My dad was a city boy; he grew up mostly in Columbia, South Carolina, attended the University of South Carolina for college, and then went on to Duke Divinity School. So imagine his shock when he visited little ol' Misenheimer for the first time. A not-yet-incorporated village of just a few hundred people. On that first visit, Dad recalls he sat in his car in the parsonage driveway and wept.
Turned out the folks of Wesley Chapel were and are incredible, and it was a great first church for my dad. But I imagine the dismay he must have felt in being sent to Misenheimer was not dissimilar from how the angel Gabriel may have reacted at being put on assignment in Nazareth.
Today, Nazareth is a city of about 75,000 people. But around the time that Jesus was born, there were probably no more than a few hundred residents. If they had stoplights in ancient Galilee, Nazareth might have had one, if they were lucky.
It is to this most unlikely place that God sent Gabriel, to a teenage girl named Mary. One of my favorite quotes about the angel Gabriel's visit to Mary comes from Elie Wiesel: "Whenever an angel says, 'Be not afraid!", you'd better start worrying. A big assignment is on the way."
It's hard to imagine a bigger assignment than the one given to Mary--to become the mother of God, to carry Jesus in her womb and bring him into the world and keep him safe and well into adulthood. You would think God might have chosen a woman who had successfully given birth before, or at least someone who was married. Pregnancy and childbirth were incredibly risky in the ancient near east--there was a high chance that Mary or the baby or both could die in the process. Not to mention that Mary herself was at great risk, not just socially but physically, due to the stigma of becoming pregnant out of wedlock.
And even after Jesus was born, the chances of a childhood disease or accident claiming his life were far higher than we could imagine today. Before you get too excited about Jesus being God and therefore somehow being protected, remember that part of the point of the incarnation is that Jesus was fully human, susceptible to the same pain and illness and death that you and I experience. Mary had good reason to be afraid.
We have our own big assignments today--just in this season of Advent, we have big assignments that don't seem so weighty because they've become cliche. Our assignments are to pray for peace, to share hope with the world, to shine light in the darkness, to embody the love that came to dwell among us at Christmas.
This sounds all warm and fuzzy until you turn on the news or just look into the darkness of your own heart--when we see evil and sin and brokenness face to face, it becomes clear just how big those assignments are. As I was finishing this sermon this afternoon, news was coming out of San Bernadino, California, where yet another mass shooting at a facility for people with disabilities had claimed the lives of at least 14 people. Last week, a North Carolina man opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs last week, killing a police officer and two civilians. The city of Chicago, which is already reeling from a staggering rate of homicide and gun violence, is in turmoil after the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a police officer. All over our country and the world, war and violence and racism and xenophobia and fear are killing humankind in body and spirit. It is in this climate of terror and polarization that we come to the season of love and light.
We are not qualified to undertake the big assignment of working for peace. We have no relevant experience or educational achievements to prepare us for the task of meaningfully shining light in so heavy a darkness. We do not have the resources or much good reason to not be afraid.
Yet the call comes again as it does every year at Advent: "The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid." Only two things made Mary the right person for God to use for such a big assignment: the reality that God was with her, and her willingness to trust when all signs pointed to being afraid. God is with all of us all the time--that's what we remember at Christmas, that God became Emmanuel, God with us. That part of the equation is not in question. Only the second part is. Are we willing to seek peace when it does not seem possible, to sow love when all around us is violent hatred, to shine light in a darkness that looks impenetrable?
We don't have to be particularly smart or brave or wealthy or powerful to take this journey. In fact, none of that stuff matters when we get on the road to Bethlehem. All that matters is the willingness to follow.
The only requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous is a desire to stop drinking. In recovery, being smart doesn't help you--sometimes it can actually hurt you. Being rich can keep you from a hitting your bottom or facing the consequences of an addiction, but it can also keep you from getting the help you need. You don't have to be smart or experienced or prepared or powerful to join AA. You don't even have to be sober. You just have to be willing.
Now, it is probably obvious to all of us that willingness is not enough. Intention and desire are not enough. To go back to our 12-step program example, step 3 says, "We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him."
This step is about willingness. But there's a classic joke in AA that goes like this: Three frogs are sitting on a log. One decides to jump off. How many are left?
The answer is--three frogs. Deciding to jump off and jumping off are different things. Deciding to turn our will and our lives over and actually surrendering are different things. Being willing to follow God on the journey toward peace and actually taking the first step on that long road are different things.
But we can't jump or surrender or take a step until we first become willing. I'm reminded of a poster entitled "A Modest Proposal for Peace" that hung on the office door of one of my seminary professors. That proposal is this: "Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other."
I remember controversy springing up around that poster--some students felt it was not enough, that no one should kill anyone. Why should it be limited to Christians?
The response was as sad as it was simple: if we can't not kill our own brothers and sisters in Christ, how do we expect to make peace with anyone else? And in this moment, I can't help but notice the language--"Let the Christians of the world agree." It's not even saying, "Let us not kill each other." It's language no stronger than being willing or having a desire. We might rewrite that AA joke about the frogs and wonder that if some Christians agreed not to kill each other, how many might still be alive? The "Modest Proposal for Peace" is not nearly enough--but if we cannot even start there, how far do we really expect to get on the journey toward peace?
We must start with willingness, because willingness is all that we need to receive the grace God offers. We need that grace more than anything, because that grace alone can give us the strength and trust necessary to jump or surrender or take a step or at least not kill each other. That's why, when I invite you to the communion table, I say that there is no requirement of membership or even of faith to take communion--I ask only that you come "with a desire to be at peace with God, with your neighbor, and with yourself."
Do we have that desire--really? Are we willing--really? When I turn on the news, I have my doubts. When I see the reports out of San Bernadino and Colorado Springs and Chicago and Syria and Paris and Beirut, I have so many questions. When will we become willing to stop drinking the poison of gun violence and xenophobia and racism and fear? When will we become willing to put down the bottle of anger and shame and pride and animosity towards one another? When will it be enough? It wasn't enough when 20 children and 6 adults were killed at Sandy Hook during Advent last year, and apparently it's not enough that there have been more multiple shootings than days in this year. What will it take for us to become willing?
Thomas Merton wrote one of my favorite prayers, and in it he wonders whether he is on the right path, whether his actions are pleasing to God. But he takes comfort in his belief that the desire to please God is pleasing to God. Merton's willingness to follow, even when he doesn't know where he is going, is itself the first step on his journey.
So I'll close with that prayer, which you've heard here before. Imagine Mary praying this prayer, and join your hearts with her and with all who desire to do God's will, all who hear the words "Do not be afraid" and respond, even with trembling voice, with a flickering candle in a deep, deep darkness, "Here I am." May we step into Advent with willingness, trusting that God is with us on this journey toward peace, even when we cannot see or feel his presence. Let us pray:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.