Abundant Life is Messy
The Rev. Robert P. Travis
4th Sunday of Advent Sermon – 8:00 and 10:30am
Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Advent 4 Year B 12/18/2011
Scripture Text: 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16, Canticle 15 (Magnificat) Luke 1:46-55, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38
So the disadvantage of being blessed to serve in a parish
with many gifted preachers,
is that I get to start my preaching in Advent,
at the very end of the season,
following a particularly powerful, spirit-filled Sermon by our deacon,
and to top it all off,
I get to try to talk about a mystery.
It strikes me as kind of messy.
How does one talk about, much less explain,
One of the strengths of our tradition,
and one that keeps us from appealing to a much
wider group of people,
people who want things explained in neat easy answers,
what’s different about us,
is that we are apparently comfortable
living in tension,
and celebrating the mysteries of faith
without trying to explain them too much, for fear
that we might be wrong,
or somehow diminish the spiritual depth of the mystery.
Today, with the annunciation to the virgin Mary,
we get to ponder one of the great mysteries of the faith,
as we prepare for that even greater mystery,
But in pondering it, I'm going to challenge you,
to make this more than an intellectual exercise.
Because the danger we fall into, in celebrating mystery,
is leaving our faith in our heads,
and not letting it get into our hearts.
God wants to get into our hearts,
and into our lives,
God wants to be among us in the flesh,
but in order to do that he has to dwell in us,
in our flesh.
And while that is a great mystery,
which refuses our best attempts at explanation or excuse,
it is more important to experience it,
than explain it.
So let me tell you a story that strikes at the heart.
A friend of mine used to be a Methodist,
and he was at an event where they were discussing,
the beliefs held in common,
or at least supposed to be held in common by Methodists,
as described in their Book of Discipline.
They did an exercise that some of you here did,
when we recently had discussions
about controversial subjects.
You may then remember,
that we stood up in the parish hall,
and the leader asked us to stand
on either side of the room,
based on our agreement or disagreement with
some trivial or controversial subjects.
We shuffled back and forth over issues like,
High Church or Low Church,
Amazing Grace or Lift High The Cross,
and yes or no to capital punishment.
Well they did this with the Book of Discipline
at this Methodist Church my friend went to.
And they got to the place where they were asked
where they stood on the issue of Abortion.
On one side of the room was pro-choice,
and the other side was pro-life,
which, incidentally, was the stance described
in the book.
There was one lady there who
had been squarely on the side of the book of discipline, for all the other issues. But had noticeably changed sides here. She offered to share
why she was now on the side
that differed from the shared belief.
If you had asked me four years ago, this same question,
I would have been over there,
saying Abortion is
in all instances wrong.
“But three years ago there was a young woman
in our church, who got pregnant,
and was told by her doctor,
that if she carried the baby to term,
very likely she and the baby would die.
Because of her beliefs,
she decided to carry the baby to term,
and both she and the baby died.
I think that was wrong, and I miss her terribly.
Now I find myself standing over here,
disagreeing with the accepted belief,
because when you put flesh on your beliefs,
they become more difficult to bear.”
I tell you this not to advocate for or against her position, but because I want you to hear what she said:
“when you put flesh on your beliefs
they become more difficult to bear.”
That is what was going on with the virgin Mary back then,
that we recall today,
what is about to happen as we celebrate the incarnation,
and what God is doing in each of our hearts.
God constantly challenges us to put flesh on our beliefs,
and bear the difficulty with rejoicing,
God calls it, abundant life.
Abundant life is messy,
real life is messy,
God's plan to become one of us is messy.
And refuses to be cleaned up or sterilized,
in spite of our best efforts.
That's something of what is going on on the passage
from 2nd Samuel.
The great King David seems to feel guilty
That God has given him such success,
and while David lives in a lavish house,
God still dwells in a tent among the people.
But God refuses to let David make a temple for Him.
God chooses to continue to dwell
in the midst of God's people.
God will make David a house,
an everlasting house, by sending his Son,
to establish David's throne forever.
That is a lot more messy,
Than what David had in mind.
Abundant life is what is happening to Mary.
A virgin girl, engaged but not married.
A faithful Jew, who was looking forward to the
and probably never imagined
that He would come through her.
Then an angel visits her,
not nearly the peaceful scene that so many artists
have tried to depict,
but according to scripture,
always a terrifying prospect,
since the Angels always have to say,
“Don't be afraid.”
Mary starts off with perplexity,
moves to confusion at the message,
that she will conceive and bear the son of the Most High,
when she responds,
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
Look, there it is, the question so many want to ask today,
and some even want to dismiss out of hand,
because it doesn't fit with the neat picture
we want to have,
or the way we understand the world.
How can this be?
The answer she gets is honest,
but it doesn't really seem to explain the way
modern ears want an explanation,
but something happens in Mary.
In the midst of the messiness,
when she very easily could have been overwhelmed
by the sheer problem that this will be in her life,
She chooses the abundant life offered her,
with all it's messiness.
And she says,
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.”
She accepts the messiness,
even if she doesn't understand it,
or it doesn't fit with the preconceptions she
probably had before the angel showed up.
We so often think of this story in grand terms,
that we forget that it happened on a regular day,
to a regular person.
And if we're available to God,
it happens to us to, on very regular days,
to regular people like you and me.
Let me give you a trivial example.
I was coming into work this week,
I had dropped Jack off at preschool late,
with his little nose running,
getting over a sickness from a few days before,
and had stopped by the bank.
As I was headed to the church,
the weight of all that I had to accomplish
was weighing me down,
and I was having my own little,
“How can this be?” moment,
“I can't do this, this is too much,
I'm not up to these tasks.”
But somewhere on the road,
probably pretty close to our parking lot,
God showed up,
and gave me the grace to say,
“let it be with me according to your purpose.”
Ok, well, the way it came out from me,
was probably more like
“ok, God I trust you.”
I got into the office,
Cathy reminded me of an appointment
I had forgotten,
to meet with some other young clergy.
And whereas five minutes before,
I might have said,
“I can't do that now,
I'm already too late,
and plus I have all this to do.”
The small measure of peace I had just received from God,
allowed me to turn around and head to the meeting,
twenty minutes late.
At that meeting I saw Jesus,
in the flesh of my colleagues,
as we shared what to me became a holy moment
in my day.
Really, lifting my whole week.
Through them, Jesus visited me, in the flesh,
and came into my flesh as well.
I left feeling buoyed by His Spirit.
And able to do what God called me to do that day.
I could have left there saying my own little magnificat,
As I felt grateful for the abundant life God has given me,
with all its messiness.
Which brings me back to Mary.
The canticle we read instead of a psalm today,
Mary's Magnificat comes after the story of the annunciation in the gospel,
and I think that is important.
It shows where her heart had gone.
From the first perplexity and fear,
to confusion and questioning,
“How can this be?”
to faithfilled acceptance
“let it be with me according to your word”,
and finally, as she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth,
sees in her what the angel had told her,
and recognizes the abundant life she has been blessed with,
She cries out, from her heart,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
That is what God wants to do with each of us,
Get us out of our heads,
out of our fretting, and worrying about how messy
our lives are,
and how things don't make sense,
and into the fact that God makes his dwelling,
inside our messy bodies, with our spirits,
that always need purification,
ourselves, that are never as elegant as
we would want them to be,
and certainly not stately enough to house,
the Almighty God.
But God continues to desire to live in these tents,
in the midst of his people,
and to show us that the messiness of life,
is the place of abundant life,
the daily visitation He makes with us.
If we just open ourselves to receive him.
As we prepare to celebrate God's incarnation
this week, look for the ways
that God is visiting you each day,
as he desires to make his dwelling in your life.
He came to a regular young girl,
on a regular day,
and it became the most extraordinary event
in the history of creation.
Imagine what he can do with your everyday life.
When we put flesh on our beliefs they become more difficult to bear, but when we're willing to bear
God in our flesh, our lives take on an abundance,
that seems impossible.
I pray that you may discover God, dwelling within you,
with all the messiness that implies, and that your spirit may rejoice in God your savior.
I believe the collect for today ties this together so well,
the mystery that we’ve been exploring today
so I would like to ask us to pray together,
again, the collect for today.
Let us Pray:
Purify our conscience, Almighty God,
by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ,
at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one god, now and for ever. Amen