IV Advent 2020

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 20, 2020 (IV Advent)

I hear a lot of voices in my head this time of year. Now, it’s not what you think. But it’s hard to hear the stories leading up to Christmas and then the Christmas story itself, without hearing some other, very familiar voices. 

For instance you can’t hear the words of the prophet Isaiah that were read at Lessons and Carols a couple weeks ago without hearing Handel’s Messiah ringing out: “Comfort, comfort, ye my people.” At least I can’t. And whenever Luke’s gospel is proclaimed on Christmas Eve, at least a small part of my brain hears Linus standing on a stage and sharing the meaning of Christmas with the Peanuts gang. I watched it on PBS last week and Linus dropping his blanket at the words “fear not” gets me every time.

And even with this morning’s gospel, the story of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary the stunning news that she will bear God’s son, part of me hears years and years of Christmas pageants. But, if I’m honest, especially one from my parish in New York when we didn’t have enough boys one year. So we had the Angel Gabrielle. Which was fine. Except that she stood on a pew to deliver the news to Mary and slipped. Which meant we literally had a fallen angel in our Christmas pageant that year. 

All of which is to say that when we hear these familiar stories, we often bring in other voices and experiences and memories to bear on the Advent and Christmas that’s right in front of us. It may be the warm childhood embrace of a grandmother or the voice of a father reading ’Twas the Night Before Christmas or the sound of a church choir singing In the Bleak Midwinter.

This year, in particular I’m hearing the voice of the Angel Gabriel — or Gabrielle, depending on the year. Gabriel acts as a holy disrupter, a divine force that shatters the status quo and forever changes the trajectory of Mary’s life. Without this visit, what would Mary’s life have been like? She would have likely gotten married and had children, as would have been the expectation in her hometown of Nazareth. She would have engaged in domestic activities and presumably helped her husband eke out a living off the land. There would have been joys and sorrows, she would have laughed and cried, grown older and wiser, lived and died. A full, if unremarkable, life. 

But Gabriel appears as God’s messenger and everything changes. After this encounter, after Mary’s “yes,” nothing is ever the same again. Life is disrupted. For Mary, for the world, for us.

Now, I doubt Mary really welcomed Gabriel’s visit. Nobody craves disruption and confusion or seeks disorder and uncertainty. In our own lives, we tend to turn order into an idol. ‘I’ll be happy when things finally calm down at work. I’ll be able to breathe when the kids are older, or when they move out of the house. If I can just get through this home renovation, all will be well. Once I make it through this upcoming medical procedure, things will be okay.’ Mary was likely no different from the rest of us. And we hear that she was perplexed and fearful in the face of Gabriel’s message of disruption.

“Greetings, favored one,” are Gabriel’s first words to Mary. There’s a sense of reassurance in that opening line. This may all seem terrifying — an angel appearing out of nowhere usually is — but   Gabriel begins by preemptively telling Mary that she is favored and chosen by God. Granted, as evidenced by the experiences of the Hebrew prophets, being called by God doesn’t mean life will be easy. God’s favor is not the same thing as the world’s favor. Favored status in God’s realm equates to relationship, not privilege; to disruption, not stability. Favored doesn’t mean newfound wealth, favored doesn’t mean a life without pain or grief, favored doesn’t mean worldly adulation or popularity, favored doesn’t mean business as usual.

Favored, in this case, means chosen by God to be the Godbearer, the mother of our Savior. Favored means playing a role in the salvation story. Favored means turning the world upside down. “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you.” Those seemingly sympathetic words are words of disruption.

Gabriel comes as a holy disrupter and Mary, after just a moment’s hesitation, gets it. And she is all in. Ready to participate in the holy disruption that will enter the world as God in human form; the holy disruption that will emerge from a manger in Bethlehem.

Because God, our God, is not a God of stability and status quo. Just listen to Mary’s words after she ponders and then absorbs and embodies Gabriel’s message. Mary’s song, known to us as the Magnificat, contains words of radical disruption. “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.” 

Those are hardly words that indicate nothing’s gonna change. These are hold-onto-your-hats-a-mighty-wind-is-gonna-blow words. Everything is gonna change with the birth of this child. A child who will usher in a new world order where those on the outside are brought in and those who have been beaten down are lifted up.

And this is where I think Gabriel speaks not just to Mary, but to each one of us as well. When he says, “Greetings, favored one,” He’s also speaking directly to you. God favors and delights in you. Which, when we’re feeling down or guilty or imperfect or overwhelmed, is hard to take in. But it’s not just true that you are favored by God, it’s the deepest truth there is. God favors you and loves you, even as God disrupts your life by calling you into ever-deepening relationship. 

You know, in some ways, Gabriel could be the patron saint of 2020. If we see him as a holy disrupter, well, this entire year has been one of disruption. Our routines have been upended, our perspectives shifted. Some of this has been helpful, some revealing, much of it painful. But through it, God has been fully present. We may not always recognize or appreciate this. As with so many things in our lives, we often fail to see the hand of God in the disruption. I know I have my moments. But God is right there in the midst of it all. Challenging us and opening our eyes and inviting us into new ways of being. Mary shows us that God is present in the upheaval, in the very chaos and disorder that we fear so much.

That’s the spirit in which I pray you’ll enter into Christmas this year. Embracing rather than denying the disruption. Grieving for the traditions and people we’ll miss, but reveling in the message of our Savior’s birth. The message first conveyed by God through that angelic holy disrupter and carried out by the one who proclaimed, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”


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