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angels aren't what you think

sermon--Luke 1:26-38

Baruch attah adonai elohenu melech ha-olam. Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of all possibilities.
* * *
Things are not as they seem.
Take angels, for example. What do you think of?
Sure, there’s the host singing in the account from Matthew, but “host” is the usual translation from the Hebrew word for “army.” When we call God the Lord of Hosts, we’re talking about a general at the head of a powerful army who can wipe our enemies—or us—out.

Not so pretty.
How many of you thought of something like this:

Or this:

How many of you thought of something like this:

Or this:

Or even this:

Yeah, no offense to our lovely friend down here by the altar, but it seems likely that angels don’t look like that. They have flaming swords to bar us from going back to Eden and they keep company with seraphim who are made up entirely of eyes and wings and they say things like “do not be afraid” when they show up—which suggests to me that they’re terrifying. Doesn’t mean they’re not beautiful, of course—there’s an awe to some kinds of beauty—but they’re not cute, they’re not pretty and softly-flowing, and they’re not as they seem.
The same can be said of Mother Mary. What do you think of when you think of the mother of Jesus? Something like this:

Or maybe something like this:

Or this:

That’s Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers’ Movement and an advocate for justice.
Mary’s not what she seems either. For one thing, we don’t talk much about whether she had a choice when Gabriel showed up to tell her she was going to be the Mother of God. I suppose there might be a theological hair-split here, one that Larry and I seem to delight in arguing about—when God asks, is there really a choice? But it seems to me that we do. Pretty much every time the prophets were called by God to be prophets, they objected—“I’m too young” or “I can’t do that,” Jonah actually ran away—but then they finally said “yes.” Suggests to me that God’s argument is strong, as it ought to be, but that they could have said “no.” Opens up the story a bit if you consider that Mary could have said “no.”
But more than that, think about the bit we didn’t read today, the bit that follow’s Mary’s “yes”—I guess you can’t do that, since we didn’t read it. Here, let me. After Mary says “let it be with me according to your word” she says:
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

Wow, does that sound like the prophets to anyone else? I’ve always wondered if Mary had a bit of prophecy in her, a bit of fire and brimstone for us wayward sinners who reject God’s justice and mercy… and there’s some proof to back me up in that.
Basically, in scripture, there are different types of writing—songs, histories, law books, letters, etc. And there are what you’d call forms that they follow, like a business letter. There’s a form for the announcement of a miraculous birth—like to Mary, right? And to Abraham’s wife Sarai and to Hannah and several others, all of whom were too old or couldn’t have children. There’s another form for when someone is called to be a prophet—Gideon and Jeremiah and Isaiah among others.
And, here’s where it gets weird—Mary’s conversation with Gabriel fits the call story for a prophet better than it fits the announcement of miraculous birth. Crazy, right?
Or maybe not. Things here just aren’t what they seem. The angel is otherworldly and scary, Mary meek and mild speaks with authority of the proud and the rich—us, maybe?—being brought low and the poor and downtrodden given every gift. For goodness sake, Jesus is God in human form, God who gestated in the womb of a woman and born crying in a dirty stable—seriously? Everything is different than we expect, and Jesus himself is different than we expect. The only thing you could change to make it blindingly obvious that something is up is if Jesus had been a girl. Too much? Well, you get my point—things are not what they seem.
And as we hustle about this last week before Christmas, it’s tempting to assume things are exactly what they seem. That the way we do things here—at Good Shepherd or in America or on the planet Earth, for that matter—are the way things are done. Or that the advertisements and the culture are correct that we need to spend more than we already are on our loved ones’ gifts, that those gifts will make clear the love we feel for them. That Jesus is a cute, squirmy baby who’s come to save us all. That last one is true, but only as far as it goes. It doesn’t deal with that cute baby’s diapers or that salvation comes free but not cheap. And Jesus doesn’t come to affirm everything we already think, either.
Do you see what I’m saying here? This Jesus we’re waiting for, who we’re excited about, makes all things new—and that’s a comfort and a threat both. Like every baby is—a delightful little bundle of joy and a complicated bundle of possibility. Mary is pregnant with Jesus—a week away from giving birth. To be honest, she’s enormous and ready for this baby to be here already. But he’s not yet, not quite yet… And, in some way, we’re all pregnant with possibility. “…14th-century German mystic Meister Eckhart…wrote: ‘What is the good if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 2000 years ago, if I do not give birth to God today? We are all Mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.’”* If we are not preparing for Jesus by—I don’t know—reading scripture or praying for our enemies or working on what’s holding us back from forgiving someone—then nothing changes for us. Well, maybe something changes—God works in mysterious ways, after all, and it’s not about our righteousness. It’s about God’s desire for us and God’s desire to be with us. It won’t look like what you think, but don’t you want to get ready for that? Don’t you want to be part of that new thing that’s coming next Sunday? Don’t you want to be part of the excitement and the challenge of living like God’s right here? Because Jesus, Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Emmanuel which means God is With Us is with us. Now. And next Sunday.
May our souls magnify the Lord.
May our spirits rejoice in God our Savior.
For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of us his servants.
May we be called blessed for the mighty things God does and for our saying “yes.”

* Quoted from“let-it-be”-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-for-the-4th-sunday-of-advent/ (accessed 1:15pm, 12.13.11)