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Sun, Dec 23, 2018

O Come All Ye Faithful

Duration:13 mins 53 secs

We have arrived at the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and our Scripture text is from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verses 39-45. As Luke tells us the story of Jesus’ birth, the suspense builds with two intertwined stories of miraculous pregnancies. The first is that of an older barren couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth. The second is that of Mary of Nazareth, a young virgin engaged to a man named Joseph. In our text this morning, we find these two stories intersect. Let us hear this Word of God.

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

“Jesus has a very special love for you, but as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, - listen and do not hear – the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak. … I want you to pray for me – that I let Him have [a] free hand.”

“So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy – If there be God – please forgive me … I am told God loves me – and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”

It might surprise you to know who wrote those lines in letters to her spiritual confidant. Mother Teresa dedicated almost fifty years of her life to helping and serving the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. Her simple smile and her wise words were an inspiration. In a consumer-dominated world, her choice for simplicity and poverty fascinated us. Her work of healing, presence, and peace resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. After her death 21 years ago, the Roman Catholic Church placed Teresa on the fast track to sainthood with the result that Pope Frances canonized her in 2016.

And yet, Teresa struggled throughout of her ministry in Calcutta with intense spiritual darkness and doubt. As we have just heard, for Teresa it appeared as if God was absent and may not even exist. She looked but could not see. She listened but could not hear. She tried to pray but could not speak. She even wondered if this “call” to work with the poor was all a big mistake. Yes, Mother Teresa had doubts.

Now I have been thinking about faith and doubt this week. The hymn I chose as our theme for this morning is O Come All Ye Faithful. It is one of my favorites. We will be singing it tomorrow night as I cannot imagine a Christmas Eve service without it. So, I have been humming the glorious opening lines all week. And yet at some point I started to wonder who exactly I was singing about. Who are these “faithful” who are called to come?

Looking for models of faithfulness, we normally lift up Mary, the mother of Jesus. In an earlier story in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel visits Mary to announce: “Do not afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” But Mary’s first response to this news is not to celebrate or to worship. No, she has a question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary has doubts. She does not comprehend the angel’s words to her. How can this be?

So Gabriel gives her some more information. Mary will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. And even more than that, there is a sign: “Your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” The angel’s words are trustworthy because God has already demonstrated that nothing is impossible.

Mary responds with what appears to be a statement of faith, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” All seems well. No more doubts, right?

But the very next thing Mary does is go see Elizabeth. I had always assumed she went because she wanted, or needed, to get out of Nazareth because of her unplanned, unwed pregnancy. But there is a strand in our theological tradition that wonders if Mary goes to see if the angel’s words really are true? What if she doubts that “nothing will be impossible with God” and so she goes to see for herself? What if she thinks, in the words of Mother Teresa, “Did I make a mistake surrendering blindly to the Call?” Could Mary the mother of Jesus have had doubts?

For Christian believers, those of us who have assumed we are the faithful ones called to come in the famous Christmas hymn, yes for us the doubts of Mother Teresa and Mary might be severely disappointing. We have trusted and relied upon these two. They are models for us. They were so solid. How could there be cracks in their “unshakable” faith? How can we trust anything that they said or did if they had doubts? Do their entire lives become just a house of cards waiting for a breath to knock them down?

And yet, if you and I hold on to the possibility that faith is true; if you and I are open to explore the chance that there just might be a God who is active in the world and that Jesus really is who he and the church have claimed him to be for the last two thousand years; then the revelation of doubts in the saints just might be a way into faith. As Ted Wardlaw, the president of Austin Theological Seminary, has written,

For me … [learning of Mother Teresa’s doubts] only makes her more extraordinary. A new element of her humanity has been uncovered, and she – and her tenacious faith – became somehow more accessible to me. No longer is she so much larger than life that I cannot successfully relate to her. I now see her as one who struggled with some of the same impediments to faith that I struggle with – the daily evidence of poverty and greed and inequality and apathy and self-questioning that seem to refute the claims we make about God’s presence in the world.

Yes, for those who wonder, instead of being an example in the argument against faith, Mother Teresa’s doubts humanize her so that we can see a true example of what a life of faith looks like.

The same could be true for Mary and her journey to find Elizabeth. In his commentary on these verses our Presbyterian theological ancestor John Calvin wrote:

There is nothing we should reckon odd in Mary seeking to confirm her faith by going to see the miracle which the angel had effectively brought to her notice. The faithful may be satisfied with the unadorned Word of God, and yet, neglect none of his works which they realize provide support for their faith. Mary was above all right to seize upon the help afforded her, if she did not wish to reject what the Lord had deliberately put before her.”

For Calvin, there is nothing odd about Mary’s doubts or her seeking to confirm her faith. In fact, to stop seeking would be to reject the aids that the Lord gives us on this journey with Him.

My friends, if we are to be faithful, I want to invite us to continue to asking questions and seeking answers. For faith is not just giving ascent to a list of theological doctrines. If that is all there was to it, God would have given us a pamphlet or a tract instead of two miraculous pregnancies. But God came to us in an old barren woman with a child in her womb who leaps for joy at the sound an unwed mother-to-be’s greeting. Yes, God comes to us as a baby and anyone who has ever held a baby their arms who was not overwhelmed with wonder and awe and, “I have no idea what I am supposed to do next,” has not yet met the Christ child.

It was writer Madeline L’Engle who said,

The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men… Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.”

My friends, even on this fourth Sunday of Advent perhaps you have come with questions and doubts. Could this story really be true? If so, you are not alone. I invite you come, for having questions and your doubts is part of being faithful, even for the most faithful among us.

So, come,
come to Bethlehem to see Him,
come to cradle Him in your arms,
come to hold Him in wonder and awe;
come to adore him,
Christ the Lord.

For grace, upon grace, upon grace, upon grace, awaits us if we will journey together to greet Him this happy morning.

Thanks be to God.

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