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Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21, 2014

Imagine that you are watching the very first “Mission Impossible” episode. We see Mr. Phelps, going about the ordinary course of his life, when suddenly, in some mysterious way, his life is disrupted by the presence of a tape recorded message. Mr. Phelps is given an announcement of a crisis situation in the world, which only he and a team of experts can possibly solve. Finally, the recording says, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it,” is to do whatever the speaker wants them to do to diffuse the crisis. Then the little tape recorder self-destructs. Mr. Phelps and his team always accept the mission. In one way, it is expected of them, but they do have the choice, the recording says, to accept it or not, so there has to be agreement on their part. Although the program does not show it, I am sure there was a lot of wondering about how they could accomplish their tasks. But there is never a mission that is truly impossible. In each episode the world is saved from whatever enemy is menacing it.

Mary finds herself in a similar situation today. Her life is disrupted, an announcement is given and an invitation issued. She too wonders how she will be able to accomplish the mission. She is assured that though it seems impossible it is not. After thinking about it, she accepts the mission she is given, carries through with flying colors and the world is saved through her son.

Mary is a young girl from the poor town of Nazareth in the backwater area of Galilee. She is female and therefore has no power and no standing. Her family has arranged her marriage to a man named Joseph. She is a virgin, though it is likely that sometime during her engagement she would have consummated the marriage with Joseph. Mary is probably going about her household tasks, perhaps thinking about her upcoming wedding. Suddenly her world is disrupted, not by the appearance of a taped message, but by an angel. Mary is in awe of the angel, as the people in the Hebrew Scriptures always are. She is not cowering in fear because she has the presence of mind to ask herself what in the world an angel would be doing visiting her. The angel tells her God has favored her – or graced her – not because of anything she has done, but because God does what God wants, just as God picked David, the least likely son of Jesse, to be king of Israel. The Lord is with her, a presence that surrounds her and calls to her. Mr. Phelps and his team got the call because of their abilities; Mary is a woman and is able to be a mother biologically, but she has no other special features.

The angel makes a startling announcement. Mary will become pregnant and bear a son, to be called Jesus. He will be the hoped for Messiah, the one who will sit on the throne of his ancestor David forever. He will also be the Son of the Most High. The nature of Mary’s calling is three-fold. Her calling is a high calling. There is only one mother of the Messiah and the words of the angel make clear that the Messiah will be both human and divine. It is evident that the parenting of this child might require special skills. It is also evident that to be the promised Savior of Israel, the child will have to engage in much combat with Rome. Mary’s calling is a risky calling. If she accepts, she will face social disapproval and could indeed face possible stoning for adultery if she is found to be pregnant not by Joseph. Her son could be in much trouble from his rebellion against the empire and while the angel says he will reign forever, there is still the risk of taking on the parenting of someone who will be involved in violence against Rome. Even if he is not killed, his family could be targets. Of course Mary did not know that Jesus would conquer through weakness and vulnerability and would die on a cross or she might have thought even harder about her role in this enterprise. Mary’s calling is in some senses a natural calling. She is called to be a mother, which in the normal course of things, she would do anyway. She would not have to learn from scratch; she would have a mother and other female relatives to teach her the basics. And she would have Joseph’s help in raising the baby.

Just as Mr. Phelps and his team had doubts about whether they could succeed in their mission, Mary had doubts too. She reminds the angel that she is a virgin and wonders how this mission the angel wanted her for could succeed. It seemed impossible. But the angel assures her it is not. Her aged relative Elizabeth who was thought to be barren is six months pregnant, and therefore nothing is impossible with God. The Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of God would overshadow her. This language is not an attempt to explain the biology of the virgin birth, but an effort to say something about the mystery of the divinity of Jesus, who will be called Son of God.

Mary has a lot of quick thinking to do. God wanted to not just be with her, but to be within her, as close as breathing. God wanted her to give birth to a very special baby, who would save the Israelites, would remove their oppressors and bring them back to their former glory. No wonder the angel assures her she does not have to be afraid. Not only was the angel to be feared, but the mission was one that nearly overwhelmed her when she thought about it. Nevertheless, after the angel’s announcement and explanation about all the possibilities available with God, Mary consents to do as God has requested and bear Jesus. Not through her own ability, like Mr. Phelps and his team, but through God’s graceful action, Mary will bear the Messiah, the Son of God who will save the world.

One of the ways people look at Mary is as an exemplar of Christian discipleship. She is receptive, if somewhat afraid, of the Lord disrupting her life and asking her to do something to help bring in God’s kingdom, to birth the holy into the world’s brokenness so that it may be healed. She is willing to listen to what God wants her to do and what God wants to do in her, and she is obedient to God’s call, even though it seems overwhelming and not a little dangerous. Mary consents to be the person God calls her to be.

I had a disruption in my life the other day. Someone came in, asking for money. She is a constant talker and I did not have the time to spend listening. But finally I settled down and listened and was able to help her. I think God was inviting me to do that. To be disciples, we have to be willing to let our lives be disrupted. We have to be willing to put down our schedules and pick up God’s. Going further, we even have to ask for God’s presence and power in our lives, which is sure to cause us to change direction in some way. When our lives are disrupted by God, we have to be willing to listen to how God is calling us to help bring in God’s kingdom.

Kelly Sweeney McShane has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and an MBA from Georgetown. Her education puts her in a position to be in any executive board room. But Kelly was called in another direction. She served with the Peace Corps and is now the president and CEO of Community of Hope, a charity that provides housing and medical care for once homeless families in Washington, according to the Washington Post. She felt called to help the needy, and she listened to that call and said yes.

God wants us to listen to our calls and say yes, just as Mary did. They are disruptive to our lives, they are sometimes risky and they are always unsettling, but they are also transforming and grace-filled – calls to be the very person God wants us to be. This Advent, may we follow Mary’s example, Let us listen for God’s call in our everyday lives and remember that with God all things are possible. Finally let our answer be “yes” so that God may work in us and through us to change the world.


     - Rev. Ann Barker