Sunday, December 11, 2011

Advent 3B, 2011: Rejoicing in the God of surprise

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Today is Gaudete Sunday, otherwise known as Rose Sunday. It is a day of comfort and reprieve, a day to rejoice in the joy of the Lord, even as we practice our Advent preparations. This is a day dedicated to Mary, the theotokos, the God-bearer, co-creator with God.

On this day we hear an important transition in our gospel reading. The last prophet of the Old Covenant prophesies the introduction of the one who will usher in the New Covenant. That one is the child of Mary and the Son of God – the embodiment of a reality we share, but often forget.

Though the male leadership of the early church struggled mightily against calling a woman the “mother of God” we have little trouble with that concept today. We know and enjoy that Mary was pregnant with God. What we sometimes overlook is that the presence of God for Mary led her to real physical and spiritual transformation.

When a woman becomes pregnant, she has to change her everyday habits and begin to care for her body knowing that it is no longer hers alone. It is shared. Suddenly, she has to be aware of what she eats, what she drinks, and how she moves.

For Mary, the time of her pregnancy would also need to be a time to redefine herself. No longer would she be just Mary, daughter of Anna and Joachim, cousin of Elizabeth, and betrothed of Joseph. Now Mary would be the mother of a son, and not just any son. All generations will remember Mary as the bearer of the Messiah of God into the world.

Imagine how this must have impacted her spiritually! No wonder she left her hometown to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for several months during her early pregnancy.

I wonder if, in her private prayers, Mary ever asked, why me? In giving her “yes” to God, Mary had to sacrifice her good reputation. She would be forever remembered as the young woman who got pregnant before she got married, which in her day, could have led to severe punishment – even death. I wonder, as she prayed in those first months of her pregnancy, if Mary ever said to God what I’ve heard many others who face long-term difficulty say: I wish God didn’t have so much faith in me. I’d rather not have to be this strong.

I wonder what it was like to feel the presence of God “kicking around in her” as the Rev. Katherine Bush once said. Any woman, feeling her baby move within her womb is amazed and excited. But imagine what it must have been like to know that that movement within your body is God!

Only our God, who is truly a God of surprise, could have begun the final chapter of the plan of salvation in this way. I’m sorry – but I have to wonder why Mary and Elizabeth, their spouses, families, and friends, didn’t walk away from these unfolding events figuring they weren’t hearing or understanding God correctly.

It brings to mind the song Judas sang to Jesus in the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, as Jesus was being led to his crucifixion: “Every time I look at you I don’t understand. Why you let the things you did get so out of hand? You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned. Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?”

As God’s plan of salvation continued to unfold, it led to a very surprising outcome, certainly not the outcome that was expected or desired. God could see how redemption would come from the cross, but Jesus’ mother and the other followers were shocked and dismayed. In JC Superstar, Mary Magdalene sings what that felt like then - and still feels like for many of us today as the plan of God unfolds in our own lives: “I’ve been living to see you. Dying to see you but it shouldn’t be like this. This was unexpected. What do I do now? Could we start again please?”

God’s plan often leads us onto, what to us, are surprising pathways, pathways that seem wrong or disastrous in our eyes. That’s why the author of the epistle to the Thessalonians reminds us to: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; [and for heaven’s sake] …Do not quench the Spirit.”

Remembering that the Holy Spirit is often represented by flames and fire, this plea is vivid! Do not quench the flames of the Spirit. Do not put Her fire out! Trust and pray.

In all circumstances, be comforted by the promises of our merciful God who brings good news to the oppressed, comfort to those who mourn… to God who soothes the brokenhearted, brings freedom to all who are held captive, and clothes us in salvation and righteousness.

Do not quench the Spirit who speaks as much through prophets today as ever before. Remember Evelyn, the woman who prophesied to me at convention? Who are the prophets of God speaking to us today? Are we listening?

Test everything, the epistle writer says. Test it in the community. God will affirm the truth there.

And listen to the prophetic voices present in the community – it might surprise you to learn who they are: the children among us whose haven’t learned how to doubt God yet; the simple-minded who are pure in heart; the elderly who have gained wisdom; the one who opens their heart in prayer (which could be any of us). Do not quench the Spirit!

Live together in a community of love, that is, in the righteousness of God. Be co-creators with God of a world in which the justice of God, described in Isaiah, becomes a reality. And God will sanctify the community entirely, keeping us sound in body, soul, and spirit, because, as the epistle writer says, “the one who calls you is faithful, and will do this.”

As I said in my December newsletter article, our community of faith is sharing a common pregnancy during this Advent season. That means we have to change our everyday habits in response to the new life being formed in us, and begin to care for ourselves in ways we haven’t done before. Like Mary, we have to redefine ourselves in light of this new life. We can’t even envision what that means, but we don’t have to – we just need to go forward in faith, rejoicing in God our Savior.

On this Gaudete Sunday, we (meaning us individually and as a community) stop for a moment, and together magnify the Lord. That means we give God and God’s plan of salvation a bigger portion of our attention in our everyday lives. We choose to redefine ourselves in light of the new life God is forming in us, marveling as that life kicks around in us, and praying continually to keep ourselves open to the many surprising ways God will bring about the plan of salvation in and through us.

Let’s close by saying again the prayer from our candle-lighting service in the blue booklet:

Loving God, we open ourselves to you, trusting that this is how you made us: you created us for joy-filled hearts and lives. Show us the creative power of hope. Teach us the peace that comes from justice. Fill us with the kind of joy that cannot be contained, but must be shared. Prepare our hearts to be transformed by you, that we may walk in the light of Christ. Amen.

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