—By Linda Goertz
Last year at Advent time, I went to an evening service at St. Paul’s in Oregon City, where they had laid out a labyrinth pattern on their parish hall floor, and we walked that path in silence. Beforehand, each of us had received a little piece of paper with a message. Mine, which I still have tacked up on the wall at home, said, “I want to be born in you this Christmas.”
Those words went straight to my heart that night. It’s been decades since LeRoy and I had to face my inability to have children, but that loss is still part of who I am. So that loving reminder that Christ longs to be carried in and birthed through each one of us was, for me, a miracle that is both old and new.
I’m astonished at Mary herself. I don’t think she, as a young, not-yet-married woman, was saying to herself, Oh, I sure hope I get pregnant soon! – let alone, I hope a messenger from the Most High God suddenly appears before me! The Scripture translation we have says she was “much perplexed,” but I think that must have included an element of terror; because right away the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”
Throughout the story of Jesus’s arrival in this world, angels are always telling people, “Don’t be afraid.” They tell Mary, they tell Joseph, they tell the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid.” Because, really, a Word from God, a message, a call from God is scary; it can sound impossible. “How can this be?” we say along with Mary, “since I’m” . . . since I’m just ordinary me, not smart, not powerful, not someone important in the world. Since I don’t know what to even say when hatred and violence are screaming; since I feel powerless in the face of systemic oppression; since the bad guys sometimes seem to be winning.
So the angel, the messenger from God, tells us that the Holy Spirit will come upon us, will overshadow our inadequacies and the world’s failings, with a power that’s not our own. That nothing is impossible with God. Nothing.
God’s desire, God’s intent for us is always healing, always a wholeness beyond our imaginings. Not just, “We’re going to get some encouraging information from God to improve our lives,” but we will be transformed. Mary was never the same after this – she lived out exponentially more joy and more great sorrow than the little just-betrothed Mary of Nazareth ever dreamt of. Because God intended her to be fully herself, and she had the boldness to say YES, to say, Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word. Not according to her best imaginings and plans, but according to God.
In our Old Testament reading, King David had a plan ready, too. He was grateful for his victories, he loved God, and he proposed creating a sign of that love and gratitude: he decided to build a temple for God. And his trusted advisor Nathan — the prophetic Nathan who doesn’t hesitate to tell David when he’s sinning – agrees. What a great idea, a dwelling for God; it’s so totally what good people of faith all over the world have been doing, in honor of the God who saves and guides and loves us deeply. Build a beautiful sanctuary for God. Right?
Not according to this story. God tells Nathan – who then has to go tell the king, remember – God says, I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about . . . did I ever speak a word . . . saying. ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’
What we think God wants of us may not always be what God wants most for us.
Creating a place of beauty where we can come and worship God is good; I believe that God loves it when sisters and brothers come together and celebrate our joy at who God is. I think the delight and awe we express when we prepare for a feast like Christmas, when we decorate the church and make it lovely – like some folks are going to do after church today – I think that’s a good and delightful thing to do. But we can’t be only in this building – not while God’s own Self is moving in the world.
In the passage from Samuel, God is so emphatic: I took you from the pasture…I have been with you wherever you went…I will make for you a great name…I will appoint a place for my people…I will give you rest. And then the biggest declaration: the Lord will make you a house.
God receives our love and our homage and our worship – but not our trying to place the Holy in a box with a roof. God makes the dwelling place by being God.
At St. David’s, we’re going through a transition in leadership and many of us have that wild mix of feelings that comes with change. We have new ideas and plans and hopefulness but sometimes we feel anxious enough that we really, really just want to nail things down. Maybe we want certain things in our worship or our outreach work to change, or certain other things to stay exactly the same, or that one person on the committee to do what we want . . . we can get pretty busy building God’s house according to our own ideas.
But meanwhile, God is moving around, here, there, outside, in unexpected places. God is sitting on the curb beside a man who smells bad, God is at a used car lot with the woman who doesn’t have enough money for even an old clunker. God is in Syria and North Korea and Sierra Leone and Jerusalem, in downtown Portland marching and in the solitary confinement cell of a prison, and out on the mortgaged family farm and with the student whose loans are due and the teen who feels life isn’t worth living.
God is moving, and our privilege is to step outside and join God as we hear the call. There will always be time to gather here, and we need to do that regularly, but that messenger of God – the one who tells us not to be afraid – is calling us now, calling us outside, telling us that nothing is impossible when the Holy Spirit empowers us. So if you’re feeling a nudge, listen to it, for it may be God’s call to come outside.
And you know what we say in reply to that call, don’t you? We say, Here am I; here we are, servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your word. Amen.