St Thomas’, Salem—Luke 1:26-38, 2 Samuel 7:4,8-16, Romans 16:25-27
Many of you are probably familiar with the comic strip Dilbert. I read it every day. It seems to capture the realities of work life in corporate America in a deliciously cynical way. A while ago, I read an interview with Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, and he is indeed a cynic of the first order. He’s a cynic even about himself, and without knowing it, he’s become an influential theologian—a PR man for the Christian doctrine of original sin. Adams seems a pleasant enough fellow, and obviously has a great sense of humor, but he has a very dark view of human nature. He sees very clearly that every person has a streak of fundamental dishonesty and selfishness that is often repressed but is always itching to come to the surface. Dilbert is so popular, I would suspect, because a great many people share Scott Adams’ cynical outlook on life. Cynicism is rampant in our culture.
And one of the fruits of cynicism, quite often, is hedonism. Hedonism exalts the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain to preeminent status. Life becomes an endless search for the perfect anesthetic—the perfect antidote to the pain caused by human dishonesty and selfishness, the longest-lasting physical and emotional high. So we have expensive hobbies and expensive toys and expensive medications, both legal and illegal (though the illegal ones are rapidly becoming legal!). We run ourselves ragged trying to make enough money for our hobbies and toys and medications, and then we run ourselves ragged using them, all in the hope that we will thereby be spared the necessity of looking deeply into our own hearts and souls and really seeing what’s there—or, more significantly, what’s not there. We are looking to anesthetize ourselves from the despair—indeed, the cynical despair—that we experience when we consider our careers and relationships and health and finances.
Now, you might be thinking, cynicism and hedonism are not the only possible responses to the pervasive reality of dishonesty and selfishness. And you would be right. There is an alternative. It’s activism. There are always those who look at the dishonesty and selfishness, and the social ills that result from dishonesty and selfishness, and instead of joining with Scott Adams in proclaiming everybody to be a “weasel” at heart, or going out and buying a new SUV, they decide to roll up their sleeves to “do something” about the problems they see. They may do volunteer work, or found an advocacy group, or run for the school board. They are determined to work longer and harder and smarter than whatever it is they’re struggling against: poverty, illiteracy, racism, sexism, crime, pornography, abortion, drunk driving—whatever. This response certainly seems nobler, more righteous, more optimistic, and more practical. In the end, however—and maybe this is my own cynical streak showing through—in the end, cynicism and hedonism still triumph. We can only hold our finger in the dike for so long.
Cynicism, hedonism, activism—what do they all have in common? They are all responses to dishonesty and selfishness . . . and they all functionally atheistic, they all leave God out of the equation. Cynicism and hedonism treat God as if He’s absent, or at least looking the other way. Activism treats God as if He’s incompetent, powerless. All three of them have effectively “given up” on God. It is distressingly easy for us to get impatient when God doesn’t “fix” things right away. We look at natural evil—earthquakes, floods, epidemics—and wonder how a loving God could allow a million people across the world to have their lives cut short suddenly by a rampant virus. We look at social and political evil—corruption, tyranny, religious persecution, terrorism—and we wonder what the very concept of justice means when the “bad guys” so easily get away with their “bad deeds.” We look at personal evil—lying, cheating, stealing, fornicating, committing adultery, abusing drugs—and we wonder why we are unable to keep ourselves from doing things we know full well are destructive and stupid and will only get us into trouble. And we wonder these things because God is God, and we’re not. God knows more than we know, and God sees more than we see. We are limited by time; God is beyond time, eternal. We are limited by space; God is everywhere—omnipresent, as the theologians put it. Because we’re not God, we wonder. And we doubt.
So it is an unspeakable blessing for us, on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, to be allowed to stand alongside a young Jewish girl getting ready for her wedding day, as an angel appears in her presence and makes her privy to some very important information about what God is up to by way of relieving us of our impulses toward cynicism and hedonism and activism. And, thanks to St Luke, you and I are also now privy to the same information. Gabriel greets Mary and says, in effect, “Gosh, what a lucky girl you are!” Mary just looks at him, perhaps with the faintest of smiles, as if to say, “I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about, but why don’t you run along now and let me get back to work.” So Gabriel has to get more specific, and he just lays it all out—everything about being come upon by the Holy Spirit and being overshadowed by the Most High and getting pregnant and having a baby who will grow up and reclaim the throne of David that had been vacant for more than 500 years, and establish a kingly rule that would have no end.” “Oh,” she says, “Why didn’t you just say so. Now I get it.” Well, not exactly. In fact, her actual response is even more astounding than that: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” No cynicism, no hedonism, no activism, just obedient openness to what God is doing. God is keeping His promises.
Way back in the Garden of Eden, in responses to the original acts of dishonesty and selfishness, God promised to do something, to fix things, to make everything all better. He didn’t reveal the details of His plan, but He did make a promise. And through successive covenants with Noah and Abraham and Moses and David, God pursued His plan of salvation, His plan of redemption and healing and reconciliation and restoration. All that, we might say, constituted the beginning and the middle of the story. St Paul, as he writes to the Roman church, refers to it as “secret kept for long ages.” With the Annunciation, however, with the appearance of Gabriel to Mary, we are now at the “beginning of the end.” God is about to fulfill His promise to redeem His creation.
The angel told the Blessed Virgin that the son she would bear “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Since she was a woman, of course, we can’t say how thoroughly Mary had been instructed in the scriptures, but if she was familiar with the second book of Samuel, she knew of the prophet Nathan’s oracle to King David:
I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever.
Neither Nathan nor David, in all likelihood, realized the form in which this promise would be fulfilled. They probably conceived of something rather more literal, but a good bit less wonderful. In fact, the promise made by the Lord to David through Nathan was fulfilled in the angel Gabriel’s mysterious announcement to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
And as a result, there is no longer any foundation for cynicism or hedonism or activism or any other strategy that gives up on God. God is neither absent nor incompetent. Rather, He is so “present” in our lives and in the world that He’s difficult to see because there just isn’t anywhere God is not! The Annunciation brought this fact home to Mary in a huge way, because God was now present, physically, in her very womb. Her pregnancy was a sign to her not to yield to cynicism or hedonism or even activism—there was nothing she had to “do” other that simply let things happen.
Mary’s pregnancy can have the same sign value for us, if we will let it. The incarnate Christ is “God with us.” Not just God merely around us, in the general vicinity, but God in us and among us and through us. God is no less present in our weaknesses than in our strengths. God is no less present in our disappointment than in our gratification. God is no less present in our sorrow than in our joy. Even error and deception bear the mark of God’s presence, because there is no falsehood that is not the distortion of a truth. Even human dishonesty and selfishness bear the mark of God’s presence, because nothing is evil in its own right. That would make evil too real, give it too much power! That which we call evil is merely the gross distortion of that which we call good. God is not too proud to use our very sinful and rebellious behavior as the means of sneaking His grace into our lives. The good news of the annunciation is that God is present in and through all things. There is no room for cynicism. There is no room for hedonism. There is no room for activism. There is only room for faith: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Amen.