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Bishop Kenneth Carter Bishop Kenneth Carter

The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Carter is Bishop of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, headquartered in Lakeland, FL.

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Call and Response

Luke 1:26-38,47-55

4th Sunday in Advent - Year B

December 18, 2011

These two passages from Luke's gospel, held together, provide a way of seeing the world of Mary, the reality of Christmas, the potential for our own spiritual lives.  The first verses, 26-38, are traditionally known as the Annunciation; the second portion of scripture is known as the Magnificat.  The first is the call of God.  The second is the human response.

It is no accident that Mary takes center stage this time of year.  Mary is venerated by some Christians, ignored by some Christians, and misunderstood by other Christians.  At times Catholics have transformed the peasant Jewish teenage girl into an otherworldly Queen.  At times Protestants and Evangelicals have pretended that she never existed, or they have missed the truth that she is the first disciple, that she displays radical faith and trust in God.

Mary hears the call of God and she responds.  She models faith, obedience, servanthood, discipleship, hospitality. 

The Annunciation is the word of God, through the messenger, to Mary.  You have found favor with God.  The power of the Holy Spirit will come upon you.  You will give birth to the Savior.

Mary asks, "How can this be?"

The angel/messenger said to her, "Nothing will be impossible with God."

The call of God is to an ordinary woman.  It is the call to do something extraordinary.  Nothing will be impossible with God.

There is a wonderful story about a man who was home with the children one afternoon while his wife went out Christmas shopping.  He was reclining on the couch, half sleeping, half watching a football game, when the kids came into the room.

"Dad, we have a play to put on?  Do you want to see it?"

He really didn't want to, but he knew he needed to, so he sat up, came out of his slumber, and became a one-man audience.

His four children, four, six, eight, ten years old, were the actors:  Mary, Joseph, and the wise men.  Joseph came in with a mop handle.  Mary came in with a pillowcase under her pajamas; another child was an angel, flapping her arms as wings.

Finally the last child, the eight year old, came out, with all of the jewelry on that she could find in the house, her arms filled with three presents.  "I am all three wise men," she said.  "I bring three precious gifts:  gold, circumstance, and mud."[1]

The father didn't laugh.  The father didn't correct the wise man.  The father reflected on the word that somehow got to the heart of the Christmas story:  God loves us for who we are, our gold--where we are at our best; our circumstances--where we might be even now, even our mud--where we are when we are most human.

God chose an ordinary human being--Mary--to be the vessel through which the Son of God would be born.  What is impossible for us is possible with God.  God can take our gold, our circumstance, our mud, and do something glorious with it.

This is the Annunciation, the disruptive call of God, for Mary, and, who knows, perhaps for you and me.

There is also within the gospel lessons a response, the Magnificat!  Mary says, "God has recognized the lowliness of his servant."  In other words, I am an ordinary person.  I am not perfect. 

There is an ancient story that comes from the part of the world that is so contested now, the Middle East.  A man was talking with a friend about his love life.  "I thought I had found the perfect woman," he said.  She was beautiful and had the most pleasing features a man could imagine.  She was exceptional in every way, except she had no knowledge.

So I traveled further, and met a woman who was both beautiful and intelligent.  But, alas, we could not communicate.  After further travels, I met a woman who had everything:  a perfect mind, perfect intelligence, great beauty, all the features I was looking for, but...

"What happened?" asked the friend who was listening.  "Why didn't you marry her at once?"  "Ah well," he replied, "as luck would have it, she was looking for the perfect man."[2]

The good news of the gospel is that when God begins to look for us, God is not looking for perfection.  God chooses the ordinary.  God loves the unlovable.  In fact, God reverses just about every expectation we might have of how God would enter into this world and save it.

We learn a great deal about the God of the Bible in these few verses of the Magnificat.  

I want to share these brief attributes of God and ask you to do a simple spiritual exercise.  Think of a dimension of God that is more comforting to you and also a facet of God that is most challenging to you.

  • God saves
  • God blesses
  • God does great things for us
  • God's name is Holy
  • God is merciful
  • God desires reverence
  • God is strong
  • God hates pride
  • God judges human leaders
  • God is on the side of the oppressed
  • God feeds the hungry
  • God helps those who serve him
  • God remembers
  • God keeps promises

The dimension of God that comforts you is your source of encouragement, and the aspect of God that challenges you is your "growing edge."  When God calls and when we respond, we move into the future in the knowledge that God is with us, but also that God is always asking us to do more than that which is in our power to do. 

All of this really is grounded in the nature of God.

  • Does God flatter the proud?  No, God scatters the proud.
  • Does God seek an invitation from the throne?  No, God brings those from thrones down and lifts up the lowly.
  • Does God hang out at the finest restaurant?  No, God throws a banquet for the poor.
  • Does God choose a queen or a princess to be the mother of Jesus?  No, God chooses Mary.
  • Does God choose the wise and the noble and the powerful in this world to accomplish his will?  No, God chooses you and me.
  • Does God love those who are lovable?  No. God loves the unlovable, God forgives the imperfect, God reaches out to the lost.

Christmas is really all about this attribute of God, who loves us, who reaches out, down to us, who "stoops to our weakness."  Mild he lays his glory by, Charles Wesley has it in the carol.[3]  God comes in the unspectacular and the humble.

That is what Christmas is all about.  As I grew up in South Georgia, our family had a wonderful gathering on Christmas Eve.  We were all together, my great grandmother, my grandparents, their three children, and the eight great-grandchildren.  Maybe we do tend to see the past through rose-colored glasses, but I remember those times as among my happiest moments on earth.  We were excited, euphoric, ecstatic. 

Years later, my grandparents and great grandmother moved into the city to be near hospitals and medical care.  After my great grandmother and grandfather died, my grandmother decided that she wanted to move back home.  And so the house was refurbished.  I was in college by now and walking back into it, I could not believe how small it was.  We painted it, we cleaned it out, and I wondered:  How did the thirteen of us fit into that room?  And then I would look at pictures of those gatherings, and I would see the cinder block walls--it really was a very simple house--and I would look at the Christmas tree--a small or perhaps medium-size Georgia pine tree, not like the ones many of us put up now in our homes.  What was happening in those gatherings?

And it all becomes clear again.  What made such a setting--simple, nothing grand or extravagant about it--what made such a setting one of the very places on earth that is most holy to me, now?

The clue is in the call of God to Mary and her response.

  --God chooses the simple to confound the wise.

  --God chooses the humble to shame the strong.

  --God always chooses the ordinary to do something extraordinary.

What is impossible for us is possible for God.

In a stable, probably more like a cave, on a hillside in the country, out of the way, a baby was born to two scared young people.  They had no gold to offer, only the circumstance of their lives.  They heard the call of God, each in their own ways.  And they responded in faith.

Christmas, for us, twenty-plus centuries later, is no different.

If we really hear the gospel, if we truly perceive the voice of the One who calls us, there is encouragement--you have found favor with God--but there is also a growing edge, and that is to reflect in our own lives the very nature of God:

  • to save
  • to bless
  • to do great things for God
  • to make God's name Holy
  • to be merciful
  • to be reverent
  • to be strong
  • to put away pride
  • to place our leadership under the judgment of God
  • to remember that God is on the side of the oppressed
  • to feed the hungry
  • to serve, and
  • to do all of this in remembrance of him

So, what is God saying to you this Christmas?  And what are you saying to God? 

What is impossible for us is possible for God.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Amen.


[1] James Moore, Won't You Let Him In?  An Advent Study For Adults, page 30.

[2] Todd Outcalt, Candles In The Dark, page 225.

[3] The United Methodist Hymnal, pages 500, 240.

 


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