Advent 4B Sermon (2011)

4th Sunday of Advent
Text: Luke 1:26-38


Recently, our son [name] came to me with a very good question, “Why does God make people bad?” He came from a war-torn country where a lot of bad things were done, and so he asked a natural question, “Why does God make people bad?”

My answer begins, God doesn’t make people bad. The beginning of the Bible makes it clear that God makes everything good. And human beings have a special place in Creation. We are made in the image of God. We are made capable of bearing God’s creative power in this world – in other words, the power of Love. It is the power of love which is behind all of Creation.

Then where does the bad come from? you ask. The story of sin in Genesis 3 shows us that the bad – envy instead of love – comes from our spirits listening to one another instead of listening to God. The serpent convinces the woman that God is holding out on her. And so human beings descend into a vicious circle of passing the bad around to each other. Envy becomes the hurt we pass on instead of God’s love. Their eldest son Cain kills their younger son Abel. The spiral into violence has begun.

You still may ask, Why does God allow this to happen? And that’s the real mystery. God doesn’t make us bad, but God allows us to pass on the bad to each other and to Creation. Why? I’m not sure we really get that answer until Christ comes along. It is only after the cross and resurrection of Christ that we begin to understand that God is Love and nothing else. And we begin to understand that perfect love never forces itself. It never passes on the hurt. Seeking to control or to force another is our game once we get outside God’s influence of love. The love is always there, but we choose to pass on the hurt, the bad stuff, too. And love never forces itself. In the cross of Christ, we see that love even takes the hurt upon itself before it passes it on. In fact, it takes the hurt and even turns it back into love. God takes all the bad of this world and turns it back into love.

So how do we get out of the vicious circle of passing on the bad, passing on the hurt, to one another? It always begins with the Spirit, God’s Spirit of love, in our lives. In all the Gospels, this is symbolized by the dove at Jesus’ baptism. In Jesus’ life we see the power of God’s love coming back into play through a human being, one of us. Jesus reopens the circle of God’s love that we might begin to join in again. It is the same Spirit that [child baptized that day] is promised today, the same Spirit we each are promised at our baptisms.

In Luke’s Gospel, the gift of the Spirit comes even before Jesus’ baptism. It begins with his conception. It begins with Mary’s openness to God’s Spirit of love working through her. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she says, “let it be with me according to your word.” She becomes an open vessel for the power of God’s love to come into this world. She gives birth to God’s love not simply in Jesus himself, but in her own openness to God’s Word working through her. It is a process which need not stop at Christmas with the physical birth of Jesus. It is a process of discipleship which can continue as she remains open to God’s love being born into this world through her actions.

Luke testifies to the fact that Mary’s servanthood is so important. It isn’t just Jesus that is saving the world. It is the love of God’s Spirit that decisively enters into the world through Jesus, but also through this ordinary woman who physically gave him birth. Yes, she is engaged to a man from the house of King David, and so their child will fulfill the promise to David. But Mary herself is quite ordinary, someone who comes from nowhere. They live in this tiny village Nazareth which Luke has to tell us is in the region of Galilee. Mary is a girl, really, from a backwater town, and she begins the journey of God’s love back into our lives with the words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Remember, love never forces itself. So for God’s love to enter into the world again through the Son Jesus, it must first enter through the openness of Mary to the work of God’s Spirit.

So this season of Advent isn’t just the telling the story of Jesus’ birth long ago. It is about the possibility of his love being born into this world through you and me, like Mary. It is about you and I saying with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And then looking for the ways God’s love can be born into the world through our acts of loving service.

How do we know what opportunities might be opportunities for giving birth to God’s love? Will we be visited by an angel like Mary?

Perhaps. I’m reading a book right now by Leymah Gbowee,1 the recipient of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. She is from that backwater place that our sons [names] are from, Liberia, Africa. It was a place torn apart and destroyed by human beings passing on the hurt to one another in a fourteen year civil war. Leymah herself was almost destroyed by it. The war broke out when she was seventeen. She had just graduated with a good high school education and was looking forward to being a doctor at the university. But the outbreak of the war changed all that, causing her to live in survival mode. So nine years later she found herself trapped in a relationship with an abusive man with four young children. It was several angels who came to her at that time in acts of love that helped her begin to turn things around. Bottom for her came with the birth of her fourth child. The hospital wouldn’t let her leave without paying, and the father of her children had basically abandoned her. But a kind doctor paid her bill, and that act of kindness was the first angel that helped get her back on her feet. She went back to her parent’s home, and it was her mother’s unconditional love that gave her the boost she needed to start getting back her life. She enrolled in a social work program and began working for the Lutheran World Federation relief programs in Liberia.

It was a time of relative peace, but the war began to revive with new rebel forces vying to oust the last rebel, Charles Taylor. So five years after beginning to get her life back this ordinary woman received a visit from an angel who called her to play an instrumental role for peace coming back into Liberia. She had a dream. She didn’t know where she was; everything was dark. She couldn’t even see a face, but she heard a voice talking to her, commanding her: “Gather the women to pray for peace.” And so this ordinary woman from the backwater place of Liberia, Africa, helped lead a movement of women praying for peace, demanding peace. In April of 2003, they found a prominent place in Monrovia, the capitol of Liberia, to prominently pray for peace. That first day was a thousand women. And for every day until the peace came in August they were there praying for peace, rain or shine, through all kinds of weather. When the peace negotiations which their public prayer had helped to spur, when those talks began to crumble, Leymah led a hundred of them to Accra, Ghana, the place of the negotiations, where they eventually sat down to pray outside the doors, blocking their exit, and not allowing them to come out until the peace settlement was reached, Charles Taylor was out, and a new government was put into place with the help of United Nations troops and negotiators. And it was another woman of peace, Elizabeth Johnson Sirleaf who eventually became the new President. Ordinary women of faith, listening to God’s voice, and acting in love in this world, bringing to birth the love of Jesus.

Who are the angels in our lives? It might be a voice in a dream. When Ellen and I were pondering adoption from Liberia, things happened like my sitting down randomly at a conference in Milwaukee and finding myself seated next to a man from Liberia. What are the signs in your life that have prompted you to make a bold decision? Perhaps it is a person in need who has come across your path. Perhaps it is a friend or family member from whom you’ve been estranged. What are the opportunities for you and I again this Christmas-time, again this coming New Year, for you and I to open ourselves to the love of Jesus coming into this world. What is happening in your life right now that you and I might respond with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, December 18, 2011

1. Leymah Gbowee, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, New York: Beast Books, 2011.

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