Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown
December 10, 2017
Text: Luke 1:26-38
Every year during Advent when I was at Yale Divinity School, that marvelous historian of the Reformation and biographer of Martin Luther, Roland Bainton delivered a composite Christmas sermon from all of Luther’s sermons. Bainton was almost as short as I am and needed a platform in front of the lectern he used for support. In the composite sermon, he quoted from an old Luther sermon: There were three miracles of the Incarnation, he said. The first was the God loved us enough to save us; the second was that God chose to become incarnate in human form to accomplish this saving grace; but the third and greatest miracle of the Incarnation was that Mary believed the angel.
We don’t preach much from this morning’s text in Luke because it makes many of us who consider ourselves to be liberal Protestants uncomfortable. When we think about the Annunciation, we think about medieval and Renaissance paintings of a Mary meek and mild before the angel Gabriel; she bows her head in acceptance of her chosen role as Gabriel standing before her, almost larger than life, announces what is to come. I deliberately chose this text today not because I want to dissect the issue of virgin birth but because I want us to think about the infinite possibilities we find through God’s saving grace.
We often hear or read statements about how life was better in a so-called simpler time, when choices seemed more limited, when people had few competitive activities scheduled during church time, when young people did not necessarily have the range of choices in their lives that provided so many opportunities for mistakes. I want to argue that those so-called simpler times weren’t necessarily simpler. They were just different.
My late husband Bob told me about meeting a man when he was in the Air Force stationed in England during the 1950s. This man had never even left his village of Aylesbury, a short distance from Oxford. I found that absolutely incredible.
However, when I went to El Salvador and Indonesia, I met people who had never left their home villages, not uncommon in the developing world but England? I remem-bered thinking–I mean, England is not what one would consider part of a world where people just never even travel out of the little town where you live. The man couldn’t even conceive of why he would even want to leave Aylesbury. It had everything he needed from his perspective. Why leave when your needs are being met? Granted his needs were not many; he felt no need to explore beyond the village.
Unfortunately, we often operate like that in our minds. We think we have everything we need–and I don’t mean materially–and so we close ourselves off to God’s infinite possibilities. Those grace-filled possibilities usually come to us at odd times. We can experience it in the middle of the night in a strange dream; we can experience that moment of grace-filled awareness in the quiet of a winter landscape or even in the bustle of a shopping mall during Advent. The important thing for us is to be open to it, to take the “a-ha” moment and to explore the possibilities that moment opens us to.
There are requirements in order to be open to that moment. First, we need to bring our frenetic pattern of living to a halt. We need to replace our addictive patterns of spending with the practice of responsible abundance. We need to create the inner space to allow grace to work.
There’s an old Zen story about the young monk who came to visit an old monk. While the young student monk was telling the old one what kind of monk he would become, the old man began pouring tea. The young monk became anxious because the old man kept pouring the tea even though the cup was now full and the tea was flowing onto the floor. “What are you doing?” the young monk asked. The old man stopped and said, “That cup is like your mind. It is so full that it has no room to listen, really listen.” We can’t open ourselves to the infinite if our minds are cluttered with the finite.
Remember when you were little and everything seemed so incredible? It’s called the sense of awe–that combination of reverence and wonder. We need to cultivate that sense again. And, remember when you were grateful for something that didn’t seem like much to the world but meant the world to you? We need to develop that sense of deep appreciation within us again.
I love children’s books. Bill Peet’s book, The Ant and the Elephant, is one of my favorite children’s books because it is about just that–a deep appreciation for something that didn’t seem like much to others but meant the world to you. In the book, an ant gets stuck on a floating leaf and an elephant hearing his cry leans over with his trunk and lifts the ant to safety. The ant tells the elephant how important being lifted to safety was for him and the elephant replies that it was just a little thing.
Later the elephant falls into a trap created by hunters. In the ravine he ends up on his back without enough space to right himself. Unable to move, he cries for help. The ant that he saved comes up and tells him that he will save him. The elephant, of course, is totally incredulous. The ant calls his friends and the entire colony together moves the elephant up to safety. A really big thing to the elephant, but just a little thing to the ant colony.
Consider those astoundingly beautiful days when the sun literally illum-inated golden and red leaves or danced on the waves? Or in the beauty of the snowfall yesterday, the beauty of the snow’s deep silence. We need to take a deep breath and envision that beauty again. Add a dose of care for the earth and empathy for others and we are in a frame of mind to be open to God’s grace.
How do we apply these nice sounding words to our everyday living? There is no easy formula, to be sure, no quick fix. Some people seem to be gifted by nature; others have to struggle just to make it through the day. There are certain practices that can help us be more open to God’s grace and strengthen our spiritual lives as well. When that “ah-ha” moment hits you, just stop, even if it can only be for a minute and say a short prayer in your heart. We usually think of prayer as asking for something; it is really a conver-sation with God. Hold the moment. Savor it. Swallow it and ingest it so that it fills you. Then consider the infinite possibilties the moment gives you.
You may end up with something practical like a new way to solve a problem or to make a decision on something really important. You may end up with something that doesn’t seem very practical, like a deep inner calm or the feeling of being embraced in God’s loving arms. But the centered self that emerges from that calm is able to better discern the choices that life presents.
Since the Middle Ages, artists have represented the Annunciation in a variety of ways. Mary was traditionally represented as sitting demurely with a hand on the biblical text of Matthew’s story with a resplendent Gabriel before her; she usually looks uncertain as one would imagine a young woman who had just had a vision of an angel would feel. Only in more recent representations does she appear as one searching for an answer of this thing that has happened. The lesson to be drawn from the story is how to go forward in courage rather than in fear. Courage is not the absence of fear but feeling afraid to do something but finding the strength to do it. We can do that when we open ourselves to God’s grace in our lives.
The Polish poet Anna Kamienska put it this way in her poem about the Annunciation:
He stood wrapped in air
He said like an angel do not be afraid
Then he announced something in a language
Which I didn’t comprehend
Lord how much we don’t understand of the most important things
Then I remained alone.
No one can know
How lonely it is when an angel departs
The world is then immense open and empty
And the voice cannot describe it
And no hand is friendly enough
Words are all mute tied
From now on even an eternity
Would be too short for expectation.
How then are we open to God’s grace of infinite possibilities? By being open to the totally unexpected. Let us be open to such grace. Amen.