Well...it really is beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here. I suppose by now, most folks are in "preparation" mode, right? For some of you, that means you have a Clark Griswold-like house brimming with Christmas decor, others are baking cookies while blasting Christmas music, but there are some of us who are considering the possibility of drawing a tree on paper, taping it to the wall, and calling it done.
Now, I don't mean to be a Scrooge about Christmas decor...I love looking at it as much as anyone else. Yet, I wonder, as we journey through Advent, are we as committed to preparing our hearts for the coming of Christmas as we are our homes?
Advent is meant to be a season of anticipation and preparation...not as mice scurrying around making a nest...but as ones who are part of this amazing story leading up to the Christmas Birth and those whose lives are transformed by it. This is the time that we prepare our hearts to receive, and ourselves to become, messengers of hope and peace and joy and love. That's what this Advent series, #AngelsAmongUs is all about...seeing and being messengers of the Good News of Christmas.
Last week was about #more hope...this week is #more peace. The Advent candle of peace is a reminder for us all to seek more peace in the world. Which, by the way, in God's incredible providence, is a message coming to us right smack dab in the middle of what is a very un-peaceful...unsettled time...in our world. I don't have to list all of the unrest for you...suffice to say from the raging fires in California, to the troubling election in Alabama, to whatever is happening in Washington, all the way to the Middle East which is itself a different kind of raging fire...the world needs a whole lot #morepeace.
And not just peace, as in the absence of war, but peace in our spirit, peace in our heart, peace in our mind, peace in our relationships. Less stress...less angst...less worry...less anger...less hate...less division....#morepeace. Ultimately folks, to have #morepeace means we must have less fear...because all these other things that nag us, drag us and tear us down? They are all rooted in fear. Releasing our fear increases our peace.
And, you all know what they say about Peace on Earth... it really does begin with you and me.
Still I know, this is much easier said than done. Fear is often a fall-back response for most of us...and right now it seems to be a driving force as well. Perhaps because fear keeps us quiet. Fear keeps us from being brave. Fear keeps us from being our true selves. Fear keeps us from trusting in the truth of the gospel. Fear causes us to trust in things that are tangible - which by the way gives us a sense of personal security that we mistakenly call peace.
The peace that passes all understanding is not found in bigger bank accounts...or by gaining more power over the meek and the mild. The peace of Christ does not come by way of legislation, elected officials, protest marches, or displays of military might. In fact, most of those things generate fear too.
Inner peace comes when we are no longer afraid.
You know, they say that peace is not the absence of noise or troubles or difficult situations. Peace is to have all those things...and maybe even more...happening around us and yet to be completely calm in our heart.
Calm...because we trust. Calm because we believe. Calm...because we refuse to let fear disturb our peace.
This is the calm that we hear in Mary's story.
Think about what the angel's message meant to her. Country girl. Unmarried. Virgin. About to become pregnant. Not by her husband-to-be and not with just any baby, but the Son of the Most High. Surely, Mary understood that this wasn't just some random birth announcement. This was the fulfillment of prophecy. Her baby would be the next King of the Jews...the Messiah of whom the ancient prophets had foretold.
I think it is safe to say this news would have been exciting and distressing and confusing and maybe even frightening for Mary. Especially given that she was not yet married. She was well-aware of what happened to unmarried pregnant women in the first century and it wasn't pretty -- disavowal from her family, shunning by the community, and death if Joseph decided to exact that punishment.
Not to mention, this was also news that no one was going to believe. It's news that none of us would believe. If a young woman walked in here today and told us that she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit of God, she would probably find herself in the back of an ambulance headed to a mental health institution immediately.
So to say that this pronouncement could be disturbing to Mary's inner peace...to say that it might warrant just little bit of fear...would be an understatement.
Yet, all indications are that Mary was remarkably calm about the news. She had plenty of reasons to be afraid...plenty of reasons to be anxious...plenty of reasons to be troubled. But instead, she was, as they say, "as cool as a cucumber". Clearly, she was at peace.
Yes, she wanted to understand how it was all going to work, but aside from that minor detail about how she could be pregnant, she was "all in". "Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
So much confidence...and courage...and inner peace. As if she has no worries in the world.
That describes all of y'all's life...right? Yeah right...we wish. I can't speak for you all, but there are times when no matter how much I trust God, deep peace still eludes me. I know it's in God's hands, but I worry about what the future holds for the next generation. I am concerned about the direction of our nation and what passes as Christianity these days. I am burdened by the number of people (five this past week) who contacted the office or me personally, seeking assistance in finding safe, affordable housing. I am troubled by all those who need food, gas, clothing, diapers, assistance with prescription co-pays...you name it. My heart breaks for the families being destroyed by addiction. And...I know I am not alone.
Of course, then there's that whole other list of personal worries, insecurities and fears that haunt us...causing us to wonder if we will ever be enough.
You get the picture. It's not long into the day before our inner peace and calm is put to the test...and all sorts of fears take over our hearts and minds.
So how does Mary do it? What can we learn from her to help us be less fearful and more peace-filled? Well, I see at least three things here that we would do well to emulate...individually and as the church.
First. Mary knew who she was. The angel told her that she was the favored one...the one blessed by God. Blessed...not because she was to be given material blessings, as some folks define blessed. Blessed not because she had health, safety and security, which is how most people define blessed. She was blessed because God was with her and had included her in his salvation story...a role which she accepted wholeheartedly.
That said, there have been theological discussions for centuries about whether Mary had a choice in this matter or not. Could she have said, "Thanks, but no thanks. I'd rather not?" It's an interesting thought to consider -- both for what it says about Mary and what it says about God. Here's what I've come to believe...but it's just me. I think Mary knew, deep in her spirit, that this was God's call on her life. She knew she was favored, not in an arrogant way, but as in loved and chosen. She trusted that she belonged to God. And now she knew that God had a purpose for her. This was it. So...yes, she may very well have had a choice; but...using a double negative here...she could not, not do it.
This was her purpose...her reason for being.
Sometimes, folks, our lack of peace is because we forget who we are....we forget our purpose in life.
When it comes to identities, we wear a lot of hats... mother, father, teacher, preacher, nurse, neighbor...none of which are problematic in and of themselves. But when we find our worthiness...when we seek our peace from those hats...they can, they will, they do, get in the way of living into our truest identity - beloved child of God.
On the flip side, Mary also knew her limitations...and she was not afraid to admit them.
She said, but wait, I'm a virgin...I'm willing to carry this child, but I am not married. Help me understand how this is going to work 'cause I'm not seeing it.
Sometimes we are afraid to admit our limitations...much less face them. We don't want others to know who we really are. We are afraid we will be deemed inadequate...not enough. We succumb to pressure to be more than we are able or called to be. And friends, when we do, it wreaks havoc on our peace of mind.
Now I have to tell you, I saw the perfect example of someone who is completely in touch with her inner peace carried out on Saturday morning. She knows her purpose. She knows her limitations. She joyfully accepts her purpose and refuses to be pushed beyond her limitations. She was a barista at what has to be the busiest Starbucks in all of Louisville. The woman was completely calm despite the line that wound around the store and out the door. You see, her purpose...and only purpose in that moment...was making drinks for people in the store. She didn't have to take orders...or serve the drive-thru. She made drinks...perfectly amazing drinks...without mistakes. And because she knew her purpose and her limitations -- which was mostly that she can only make drinks as fast as the machine would froth the milk and squeeze the espresso beans, she did not let the pressure of the line...or the hectic pace disturb her peace. She joyfully and calmly made the drinks, one after another.
Now, I know that's a silly illustration...but I think it's so powerful. I mean, really, think about it. How much more peace would we experience in our lives if we stayed focused on our purpose and acknowledged our limitations...when we live to please God not others...when we bravely face the task at hand without fearing all the things that are not ours to control?
OK...so now I'm just preaching to myself.
Finally, and most importantly, Mary's peace was rooted in her knowing God and understanding what God was doing in the world through the Christ child who would be born. She knew the promises of scripture and understood that not only was a son being born, but God's kingdom was being birthed into the world through him.
We hear this most poignantly in what is commonly known as the Magnifcat, verses 46-55 of Luke 1. Mary sings out...perhaps just to herself and to Elizabeth, but I think it is for all of us.
Mary's heart is filled with peace and joy because she trusts that God is faithful, merciful, compassionate, and...that God's peaceable, just, kingdom, the one Isaiah foretold, was about to be established. She knows that God is on her side.
Author Rachel Held-Evans describes it this way: "With the Magnificat, Mary declares that God has indeed chosen sides. And it’s not with the powerful, but the humble. It’s not with the rich, but with the poor. It’s not with the occupying force, but with people on the margins. It’s not with narcissistic kings, but with an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl entrusted with the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God. This is the stunning claim of the incarnation: God has made a home among the very people the world casts aside."
Friends, this is still the reality of Christ's birth. Two thousand years ago, God incarnate in Jesus made his home among his people...and through Christ, God is still with us now. Two thousand years ago, God's kingdom of peace was established on earth...and by Christ's presence it is still growing in the hearts of his people even now.
So...each and every time we choose to believe and live that kingdom - authentically...wholeheartedly...without fear - we are one step closer to the Peace on Earth that is coming.
Every time a heart responds with mercy rather than retribution, curiosity rather than prejudice, openness rather than harshness...peace on earth comes near.
Every time a heart chooses love over hate...peace on earth comes near.
Every time a heart embraces rather than rejects differences...peace on earth comes near.
Every time a heart encourages and empowers the meek and vulnerable...peace on earth comes near.
Every time a heart offers grace...every time a heart experiences grace...peace on earth comes near.
Every time a heart is generous, kind, welcoming, and loving...peace on earth comes near.
Every time a heart humbles itself before God - fearless and willing...peace on earth comes near.
Friends...we are Mary. Mary is the church. God is not asking us to give birth to Jesus...that was Mary's purpose. But we are called to bear the peace of Christ to the world. On this Advent Sunday, as we are "messengers" of good news, it is as the familiar carol reminds us, let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me...and with you. Amen