December 20, 2015

Luke 1:26 – 2:7

“Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things”

This morning all our scripture readings are from the Gospel of Luke… large sections of the first chapter, and a little of the second as well, where we will begin again on Christmas Eve. And today we are focussed on Mary’s story.

An angel shows up in Mary’s life and tells her that she’s going to have a child. It will be a special child from God, and God will make him a great king. Mary, amazingly, just asks a couple of clarifying questions, and then agrees to the plan. “I am your servant,” she says to God, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

When that angel messenger suddenly appears with his very strange news, I can only imagine that Mary must have been in shock. It’s not the kind of thing that happens to a young woman every day, and it was certainly the kind of news that would take some time to sink in, to consider what it meant, and to figure out how to deal with it.

And though the Gospel has Mary quickly agreeing to cooperate with what God is going to do in her life, the very next thing she does is to go and visit an older female relative. And the conversation that she has with Elizabeth seems to help her to make sense of what is happening to her.

First, there is the baby’s reaction to the sound of Mary’s voice. When Mary calls out a greeting, the story says that the child in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped” within her. And Elizabeth interprets it, not as a problem, but as a leap of joy! And then Elizabeth begins to just overflow with words of blessing!

Just think of this teenage girl… unmarried, pregnant, worried, and scared. She shows up at her relative’s house, hoping perhaps for a little encouragement, maybe a little nervous that Elizabeth might scold her. And she is welcomed with the warmest of blessings – with joy, with gladness, with expectation and anticipation about what lies ahead for Mary and her child.

The story explains that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaims with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

And I imagine Mary hearing, “No, you’re not in trouble. No, you’re not crazy. And I can see that God is going to do great things through you and the child that you will have. This is going to be wonderful! And well done, Mary, for listening to God and believing what you were hearing!”

Though Mary’s story seems unique and very special, I don’t think it’s so different from many of our stories. Sometimes people assume that Mary must have been extra special. God must have chosen her because of her extraordinary faith and trust. God must have prepared her for her role by endowing her with super-human patience and humility and obedience.

But I like to think… and I think the scriptures confirm the fact, that Mary was just an ordinary Jewish girl, living a normal life in the small town of Nazareth in Galilee. She was loved by God, just as each one of us is loved by our Maker. She was chosen by God, just as each one of us is chosen to bring God’s very presence into the world. And she was empowered by God to be the God-bearer, just as each one of us can be filled with God’s Spirit, and tasked with a special role in God’s mission to the world.

When Mary goes to visit her relative, Elizabeth, it becomes very clear that the child in Mary’s womb is special. If Mary was starting to wonder if her vision was a dream, Elizabeth’s reaction to her must have confirmed that God was doing something important through Mary’s pregnancy.

I’m reminded of those times when we need others in the Christian community to affirm and confirm our call to particular missions and ministries. Sometimes we think God might be calling us to action – to serve God’s mission in a certain way. Maybe it’s to try out our gifts within an established ministry of the church – to sing in the choir, or read scripture, to serve on the Women’s League, as a church school teacher, or on a committee of Session. Or maybe it’s something new – to head up a new project, to attempt a new outreach ministry, to go on a mission trip, or even to consider theological education for further ministry and service in the church.

As Presbyterians, we have discovered over and over, that it’s when we listen to God’s Spirit TOGETHER that we can be more sure of God’s call – of how we are being called to participate in making God’s kingdom real. What we so often discover, when we listen together for what God is calling us to do, is that God can take the most ordinary among us, and do great things through us.

Can you look back in your own experience in the church and think of ordinary people, or groups of ordinary people, that God used to do extraordinary things?

I think of the Presbyterian missionary Pauline Brown, who grew up in the same congregation that I did in Ottawa. She trained as a nurse, and set off at age 25 to serve in the Bhil region of India. Over 60 years in that mission, she trained more nurses than you can imagine, empowered women in the community, strengthened their hospitals, and shared the Gospel in word and in action. An ordinary Presbyterian woman, and God has done great things through her.

And I think of the Rev. Stewart Folster and his dream of doing ministry among the Aboriginal People of innercity Saskatoon. It started small and in a rented space, and I’m sure there were times when he wondered how he would manage. He kept going even when he was under-staffed and stretched to the limit.

And there are struggles in the ministry yet, but with the support of many people from our church, from others in Saskatoon, and from Presbyterians across our country, the ministry continues and grows stronger.

This afternoon, the Annual Christmas Dinner will be served to probably hundreds of people, hungry both for food and for the loving community that they find at the Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry. Through an ordinary Ojibway man from a reserve outside Winnipeg, God is doing great things.

As I continue to think and to pray about our church and about the future of our ministry in this city and in this Presbytery, I can’t help but be encouraged by Mary’s story. Like her, we sometimes feel scared and confused and uncertain about what the future holds. Will we have what it takes to carry the son of God into the world? Will we be able to do the new things, and face the new challenges that are before us?

If we are going to do it – if we’re going to bring God’s loving presence into our hurting world, perhaps we should pay attention to Mary’s experience.

First of all, we’ll need to be listening enough to hear what God may be asking us to do. It may not be as obvious as an angel messenger, so we’re going to need to do some listening prayer.

Second, we’ll need to be open enough to hear a challenging call. What God is asking us to do may be a little scary. It may require a lot of time and a lot of commitment. Like it did for Mary, it may turn our lives upside down.

And finally… when we’re not too sure what to make of God’s call… when we’ve been hearing a message and we’re scared… when we’re just not feeling confident that God can really use us for his purposes… then we need to talk to each other. We need to encourage each other. We need to let the Holy Spirit work through us to pour out blessing on each other… on the ordinary people among us who are being called by God to do great things.

What Mary came to understand as she visited with Elizabeth was that God was taking the ordinary girl that she was, and God was using her to do an extraordinary thing. God was lifting her up, and through Mary and her child, God would lift up many more.

Lately, some of us have been hearing the call to get involved in refugee sponsorship. And indeed, we have been taking steps – in partnership with Knox and 3rd Avenue United Churches – towards sponsoring a Syrian refugee family to come to Canada.

Some of our members are stepping up to take on leadership roles in this exciting venture, and many others are committing to support them with their help and prayers. We are ordinary people, being called to do something extraordinary… something that will make an amazing difference in the life of one family, and in so doing embody the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ to them.

As Mary raised her voice to praise and magnify the Lord, as her spirit rejoiced in God who was her Saviour, let us also lift our voices in praise. And may God work through our ordinary lives and our ordinary church. And may God accomplish extraordinary things through us.

Here we are, your servants, O God. Let it be with us according to your word. Amen.