December 20, 2020

Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38
Luke 1:46b-55

“A Letter of Love”

This morning is the final sermon in my little series on “Letters of Encouragement” during the Season of Advent. I’ve been focussing on the Epistle readings that are included each Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary, looking for messages of encouragement, as well as assurances of hope, peace, joy, and love from God in Jesus Christ.

On this last Advent Sunday, the theme is LOVE, and the Epistle text comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome. Similar to last week, the reading comes from the very end of the letter – final words from the Christian leader to the Christian community. And in this case, Paul closes with a liturgically-rich doxology (Those are words of praise to God). And the doxology names God as powerful, wise, and therefore worthy of praise.

The passage is a bit tricky to understand at first because it’s an incomplete sentence – a problem that is often corrected in contemporary paraphrases. But even if the grammar doesn’t make sense in English, the meaning is clear enough:

God’s wisdom and power are on display, and we are called to praise. God has revealed God’s love in Jesus Christ. This is good news for us, and its aim is to foster faith and obedience among all people. God strengthens us by the gospel, the proclamation of good news, and the revelation of God’s love. And all this leads us to trust in God, declaring our allegiance to God, and participating in God’s mission of love.

So, there are two themes in this section from Romans that I want to highlight today – the call to obedience and the call to praise.

Now, “obedience” is not a word that many of us like. It makes us think of being controlled or oppressed, and we usually like the idea that we are free and independent. Just think of all the recent complaints and protests about wearing masks, and avoiding gatherings, and limiting our contacts. People don’t like being told what they can or cannot do.

But I like the way Andrew Clark Whaley explains what Paul may mean when he talks about obedience: “In Romans and his other letters, Paul elaborates on what obedience looks like, but he sums it up in several places as the law of love. We love God and our neighbour, we welcome one another, we serve the brother or sister for whom Christ died, we rejoice and weep together, we honour the weaker member, we sit at the same table, we are baptized into the one Lord. Obedience is love in action… Jesus called [Paul] to shape communities by the law of love. Communities transformed by this message prepare the world for the reign of Christ.”

So, obedience does not mean being put-upon by someone who wants to control you, and it doesn’t mean blindly obeying without consideration and choice. It means participating in God’s mission and putting love into action in the world – doing the kinds of things that God made us to do. And I think that Mary, the mother of Jesus, gives us a wonderful witness and example to follow when it comes to obedience to God.

Certainly, there are Christian interpretations of Mary that imagine her as meek and submissive. But others read the story of the angel’s annunciation to Mary and find that she is “neither spineless nor mindlessly obedient. She is not forced to bear Jesus. She ponders. She questions the angel. She wonders how this could be. [And] in the end, she says yes to God, not because she has to, but because she wants to.”

Eric Barreto explains that “In Luke’s narration, Mary’s consent is an act of radical faithfulness, belief, and discipleship. In accepting [the angel’s message], Mary becomes the first to believe the good news of Jesus. She becomes the first disciple, the first prophet, the first proclaimer of Jesus when her body nurtures a baby who will turn the world upside down.”

Of course, some want to believe that Mary was super holy and uniquely capable of becoming the mother of the Christ-child. But I like to think of her as an ordinary young woman, not super-special, but simply chosen by God for a special purpose and role in God’s mission of love for the world. And because she was chosen, and because she said yes, God gifted and equipped her for all that she needed to do.

I wonder what God has in mind for you. How is God calling you to participate in God’s mission of love in the world today and tomorrow?

I appreciate the fact that during this season, even the news media are looking for stories to tell about ordinary people doing extraordinary things to share love and blessing with others. They don’t usually describe it as participating in God’s mission in the world, but that’s what I would call it.

I’m thinking of the Winnipeg man who built a parade float (despite the fact that the Santa Claus parade was cancelled because of Covid) and he’s driving around the city every night this month, playing Christmas music, and towing a float with a nativity scene, lights, and messages of encouragement for the front-line workers.

I’m thinking of a Regina waitress who volunteers at the Souls Harbour Rescue Mission. And in addition to her hours of service, this year she donated all her tips (over $5000) to Souls Harbour to help make Christmas a little better for those who need to go there for a meal.

I’m thinking of all the people who are heeding the call to find new and creative ways to share love and light during this Covid-Christmas season, saying “yes” when they are inspired with an idea, see a sign, or hear a call to be love in action.

Your obedience to God’s call may need to begin by recognizing that God can choose you also, and it’s not dependent on you being remarkably talented or perfectly holy. The only thing that is holding you back from using your life to bring God’s love into the world is your hesitation to say “Yes, here I am, the servant of the Lord,” and to choose obedience to God’s plan.

Unlike Mary, most of us won’t get a visit from an angel to tell us what God wants us to be doing next. But last week when our Advent Book Study group was gathered on Zoom, we shared about signs from God that some of us have received, giving us encouragement and direction in our lives of faith and service. Mostly those signs are not too spectacular. They often come through the words of others around us or in times of reflection and prayer, and occasionally they come in our dreams or in unusual events that surprise us and call us to pay attention to God.

Paying attention is a good first step, and saying yes comes next. But did you notice what Mary did after that? She sings the song of praise that we have come to know as the Magnificat. With her whole being, she magnifies the Lord, and her spirit rejoices in God her Saviour.

Although Mary likely still has a lot of unanswered questions about the future, she trusts God enough to take the first step. This is a model of discipleship for us that is just as remarkable and inspiring as the fishermen who dropped their nets and followed Jesus on the way.

And more than that, she recognizes that God is doing something remarkable – bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly – and welcoming her to participate in that wonderful work.

One of the questions that often comes up when we are studying and discussing the Magnificat is whether or not it was actually Mary who wrote the song of praise. Before she left to visit her relative Elizabeth, did Mary sit down and compose a song based on the words of the prophets of her faith, glorifying God for all that God had done, and was doing, and would do in the future to help God’s people and fill the hungry with good things?

Or perhaps she spontaneously sang out her praise to God when Elizabeth confirmed for her the wonder of what God was clearly doing in her life. Alternatively, perhaps the Gospel writer penned the words and put them in the voice of Mary as he reflected on the part she played in bringing God’s love into the world.

I’m not sure that the details of how the song came to be are really that important. The point is that Mary chose obedience to God’s call and gave the glory to God who was equipping and strengthening her to participate in God’s mission of love.

And even if Mary didn’t literally sing a song that day, her life of obedience to God becomes a doxology in itself, as she praises and glorifies God in the ways that she lives as a disciple day-by-day.

May our lives too demonstrate such faithful obedience, such joyful praise, and may we participate this Christmas in bringing God’s love into this world that needs it so much.