St Luke’s, Springfield—Luke 1:26-38
These last few days, the last week before Christmas, is the peak period for the arrival of Christmas cards in each day’s mail. I enjoy them, but I don’t enjoy all of them equally. Even a trite, unattractive card containing a short hand-written note from someone I know personally is much more valuable to me than an elegant and beautiful card with a printed signature from someone who knows me only as a customer or potential donor.
And as I think about my feelings around Christmas cards, I’m aware that I sort all the mail I get throughout the year, whether at home or in the office, by a quite subjective and emotional standard. A “good mail day” is when there’s an envelope with a hand-written address. These go immediately to the top of the stack and I feel kind of excited and eager as I open them. What’s actually inside the envelope may be good, bad, or indifferent, but at least I know that somebody has something to say to me, person to person, a message that a zillion other people aren’t getting duplicates of.
A disappointing “mail day” is when all the items have an address label, or some sort of fancy bar code above my name. What’s inside may be important, or even exciting, but it’s impersonal, just another of a number of envelopes that were dropped into the mail as a bundle, neatly sorted by zip code and organized with rubber bands.
Of course, nowadays, most of my mail is actually email, but the same rules apply. Most of the actual spam gets filtered out before I even see it, but there’s still lots of mail from companies that I’ve done business with in the past and probably will in the future, so I don’t tag them as spam, but which I don’t really want to hear from several times a week. Those messages usually get deleted as a batch, without being read, because I want to focus on the ones that are actually substantive and important.
When Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire, and Quirinius was governor of Syria, and Herod king of Judea, a young woman named Mary, living in a village called Nazareth, received a highly personal and highly important piece of “mail.” The sender of this mail was God, and the message was so personal and so important that he sent it “special delivery,” by means of an angel called Gabriel. In fact, the message was so personal and so important, that it wasn’t even written down — Gabriel was himself a “living letter.”
In this case, the impressiveness of the message was matched by an appropriately impressive medium. And Mary herself responded accordingly. Only a cold and faithless heart could have done otherwise. Sure, we have great admiration for Mary because of her faithful response to Gabriel’s message. We venerate her as higher than the Seraphim and more glorious than the Cherubim. But we think, given the same circumstances, given an equally personalized and attention-getting package, we would have done the same: we would have responded as she did. I doubt that there is a man, woman, [or child] in this congregation who, if on the receiving end of an angelic visitation that conveyed direct orders from Almighty God — or even a polite request — if any of us got a message from an angel, we would all salute and say “Yes, sir!” right?
But what if … what if the news of the Annunciation, the news that Mary would be the mother of the Messiah, had come by means of bulk mail, with an address label and a bar code above the name? What if it had been caught in a spam filter? What might Mary have done then?
Now, I have a pretty healthy imagination, but I’m not going to try and answer that one. This much I can say, however: If Mary had gotten her annunciation by bulk mail, at least, then, we would feel like she is playing in the same league we play in. At least her message from God would be packaged the same way we feel like ours are. That is to say, it really wouldn’t be all that special. It really wouldn’t be very important or very personal.
Is this not so often the way we think of God’s call on our lives? Mary and the other heroes and heroines of the Bible get their personal assignment from God special delivery, but ours comes bulk mail. It isn’t really personal. It isn’t really particular. It’s just a general invitation to just somehow be on God’s side, but in no specific way. We don’t have a sense of being given personal, concrete, marching orders in the army of God’s kingdom.
And the response we give to this invitation that we perceive as general and vague is equally general and vague. We respond just enough to fool ourselves and others into thinking that sure, we’re on God’s side, answering God’s call. But deep down, we know that something’s missing. We’re nibbling around the edges, but never really sinking our teeth into what it means to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ. We may know people who appear to be taking a full bite of Christianity, people whose relationship with God seems as real and as vital and as natural as their relationship with the members of their own family. We keep them at arm’s length. We’re not sure what to do with such people.
On one level, we’re envious. They behave as they believe. They act as though the gospel is actually true: that God did take human flesh in the person of Jesus, that Jesus did die and rise from the dead in order to reconcile us to God, and that the liberating and life-changing power of the Holy Spirit is available in the worship and work and witness of the church. We’re envious. We’d like that peace and confidence for ourselves. But too often, our envy is expressed in suspicion. They’re weird! They’re fanatics! They’re … you know … “religious.”
When I was in high school, I had a good friend who knew of my Christian commitment. He once told me, “Martins, I wish I could be half as religious as you are.” I don’t remember how I responded, but I remember thinking, “Well, you could be. It’s not a matter of passing a test or winning a lottery. It’s just a decision.”
Mary’s call from God came special delivery. And she did two important things in response. First, she accepted the message unconditionally: “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She was humble and she was obedient. Our call from God looks like it comes bulk mail, but there’s nothing to prevent us from saying “Yes” to it, no matter how unspectacular it may be. There’s no law against imitating Mary’s humble and obedient response.
Second, Mary told somebody about her call, about her special assignment. She went and visited her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth had a special assignment of her own, as the angel had informed Mary — to be the mother of the Messiah’s setup man, his warm-up act, John the Baptist — and if it had not come special delivery like Mary’s, it was at least first class. So Mary shared with another human being the fact that she had said “Yes” to God. It’s important that you and I do the same. We cannot say Yes to God privately and then act like it’s no big deal when we’re around other people. It is good for us to let others know that, as the song says, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” It holds us accountable to our decision.
You know, I’ve gotten some pretty important messages in letters that were addressed with stick-on labels. Some of them have even contained money! So let us not make too much of the distinction between Mary’s package and ours. God calls each one of us as particularly and as concretely as he called Mary. Our assignment may not be as obviously critical as hers was, but God nonetheless calls us each by name and has a unique assignment for us in the economy of his kingdom.
Mary was pronounced “blessed” by Elizabeth, first, simply in recognition that she had been chosen by God for an important assignment: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” But a moment later, Elizabeth calls Mary “blessed” a second time: “Blessed … is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” This time, Luke the Evangelist uses a different Greek word for “blessed”, one with a much stronger and more specific connotation of joy — the kind of joy that comes through participating in God’s redemptive activity in human affairs. Mary was blessed by her call, but still more blessed by her response to that call — by her faith, by her belief, in the authenticity of that call.
We are all blessed today, because in the power of the Holy Spirit acting through the gathered church in the sacrament of baptism, we have been graciously called by God into his service. My call is personal and it is important. So is yours. Between that call, and the experience of true joy — serene, peaceful, confident joy; not mere happiness, but true joy — between God’s call and our experience of joy, lies our response. Will we decide to be obedient? Will we share that decision publicly? What a truly merry Christmas we might have if we do. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.