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2017-2018

 

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December 24, 2017, Fourth Sunday of Advent

 

 

LectionAid 1st Quarter 2017-18

December 24, 2017, Fourth Sunday of Advent

Mary, First to Hear the Gospel

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89:1-4; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Theme: Equality

Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON

Starting Thoughts

It is ironic that two women were in a way the first evangelists entrusted with the good news that God was sending his Son into the world. Ironic, in that even in the 21st Millennium there are still a number of churches that refuse to allow women to serve as church officers or as clergy. Yet even they cannot deny that God chose women to be the means through which his Son would enter the male-dominated world. God could just as easily have sent his Son into the world full grown, similar to the way in which, in Greek mythology, the adult children of Zeus emerged from his head, but the Creator of nature chose to work (mostly) through nature, implanting in Mary's womb the seed which would grow into the child to be named Jesus.
Our lectionary reverses the chronological order of the Annunciation and the Magnificat; so today imagine this story as a flashback like one of those we are used to seeing in movies. Mary is alone when the angel Gabriel appears to her and addresses her as "the favored one." Reassuring her and thus freeing her from her fears, he announces that she is to bear a son who will be the great ruler over Israel. Mary, of course, is perplexed, as she is betrothed but not yet married to Joseph, but Gabriel assures her that God will work this out. Informing her that her barren kinswoman Elizabeth, who had grown old without giving birth, would also bear a child, he declares "For nothing will be impossible with God"—a promise that has inspired countless people of faith throughout the ages to dare the impossible. Mary's response is the simple one of acceptance and submission, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
This response, when one thinks about it, required great faith and courage. Living in a shame-based society in which an unmarried pregnant woman could be killed, the young maiden took considerable risks—the risk that her husband to be might reject her and even invoke the Mosaic code that called for stoning an adulteress; the risk of being the butt of cruel gossip and rude jokes about her state; and the tragedy that could fall upon her son who might be branded with the epithet of bastard. However, she submits to the strange will of God, giving over her very body to the mysterious workings of the Spirit. Unfortunately, the church's male clergy chose to misinterpret Mary's submission, ignoring her strong character that enabled her to stand up to the pressures of her society, and instead, calling her the perfect woman because of her meek submission to God. The early Christian egalitarianism, present even in the letters of the apostle Paul who has provided male chauvinists with passages interpreted as teaching that women must submit to men in all things, was forsaken, the result being that women for hundreds of years were relegated to second class citizenship in the church.
The latter, of course, is what did happen. People learned to read and began to draw their own conclusions, especially when led by an Augustinian monk who judged the church, and its practices by what he read in scripture and found the former sadly wanting. Luther's Bible-based reformation transformed the church, and is still doing so. Today it is women and the poor who read the Annunciation story and the Magnificat in Luke's gospel and find that these passages apply directly to themselves.

Exegetical Comments

Dr. R. Alan Culpepper, in his commentary on Luke in The New Interpreter's Bible contrasts the biblical understanding of being "favored by God" with "the ideals and goals" that we strive for today: "Today many assume that those whom God favors will enjoy the things we equate with a good life: social standing, wealth, and good health." Not so, of course with Mary. Her son would become an outcast, favoring society's rejects, and die a criminal's death, entrusting her welfare to one of his disciples. Bill and Patty Coleman, Discovering the Spirit of the Poor: Whispers of Revolution (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1992), pp. 134-135.
It is ironic that two women were in a way the first evangelists entrusted with the good news that God was sending his Son into the world. Ironic, in that even in the 21st Millennium there are still a number of churches that refuse to allow women to serve as church officers or as clergy. Yet even they cannot deny that God chose women to be the means through which his Son would enter the male-dominated world. God could just as easily have sent his Son into the world full grown, similar to the way in which, in Greek mythology, the adult children of Zeus emerged from his head, but the Creator of nature chose to work (mostly) through nature, implanting in Mary's womb the seed which would grow into the child to be named Jesus.
Our lectionary reverses the chronological order of the Annunciation and the Magnificat; so today imagine this story as a flashback like one of those we are used to seeing in movies. Mary is alone when the angel Gabriel appears to her and addresses her as "the favored one." Reassuring her and thus freeing her from her fears, he announces that she is to bear a son who will be the great ruler over Israel. Mary, of course, is perplexed, as she is betrothed but not yet married to Joseph, but Gabriel assures her that God will work this out. Informing her that her barren kinswoman Elizabeth, who had grown old without giving birth, would also bear a child, he declares "For nothing will be impossible with God"—a promise that has inspired countless people of faith throughout the ages to dare the impossible. Mary's response is the simple one of acceptance and submission, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

Preaching Possibilities

From its very beginning the church was meant to reflect the coming kingdom of God, one in which the sexes, as well as the rich and the poor, would be equal before God. Paul's vision of the church expounded in his letter to the Galatians, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus", was merely an acknowledgment of what God intended for the church from that first moment when Gabriel visited the favored Mary. The good news is that women are as good as men in the kingdom. (Maybe even a little better, as it was a woman who first heard the good news of the Christ child's birth, and it would be women who first meet the resurrected Christ.) We can be thankful that we today are seeing the equality of men and women taking place in the church, transforming it from a male-dominated institution into a gathering for all the people. The story of Mary and Elizabeth shows us that God is indeed "putting down the powerful from their thrones."

Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON

Different Sermon Illustrations

Females, once depicted in children's films as damsels in distress awaiting rescue by a Prince Charming, have assumed a more active role in the past few years. In the Disney film Mulan, based on an ancient Chinese legendary figure, a young woman takes the place of her aged father when the Emperor calls up all men to defend the empire against an evil invader. Mulan, whom we see earlier rejecting all attempts to mold her into a docile object of beauty able to attract a man, cuts her long hair, dons male clothing, and sets off in place of her ailing father to fight against those devastating the land. Her father expects disgrace to fall upon the family, and for a while this seems about to happen, but the energetic and innovative young woman prevails, winning the favor of the emperor through her victory.
In many ways Mulan is like Joan of Arc, long a role model for women desiring a more active life style than the submissive one pressed upon them by men. Joan also had to overcome male prejudice against women leaders. She risked scandal by donning male clothing and taking up arms in defense of her country. However, she felt compelled to do so by the voices calling to her, as did Mary by Gabriel's call. She risked everything and lost her life when the enemy captured her and turned her over to a church that sensed in her a strong challenge to their status quo. But she gained the inspiration, and eventually the freedom, of her countrymen, and at long last even the church that killed her had to admit and recognize that she was a saint.
In another superb Disney film there is a female character who stands up to the pressures of men and asserts herself. It is Belle, a young village maiden pursued by an over-confident neighborhood tough guy. The big bruiser is sure that Belle will succumb to his manly charms. Belle rebuffs him in no uncertain terms, finally giving herself up as a captive for the sake of her father when he is captured by the Beast and held prisoner in his castle. The Beast slowly learns that Belle's heart cannot be captured and subdued by brute force, but only by gentleness, kindness and love. The film is a powerful story that love and beauty can win over hostility and force.
The discerning preacher/teacher desiring to use every form of communication of the gospel should have a collection of Christian art books to draw upon. The following are currently in print and offer some treasures for literally illustrating the gospel lesson:
The Annunciation has been a favorite subject for painters since medieval days. It is a very transformed Mary that often is depicted, one dressed in rich velvets and silks, living a comfortable upper-class lifestyle in a well-appointed room. This, of course, reflects the honor given Mary by the medieval church as "The Queen of Heaven, the Mother of God." Her actual peasant origin is ignored as being of little importance. Today, however, we want more realism. Dorothy Day's favorite artist Fritz Eichenberg, who contributed so much of his art free of charge to her newspaper The Catholic Worker, in his black and white print "Annunciation 1955," shows a very plainly dressed young woman with her upward turned face listening in rapture to the angel Gabriel, who is hovering over her so closely that he seems to be whispering his good news to her. Mary sits upon a simple wooden bench beside a rough table on which, as is depicted in many medieval and Renaissance renderings, is a vase of flowers and an open book. He adds a homey touch by including a sewing basket with shears, thread and yarn. (Fritz Eichenberg, Works of Mercy (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), p. 32.)

Some of the inspiring films that Feature a Strong Female Lead. The first is Erin Brockovich. Elle Woods. Leigh Ann Tuohy. Leading ladies that we all adore, and all wish we could be a little more like. So often the gender inequality in film is subtle enough that it goes fairly unnoticed. But it's an undeniable truth that movies which feature a strong, independent female lead (who isn't just used solely as a foil or love interest for the male lead) aren't exactly in abundance. So when we do get treated to movies of the like, we cherish them, we watch them over and over again, and we tend to never forget the indelible characters which no doubt have shaped our own decisions as women. These girls aren't perfect by any standards—but the reason we look up to them as our role models is because rather than give up or (more often the case) rely on a man to solve their problems, they choose to pull from their inner strength and in the end they come out on top of the world because they did things their way. Without further ado, let's list of some to the greatest movies with fearless female leads!
The next is Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) with Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn). Everybody knows the iconic image of the ever-graceful Hepburn standing in front of the Tiffany's store on 5th Avenue, quietly indulging in a croissant, dressed in a floor length gown with black gloves, glam jewelry, big sunglasses, and a tiara to crown her messy yet elegant bun. Holly Golightly is the epitome of New York chic, roaming around in her cute apartment (which, admittedly, her many male suitors pay for), wearing gorgeous outfits and throwing lavish parties—yes, she may have a habit of latching on the nearest rich fella she sees, but Holly is a free spirit. In a manner quite different from the culture at the time, she is an independent woman who doesn't need to bind herself to a man to have a purpose in life.
Another movie that often is forgotten is Clueless (1995) with Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone). "As if!" How could this ever cheerful, bubbly, ditzy valley girl with a heart of gold not make the list? Cher may be materialistic to excess and lack intelligence, but she makes up for it by being selfless, kind, and a positive role model to her friends and her school. And it does help that she's a fashion guru with an automated closet that is the stuff of dreams.
Then there is Nothing But The Truth (2008) - Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale)
This movie is the female version of All the President's Men in a way, except much more suspenseful. Kate Beckinsale delivers a memorable performance as a journalist who, while working on a story, uncovers a massive conspiracy that leads high up the political chain. Rather than give herself up, she stands steadfastly to her convictions, through investigations, threats, jail, and even prison—remaining strong through it all. She's a model for all female journalists.
No one should over look Dirty Dancing (1987) - Francis "Baby" Houseman (Jennifer Grey). "Nobody puts Baby in a corner." She may seem timid and conservative, but Baby proves that even the good girls can get a little dirty (then again, for Swayze, wouldn't we all?).
Then there is The Sound of Music (1965) - Maria Von Trapp (Julie Andrews). "I have confidence in me!" sings Maria as she bravely marches to the Von Trapp family mansion where she is to become step mother to staggering seven children. But it's how she stands up to the intimidating Captain Von Trapp and makes him realize how poor a father he has been, that truly makes her an inspiration.
Another example is Pretty In Pink (1986) - Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald). "I just wanna let them know that they didn't break me." Andie doesn't fall into any of the classic stereotypes of an '80s teen flick. She's not popular or blonde, an athlete or a dancer. She's a smart kid from the poorer side of town who designs all her own outfits, doesn't let any richie bully her, and even snags the heart of one handsome and popular Blaine in one of the most adorably romantic end scenes of any rom-com. John Hughes was a champion of strong female leads but none were quite as special as Andie.
Then there is the unexpected hit The Blind Side (2009) - Leigh Ann Tuohy (Sandra Bullock). Leigh Ann might be a petite southern housewife, but make no mistake—she is tough as nails and never gives up on anyone she loves, making her not only admirable but easy to love as well. This role won Sandra Bullock an Oscar for best actress.
Finally there is Erin Brockovich (2000) - Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts). The fact that this movie is based on a true story, and that Erin Brockovich is a real person, just makes this film all the more gratifying. Julia Roberts is on fire as the single mom and paralegal who ends up almost singlehandedly taking down a corrupt California power company that was polluting city waters. It's an Oscar-winning performance but more than that, Erin Brockovich represents the idea that women can do anything they set their minds to, even if it is in a field traditionally dominated by men. (https://www.hercampus.com/entertainment/20-inspiring-films-feature-strong-female-lead)

The former World Council of Churches theologian Hans-Ruedi Weber adds a multicultural touch to the subject by including in his book Immanuel a painting by the contemporary Nigerian artist Paul Woelfel in which Mary is shown as a young African maiden dressed in a simple white blouse and long blue skirt. Honor is rendered her by having her sit upon a chieftain's stool, a symbol of power. Flowers are growing in the green grass surrounding the stool. Especially charming is the artist's depiction of the angel Gabriel (also an African) holding out on a stick an envelope containing the letter of the Annunciation message, just like an African postman might deliver it—except that he is kneeling before her. He has taken off his sandals in recognition that, because of her acceptance of her charge, he is now on holy ground. Like the more traditional "Annunciations," Mr. Woelfel's shows the Holy Spirit descending upon Mary in the form of a dove, drawing on the description from the gospel accounts of Jesus' baptism. (Hans-Ruedi Weber, Immanuel; The Coming of Christ in Art and the Bible [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984] p37)

Because of the 16th century reformers opposition to the cult of the Virgin Mary, Protestant painters largely ignored the Annunciation. The great Rembrandt rendered just a sketch of the event, though from its dramatic rendering many wish that he had executed a full-scale oil painting of it. The angel Gabriel, with wings outspread, bends closely over Mary, who, shocked by the news, is slipping off her chair. He did paint a few years later "Mary's Visit to Elizabeth," so we can see something of what the painting might have looked like. However, in his Protestant society, Mary's role in God's plan of salvation was devalued, and so there would have been no market for such a painting, one that would have consumed a great deal of the artist's time.
In some societies, being barren is practically the greatest shame that a woman can endure. The thinking is that if you do not have a child, you are worthless because there is no one to carry on your name. In western societies, childless women often consult with doctors as they search for alternative methods of conception. But in Kenya, barren women solve their dilemma by marrying another woman who is single and counting on her to bear children. The arrangement is not polygamy. The contract is purely between the two women. According to the agreement, who the single girl marries is of no consequence to the childless woman. The childless woman's only concern is that the other woman eventually bears children. Those children then are considered off-spring of the childless woman, as well as being off-spring of the birth mother.
In a poll conducted by Family Circle, 86% of mothers think they don't get enough respect. And 80% agree that mothers who stay at home get even less respect. On a positive note, however, while 70% of mothers indicate that being a mom is much more demanding than they expected, 92% say it is also much more rewarding than they expected.
Bearing and raising children, especially sons, is not an easy task. Many have heard mothers say, "My son will be the death of me." Research in Finland now backs up those words. A study that analyzed family church records across the centuries found that having sons shortened the life span of Finnish mothers by about 34 weeks per son. In an article in the journal Science, researchers theorize that sons make a much greater physical demand on the mother's body than daughters do. In contrast, if women gave birth to daughters who survived to adulthood, that helped the mothers to live longer. But researchers said that it generally took about three daughters to offset the negative effects of having one son.

The European Union decided last year that it was not necessary to have "Mother Christmas" products in stores to balance the traditional "Father Christmas." The Woolworths chain had claimed they were being forced to sell Mother Christmas suits alongside the usual Father Christmas outfits. The European Commission ruled that there is no requirement for the store to do that. The body stated that the European Union's non-discrimination laws apply to employees, not to products. A court spokesperson observed that all of Santa's reindeer are female, and no one complains about that. He noted that male reindeer all lose their antlers before winter, while females keep them until spring. Quoting an Alaskan state government office, he said that only females would be able to drive a fat guy in a velvet suit around the world in one night and not get lost."

Just as Mary discovered, any birth is never entirely what we expect. Even scientists have discovered that they cannot control the birth process. Last February scientists at Texas A&M University proudly announced they had created the first cloned cat, which they dubbed with the name CC, for "carbon copy." But the young cat was anything but a carbon copy. The surprise was that the kitten did not look like a younger version of her genetic donor. The older cat was a white, orange, and black calico, while CC was a black and white tabby with almost no orange. Scientists were unable to explain why the genetic twins appeared so different.

Discrimination against women has been a fact of life for so long that many people do not even consider that there could be an alternative way to relate to the sexes. Yale scholar Miroslav Volf comments: "Our coziness with the surrounding culture has made us so blind to many of its evils that, instead of calling them into question, we offer our own versions of them—in God's name and with a good conscience" (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation {Nashville, 1996] p36).

Hundreds of young Chinese women endure painful surgery each year in an attempt to make themselves more appealing. The women undergo what is known as the Ilizarov procedure, which increases the person's height by up to a couple of inches. The $6000 operation involves breaking bones in the person's shins or thighs, and then manually adjusting special leg braces four times a day that pull the bones slightly apart. Eventually, if the procedure is successful, the bones grow back and fuse together. The total process involves about six to nine months. One woman who was planning on having the procedure done to her remarked, "I'll have a better job, a better boyfriend, and eventually a better husband. It's a long-term investment."

Four convicted murderers in Pakistan agreed to marry off eight young female family members to settle the blood debt. Apparently, such arrangements are not unknown in some of the poor areas in central Pakistan, where tribal law still prevails. But national outrage at the number and ages of the girls forced the deal to be called off. Some of the girls involved were as young as 5, and they were being offered to men who were old enough to be their great-grandfathers. One 14-year-old girl was about to be married to a 77-year-old man, and a 15-year-old girl was to be wedded to a 55-year-old fellow. While the death sentences were handed down by an official Pakistani court, the country's Islamic law provides that a victim's family can ask for clemency. In addition to the girls, the family of the murdered men were to receive "blood money" in the amount of $130,000. Officials said that the convicted men could still avoid execution if some other deal could be worked out with the victims' family. While this case drew national attention because it was so extreme, experts say that similar deals involving forced marriages take place on a regular basis.

Families are generally expected to look after their children. But in some households, the daughters are being exploited for profit. According to the New York Daily News (May 9, 2002), there are dozens of money-making web sites where parents are posting provocative pictures of their teenage daughters (although in some cases the children involved are even as young as age 6). Web users then pay around $30 per month to get access to the photo archives and to receive personal messages from the child. Many of these sites average about 3000 users per day. One particular site, though, was viewed 32 million times over a nine-month period. Some of the parents attempt to explain what they're doing by claiming that they are trying to raise money to put their children through college or that they are attempting to help their children launch a career in modeling.
According to a survey in Bride's Magazine, about 8 out of 10 brides plan to take the last name of their new husband. A relatively small, yet consistent, percentage of women decide to keep their own name. But a growing number of couples—although at present the total number is not large—are deciding to have the husband take the wife's name or to create a new family name by combining letters from both of their names.

In our scientific Western culture, we have a difficult time appreciating the mystery of Jesus' conception. With our officially affirmed dogma that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, we figure that we have de-mystified the incarnation. Marva Dawn laments the fact that "we have reduced the notion of mystery to figuring out whether it was the butler or the maid who killed the rich man" (Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson, The Unnecessary Pastor [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000], p. 57).

When we read about encounters between angels and humans in the Bible, we take it for granted that each can understand the language of the other. A workshop convened this past spring in a suburb of Paris to consider what language to use if we were to meet an extraterrestrial. Douglas Vakoch, who runs the interstellar message group at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), proposes that "we should construct thousands of messages in the hope one of them could be understood." SETI has been scanning the skies for the past forty years in the hope of picking up a transmission from outer space. One workshop participant suggested that music be used to teach aliens our language. He proposed using sounds from Indonesian gongs to accompany the message. An artist contended that a rainbow would be a helpful metaphor for humankind's unity through diversity. The group will continue to study the matter.

"Old fashioned ways which no longer apply to changed conditions are a snare in which the feet of women have always become readily entangled" (Jane Addams).

"It is only the women whose eyes have been washed clear with tears who get the broad vision that makes them little sisters to all the world" (Dorothy Dix).

"She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child…but he'd been entrusted with a message…he only hoped she wouldn't notice that beneath his…wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on [her] answer…" (Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who [San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1979], p.39).

There is an aura around being "first." First man to walk on the moon, first woman to swim the English Channel, first recipient of an artificial heart, first black child in an all-white school, all these "firsts" made history, made the papers and the evening news. These people shaped the events they experienced, as well as being shaped by them. Each one had to be receptive to the idea of the thing they would accomplish, willing to undertake it, willing to hear of it. Each one had to participate; these achievements did not just happen to them: they had to be willing.

Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)

Call to Worship (based on Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26)

Leader: Sing of God's steadfast love. Lift up your voices and tell of God's faithfulness to all generations.
People: God's love is forever. God's compassion is without end.
Leader: God's faithfulness abides with us.
People: God is our Rock! Let it be to us according to God's Word. Praise be to God!

Prayer of Confession

Holy God, the days of Advent are quickly passing by, and we still aren't ready. We have prepared our homes for the holidays, yet we have failed to prepare ourselves. We have gazed at the colorful lights all around us, but we haven't allowed the light of Your Word to touch our souls. We have read all the catalogues but never read your words of hope. We have spent weeks searching for the perfect presents, yet we have spent relatively little time searching for You. Forgive us for our misguided efforts. Merciful Lord, before this Advent season draws to a close, enable us to use these days to make ourselves truly ready for the coming of our Lord and Savior. In His name we pray. Amen.

Prayer of Dedication

Ever-living God, during this time of year, we busy ourselves with wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows. We rejoice in the gifts we give and in the gifts, we receive. Yet amid all the festivities of this season, keep us mindful that You are deserving of the greatest gifts of all. In the name of our Lord and Savior we pray. Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

Heavenly Lord, at this time of year, we long to experience even a portion of what Mary experienced when she beheld the glory of Your angel Gabriel. Amid the darkness of our lives, grant us a vision of Your shining presence. The angel then spoke to Mary, declaring that God's favor rested upon her. In the face of the many obstacles and challenges that we face each day, speak also to us, and remind us that Your grace and Your favor abide with us as well. The Holy Spirit proceeded to come upon Mary and fill her being. As we often feel powerless and insufficient to fulfill the tasks at hand, breathe Your Spirit into us, and empower us to accomplish mighty deeds in Your name.
Loving God, although this is a time of year for anticipation and joy, for many it is a time of sadness and pain. We pray for all who are grieving, whose deep sorrow is perhaps intensified by the holiday season. We pray for family members and friends who are separated from us by the miles, yet who remain very present in our thoughts and concerns. We lift our prayers for all the Mary’s in the world today, the women in our world who are prevented—because of tradition or custom or discrimination—from enjoying the fullness of life that You intend for them. By the outpouring of Your Spirit, touch them and raise them up to experience the wholeness that You alone can bring. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.