What does an encounter with God do for us? (A sermon from Luke 1:26-38)
Not every encounter with God is as momentous as Mary’s encounter with the angel in today’s Gospel story. But Mary’s experience can be viewed as a kind of archetypal experience. What I mean is that our encounters with God can do for us what Mary’s encounter did for her. Any authentic encounter with God gives us at least two things that are foundational to a heathy religious life and a transformative moral life. First, an encounter with God gives us solid ground we can stand on.
Luke says that when the angel appeared saying, “Greetings, favored one!” she “was much perplexed . . . and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Then the angel declared, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” I find it interesting that almost every time an angel of God appears in the biblical tradition, the first thing the messenger of God says is, “Do not fear?” It would seem that fearing God (being afraid of God) has been a major problem throughout human history. In primitive cultures human sacrifice was practiced as a way of appeasing the deity and averting the anger of the deity. As culture advanced animals replaced humans, and in our biblical tradition there are echoes that would suggest that even among the Hebrews human sacrifice predated animal sacrifice. Throughout our religious history we have had a fairly frequent propensity toward projecting our fears onto God. We have imagined a god ready to pounce upon us like a predator upon its prey unless we offer the necessary sacrifices or perform the necessary requirements to placate the deity. Thus we make God into our image. It is not insignificant that in our Gospel text today twice the messenger of God assures Mary that she has no reason to be afraid, because she is “favored’ or “graced” by God.
For Mary to fulfill her role in the divine plan she needs to know in the core of her being and in the depths of her heart that she need not be afraid of God, but rather, that she is loved with an eternal love. This was not based on anything Mary did. This was not based on merit or status or any accomplishment. Mary is just an ordinary Jewish girl trying to get by in a very patriarchal culture. It would not have been anything unusual, I think, for a young Jewish girl to be made to feel inferior and to be afraid of God. So twice the messenger assures her that she is favored with God – she is graced and loved and does not need to be afraid. And this is what an authentic encounter with God does for all of us. It gives us ground to stand on. We don’t need to cower in fear, because we are loved with an eternal love.
I feel certain this is what Jesus’ vision at his baptism by John was about. Jesus saw heaven open and the Spirit descend in the form of a dove. He heard the voice of God say, “You are my Beloved Son, on whom my favor rests.” He would have another encounter with the same Voice affirming his beloved sonship on the mount that we call the mount of transfiguration. All the symbolism here, both with Mary and Jesus, points to this type of experience as a foundational experience for transformational service and ministry. It’s the kind of experience that liberates us from fear and insecurity and frees us to engage in works of mercy and justice for the cause of God in the world, not out of fear, but out of love – love for God and love for others, all of whom bear the image of God and are themselves children of God, even if they don’t know it or have yet to claim it.
Some people are afraid of such encounters with God and try to dismiss and diminish them. They will argue that the only thing we can actually hang on to is scripture, not our experience. I believe our experience and our scriptures function together as a kind of check and balance. Any time our experience makes us less loving than the Jesus of our Gospels, the Jesus of scripture, then it’s time to question our experience. Or any time our reading and interpretation of scripture calls into question our experience of God’s unconditional love, then we need to question our understanding of scripture. It’s a kind of check and balance. Our experience and scripture, scripture and our experience.
I love to tell the story about the Jewish fugitive in Nazi Germany who was fleeing for his life. He came to a small town and sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and the whole town would suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the young man who came to your door seeking refuge?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.” Not everything in the book affirms our experience of God as a God of unconditional love, which is why our experience of God needs to inform our reading of scripture. On the other hand, not every experience which we might mistakenly attribute to God is of God, so a careful reading and study of Jesus in the Gospels is necessary.
Sometimes I am charged by biblical inerrantists of minimizing the word of God. My response is always this: On the contrary. God’s word is living and powerful; it is dynamic and constantly present. It cannot be confined and constricted to a book, no matter how sacred that book is. When we confine God’s word to a book, we minimize the word of God. God’s word, sisters and brothers, is God actively speaking, God revealing, God interacting with us right now. God may use the stories and accounts in our sacred scriptures to do that – to make known God’s will – but God is not limited to our scriptures by any means. As the poet so beautifully expresses: “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”
I suspect that the writer of 1 John was trusting his inner experience of God, which he calls an anointing, when he spoke about God being love. He wrote: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love.” Obviously, the kind of “knowing” he is talking about is experiential knowing, not academic or informational knowing. It is not knowing intellectually, but rather knowing through experience. He goes on to say that love casts out all fear and that to abide in love is to abide in God, for God is love. Wherever love is present, God is present. Our authentic experience of God and our faithful reading of scripture affirm this.
Author Sue Monk Kid tells about finding an old bundle of Christmas cards while poking around in the attic looking for a picture frame. As she sifted through them she found a card that had meant a great deal to her one year when she was seven months pregnant. She was terribly tired of waiting and yearned to hold her baby in her arms. Then the card came. On the front was Mary, great with child, and inside were the words, “Let it be.”
Kidd felt a kinship with Mary; she felt as if Mary had come to show her how to wait through her pregnancy. She writes, “Don’t fret so, the card seemed to say. You can’t control the life in you. It grows and emerges in its own time. Be patient and nurture it with all your love and attentiveness. Be still and cooperate with the mystery God is unfolding in you. Let it be.” The text on the card became the means through which she encountered a living word from God.
This brings me to my second point, which I will not labor over as much as the first. An authentic encounter with God not only places us on the solid ground of God’s unconditional love, it also opens up to us a vast Mystery to explore.
In 2 Samuel 7, David wants to build God a house, but God doesn’t want a house, because once a house is built then the temptation will forever be to limit and confine God to God’s house, which is what we so often do with our creeds and doctrinal statements and our particular religious traditions. I certainly did. I grew up like so many of you in a particular tradition that taught certitudes about God and discouraged serious questions and inquiry. Now, don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with worshiping and serving God in a particular house, in a particular tradition. In fact, it is important to be able to call someplace home. But, when we start thinking that our house is the only house where God can dwell, then we severely limit God and our experience of God.
God is so much more, and when we discover solid ground in God’s unconditional love, we are set free to explore the Mystery that God is. These two outcomes of an authentic encounter with God go hand-in-hand. Once we encounter the God whose essence is Love, we no longer feel any need to cling to fearful and childish images of God, like the torturing god or the Santa Clause god, who is making a list checking it twice in order to find out who is naughty or nice.
Mary found herself grasped by love – held on to, chosen and called – by a greater Someone, and that gave her the courage to participate in a larger story. Standing firmly on that ground, held and gripped by loved, she found the courage to say “yes” to God’s call. She was willing to be led beyond her comfort zone, beyond her house of certitudes to a new place. She had to leave her safe place, but she found a better place (not as safe, but better) in God’s love and purpose. Mary found no security in her circumstances. She found her security in God – in God’s choice of her, in God’s love and acceptance, not in her status, or name, or reputation, or place in the world. Mary would be deeply wounded in her participation in the Love and Mystery of God. Her son would be crucified by the Romans as an insurrectionist. Living out her calling would not be easy. Mary shows us that when we are secure in God’s love, we can courageously participate in God’s story even though it may at times lead us into suffering.
In a sense Mary personifies the entire mystery of how salvation is received. In the Gospel of Luke Mary functions as the ideal disciple. She epitomizes trust. She finds solid ground in God’s love and calling, and she trusts God to lead her into the mystery. She surrenders to the process of incarnation. She not only gives birth to one who for many people will become the definitive expression of God’s grace and truth, but she herself becomes an incarnation of what trust looks like. She was willing to be become part of the incarnation of God, and that is your calling and mine.
As we enter into the Mystery we realize that incarnation can never be limited to one house, to one person or tradition. Incarnation was happening before Jesus, it was happening after Jesus, and it’s happening right now, hopefully in your life and mine. Paul understood this. This is why he called us the body of Christ. This is why he spoke so frequently about our being “in Christ” and Christ being in us, or our being in the Spirit and the Spirit being in us.
The great mystery is that we cannot NOT live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded by God all the time everywhere. The prayer attributed to Saint Patrick captures it well: God beneath you, God in front of you, God behind you, God above you, God within you. We do not earn this. It’s all grace. But our experience of this Mystery is largely a matter of being tuned in, being aware, being able to trust and surrender to this Greater Love at work everywhere all the time.
Mary was willing to trust and surrender to this Great Love and Mystery, to allow the Christ child to be formed in her. What about us? Are we willing to trust and surrender to this Great Love and Mystery? In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he put it this way: “All of us [not just some of us, but all of us], with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror [the glory resides in you and in me] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” This says Paul, “comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (3:18). Are we willing to create the space and time and opportunity for the Spirit of Christ to do a good work in us and through us? Are we willing to surrender our ego and trust the Spirit to form the image of Christ in us?
Our Good God, we are so distracted, so preoccupied with other things – buying the right presents, decorating the house, entertaining, and so much more – that we hardly have time to think about the things we have talked about today. We thank you for this church, for this place and time where we can again be reminded of what is foundational, namely, your unconditional love for each of us and your presence with us and in us. I pray for each of us that we might have an encounter, an experience of your love that will open our eyes to your vastness and to your abiding and surrounding presence. May we not be afraid to have the small, little houses in which we have tried to confine you and control you come crashing down, so that we might be part of your ongoing incarnation in the world. Amen.