Biblical Text: Luke 1:26-38
Full Sermon Draft
We moved the Lectionary Readings up a week. Normally Advent 3 is John the Baptist 2, but our kid’s program is Advent 4, and skipping Mary for JB the sequel isn’t right.
This sermon starts out with the observation on the recent year of Bible movies and how they really just miss the boat. When you cast Batman and Maximus the Gladiator you are after action and conflict. Not that Bible stories are absent that, but for the faithful what appears like a leading man or woman is anything but. They are held in the divine passive. By faith God acts through them.
This is tied to the beatitude blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. That is the beatitude that is probably the most despised by the world. The only thing the meek get is abuse. Yet the bible puts forward Moses as the meekest man on the face of the earth (not a role for Christian Bale) and then you get Mary – most highly favored lady, in the words of the hymn The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came. It is meekness that makes way for God to act. And God acted in a might way through Mary bringing about the salvation of the world through the incarnation.
The application I tie this to is our general busy-ness, especially at Christmas. We are constantly casting ourselves as the action hero, not a meek role, and that casting leads to conflict. Mary response is not to jump into action but to ponder or to discern the greeting. And this greeting is not a dead letter, but echoes to another highly favored lady, the church. You have found grace. The Lord is with you. Rejoice, o daughter of Zion.
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A book published in 2005 called Soul Searching, followed up in 2009 with Souls in Transition, coined a phrase Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). The writers polled and interviewed thousands of Americans between the ages of 13 – 18 and then followed up with the 18 – 25 year olds. The results are a clear diagnoses of too much of the teaching within the church. The teachings of the church received by this cohort were: 1) a squishy system of right and wrong (moralistic), 2) making you feel better about yourself (therapeutic) and 3) don’t worry because the dues ex machina will make everything ok but only when you really need it, no personal messing with your life (deism). MTD is at the same time extremely adaptable and potent, and thin gruel. It also bears little resemblance to the God incarnated and revealed in Jesus Christ.
Kathleen Norris, writing about the annunciation, Mary’s visit by the angel Gabriel which we looked at in Bible Class recently, comments – “Modern believers tend to trust in therapy more than in mystery, a fact that tends to manifest itself in worship that employs the bland speech of pop psychology and self-help rather than language resonant with poetic meaning…the mystery of worship, which is God’s presence and our response to it, does not work [on demand].”
It is that presence of God that is really missing in MTD. The presence of God is something holy. It is the potential for salvation. It is the Baptist cry of repent. MTD and much of modern Protestantism has taken that word repent to a logical conclusion. If I say the right words, if I am truly sorry for these sins, God will wipe them away. That is true, but it misses parts of the word. There is a cloud of words used for repent in the new testament. They all have mental and emotional parts, but they all stem from words that mean turn: turn around, walk a different way, change yourself inside out. MTD never really asks you to change, to walk a different way. It seeks to comfort you as you are. That is spiritual death. It never asks you to change because it can’t, because you never meet a holy God – just that God from the machine that clears up messy spaces.
The God we find in a manger isn’t clean. He isn’t life’s janitor. Instead He came down to be a part of this ongoing mess. This ongoing mess we call life too often robs us of our ability to turn. It robs us of our eyes to see wonder and our ears to hear the angel’s “holy, holy, holy.” We end up like Zachariah being told about John the Baptist’s birth asking – “How do I know this is true?” instead of Mary’s simple wonder, “How can this be?” Mary’s knowing it was true and marveling at the message. Instead of that MTD god we keep at a distance, Christ came to us. And He comes to us with an offer – turn, see, hear, marvel at the works of God. The question of Christmas is if our hearts are virgin enough to say yes to what we can’t understand. Can we say yes to a God that is not at a distance, but all to close and knows our messy parts? Can we say yes to a God that offers salvation, and not just therapy?