Pastor Barbara Thrall
In the name of God, creator, redeemer, sanctifier. Amen.
Well, we’ve made it to the 4th Sunday of Advent. Over these past weeks we have been hearing the stories of our faith in the words of Isaiah, the great Old Testament prophet, and in the cries of John the Baptist by the river’s edge, a latter day prophet heralding the coming of the Messiah. Now today, as we approach Christmas, we hear about Mary, another powerful voice in Advent. Mary, a familiar but somewhat shadowy character who plays a pivotal role for us, and for all of Christianity, for all of history.
Let me tell you a story that involves Mary. Some of you may know my friend, the Rev. Jan Burdewik, who was the assistant at Wilbraham United Church in the 1990s. Jan tells the story of having taken time between jobs to spend the month of December with friends in Zimbabwe in East Africa. Believe me, she was happy to be traveling to a place in the southern hemisphere that was beginning it’s summertime, and she was happy to see her friends, and she was pleased to go to church with them and experience the spiritual life in Harare, the capital. Jan had worshipped in a large Roman Catholic church there for a couple of Sundays and was especially taken by the music. She said it was fantastic, like having the chorus of Ladysmith Black Mombaza in church with you every week. But by the third Sunday of Advent she had noticed an absences that she wondered about.
Along one wall of the church were a series of long shelves, and on those shelves were drums, loads and loads of drums. Jan sought out the head usher and asked him, “You have all these drums, why aren’t you using them in your services?” The man looked at her first with disbelief. How could she not know why there were no drums in Advent? Everybody knew that. And then he looked with compassion on this foreigner – and began to explain. He said, “We still the drums because they are too festive for this season, and we still the drums out of respect for Mary. By Advent she is far into her pregnancy. She is making a perilous journey. She is tired, she is worried, her body is heavy. We keep things quiet, and reflective so that she may rest. But believe me, he said, when Christmas comes, the drums will speak again and we will break forth into joy with what Mary will bring us.
Like Mary in Advent, like all of us in Advent, we wait. We are in a classic already-not yet period. Like a person playing a part in a play or an athlete ready to spring off the line, we are expectant, ready to go, and also anxious about what is going to happen. Like all of us at this particular Christmas time, we are getting prepared, but are not really prepared for what is coming. Like all of us, we are yearning for this time of waiting to be over, and are holding on for a future time when the pieces will fall into place again and joy will mark our days. This is a time of in-between.
We see that in-between tension played out in our lessons today. King David, who proposes to build God a house where God may dwell, is assured that God will have a house all right, but it won’t necessarily be a building in Jerusalem. It will be a human family, a dynasty, a living breathing entity that will embody God’s life on earth. And it will spring from David. Then centuries passed. Disruptions in the chain befell David’s monarchy. The waiting continued. And then ages later, the angel Gabriel makes a visit to a young girl named Mary and tells her she is the one. She will be the mother of the Messiah, and because of her acceptance, we will reign with God forever. There it is – in tension, two true stories about waiting and expectation, sharing a history, each occupying their place in the drama of salvation.
When we think about it, Mary was a truly singular person. As we said last week, the angel’s announcement, “you will bear a son” provoked in her a whole gambit of human emotions. She was confused, not sure if she was hearing it right. She was incredulous – “How can this be? I don’t even have a husband.”
I wonder, is there denial there? It is said that denial is a sign of fear lurking just around the corner. No, that medical test result must be for somebody else.
No, that job layoff can’t involve me. No, that bunch of things I found under the bed can’t mean what I think they mean. No, that election cannot possibly have gone that way. Fear is there for all of us, in so many disguises, and yet denial doesn’t really make anything go away. Denial just postpones things, until we face up to the fear or it meets us head-on.
Certainly Mary was afraid – an angel talking to her and saying such outlandish things, and yet, and yet, she is singular in our faith and spirituality because in her humility she asked for clarification, she listened, she pondered it all. And then, she agreed to do what seemed impossible. Her humble yes, her trust and her willingness to go along with God’s crazy plan, has meant the world to countless women and men down through the ages. No wonder we call her blessed.
Yes, blessed to carry a heavy load through life, and also to be supported by God’s constant, abiding presence. You know, Mary doesn’t say a whole lot in scripture, but I think it’s no coincidence that the last words she utters in the Bible are at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Her grown-up son, Jesus, is being asked to provide more wine for the reception, and the servants turn to consult Mary about all this. She says simply, “Do whatever he tells you.” That sentence is essentially what Mary said to herself when when she heard the angel Gabriel’s announcement. It’s the same conviction she carried throughout her entire life. “Do whatever he tells you.” God is guiding, directing and God is to be trusted and loved. Know that when you agree to do the impossible, things won’t necessarily be easy, but you will not be alone.
As we reflect on this past year, on what America, the entire world, this congregation and each of us have been going through, it feels as though we have been in a struggle with something that is trying to emerge. We waited in anticipation for what the election might produce. We groan with the realization that we have a long way to go until Black lives, and therefore all lives matter. We wonder at our future with climate conditions changing and reshaping themselves around us. We agonize over the effects, all the effects of a pandemic on us, those we love, and those we don’t even know. Here in Wilbraham, we feel the sting of loss at this happy time of year, and also hopefully await the Spirit’s guidance in helping you select a new leader who will shepherd this church into the future. That’s a lot to carry, a lot of real work we have been doing and will be doing going forward.
And through it all, we have never walked alone. We have one another, our church, we have our denominational leaders, we have our elected officials, we have our friends and family, we have the saints. We are part of a great cloud of witnesses crying for justice for the downtrodden, and light in the darkness. Above all we have our Lord to guide us and to show us the way.
And we have Mary, the woman from Nazareth. For some traditions Mary is the model of womanhood, of motherhood. For others she is the model of modest acceptance. For some she is like them, a poor woman, far from home, tired, and in need of a rest. For others she is a force of strength, determination and self-assurance. For all of us, Mary is the God-bearer, the one whose life and witness have made an incalculable difference in the world. May we live in our own situations, confident that God is with us. When asked, may we agree to do what seems impossible, knowing that God will be right there. And may the drums speak again soon, in festive joy, for what can happen when we say Yes. Amen.