do with the messages they bring.
This may be a strange thing to say, but maybe that’s the kind of Christmas we need around here, the kind that confuses and leaves us wondering. Maybe we need the familiar to be shaken up, to be changed, to be challenged, because it seems that Christmases come and go, and while they make us feel jolly and happy for awhile, it isn’t long until we settle back into our regular routine where it’s pretty much very man, woman, and child for himself and herself, where we look to our own self interests and ignore the needs of others… where wars continue and the teeth of the nations are continually set on edge, where social ills are unabated, where we worry once again about death and taxes – and maybe becoming ill without adequate health insurance – and life gets really, really hard.
Perhaps we could use an angel visit or two. But if we do, we better prepare ourselves for some change, if not total upheaval, because that’s what angels do. When angels depart, life is never again the same.
Just ask Mary. My guess is that if you had an opportunity to ask Mary, “If you had it to do all over again would you have still said yes?” she would tell you that it was the greatest honor any woman could possibly receive… that even with the pain she had to endure, the uncertainty that came with raising this special child, the sense of estrangement that came with knowing that while he was her son he didn’t belong to her as much as he belonged to the world, the pain of seeing him die like a criminal… that despite all this, had she to do it over again, so that when she saw the angel knocking at the front door she could head out the back and he would never have been the wiser, she would still have said yes. She would still have said yes.
As Mary watches the angel depart, she is struck by the realization that her womb has become the home of God. By saying the words, “Let it be to me according to your word,” she has opened her body to provide a home for Emmanuel.1
It’s quite possible that the only angel you will see this Christmas is the one atop your decorated tree. But any time you feel that holy twinge, when you perceive in your heart that perhaps God is trying to tell you something that will, in all likelihood, change your life, there just may be an angel involved. If that happens to you, you might also discover that God’s message is found, not just in what the angel has to say, but in what is not said after the angel has departed. For it is then that your faith must take over, when you find yourself having to act on what you have heard. After all, it is when the angel has departed that it is time to go to work.
Lord, if you visit us, whether it is in the form of an angel or not, may you find us having Mary’s kind of faith. But if an angel does come, when we see him depart, give us the courage to keep saying yes to what you want us to do. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1Henry J. Langknecht, “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century, December 13, 2011, p. 20.