There are weeks and then there are weeks. If you are visiting this morning and find yourself in the midst of an emotional group of people, we are usually good old southern Episcopalians. We normally keep our emotions in check. You just find us in a difficult place this week. My plan had been to finish up teaching us how to live lives reflective of our self-designation as Adventers and then to transition us toward Christmas. The phone call from our Mary Wednesday changed all that. If you have not heard, though I expect that via electronic means or phone calls every one has heard, David Kline was killed Wednesday morning as he was trying to help a motorist. This was an odd year in the sense that Advent 4 and Christmas Eve were the same day, a liturgical event that happens only when Christmas falls on a Monday. That causes all kinds of stress for Altar Guilds and Flower Guilds and clergy. Toss in an unexpected death, and you have a recipe for a real mess.
Of course, God specializes in redemption and cleaning up real messes. He may not do it the way we want, but He is always working to redeem all things. Though David’s death was untimely by our standards, God is already using his death to provoke some deep conversations. Both Adventers and those who knew David have been struggling with the deep questions of faith. How can a good God let something like this happen? Now of all times? Where was God when David really needed Him? David’s death ruins Christmas for me, I can only imagine what it does to Mary. Why would God allow this? I know you preached this season that we need to be prepared to meet God any moment, but really? This? And so this sermon and all our teachings for the next few weeks will likely have an urgency. None of us when we left last Sunday expected any of us to be killed like that. Yet as a pastor, I can think of few others better prepared to have met God this week than our brother David.
The oft-repeated description about David this week has been the recognition that he and Mary lived their lives as if they truly believed the Gospel. It’s not only Adventers who noticed this, but even friends and acquaintances who claim to have no faith of their own. And that, my brothers and sisters, is an incredible testimony! Would that when we all passed, our friends and neighbors would say of each of us that we lived our lived as if we believed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
I will, of course, speak more to David’s life and death and faith at his funeral, but today I will endeavor to prepare each one of us just a bit better, so that we might live lives that reflect gloriously on our Lord and draw others into His saving embrace. Forgive me if I have an edge to my urgency, particularly if you are visiting. I have simply had it hammered home this week the urgency of our work and need for discipling.
I joked a bit last week at the first service that lady Adventers needed to keep Mary’s story foremost in their minds when friends in other denominations call women the root of evil. We have all heard the claim that there would be no evil, were it not for the poor choice of Eve. Ignore for a moment the fact that Adam was responsible for instructing her and that he was present when she ate of the fruit. If you buy into the idea that Eve was the source of the Fall, then you need to be giving Mary credit for the redemption of humankind. Just as Eve chooses unwisely, Mary chooses wisely. What was undone in Eve’s choice is redeemed in Mary’s. So, my sisters especially, keep that knowledge in your quiver when you are facing some unthoughtful Christians.
Mary’s story today, though, is informative for other reasons. Not only does Mary teach us how we should view women, but she teaches how we should view all human beings, including ourselves. And there are four lessons I would like us to remember from our reading about Mary. Hopefully, they will be easier for us to remember than the four marks of mission in the diocese that the bishop shared with us three weeks ago.
First, what is the greeting of the angel given to Mary? She is favored. In this greeting, we are revealed a couple important characteristics about God. He favors a young woman, tradition says a teenager. I don’t know about you all, but I don’t know that my mother or father would have described me as favored as a teenager. I had a mouth. I was certain I knew it all. And I was not afraid to share how much I knew! I see some chuckling, so I must have had some spiritual twins out there. Many of you out there were also parents. Tell me, as your children reached those wonderful teenage years, was favored the first word that came to your mind as you dealt with attitude, with interpersonal relationships, with “I hate you’s,” and everything else that comes with those difficult years? Yet here is God revealing that He favors Mary.
We learn another bit about God’s characteristics, too, in this story. Is Mary out searching for God? Are we told that Mary was out looking for a sign from God or an encounter with the angel Gabriel? Of course not. She was going about her life, living day to day as most of us live, when, presumably, the angel appeared to her and gave her that amazing choice! In a way, God’s seeking of Mary is typological of His seeking of all of us. One of the overarching themes of Scripture is that of God as a shepherd. He is a prototypical shepherd, though, in that He seeks after the lost sheep. Over and over again, we are reminded that God leaves the flock to go in search of the lost sheep. Since each one of us was lost at some point, we have, to one degree or another, experienced this side of God. He searches for each of us in the brambles and crevasses and desert canyons of life.
To the extent that we are now His adopted sons and daughters, we should be reflecting the characteristics of our Father in heaven. That means we favor others. When we look on others we do not judge them as the world sees them. We go after the lost sheep recognizing that God favors them every bit as much as He favors us. And, as God reveals in His approach of this teenage girl, we are called to favor even those whom society would choose to ignore or disparage. It part and parcel of why we feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit the lonely, speak out when a slave is wrongly imprisoned, teach ESL, send missionaries to lands to hear the Gospel, and any other number of ministries we undertake in His name. But, we even go after those who are like ourselves, recognizing that they, too, like us, need to know they are favored and loved by God.
The second lesson of Mary’s response is one of confusion. When God shows up, how do we typically respond? Put differently, does God show up in the places, in the events, in the way, and in the times we expect Him? Or does He seem to be about His own plan? Much hay was made a couple weeks ago about my effort on behalf of Cyntoia. A lot of people wanted to believe I had this incredible plan or vision for working for survivors and victims of modern slavery. I wish. I had to disabuse them of that notion quickly. You all know me. In many ways I’m unremarkable. I know I’m eye candy, but I’m not like on the level of Brad Pitt or whatever hunk is garnering the ladies’ attention these days. I know I’m funny, but I don’t quite rise to the level of a Jim Gaffigan or Robin Williams, though I am an Episcopalian like the latter. Why are you all chuckling? I’m no Rockefeller, but I am certainly rich . . . scratch that, y’all get the point. I had to share that with people. Had I known everything that would come from visiting that alleged location of slave trading, would I have gone through with it? I don’t think so. Heck, I’m pretty certain that, had God shared everything about my ministry prior to my willingness to seek ordination, I would have pulled a Jonah and run away. But in those feelings, I am just like you. Sure, we all want to believe that we would run headlong into what God tells us, but let’s be honest. Most of us are stunned when He shows up. Most of us are shocked when God begins redeeming.
Take this week and David. How many of us discovered that on a fundamental level we were not prepared to meet God were He to return this moment? More frightening, how many of our loved ones would be unprepared at His return? Yet, David’s death is already being used by God to cause some of these hard conversations to take place. Repeatedly, I heard “I know you think I’m a strong Christian, Father, but . . .” followed by a string of doubts or confusion. Far too many times I can count, I heard “All I can think about, Father, is what if it was ________ or _________. I’m not sure they really believe. I’m not sure I did a good job raising them to understand the importance of a saving faith in God.” Those questions cannot happen unless God is present, redeeming, seeking, loving. And as I have pointed out this early redemption in our midst, how have Adventers responded? A bit confused, as was our Lord’s mother, Mary.
The third characteristic I want you to take away from Mary’s response is her doubt. I get a kick this time of year when the world tries to explain that Jesus could not have been born of a virgin, as if that would be tougher than being raised from the dead. One of my favorite excuses is the supposed advancement of our understanding about sex. We like to pretend that we are so much more advanced than those who came before us. There is no way that Mary could have conceived a child without a sperm, so being a virgin in those days was not what we understand it to be today? Really? Both Mary and Joseph seem to understand the implication of her getting pregnant without having sex well enough. They may not have understood sperms and eggs and details like that, but they understood sex and where babies come from. Mary wonders how this can happen since she has not had sex with anyone yet? To her teenage mind, as much as our, such is not possible! So she questions the claim of the angel.
Unlike Zechariah who a few verses earlier rejected the angel’s message about fathering the one who would proclaim the arrival of Messiah, How can I be sure of this, Mary wonders how these events can happen given her understanding of how they happen. I know. Good Christians are not supposed to question anything. Everything is a part of God’s plan, right? Hogwash! I’d use stronger words, but there are gentle ears among us. Hogwash! Who really thinks God intended for David to die Wednesday morning? What kind of sick God would we be worshiping if He was sitting up there in heaven planning for David to die, visiting trauma upon his family and friends and fellow Adventers, giving a truck and car and other car driver a nice dose of survivor guilt, taking away from us a voice that spoke to the need of change and the need to bring the whole flock, and, oh yeah, removing from the lives of so many people a man who lived his faith as if he believed the Gospel? God does not plan evil for us. God does not sharpen a lightning bolt up there and say “watch this!” with an evil laugh. He loves us; He regards us; He seeks us; and He redeems us. We make the messes; He just cleans them up! What people intend for evil; God uses for His good purposes. There’s a huge difference in that understanding and the idea that He plans evil for us.
Nowhere, though, does He criticize us for questioning. As I have engaged in conversation after conversation this week, I hope no one has heard condemnation in my voice. I have not intended it; and I do not think God wanted you to feel it. Over and over I tell Adventers to join Robert and Jim in their wrestling with faith group. I don’t do it to sabotage you. I’m not one of those sickos who argue that God placed dinosaur bones in rocks to test our faith, like we need help failing or like He desires any of us to fail. He’s a loving Father. He created us with brains. We are encouraged to question; we are encouraged to wonder. And even when we doubt, as did Zechariah, does He give up on us? No, He favors and seeks and woos us! Make no mistake: Nothing will be impossible with God! But God seems to be quite accepting of our wonder and questions. God understands our doubts, and works to overcome them.
Finally, the fourth and last characteristic displayed by Mary is her obedience. Mary is allowed to doubt and to question, but the time comes for a decision. God has incredible patience with us until that moment in our own lives. I wonder how long the angel had to wait for Mary’s response? All of salvation history had been building to this point, and yet God was entrusting a young girl to be the bearer of the Savior. She knew some of the cost. What would Joseph say? What will my family say? What will my friends say? Would she have assented had she known that He would have to die horribly on the Cross to complete God’s plan of salvation? Only God knows. In the end, though, when push came to shove, she trusted in God and His redemptive purposes, and agreed to do as He asked.
You and I often face similar decisions in our lives. God places people or ministries in front of us or in our heads. We doubt our ability or expertise. We doubt our eloquence or worthiness. We question His wisdom in choosing us or doing His work in a certain way. In the end, though, all disciples reach a decision point like Mary. Are we His servants, trusting He will accomplish His purposes in our lives through us and even despite us; or do we serve someone or something else? There is, in the end, only one choice that leads to salvation and life. All others lead us away from Him.
In these four characteristics, Mary outlines an Adventer faith. True, her faith made it possible for the Incarnation to happen, but our faith responses can, in the end, be no less remarkable, in a sense no less God-bearing. We are Adventers. We claim to be about the job of sentinels, of watchmen, of those reminding Christians and the world around us that our Lord will return again one day in power and in great glory. Until that moment happens, we are free to wrestle, to question, to doubt, and to worry. But we are also called to make a decision. Do we think His promise true? Are all things possible with God? David’s life and death caused others to take notice. When unbelievers remark on similarities between our lives and our faith, we have accomplished something truly glorious for the world. When the unchurched notice us working on behalf of those who can never repay us, they begin to understand the favor with which we are all viewed by God. When we begin to wrestle and then respond in faith, and celebrate the redemptive victories of God in our life, then the world and the Church begins to realize the dark wilderness in which we minister and the source of the light and hope within us. We become, in a marvelous way, God-bearers for them, pointing them to the way of light and life in Christ our Lord, and of the joy and blessedness that really accompanies what we will remember tonight.
As we begin to leave this season and enter into that first coming of our Lord, I pray that we all begin to demonstrate those characteristics embodied by Mary. I pray that we encounter this Babe in a manger with fresh eyes, with fresh purpose, and with renewed hearts. I pray that we engage others as we sprint towards this wondrous event, with regard and willingness to accept their doubts and questions as opportunities to share with them the source of our own Light. And I pray that, through our obedience, He will be glorified again and again and again in the world, a world that, as the events of this last week reminded us, is so in need of His saving grace.
In Christ’s Peace,