I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's on Sunday, December 19, the fourth Sunday of Advent. The text is Luke 1:26-56; read it here.
One week turns into four very quickly.
Four candles are lit on the advent wreath downstairs,
four ornaments hang from the tree on our welcome table.
One, two, three, and here we are at four,
standing on the edge of Christmas.
The trees have been decorated,
travel plans made.
Presents purchased (or some of them, in my case)
Christmas is coming.
Love the guest, the bird, the star, the rose, is on the way.
We began Advent this year with a story about a rose, snipped from my sister’s garden at the height of the summer and placed at my bedside table as a sign of welcome. And we end Advent with the same image, but rather than a sign of welcome, the rose tonight is a sign of Christ himself.
And this rose, this Christ-rose, is different. Because it blooms not at the height of summer, but in the cold of winter.
Our opening hymn reads,
Furrows be glad, though earth is bare,
one more seed is planted there.
This rose is planted in earth that is as hard and unyielding as rock.
This rose blooms in the coldness of night,
A single bloom existing where it ought not exist.
I find that the stories of Jesus’ birth so often bring me a sense of still, warm, comfort. The rhythm of the words are worn and familiar as a bedtime story. And perhaps these stories are God’s bedtime story: a story that says,
A long time ago I came to dwell with you.
I am with you,
and I’ll be with you always.
I promise I won’t go away.
We need the bedtime story.
We need to know that God isn’t going anywhere.
But like most bedtime stories, this story is not devoid of dissonance. Its symbols are rich and strange and nonsensical: Christ the rose, that blooms out of season, that takes root in earth that is unyielding.
I notice dissonance in our text tonight. Two words that emerge clearly from the text
as Mary speaks with the angel. We hear first that Mary is “perplexed” by his words. And then the angel tells her, “Do not be afraid.”
Like so many of our own Christmases, this is not a story of pure joy, or pure celebration. There is fear and uncertainty as the events of this story unfold, news that is unsettling and nonsensical.
LIke so many of our own Christmases,
this Christmas begins with dissonance.
The news the angel brings means Mary is in a mess. Engaged to be married, she is not supposed to be pregnant. And now her future, her livelihood, very possibly even her life on the line. She is perplexed, she is confused, she is afraid. Her life has crumbled around her, and she’s facing into the darkness of the unknown.
But she responds, “Here am I. The servant of God.”
Sometimes the bedtime stories aren’t enough to keep the dissonance at bay.
Sometimes the twinkling lights of the Christmas trees and the warm apple cider isn’t enough to make us believe that love really did come down at Christmas, that God is here, dwelling among us, and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
Sometimes, no matter how tightly we close our eyes and squeeze, we can’t rid ourselves of the feeling that something is terribly wrong. That our lives meandered off course when we weren’t looking, and there’s so little we feel we can do to get them back on track.
Sometimes the star we’ve been following seems less bright than it did just a short time ago, and we fear that when we arrive at the stable, come forward to kneel before the child, the manger will be empty: nothing will be there.
The dissonance is real.
And it can be terrifying.
But our fear is no different from that of Mary’s,
who, hearing words that caused the world to come crashing down around her,
planted her feet firmly and simply said,
“here am I.”
God may come to us in moments of clarity,
moments that shine bright like a star,
bright enough to follow,
dependable and clear,
but God comes to us also
in times of dissonance and confusion.
Times of dark uncertainty that lack direction.
Times when the world’s come crashing down around us
and we don’t know which way to turn.
It may feel a long way off from the manger,
from the sure knowledge of Christ’s presence among us,
but these times of confusion and of fear
are just as holy, and just as real.
In those moments, we have Mary as an example,
Mary to guide us,
to tell us the only thing we need to know how to say:
Here am I.
God will sort out the rest.
There’s something that begins to move, to breathe and grow, in the times that are the most tangled, the most dissonant. There’s something unexpected and unlikely that emerges out of the dark and the chaos, out of the fear and the anxiety.
Mary, as her world crashes down around her
stands with her feet firmly planted and sings,
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
God is doing something powerful in her,
powerful in its dissonance and its chaos.
God is moving where God ought not be able to move:
The rose blooms from earth that is as hard and unyielding as stone.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
he has sent the rich away empty.
So do not be afraid of the dissonance,
of the chaos or the uncertainty,
for it is the place from which love grows.
It is the place where love takes root
no matter how dark, or how cold the night.
Plant your feet firmly and say, Here am I.