Saying YES to God’s Possibilities

Sermon Preached on Sunday, December 23 – Advent IV
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

Micah 5:2-5a
Canticle 15
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

Saying YES to God’s Possibilities

Time is a mess this Advent, everything is backwards. We have gone from two weeks of hearing from our prophet John on the shores of the Jordan, to this week’s meeting between Elizabeth and Mary – when John leaps in his mother’s womb with joy to greet Jesus, before John and Jesus have even been born.

Obviously, the lectionary isn’t interested in telling the story chronologically. Which can be confusing for us – because we are so beholden to linear time. The point I think is to have us paying attention to other things, more important things – even in this season when we are utterly obsessed with time (or the lack of it).

With today’s Gospel, we are thrown backwards in the narrative time line, without warning or special flashback effects, and it’s unsettling to our linear time instincts. It’s disruptive to our sense of episodic narrative and history, our understanding of cause and effect; and feeling a little unsettled works to our advantage in a way, helping us hear the story more authentically.

We know this story; it’s driven a great deal of Western history, and influenced culture, art, music, and literature for 2000 years. So it can be a challenge for us to hear it and understand how disruptive it truly is at its core. A complete upheaval of power is taking place – a cataclysmic change from the world’s powers to God’s kingdom, God is overturning all that is, for all that will be with God. And God acts through completely powerless people, in unconventional, extraordinary ways. Which is the way God works, that’s the pattern of God’s saving action again and again, but the disproportionate scale involved here is astonishing.

The most important moment of our salvation depends on – a young unwed girl, and an older, long barren woman, could there be two people lower on the totem pole of society? Then or even now? What does this mean? That God acts through the people you would least expect – including us. It means that everyone counts; everyone is invited to be part of the plan of salvation. Not only is everyone included in God’s kingdom – as John says, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” But God invites even the least of us, to be part of God’s plan of salvation; part of bringing that plan into being. For all. We all get a choice – we get the chance to say yes. When we do, we aren’t guaranteed that the way will be smooth – just that it will matter. Mary’s road is not an easy one, but her role in our salvation is pivotal, her YES makes everything else possible.

When you think of it, we all give our lives to something – either intentionally or otherwise. Mary gets the opportunity to do so intentionally, to say YES to God and God’s mission; so do we, in our own way. Have you taken the time to listen to what God is calling you to say YES to in your life of late?

When we say yes to God’s invitation, it’s worth our life. More so than so much of what we give our lives to otherwise. When God invites us to serve God’s mission, whether in subtle ways: creating beauty, preserving creation, sharing our knowledge and skills with those who are in need of them; or in more dramatic ways: feeding the hungry, righting injustice, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the stranger, tending to those who are sick, in prison, dying, lonely; these acts are worth our time and our lives.

These are chances to open up to greater joy, a deeper appreciation for the gifts of the spirit, to the dignity of others, to the depths of our own hearts, and to our need for others and what we gain from them; which is greater than what we give. If God is inviting you to new possibilities – say yes to this offer of life and love abundant in your own life, yes to becoming part of God’s salvation for all. And make it possible for others to do the same in theirs. After all, this is a two-part story of possibility and empowerment; Elizabeth is instrumental in all that happens.

Our Gospel reading feels a little disjointed because I chose to add the verses immediately preceding the text assigned for today. It seemed important to include Mary being confronted by the angel and being invited to be part of this wild and amazing plan of God’s. In the assigned text for Advent 4 we have the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, with the optional verses that follow, those of our Canticle, Mary’s response to all of this – Mary’s song.

Together, these verses tell the story of the annunciation – God’s ask of Mary, and the evolution of Mary’s response. Before Mary sings of all that God has done and is now fulfilling in this child she is carrying – she wasn’t as sure about all of this. When the angel arrived and told Mary about the plan, Mary was understandably confused and afraid. Eventually, she says yes, though it’s a subdued sort of yes: “Let it be with me according to your word.”

It’s only after Mary goes to see Elizabeth, her relative, her confidant, someone who knows her and loves her, that Mary is comforted and empowered. Elizabeth gives Mary the support she needs to put it all in perspective, to understand fully that she, Mary, is highly favored by God.¹

Elizabeth’s joy stirs Mary to sing out her song of praise and promise – God’s love for us is being made complete, through this child she is carrying. God is scattering the proud, and filling the hungry with good things and turning the world upside down; everything is going to be different now that this child, Jesus, is coming into the world. God’s own son is given to the world, because of this favored one, Mary – who can rejoice and sing, whose heart glorifies the Lord, because of Elizabeth’s love and support. Elizabeth, who also embraces the opportunity to play a role in the possibilities of God, in the making of all things new God is doing in their midst. Through Mary and Elizabeth’s faith and courage, and supported by the depth of their relationship, God’s love for the world will be born, becoming real and particular and vulnerable – fully human, and part of this human family. These two women help make it all possible. Christ will be born to save humanity, as Barbara Crafton says, “born in the ‘splendor of love, love that makes us better than we were.”²

Whether our role seems large or small, we are being asked to play our part in this mission of God – to turn the world upside down, from what it is, to what God would have it be. To continue to fulfill the promises of God for all people, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and participate in the salvation of God’s beloved.

What is God asking of you? What are the possibilities of God within you? Are you willing to say YES? Investing in this YES is worthy of your time and life. What are the possibilities of God in others around you? How can you support, empower, and nurture them to embrace their possibilities as well?

Advent calls us to pay attention, to prepare again for this love being born for us, to receive it anew in our hearts. The ultimate fulfillment of the promises of God, embodied for us, given to us. Through ordinary courageous people who said yes, and who supported the possibilities of God in each other.

Elizabeth said to Mary: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary responded, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

My friends, we are the unlikely ordinary people through whom God acts now. May we be blessed by opportunities to participate in the fulfillment of God’s promises, and encouraged and supported to say YES; may our souls magnify the Lord, and our spirits rejoice in God, our Savior. Amen.

[1] Loved this particular angle and first read it in a sermon, “You are highly favored,” by Robb McCoy, preached in December 2011.

[2] Barbara Crafton, from Let Every Heart Prepare, 35.