Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sermon: "John and Mary: Prepare Ye the Way"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 15, 2013
Luke 1:46-55; Matthew 11:2-11

“John and Mary: Prepare Ye The Way”

When I was in the 4th grade at St Martin of Tours parochial school, I reluctantly agreed to take part in the school pageant.
Not the Christmas pageant, but the Easter pageant, believe it or not.  
I played the part of one of the women who knelt at the foot of Jesus’ cross.
The script referred to our group as “the women and the Marys” -  because among us were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus.
I did not play one of the Marys and I had no lines whatsoever but I was a terrified because I hated being in the spotlight.

I don’t recall much about the play itself, but I clearly remember that the part of Mary Magdalene was played by my classmate Mary Ann Hill.
Mary Ann and I spent a lot of time together in school, not because we were close friends but because the nuns always arranged our class in height order, and we were the two tallest girls in our class. We were always seated next to each other at the back of the classroom and stood together at the back of every single file line.
MaryAnn and I also had similar looking hair – hair that was thick and wavy and tended to frizz out rather than lay flat.
But that’s where our similarities ended.
Mary Ann was outgoing, confident, and popular, and I was shy, insecure, and quiet.   I had no desire to be in the spotlight while Mary Ann landed the leading role in every school play we had.
And boy could she sing.

In that Easter pageant, as Mary Magdalene, she belted out a rousing rendition of “I don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar and brought the house down.
I both admired and envied her.
I wondered, “What must it be like to receive that much attention and adulation?”  “What must it be like to have the confidence to sing with such joy?”

After the play was over and we were milling around backstage, one of the nuns came up behind me, wrapped her arms around my shoulders, and squealed with delight –
“You were fabulous! I am so, so proud of you!”
It was Sister Magdala. One of the most hard to please and cantankerous nuns in our school.
Suddenly, I was awash in this feeling of surprising joy, thinking,
“This is what it feels like to be noticed and appreciated! I must have really put my heart and soul into that role!”

And then Sister Magdala spun me around, and said,
    “Oh…’re not Mary Ann!”
She quickly patted me on the shoulder and said,
“Oh well, you were good too.” And off she went to find her star.

For me, that moment was both eye opening and humbling.
The look I saw on Sister Magdala face in that millisecond before she realized who I was, was one of joy and approval….and it was not meant for me.
I had no reason to expect otherwise. All I had done was kneel on the stage while someone else stood up and stepped into the spotlight.
At that young age I had not yet learned that all the roles we play have value, and sometimes the supporting roles are the hardest ones to take on.

In our gospel readings this morning we encounter John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus - both of whom played key supporting roles in the story of God’s in-breaking into our world.

John and Mary’s stories are beautifully intertwined.
Mary first met John when he was still in his mother Elizabeth’s womb – when he leapt for joy at Mary’s announcement that she too would bear a child in a very unexpected way.
Elizabeth had assumed she was barren.
Mary was unmarried and oh so very young.
Yet they came together to share their joy at having been chosen - each in their own unique way - to prepare the way for God to come into our world.

One of my favorite Advent images is an artists’ rendering of that moment when Mary and Elizabeth came together to share their news.
Mary is looking down as she guides Elizabeth’s hand to rest on her belly and Elizabeth is looking up towards the sky, and both women are bursting forth with joy-filled laughter as they learn of each other’s blessing.
It’s a very tender, and very human moment.
One we all experience when something new and joyous comes into our life in a very unexpected way.

When Mary received the news that she would bear a child who would be called Emmanuel – God with us – she lifted up her voice in praise.
The gospel of Luke preserves Mary’s words in the Magnificat – capturing the outpouring of joy and gratitude that Mary felt after being chosen to prepare the way for such a special child.

Now, many of us tend to forget how young Mary was when the Angel Gabriel gave her this news.
In classic works of art she is often depicted as a full-grown woman, which she was by the time she sat at the foot of the cross and held Jesus’ lifeless body in her arms.
But when she gave birth to her first son, Mary was most likely only 14 or 15 years old.
How could she have possibly known what she was getting herself into?

Mary gave birth to her boy, she nursed him, she taught him how to walk and talk, she taught him how to pray.
She encouraged him when he tried new things, and it’s likely she reprimanded him when he pushed back against the rules that she and Joseph had set.    She must have been so proud of him when he began his ministry,
and when he drew the attention of those in power; she must have spent many nights lying awake with worry.
And like any mother, she undoubtedly tore herself inside out with anguish as she watched him suffer and die.

We don’t know if Mary knew any of this was going to happen when she said “Yes” to becoming the mother of Jesus.  
When she joined hands with Elizabeth and sang her Magnificat – lifting the praise of her soul to God for choosing her to serve in such an amazing way - did she have any inkling of what it was she was agreeing to endure?

Perhaps her lack of fear sprung from adolescent naivety or the acceptance that as a young girl giving birth in her time and culture there was already a good possibility that neither she nor the child would survive.
Perhaps her belief that she was giving birth to a child of God – regardless of who he grew up to be - made this a risk she was willing to take.

John the Baptist agreed to follow a similar risky path, or rather, his parents agreed to it for him, when they were told that their son would grow to be the forerunner to the Messiah - That he would turn the hearts of a broken and jaded people back towards God and prepare a way for Jesus to grab hold in their lives.

Elizabeth may not have known that she was agreeing to allow her son to rebel against the culture she had raised him in and have him thumb his nose at the establishment as he retreated into the dessert. There he would shun the soft robes and rich diets of the successful and powerful and instead dress in camel skins and eat insects he picked out the crevices of rocks.

Elizabeth may not have known that while the sons of her friends studied to be craftsmen and rabbis, her son would shake his fist at the masses urging them to repent of their sins and then dunk their heads in the Jordan River in an act of cleansing that defied the Temple priests. 
Both Elizabeth and John, may not have known that he would end up in prison as a result of all the prep work he was doing for Jesus, and that ultimately his head would wind up on a platter in a final bid to silence him.

John was a liberator who promised freedom and salvation to those who opened their hearts to God….and he had the crazy idea that one who came after him would be the ONE who would save them all.

John was a dangerous man with dangerous ideas about God, and God’s Love and Grace, and he prepared the way for yet another dangerous man who had ideas that bumped up the threat level even further.

Yet Mary reacted with JOY when she learned who her son was to be, and Elizabeth did the same.
They had to know that neither of their son’s lives would be easy.
That God’s in-breaking into the world would threaten to tear apart the imbalanced structure that human beings were desperately trying to hold in place, and that their sons would be standing at ground zero.

Perhaps it was the promise of what God would create in their son’s wake that brought Mary and Elizabeth joy, and for that they were willing to endure the pain.

The truth is, we never know what it is we’re getting ourselves into when we say “yes” to preparing the way for God to enter into the world.
When we agree to live out our faith by loving our neighbors and our enemies, to let go of our fear of loss and change, and to give as if we lived in a world of abundance rather than scarcity.

When we agree to live our lives so differently from those around us, we may find ourselves thrust into the spotlight, and for some of us that is not a very comfortable place to be.
We’d rather stay on our knees and blend into the background….but when we agree to prepare a way for God in the world we can’t stay there for long.
When we see with our own eyes the incredible acts of compassion and grace that happen in God’s wake, when we see new life taking root where none had been before, we can’t help but sing out with confidence and joy.

Our souls magnify the Lord and our spirits rejoice in God our savior.
God saves us all.
The blind, the lame, the poor, and those left for dead.
Jesus is just waiting to born within us.

Joy to the world and Amen.

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