The Tabernacle of Emmanuel

       You might not have noticed it, but each service in our Advent Approaching the Mystery series has started with one of the O Antiphons chosen by Mother Becca and I as thematically consistent with the rest of the service.  On Advent 1, we chose “O Dayspring” as we began the season in darkness and invited the dawning light of Christ to help us find our way.  For Advent 2, our focus was on “O Wisdom.”  The prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist spoke to us as mouthpieces of God’s wisdom, pointing us toward the beginning of the good news.  Last Sunday, on Advent 3, we set our sights on “O Lord of Might” who, despite great difficulty in the world around us, is able to stir up joy in all circumstances by way of unending grace and mercy.  Finally, this morning, on our last Sunday before Christmas and coming of Christ into the world, our O Antiphon is “Emmanuel,” God with us, God who enters the world, enters fully into our humanity, to bring about the redemption of all Creation.

       These O Antiphons have, to a greater or lesser degree, played a role in the responsories that we wrote, in the hymns that we sang, and in the sermons that we preached, but this week I’ve been particularly struck by Emmanuel and how God chose to come among us.  It all started with an email from a friend of mine who was working on his sermon for Christmas 1.  He was stuck on the word dwell in John’s Prologue, as in “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  He asked me to nerd out with him on the various ways that God dwells with humanity in the Scriptures, and my mind was immediately drawn to our Old Testament lesson for this morning.

       David is coming off a pretty huge win as 2nd Samuel chapter 7 begins.  The Ark of the God had been returned to Jerusalem with great fanfare.  Musical instruments of all kinds led thirty thousand soldiers as they sang and danced with all their might, carrying the Ark of God into the City, and they placed it inside a tent, where the presence of Almighty God had dwelled since the days of Moses and the people of Israel wandering in the desert.  Suddenly, as David sat in his house of cedar, he began to feel uncomfortable.  Why should he live in a beautiful, sturdy, secure home when the presence of God was left to reside in a tent?  David began to plan to build a house for God, when the voice of the Lord spoke to his prophet, Nathan, and said, “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.”  Given the choice, God preferred to dwell in the flexibility of a tent so that God might be able to easily move about and be present, no matter where God’s people might find themselves.  Over and over again, throughout the Scriptures, we find that God chooses to be present among the mess.  God never forsakes God’s people, even when it feels like God is far away, Emmanuel, God is with us.

Fast forward a thousand years, and our Gospel lesson tells the story of God once again choosing to dwell with humanity, not as a statue to be housed in a building and worshiped, or even as some magnificent, fully-formed human who arrives with great flourish and power, but as a baby, who grew up and became a person who lived and moved and had their being in the utter messiness of humanity.  In the Annunciation, we are reminded of the good news that God isn’t some far away deity, writing the code and pulling the strings that make the cosmos happen, but it is God’s intention to be among us, no matter the circumstances.  God chose to come among us in the most vulnerable way possible: as a baby, born to an unwed mother, living in a nowhere town, under the oppressive boot of a distant, yet mighty empire.

The Angel Gabriel comes to invite Mary to serve, at least temporarily, as the Tabernacle of God, but begins by reminding Mary of the overarching truth of God’s relationship with humankind, God is with her.  God will never leave or forsake her, and if she would believe in that truth, she would have the opportunity to change the course of history.  God didn’t choose a house of cedar to live in.  Instead, God chose the womb of Mary.  God didn’t choose a person with powerful political connections.  Instead, God chose the fiancé of a carpenter from the middle of nowhere, Nazareth.  Of all the times, places, and people God could have chosen as the Tabernacle of Christ, God chose Mary, the perfect example of vulnerability and faithfulness, presumably since the Ark of God.  This is especially true in Luke’s Gospel, where Mary serves as both the God-bearer and the model of Christian discipleship.  As Mark Allen Powell, Professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, points out, the Annunciation to Mary is her call story in line with the calling of such heavy hitters and Moses and Isaiah.  All the elements are there: the greeting, the started reaction, the exhortation not to fear, the divine commission, the objection, a reassurance, and the offer of a confirming sign.  In her words of acceptance, Mary models both Samuel and Isaiah in saying, “Here I am.” She goes on to preview the words her Son would pray to God the Father on the night he was betrayed, “Let it be with me according to your word” or “Not my will but yours be done.”  For Luke, Mary is the perfect combination of humility, obedience, faithfulness, and loving service.[1]  She is, the ideal Tabernacle for the nurturing of Emmanuel, God with us.

Throughout the course of human history, God has, again and again, chosen to be vulnerable in order to be present with human beings in their struggle.  Whether it was choosing to stay in a tent rather than letting David build a house of cedar or choosing the womb of a faithful young woman as the way God the Son would enter the world, God has never shied away from hardship or messiness.  On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, our collective prayer is that God might continue that trend in us.  We pray for the faith of Mary.  We pray that, with God’s help, we might be willing to serve as the Tabernacle of the Holy Spirit.  We pray that Jesus, the Son of Mary, might find in us a mansion prepared for himself, and that as we live and move and have our being in the world, we might be the very hands and feet of God who is always among us.  O come, O come, Emmanuel!  Model us in the image of your Mother, Mary, and make us tabernacles of your grace. Amen.


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-126-38-3

Advent Blessings

REC_0033.MP4 from Christ Episcopal Church on Vimeo.


 

I said it three weeks ago, and I’ll say it again now, Advent in the Church can be a really challenging time.  While outside the world is full of colorful lights, glittering decorations, and songs of joy and wonder, inside the church it has felt stark, even gloomy at times.  There have been glimpses of our impending joy along the way, however.  With each passing Sunday, the light emanating from the Advent wreath has grown a bit brighter.  As the days grew shorter, I found this imagery particularly helpful [here] at the 8 o’clock service, which can seem like it starts before the sun comes up this time of year.  The lessons for the season are similarly stark.  Out there, stockings are hung by the chimney with care, in here we hear stories of the end times.  Wild eyed prophets warn us of the wrath to come.  Your brood of vipers!  Repent, for the day of the Lord’s judgment has drawn near!  All who fail to bear fruit will be torn out by the roots and thrown in the unquenchable fire!  And a Merry Christmas to you too.

It really isn’t until we get to the fourth Sunday of Advent that anything inside the church really begins to feel like Christmas.  After last Sunday, greenery snuck into the nave, albeit simply adorned.  There is nary a hint of a red bow to be found.  Just off Surface Hall sit dozens of poinsettias, their racks are staged, the magnolia is cut, all just begging to spread Christmas cheer.  In the windows, candles lie in wait, ready to radiate the light of the newborn King for all the world to see, but alas, that’s not until tomorrow.  Today, we remain in Advent.  Today, we are still waiting, but today, we get our first real taste of that old familiar story.

Our Gospel lesson has moved on from tales of the apocalypse.  John the Baptist has Benjamin Buttoned himself backward by about thirty years.  His bit part is played in utero.  Today our story features two women, traditionally said to be cousins.  Elizabeth, we know to be the mother of John.  She was thought to be barren in her old age, but was gifted with a late-in-life pregnancy.  Her son, as we well know, will grow up to be The Prophet who sets the stage for The One who is greater than him, The One sent to redeem the world.

Mary is the star of today’s narrative.  A young girl, maybe only thirteen years old, Mary has already been through quite the ordeal before she arrives in the hill country.  Gabriel has appeared to her and invited her to carry the Anointed One of God in her womb.  Joseph, her fiancé, has already decided to dismiss her quietly, and then had his mind changed by way of an angel and a dream.  It would have been a fairly decent journey for Mary to travel from Nazareth to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Yet, it is there that the lectionary has us first encounter Mary, the Mother of our Lord, already carrying the Messiah, hiding with a relative for safety during those difficult first few months of pregnancy.

As the story unfolds, Elizabeth is the first to speak, proclaiming Mary and her child to blessed.  As a more Protestant leaning priest, I’m not one to use the Roman rosary or say the Hail Mary very often.  It is, however, a part of colloquial Christianity, and so I’m sure many of you are familiar with Elizabeth’s ecstatic praise for her cousin, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  As I read those words this week, the idea of Mary’s blessedness caught my attention.  The Greek word used on both occasions in Luke 1:42 is eulegeo.  It is a compound word, combining eu, which means “to be well off” or “to prosper” and logos, which means “word” or “something said.”  Elizabeth’s pronouncement of Mary’s blessedness literally means that a good or prosperous word has been spoken upon her.  Blessedness wasn’t something Mary was simply born with, nor was it something she earned for herself.  Even in her youthful virginity, Mary wasn’t just randomly selected to be someone special, the ninth caller on God’s contest line.  No, Mary’s blessedness came from God, who, through Elizabeth, spoke a good word upon her.  Just as in creation God spoke all of what we know to be real into being, so too, in Jesus’ incarnation, God spoke grace into being by making a girl from backwater Nazareth into the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

I find this image of Mary’s blessedness to be very helpful because it reminds me that all of it is under God’s control.  It isn’t only some special person who seems to never make mistakes and always loves their neighbor who is blessed, but rather, blessedness is available for anyone upon whom God has spoken a good or prosperous word.  Blessedness is available for everyone.  Even this morning, as we wait for the coming of our Lord, Mother Becca will have the opportunity, challenge, and responsibility, to speak on behalf of God, in the tradition of Gabriel and Elizabeth, blessedness upon all of us.  It is our own good word from God, spoken and made real through another human being.  As Christmas fast approaches, I can’t help but wonder what it looks like to live into our blessedness?

For Mary, the reality of her blessedness causes her to break out in song.  She cries out in exaltation. Her very soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.  The word, translated as soul, is psyche.  We’ve adopted it in English, the psyche being our soul, mind, or spirit, but its original meaning takes us all the way back to Genesis 1-3.  The primary definition of psyche is breath.  It is the Greek equivalent of Hebrew’s ruah, the very breath of life given to humanity in creation.  When Mary sings out the greatness of the Lord, it comes from that place deep within, her soul, her spirit, the core of her being.  It pours out from the breath that was given to her by God.  As disciples of Jesus, in the pattern of Mary, we share in that breath, and as we approach the annual remembrance of the coming of the Word made flesh, that same soul, breath, spirit, will rejoice in God our savior.

She goes on to sing of the great reversal that God has already done in the world.  Long before the resurrection.  Long before the crucifixion.  Long before Jesus’ first sermon, first miracle, or even his baptism.  Months before the Son of God will be born to the sounds of angels singing out good news of great joy, Mary sings, without doubt or irony, a song in the present tense.  To Mary’s mind, in the very act of choosing to redeem the world through the Word made flesh, God has already scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, and lifted up the lowly.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, God has already filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.  In choosing Mary, God has already fulfilled the covenant with Abraham.

Of course, it doesn’t take too long to look around and realize that no matter what Mary might have sung, there are still many who are lowly and hungry, while the rich and powerful continue to hold tightly onto the purse strings of society.  We know Mary’s full story to be one of hardship and sadness.  Still, what we hear in Elizabeth’s proclamation of blessedness and in Mary’s song of praise is the word of hope that I think we all long for this Season of Advent.  It is the hope that we symbolize in the growing light of the Advent wreath.  The hope that I feel when I see candles perched in the windows and greenery swagging its way along the walls.  It’s the hope that we see in the creche, set and ready to receive the King of kings tomorrow evening.  In these waning moments of Advent, may we be blessed with the hope of what is to come, the gift of redemption for the whole world.  Amen.

Mary’s Song – a sermon

My Advent 3 sermon is now available to listen to on the Saint Paul’s Website.  If you’d prefer, you can read it below.

Imagine for a moment that you are a thirteen year-old girl living in first century Nazareth.  Life isn’t easy for you, and, quite frankly, it never will be.  You’re already betrothed to a nice carpenter named Joseph.  He’s quite a bit older than you, but that’s how things work these days.  At this point, you are learning the last bits of wisdom from your mother: how to keep Joseph’s work shirts clean, what spice combination she uses in her lamb stew, things like that.  Joseph will be back from adding your room onto his Father’s house soon, and life as a married woman is about to begin.  Right now, life is all about waiting.

Then, one day, everything changes.  In a moment, the whole world was turned upside down.  There is, standing before you, something like you’ve never seen before and yet something that is amazingly familiar.  As the fear wells up within you, this being, this angel, this whatever-it-is opens its mouth and speaks, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.  Blessed are you among women.”  “What sort of greeting could this be,” you wonder as the fear grows into terror.  It speaks again, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  In an instant, the panic turns to peace, as if the angel spoke peace into existence.  The angel knows your name, and called you by it!  It continues, “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…”

Conceive?

A Son!?!

Now!?!?!?!

“How can this be,” You ask, “for I am still a virgin?”  After a brief explanation of the intricacies of the divine conception of your first-born son, the angel looks you in the eye and assures you, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Luke doesn’t tell us how long the silence between the powerful promise of Gabriel and Mary’s response went on, but I’m guessing there was a very long, awkward pause, as this young woman – a girl, really – ran through her mind the ramifications of all that had just happened.  Getting pregnant outside of marriage was a serious problem for her.  The dowry had already been paid, agreements had already been made, and her new home was already under construction.  She could be killed for this!  And yet, the fear did not take over.  The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, even the understanding of a young teen-aged virgin, abided as she responded, “Here I am, a servant to the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.”  And with that, she went from an unknown girl who wasn’t even a blip on the historical radar to The Ever Blessed Virgin Mary.

Since that day on or about March 25th in the year 0, the tradition surrounding Mary has been the most divergent in Church history.  It seems as though there are two ways to handle Mary.  Protestants remember her in the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel, and once Linus has finished reciting the Christmas story in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, they put her away for another year.  Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, seem to worship Mary at level almost on par with Jesus himself.  There isn’t time here to go into the various legends associated with the Mother of our Lord or to parse the doctrines of her perpetual virginity or immaculate conception, but what I found interesting as I spent the week with Mary is that while we have the opportunity to hear Mary’s Song, The Magnificat, every Advent, theologians have spent very little time an energy dealing with what it means that Mary’s “yes” made her not only the Theotokos, the God Bearer, but also made her, in the words of Alyce McKenzie, “a reluctant prophet.[1]

Following Mary’s divine encounter with Gabriel and the Holy Spirit, she does what any wise, young, unmarried, pregnant girl in the first century would do, she leaves town.  Mary packs her bags and heads to the hill country to visit Elizabeth, the aged-and-formerly-barren-yet-soon-to-be mother of John the Baptist who was kin to Mary.  It only seems fitting that this two miracle moms should spend some time together.  As Mary entered the house, she called out the traditional greeting, “Shalom,” which means “peace.”  When she heard Mary’s voice, Elizabeth was overjoyed, her baby leapt in her womb, and filled with the Holy Spirit, she shouted at the top of her lungs, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  The two women are ecstatic to the point that Mary breaks out in song, a prophetic oracle of hope.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.  From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.”[2]

It is a beautiful hope-filled song, but what I find most interesting is that Mary has her verb tenses all mixed up.  Here she stands, still a virgin, yet somehow pregnant, and surely fearing for her life, yet she is able to proclaim, “The Almighty has done great things for me…”  How can she make this claim?

Before the heavenly chorus sings “Glory to God in the highest;”

before the shepherds and the Magi; before the proclamations of Simeon and Anna;

Before the heavenly chorus sings “Glory to God in the highest;”

          before the shepherds and the Magi; before the proclamations of Simeon and Anna;

before the twelve year-old Jesus stays behind in the Temple that he calls “his father’s house;”

before his baptism and temptation;

before he turns water into wine, calls his first disciples, heals his first leper, or dines with his first sinner;

before his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem;

before he turns the tables in the Temple Court;

before his betrayal, arrest, and trial; before his crucifixion and death;

before those three days in the tomb;

and long before his resurrection; Jesus’ mother, Mary, proclaims with boldness that Lord has already fulfilled his promise of mercy.  Mary sings of the future redemption of the world in past tense; the Lord has already done these things.  Like every other prophet in history, Mary was able to see beyond the constraints of the current hardship into the hope-filled future that God promised long ago.

This morning, as we continue to wait for the coming of our Lord through another Advent Season, I’m aware that the world is still full of difficulty.  It is often hard to see the future vindication of history when the news is full of stories of teen-aged drunk drivers getting a slap on the wrist because they are too rich to know right from wrong, or high school students who respond to getting cut from the debate team by taking a shotgun to school, or three people being stabbed to death over a football game, but the promise is sure: the Lord has done, is doing, and will continue to great things.  Mary’s Song invites us to see beyond the bad news of today, to imagine a better future, and to remember the words of the Angel Gabriel, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”  Amen.