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Sermon for December 21, 2008 (Advent 4)

Birthing a Promise
Luke 1:26-38

Advent begins in darkness. Sometimes I think the world wishes it was different. Around this time of year, the world asks us to rush into the light. Just hours after we finish the leftover turkey and trimmings from Thanksgiving, the bells start ringing, the carols start playing, and the lights blink in our neighbor’s windows. The malls have been “Christmased” since October. With a world that resists the darkness, it’s even more important to stick to God’s plan. Advent begins in darkness.

And in that darkness, God asks us to do some things that are not part of our nature. Take it slow and steady. Savor the journey. Be honest and acknowledge that how we feel inwardly does not always match how the world insists we feel outwardly. No amount of tinsel or lights can take away the aching loss of a loved one. No amount of caroling can erase a frightening diagnosis or an impending surgery. No person can make you feel merry and bright when the real worries of the world darken your life. Perhaps it is fitting, even healing that Advent begins in darkness. The only place to go from here is toward the ever-increasing light.

For the last couple of months the days have been getting shorter and the nights have been getting longer. But today is the Winter Solstice. That means after today, the days lengthen and the nights get shorter. Advent gives way to Christmas. Darkness gives way to light.

The ancients had many metaphors to explain these cycles of the universe. The ancient Greeks the pull between darkness and light by telling a story about the seduction of Persephone. She was the daughter of Demeter, the Earth Mother. Hades, ruler of the underworld was a lonely bachelor and he wanted a wife. But what woman would marry a man whose kingdom was populated by the dead? Hades resorted to trickery. As Persephone was gathering flowers in the fields in Sicily, Hades suddenly appeared, thundering across the plain in his four-horse chariot. Hades swooped down upon Persephone and scooped her up with one arm. The earth opened up before Hades' chariot as he drove the jet-black horses down into the chasm. Hades and Persephone disappeared into the depths as the hole closed up behind them.

Mother Earth soon came looking for her daughter, but she could not find a trace of Persephone. Distraught and desperate, Mother Earth searched high and low for her daughter. She traveled to the farthest corners of the earth, searching for nine days and nights without ever stopping to eat, drink, bathe, or rest. She was in a fury. She destroyed crops and livestock as she lamented the loss of her daughter. After a full year of famine had plagued the earth, Zeus realized that if he allowed Demeter to persist, all of humankind would starve.

Meanwhile, Persephone had not eaten a single thing since her arrival in the Underworld —whether from sorrow, loss of appetite, or stubbornness. Hades urged Persephone to appease her hunger by eating a single pomegranate seed. Sadly, this apparent act of kindness was a trick. Anyone who tastes the food of Hades must remain in the Underworld. By the rules of etiquette, she had to stay with Hades as his wife for six months out of every year and then return to her mother for the other six. Some claim that Persephone was not happy to be married to Hades. Others wonder whether she ate the pomegranate seed deliberately as a way of breaking free from Mom and her bad temper.

Mother Earth mourns for her daughter during the six month she is in the Underworld and nothing grows during that. But Mother Earth rejoices when Persephone returns to the land of the living and the earth blooms and brings forth its fruits. Until, of course, Persephone has to return to her husband, Hades.

Darkness gives way to light. Winter to Spring. Death to life. The winter months take us into the warmth of our own caves, into the darkness, where only a candle lights our way; into our dreams where visions are formed. Beginning today, as the light begins its slow return, we enter a new phase. Having taken time to prepare a way for the Lord, we now take time to join with family and friends to honor this important turning point. We gather at Christmas time and set the wheels of joy, love and peace into full motion. We light candles, ring bells, sing, spiral and dance to the awakening of joy and enthusiasm in our hearts. We tap into the potential of our souls and create our dreams with confidence. Beginning today, we celebrate the return of the Light!

Christianity doesn’t typically think of history like this. Christian theologians preferred to think about history as having a beginning in the Garden of Eden and an end at the Second Coming of Christ. All of our metaphors and stories focus on this linear view of time. We even think about Christmas that way. Christ comes within a specific chain of events -- in the fullness of time, a savior is born to rescue humans from their sin.

Let’s think about the story another way this morning. Let’s celebrate the cycles of life. After all, life has no meaning except in a pairing with death. Summer has no meaning except in a pairing with winter. Male has no meaning except in pairing with female. The only way any of these terms has meaning is in union with its opposite. The ancients understood that. That is why their metaphors for the Divine, always include both male and female.

Mainstream Christianity removed the female element from the Divine, giving us only half the picture. We ended up worshiping an exclusively male image of God -- a "God of power and might" glorified in our liturgies and creeds. What kind of world could we live in now if the founders of Christianity had acknowledged that the dynamic between male and female and female perspectives.

The birth of Jesus is not just an interruption in chronology. The baby in a manger begins a a new cycle –a new creation. But it’s not all about angels bending near the earth singing songs of joy and peace. Before Mary births a promise, she will go through her own darkness. Mary had to wonder about how she'd survive until the baby's birth, once the village heard of her pregnancy. As in many cultures today, “honor killings” occurred in Mary's culture. If a woman had been sexually violated by a man -- even if it was against her will -- she could be killed, usually by her own father or brother, so the woman and her illegitimate child could no longer bring shame to the family. Joseph knew he wasn't the father of Mary's baby. If a man and a woman engaged to each other had had a baby and the village knew it, they were considered to be married. It was the “consummation” of the union that married the couple, not a religious ceremony. If Joseph intended to stay with Mary, he would have no reason not to acknowledge the child as his, so it's most historically plausible that our stories about Joseph not being Jesus' father stem from historical fact. And that fact had some nasty implications. If Mary's pregnancy became known and her father or brother didn't kill her, the scripture commanded the death penalty both for her and the man who slept with Joseph's fiancĂ©e and gotten her pregnant, if his identity were known.

So the odds are against Mary's surviving until the child's birth. And then, there are the words the angel Gabriel speaks about this child: “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” If others heard that, odds were against the child surviving. Herod the Great, who ruled as “king” with Rome's support, would not have been supportive of a challenge to his throne and title. And Roman emperors claimed the title “son of god”. Anyone else heralded as a “son of god” was very likely to end up on a cross instead of a throne. The paradox of this is that Jesus of Nazareth gets both, forever linking the two. God's kingdom, the fulfillment of Mary's song that God “has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” bringing down the powerful from their thrones and raising the lowly (Luke 1:52-53) will come not with the might of armies, but with Jesus' consistent and nonviolent ministry of reconciliation.

All to say, advent begins in darkness. And in that darkness, God asks us to do some things that are not part of our nature. As we wait for the light, maybe we can think about what it means for us to give birth to the promise – what it means for us to be mothers of God. After all, what good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? What good is it to me if Mary is full of grace but I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to a Son if I do not also give life to him in my time and my culture?

Today we can all think some more about what it means to be mothers of God. A theologian named Sallie McFague thinks about a God who keeps vigil with us through our times of darkness and does everything to bring us some peace. For her, God is like a mother who gives life to the world, nurtures our precious and vulnerable lives, and desires the growth and flourishing of all.

One very modern rabbi, Margaret Moers Wenig, wrote The Book of Women’s Sermons in which she played with the metaphor of God as mother. She imagined: “God is a woman, and she is growing older. She moves more slowly now, sometimes she has to strain to hear, her smile no longer innocent, yet she remembers everything. God sits down at her kitchen table, opens her Book of Memories, and begins turning the pages. There are pages she would rather skip, things she wishes she could forget: her children spoiling the house she created for us, brothers putting each other in chains. She remembers the dreams she had for us that we never fulfilled, remembers the many times she sat by our bedsides weeping that she could not stop the process that she had set in motion. God sits at her kitchen table: ‘Come home,’ she wants to say to us. ‘Come home.’ But she won’t call. She is afraid we will, again, say ‘No.’”

I hear God inviting us all to live and respond to the promises today. Will we say yes or no? Like Mary, we may freely and willingly respond to the Good News and we bear the promise of light, hope, and peace. Be aware this season. God appears more often as a whisper than a shout, in the shadows rather than the flash of light. God comes to us in the simple things, in simple ways, that so often go unnoticed. God appears on the margins where we would never think to look, in a place meager enough to receive the light of the world. As the light comes, so dawns the hope that the coming of the child will rekindle our fragile spirits.

Sources
http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/12/fourth_sunday_o.html
http://jbotscharow.com/?p=780
http://i.ucc.org/StretchYourMind/OpeningtheBible/WeeklySeeds/tabid/81/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/138/Birthing-a-Promise-Dec-1521.aspx
http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=737
http://www.columbineuuchurch.org/sermons/dace_sermon2.html

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