Sunday, December 15, 2019

Will you say yes to God

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Katy TX 77493

December 15, 2019


The third Sunday in Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday and the appropriate color is rose. Rose is made by blending equal parts of purple, one of the traditional colors of Advent and the white of Christmas. It is not pink! In an earlier time when this would have been a season of penitence and fasting this Sunday like Laetare Sunday in Lent was a day when the fast could be broken. How things have changed in recent times. Can any of you imagine this as a season of fasting and penitence up until Christmas Day?

The theme comes from the Latin phrase “Gaudete in Domino semper” which translates to “rejoice in the Lord always.” This is one of the reasons that the Magnificat is used as our psalm this week for Mary opens her statement with “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” This is a Sunday where the preacher may explore either Mary as this is sometimes referred to as Mary Sunday or the theme of John the Baptist preparing the way for the Messiah.

I want to do something a little different because we have this week in many respects two parallel stories. One of the major learnings I have had in the course of my work with the Academy for Biblical Storytellers is how we lose much of the meaning of scripture by breaking the linkages the gospel writers especially Luke have carefully constructed. I want to reconstruct some of those links this morning by looking at both John and Mary.

In Matthew we hear of John the Baptist, in prison, sending his disciples to inquire about Jesus and Canticle 15 from Luke which is the Magnificat, the Song of Mary.  Two parallel stories because Luke tells the stories of John the Baptist and Jesus together and the complete story makes up almost all of Luke 1 and 2.

There is one challenge in these readings since we are in year 1 of the lectionary so our gospels are mostly Matthew. Matthew has entirely different birth narrative from Luke and focuses on Harrod and the wisemen. John isn’t mentioned until he appears baptizing in the wilderness. Last week John has called the Pharisees a brood of vipers and foretold Jesus. In Matthew, John this week is asking if Jesus is the Messiah and we get Jesus’ answer.

The disconnection comes when you read Luke you find that Luke goes to great lengths to prove that Jesus and John are related. Elizabeth, John’s mother is a relative of Mary as we learn from the Angel Gabriel in the Annunciation. “And even now you relative Elizabeth has conceived a son and is in the sixth month of her who was said to be barren.” Again I point out that each gospel has their own agenda so has their own way of spinning the story.  All that said, I want to focus on the two principal characters of John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.

The parallel piece in these two stories is about the willingness of both to act as the vessel for the coming of the kingdom. Both involve getting out of the way and allowing God to work through them. John and Jesus’ birth are both foretold by the Angel Gabriel in Luke 1. Gabriel’s first stop is to the temple in Jerusalem to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth his wife are “getting up in years” as the passage says. He is a priest at the temple and is chosen by lot to go into the sanctuary to offer incense. This was a great and solemn honor for only a few were ever allowed into the sanctuary where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. It was in this most holy place where Gabriel tells Zechariah that the prayers of this elderly couple have been heard. Zechariah expresses some significant reservations and the angel renders him unable to speak until John is born. They cooperate but not without some doubt.

Once John is born there is a lengthy prophesy by Zechariah about John as a prophet of the most high and as the one to prepare the way of the Lord. That passage closes with the words, “and the child grew and was powerful in the Spirit and remained in the wilderness until he appeared publicly.” That public appearance is the story that we heard last week of his baptizing people in forgiveness of their sins.

Six months after visiting Zechariah, the angel Gabriel makes Mary his next stop. The sixth month in this passage is the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and a time when the movement of a fetus would definitely be felt by Elizabeth. Mary’s reaction is far more open and accepting than Zechariah for even though she asks, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” She finally accepts the call by telling Gabriel “Here I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Following this visit from the angel she “went with haste to the hill country of Judea to the house of her relative Zechariah and when Elizabeth heard her greeting, the child in her womb leapt.” After three statements by Elizabeth then Mary speaks the words of the Magnificat, which we heard as our canticle today.

Mary and Elizabeth are related although how is not clear. This means that John and Jesus are therefore related. It is entirely possible that they grew up knowing each other and what an interesting that childhood might have been!

Mary and John have one thing in common. They are both vessels, conduits between God and our world. They allowed God to use them, to work through them to open up the possibility of God’s kingdom to all. Waiting for the kingdom is what Advent is all about in our world today. We are not called to wait passively, but to be active conduits for God into our world, just as John and Mary.

Earlier this week Pastor Steve had one of his great reflections. Listen to what he wrote:

What if there was nothing special about Mary at all?
What if she was not particularly pious or virtuous,
but simply willing to hear the Word:
“You have found favor with God.”

What if all that’s needed to ignite a miracle
is the willingness to accept God’s favor?
What if to bring salvation to the world all God needs of us
is to receive God’s delight in us?
To imagine God’s saving grace growing within us.
To trust God’s tender regard for us
despite our lowliness, despite our under serving;
despite all the hardships and struggles,
even the sin and despair, to trust God’s joy?
Not that we are better, only that we are beloved.
What if all God asks of us is
to say Yes to God’s Yes?
To hear God’s hope for us
and to reply with all our hearts,
“Let it be with me according to your word.” [1]

So something to ponder as we wait for Jesus is how is God calling us to be the hands and feet of Christ in our world? How can we be a conduit, a vessel that can bring the kingdom closer this Advent? There is no one answer for this, for the role that God is calling us to is unique to each of us.

Frederick Buechner gave us a great guideline in discerning that call when he wrote: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Maybe you are called to use your resources to help care for the poor, the homeless, the person facing challenges. Maybe you are called to give the gift of presence, being present to someone who needs support and a shoulder to cry on. To help a person through a rough time. What I do know is that we are called this Advent to once again look at our baptismal promises and see how we can bring those promises to life in our world.

Will you say yes to God this Advent? Let it be with me according to your word.