Today we are entering the season of advent. It is a time in the church and outside the church when get to the work of preparing for something that we know is coming. Or rather preparing for someone that we know is coming. We know when he is coming, we know how he is coming, we even at this point know why he is coming…
Yet still in this season, we return to old stories, and we try to focus on the world before Jesus came. We sing come thou long-expected Jesus… and then try to act surprise when the long expected Jesus arrives just as expected.
Instead I think the purpose of this season, the purpose of looking back at the same stories is something completely different.
We look back to the Old testament and we see how all of the stories are pointing to Christ but we forget the process. We forget people’s longing for redemption and the hope they found in prophesies of a coming messiah. We look back at Elizabeth and Zechariah and we assume their story is about their Son, John the Baptist, who will prophesy and point people to Christ. But we forget to listen to their story, how God was acting in their lives, we forget the outrageous joy they felt when they discovered Elizabeth was pregnant.
We begin to set up our nativities with Mary and Joseph and debate whether or not to go ahead and put Jesus in, and we just go ahead and do it, because thats the reason for the season…
But we forget the process and the stories that led to Jesus arriving in a manger.Advent is an easy season for us to skip over. It is a season about preparation. It is a season about lingering in the moments…And for modern day, busy body Christians it is easy to just want to get to the point. We expect Jesus to come, We know why he’s coming, we know when he’s coming… so let’s just get there already.
But this is the wrong way to think about advent, when we think and live this way, we miss the whole message of this season.
God is not long expected.
God is long un-expected.
God is never where you expect God to be.
God shows up not in the storm, but in the still small voice…
God isn’t born in a castle, not even in a hotel room, God shows up in the slop bin of the pig sty. God is unpredictable, and this is the season, where we attempt to attempt to discover where this unpredictable God of ours is acting in our world.
So this advent in worship, we are going to focus on watching for God in the journey, We are going to attempt to not jump ahead to the end, but to pause, and listen for God in the now.
And to do this, you may have already guessed from our Cover art, we are going to focus on Mary… we will pause over her journey, her song, and her process of seeing what our unpredictable God was doing in her life. And we will explore how she was able to move from fear, confusion, and questioning to somehow trusting God’s plan.
Traditionally, we see Mary and think, here is the round yon virgin, the quiet, obedient, trusting holy mother of Jesus. We skip to Jesus and we completely overlook what God was doing in her life. We disregard Mary, the unexpectedly pregnant preteen who had no idea what would become of her life, in becoming pregnant, would Joseph leave her? Would she be stoned for cheating on him? What would her parents think?!
We skip right past Mary… the girl who finds herself suddenly in the presence of a messenger of God, An angel who is telling her that the real reason she’s been nauseous every morning is actually a blessing from God, and that this “blessing” is the messiah they hoped for.
We will try in this season to not skip ahead to Jesus but to linger in Mary’s process. To journey with her in her long drawn out nine months of pregnancy, but instead we will try to meet her in the reality of her life.
And maybe somewhere in the midst of exploring Mary’s story, we can distill some ways that we can look for God working in our journey.
But we are not there yet. Today, we find ourselves in the beginning of Mary’s story where God sends an angel with a message to nowheresville Galilee, this village called Nazareth, to meet a young teenager named Mary.
When we normally read this story, we get caught up in the nuances of Mary’s virginity, We bring all sorts of theology into the conversation, and get lost in the questions How could a young girl conceive a child from the Holy Spirit? How could a broken human being give birth to God? Was she perpetually a virgin?
Perhaps your gears are already turning with great questions, but as much as I’d love to go there and have that conversation, I am going to invite you to put those questions to the side today because what I am really drawn to in this scripture is Mary’s skill at listening.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to you, but one point along my path towards a career in ministry was a summer that I spent working as a camp counselor…
That summer I learned SO many skills that I still use daily in the church. But there was one training activity we did at the beginning of summer that still stands out to me today, in part because its a skill I continue to use daily, but also because the activity was a total challenge.
It was simple enough that you could easily recreate it at home. It worked like this. Our leaders divided our group into pairs and sent each of us off together for two hours.
And our only instructions for this set aside time were that we would spend those two hours talking about ourselves, to have a conversation.
BUT for the first hour one partner would do all the talking, and the other partner would only be allowed to listen.
We were told to have a conversation
BUT only one person was allowed to talk.
And after an hour, the dinner bell would ring across camp and we would have to switch. The talker would be quiet and listen, and the listening partner would start talking.
As you might already be imagining for yourselves, this activity was a challenge for everyone there. For the introverts the prospect of spending an hour as the only person speaking was a nightmare… And for the extroverts, the idea of a whole hour spent with another person where you were required to be silent was absolutely terrifying.
So we broke off, and as one of the introverts in the group, as someone who was daunted at the prospect of speaking for an hour… I was amazed at how quickly the two hours flew by. I was amazed at how many stories and details bubbled up when I had so much time to talk.
But more importantly, I was amazed at how much back and forth we were able to have in our conversation even though my partner wasn’t speaking at all. My partner would be talking about her childhood, and I could lean forward in my seat and put my hands to my chin to show that I was interested. My partner would say why she broke up with her boyfriend, and I could furrow my brow and shake my head to communicate that I was confused, and needed some clarification.
I could see why our leaders thought this activity was important for counseling kids. It not only showed us how important our body language is, how much we communicate without saying anything.. but it showed us just how much you have to focus in order to actually listen to someone, We learned that actively listening to another person takes a whole lot of work and in order to really hear them, you have to quiet yourself down. In order to really deeply listen, you have to let go of your own internal dialogue, let go of needing to be heard yourself, and just meet the person where they are with your full attention.
I think this was something that Mary was particularly good at. Remember, she had no idea of what God was up to. She is a young woman, making plans for her life, getting ready to be married, and dreaming about the possibilities of what that could mean for her when all of the sudden, a totally unexpected message from God comes into her life and shakes everything up.
The angel speaks in almost every verse of our scripture for today, and Mary, as far as we know, all the way until the last verse is silent.
Maybe it is because she is scared half to death,
An angel appears and tells her to rejoice because “The Lord is with her” and she is naturally completely terrified. This totally throws a wrench in all of her planning, “wait… I am pregnant?” WHAT?!”
Now I have never been a teenage girl, I have also never found out that I am growing a child inside of me, and I have definitely not learned that my child is coming to save the world. But I am sure if I were in her shoes, I would probably react in two ways.. fight or flight. I would either get so shocked by this statement that I would argue against it, or I would ignore it completely.
But not Mary.
Whatever Mary’s gut reaction is, she doesn’t let on so easily.
She is obviously shaken up by this encounter, but as quickly as the next verb of the same sentence, Mary is described as wondering about what is going on.
A messenger appears, it disrupts her life, and instead of fighting it, or running away from it, Mary asks curiously… what is going on here? She starts to pay attention. She starts to actively listen to what God was up to in that moment of her life.
To me, this is what this season is supposed to be about. It is a time that we have purposefully built into calendar each year. Four weeks where we welcome disruption from our day to day routines.
Four weeks for us to resist fast forwarding to the predictable long-expected Jesus and instead actively listen for the messengers God is putting in our lives.
Four weeks for us to linger over stories about that are telling us how Christ is still coming into our world unexpectedly.
It is tempting to jump ahead to the end.
To make guesses at how God will ultimately bring peace, hope, love, and joy into our world. But instead, over the next four weeks of advent, let’s hear Mary’s song. Let’s take this as a time to be set a part, to quiet the inner monologue of our life, and let’s lean forward, to pay attention to how God sees our world and to listen for how Christ may be entering our lives.
I’d like to close with a poem that I’ve adapted slightly from a poem by Ann Weems.
It is called
The Coming of God
Our God is the One who comes to us
in a burning bush
in an angel’s song,
in a newborn child.
Our God is the One who cannot BE found
Locked in the church
not even in the sanctuary.
Our God will be where God will be
with no constraints,
Our God lives where our God lives,
and destruction has no power
and even death cannot stop
Our God will be born where God will be born,
but there is no place to look for the one who comes to us
When God is ready
God will come
Even to a Godforsaken place
Like a stable in Bethlehem
For you know not when God comes.
Listen, that you might be found