Third Sunday in Advent
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Today’s passage comes to us in two parts. The first is relatively well-known. One that is relatively well-known, as far as biblical passages go. And the other not so well known, as far as biblical passages go. The first focuses on Mary, the soon-to-be Mother of Jesus. The other on Elizabeth, a relative of Mary. Together, however, these passages show us something about God at work in hidden, yet powerful ways.
The first, the well-known passage is known as the “Annunciation.” An angel named Gabriel visits Mary, who is engaged to a man named Joseph, and living in a town called Nazareth, in a place called Galilee. The angel startles Mary with his presence (fair enough), then gives her startling news. That she is going to be pregnant, and the baby she’s going to give birth to will be named Jesus. This baby will not be like other babies. And this child will be “great,” says the angel, “and will be called 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.” This baby will usher in a new age of hope for her people. And the entire world.
Mary is confused as to how she’ll be having this baby. Seeing as how she’s a virgin. But Gabriel has an easy explanation: the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and the power of the Most High will overshadow her. The child will be holy, the son of God. Mary is favoured. And she is chosen by God for an incredible task—to bear God in to the world. And Mary says “here I am, servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Mary is chosen to bear God into the world. And she says “yes.” Here I am.
Like I said, this story is familiar, as far as biblical texts go. It’s the subject of countless beautiful renaissance paintings. And it’s the passage where the Christian church has formulated what’s called the doctrine of the virgin birth. That Jesus was, in the words of the Apostle’s Creed “conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.” It’s a core teaching of the faith. And it’s one that has faced it’s share of challenges in the modern era of science and rational inquiry. “Can virgins conceive babies?” Seems to be the question that the controversy revolves around.
As much as I like controversy, I wonder if sometimes we’re concentrating on the wrong one. The “can virgins have babies” one. Because I think the real controversy in this passage is not the question of how but the question of who that is controversial here. Because she really is a nobody. She’s from Nazareth, which really is the neighborhood that everybody else looks down on. Think the downtown east side. Think an isolated reserve in Northern Ontario. Think Maple Pool. She’s poor as poor can be. And she’s likely between ten and twelve years of age—the age women in her culture are married. Her society probably frowns upon unwed pregnant teenage mothers even more than our own. She hasn’t earned it. Hasn’t done anything to deserve it. You might remember the movie “There’s Something About Mary.” Here there’s really nothing about Mary. And yet, she’s the one chosen to bear Christ, to bring God in to the world. God sees in Mary something nobody else sees. God has great expectations.
God has great expectations for Mary, God sees what nobody else sees. And yet, the blessedness of Mary is not the whole point of this scene. Yes, in the Christian tradition Mary is the uniquely special person who brought Christ in to the world. But in the tradition she’s also seen as the example of what a follower of Jesus looks like. It’s that God sees in us something that nobody else sees. The Eastern Orthodox Christian Church refers to Mary as Theotokos, meaning the “God bearer.” The point is that if God chooses someone like Mary, a nobody like Mary with nothing extraordinary about her, God can do the same with us. Everyone has the potential to bear Christ in to the world. Christ is in utero in all of us, waiting to be born in to the world. God has great expectations for us all.
But I’m not sure we see that. Even among those of us who follow Jesus. I’ve told a few people this story. But I’ll hangout and eat with people at eat with them in the soup kitchen. Part of the deal, at least on some of the days is at the door you receive a ticket so we can keep track of the number of people who are served. I always come from the door on the side instead of the front door, so I don’t get a ticket. And this one day I got in the line with everyone else. And when it was my time to be served, I said I wanted the cream of mushroom and a tuna sandwich. And the woman serving looked at me, gave me a bit of a sour look and said “where’s your ticket?” And me, being cheeky replied “Oh I never get one.” And she gives me this look like I was trying to steal her wallet. “No ticket,” she says, “no soup.” And of course, the other woman working with her leans in and gently whispers “he’s the pastor at St. George’s.” The woman’s face turns red, the scowl immediately melts away. “Oh I’m so sorry,” she says. I’m sure I could have got an extra sandwich out of the deal.
It was kind of funny. The pastor, hidden among the crowd. But if you think about it, you’ll realize that it shouldn’t have mattered if I was the pastor or not. I think sometimes we get can get so caught up in serving and doing, even if it’s the right time, that we forget. Because every person who lines up at that soup kitchen is carrying the potential of Christ within them, even if it doesn’t seem so obvious.
This is one of the reasons why Christians believe that every life is precious and of infinite worth. This is why followers of Jesus oppose the death penalty. This is why followers of Jesus are weary of waging war. This is why followers of Jesus around the country have said “yes” to the sheltering of refugees. This is why we partner with other churches around the valley to provide meals to people who can’t afford their own out of our fellowship hall five days a week. Not because of some high-minded liberal ideals of equity or fairness, as helpful as they may be. Not because we are “helping the less fortunate.” Or that we believe ourselves to be social service providers. We give up on no one. Because we believe that Christ is within all of us, hidden in utero. Waiting to be born, no matter how rough or un-Christlike our lives may be. As we say every Sunday Jesus Christ is the host at the table and the unseen guest in our midst. This is why we do a lot of what we do.
That’s the first well known part of the passage. But I love the second, lesser known part, too. After Mary hears the news from the angel, she runs from home over hills and valleys. And she ends up at her relative Elizabeth’s house. Elizabeth is six months pregnant with a baby in her. The baby is John the Baptist, who points to Jesus’ arrival <show slide>. Mary bursts in to the front door. And as soon as Elizabeth hears the sound of Mary’s voice, the baby does a back flip in her womb. She’s filled with the Holy Spirit, it says. And she rejoices. Elizabeth somehow is able to see how God sees. The Holy Spirit taps her on the shoulder, and points out that it’s Christ who’s entered the room. Hidden within this preteen girl.
I am not the type for person for whom God is always obvious—like Elizabeth—but I truly believe that God is trying to tell us things all the time. Like with Elizabeth, the Spirit is always trying to tap us on the shoulder and get our attention. Especially through the people we meet. It might not be so obvious. But one of the ways we can better listen for the Spirit is to live with great expectations. To recognize that Christ is waiting to be born in all whom we meet. Though he may be hidden. No matter who they are. Every life, from the most nervous pre-teen to most deeply addicted and the down and out has Christ waiting within them. Waiting to be born.
Advent is the season of waiting. We celebrate Advent, and don’t burst right in to Christmas because Christ does not make himself known to us so obviously. But he comes to us hidden. Deep inside of us no matter who we are, ready to be born, if Mary, we simply say “yes, according to your word.” But Christ is also hidden in the least expected people. If only we, like Elizabeth, are able to hear the Spirit’s prodding. And rejoice.
Brothers and sisters. God has great expectations for you, and for us all. May you, like Mary, prepare yourself this season to bring Christ in to the world. And may you, like Elizabeth, recognize him, and rejoice, when he walks through your door.