This is the third of four excerpts from an Advent sermon I'm giving. Come back next week for the punchline.
It’s hard to carry love, quite honestly—and if we’re more honest, we’ll recognize that it’s much easier to carry any number of other things. Sometimes it’s much easier to carry a grudge than it is to carry love, right? When someone’s wronged us, that grudge feels a lot lighter, a lot less burdensome, even a lot less painful than love. And so for a time that too often becomes a long time we put down a little love to make room for a little grudge.
Sometimes it’s easier to carry secrets, right? We do something we know we’ll get in trouble for, something we know the truth would hurt someone we love while also embarrassing us or making life more difficult for us, and so we make a little space in our hearts for a secret, and to do so we have to put down a little love.
Sometimes our secrets aren’t about the wrongs we have done, though; sometimes they’re about the wrongs done to us. We suddenly find ourselves loaded up with shame or bitterness or hurt, and we can’t imagine how to get rid of it. So if it’s permanent, we’ve got to make room for it, right? So we put down a little love and keep carrying our secret shame.
But more often than these big things are the little things that we don’t even notice we have, but as we make our way through our days love continues to be crowded out of our hearts by more pressing concerns: we’re being actively encouraged—particularly during Christmas but really all year round—to spend more, eat more, buy more, work more, hurry more, worry more, here a more, there a more . . .
We live in a time where love has been made particularly hard, and unattractive to carry. Love doesn’t seem like a gift, it seems like a burdensome luxury that we can no longer afford to indulge.
Luke is writing an orderly account of the foundations of the Christian faith, to ground the faith of Theophilus in concrete history, and so to assure him of the reasonableness of his faith. Why, then, does he so quickly proceed to such crazy stories? Luke moves immediately into the birth not of Jesus but of John the Baptist, a story that is marked throughout by marvel and miracle: an old woman, well past childbearing years, becomes pregnant in an answer to a lifelong prayer. An old man, elected for a time to be the voice of the people to God, is struck mute for his lack of faith. He won’t speak again until the birth of his son, at which time his voice is restored and he sings of “the tender mercy of our God.”
Luke moves quickly from this story to six months later, where we find Mary living in Nazareth, pledged to marry Joseph. Jesus’ own disciple Philip will one day openly mock Mary’s village: “Nazareth?!? Can anything good come out of there?!?” But here we are, in this town of no reputation, with a young virgin, the story tells us, about to marry into the line of King David—a once-great line that apparently has little remaining political clout.
But this detail tells Theophilus something: the messiah was promised through David’s line—Isaiah 11 promises the people of God that “a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse” (Jesse the father of David; the stump a royal line that has since been diminished); “from his roots a branch will bear fruit.” By Mary marrying into David’s line, a prophecy was being fulfilled. God, it appears, knows what he’s doing.
“Greetings,” the angel Gabriel tells Mary.” He calls her “highly favored” and then tells her “The Lord is with you.” This troubles Mary, and perhaps it would trouble us as well, because if the Lord is with us, things necessarily change. If God is with us, as Paul tells us, “who can be against us?” And yet Mary was a subject of empire, a woman in a strongly patriarchal culture, a child (probably around thirteen) about to marry someone who was likely much older. When you have a lot going against you, you figure out a way to live within those constraints. People adapt to their circumstances, even if those circumstances are, or ought to be, untenable.
There are people today living in garbage dumps all over the world. There are children today growing up as sexual slaves. There are women who can’t show their face in public or they’ll be shunned, beaten or worse. There are people who endure petty acts of passive racism on a daily basis. There are people—maybe people we know—who suffer abuse or neglect at home or carry the burden of abuse or neglect in their history.
It’s people who carry these various burdens, who out of necessity adapt to entirely unacceptable circumstances, who have the most right to ask “Where is God?” And here the angel Gabriel presents Mary, who could very well speak on these people’s behalf, with an audacious claim: “The Lord is with you.” He doesn’t suggest that this is a change in Mary’s status: it’s not “The Lord is about to be with you” or “The Lord is now with you.” Gabriel is communicating reality to Mary, a reality that necessarily changes things.
What would happen if we greeted one another this way? Not “whazzzupp?!?” or “Howdy partner” or whatever, but “The Lord is with you”? We would be saying it not as a nicety but as a declaration of faith. God, who created us, isn’t aloof to our suffering, he isn’t ignorant or dismissive of our circumstances. God is Emmanuel—God is God with us. And in the moment we acknowledge that, we open ourselves to changes that God has in mind for us.