Text: Luke 1:26-38
The gospel writer of Luke continues the Christmas narrative today as he tells of the angel Gabriel, sent by God to announce to a maiden, Mary, that she would miraculously conceive and give birth to a son, to be named Jesus, called “the Son of God,” whose reign would never end. This biblical scene, called “the Annunciation,” has been depicted by many of the great artist throughout history: Leonardo Da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Fra Angelico just to name a few. Within each of their paintings, as well as those of other great artists, there are a number of hidden meanings. For example: the rays of light passing through a glass window, or a walled garden, are symbols of Mary’s virginity. It is believed that the angel’s visit to Mary took place in the springtime so Mary is often shown with a spring flower in a vase. Mary is also often shown with a book open at the celebrated prophecy of Isaiah, to the words that read: “a young woman is with child, and she will bear a son…” In many of the depictions of the Annunciation a dove usually descends on a slanting ray of light that touches Mary’s head or breast, delicately suggesting the moment of conception.
One of my favorite renderings of the Annunciation is from an unknown artist. You were given a copy of it along with your worship guide this morning. One of the reasons I love this painting is its contemporary portrayal. The young woman looks like she could be one of our youth. And the angel reaching out from a television reminds us that God’s messengers—angel means messenger—are still coming to us in our day. It is this painting that evoked my thoughts for this morning.
Usually when we read this story, and especially as we reach this text in the Advent/Christmas season, our minds are on Mary. And it would be appropriate for this sermon to focus on Mary—her courage in the midst of what had to be a fearful time for her, her beautiful response known as the Magnificant in which she speaks those penetrating and profound words: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God who has looked with favor on the lowliness of servants…God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; and has filled the hungry with good things…” For certain, Mary deserves our attention as she is a model for what it means to open our hearts for God’s love to be born in our world.
But this year, it is this angel—this messenger from God—to whom I want to bring our attention. Because this year, I am wondering about God’s messengers in our world. And I am wondering about our willingness, even in the midst of our fear, to hear the messengers that God is sending to us today. I have no doubt that there are messengers among us. But how do we identify them and what is our response to them? These are the questions of this Advent and Christmas.
For me stories from my life often help me unpack these narratives of our faith that we are trying to live out in today’s world. So I want to tell you a personal story that has made me think about the messengers among us.
A couple of weeks ago I received an email followed up by a phone call from an organization called International Focus—an organization that works closely with the US Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program. The email read in part:
Dear Pastor Petty,
My name is Mark Kingsley and I am a representative of a non-profit organization called International Focus. I am writing to discuss the arrangement of a meeting with six visitors from the Near East. They are participating in the US Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Our organization, as well as this program, helps to build connections and improve international understanding between the United States and its visitors through these visits with emerging foreign leaders. The Department of State gives our organization a set of goals that the international visitors hope to accomplish while in Raleigh and the United States.
While in Raleigh, our guests from the Near East hope to learn more about the role of interfaith cooperation in community well-being and positive interfaith relations in practice. Specifically, they would like to know more about the role your church played during the African-American Civil Rights Movement. They would also be interested in learning more about your church in general and any other information relevant to these topics. They are keenly interested in your church because of its rich history and support.
On Tuesday, December 9, Laura Foley and I met with the six visitors—two were from Egypt; two from Iraq; one from Mauritania; and one from Tunisia—for a little over an hour and a half. All six visitors spoke Arabic. Five were Muslims, of which two were Imams. And the sixth visitor was a Coptic Orthodox priest. For a portion of our time together I shared with them Pullen’s history and specifically our involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and our continued witness for human rights, including our inclusiveness of LGBTQ people. Their questions were insightful and probing and our shared conversation around interfaith dialogue was deeply moving.
There was this moment in our visit when I experienced an awareness that these six men were actually messengers. For some time now, there has been a tug within me for our church to more fully engage in interfaith dialogue, especially with our Muslim brothers and sisters. I have spoken of this tug in previous sermons and even had a few conversations with local Muslims about how we might partner together for interfaith dialogue. But after each of these conversations, other things would take priority. Or better stated, I keep giving priority to other things. As I stood here in this sanctuary talking with our visitors from the Near East, the tug within me was so strong. That tug was a knowing moment: these messengers had come to Pullen to remind me of just how important it is in our world right now for Christians and Muslims to be in conversation with one another. A tug. A nudge. Yes, these men were messengers with a message. There is God’s work to do when it comes to interfaith dialogue—to breaking down the barriers and walls that divide us— especially with our Muslim friends.
A couple of days after the visit I received another email from one of the participants asking if I would write a letter of invitation for a Muslim family to visit Raleigh. I said yes. Then last Monday, two days after I received the request, an extremist Muslim took sixteen people hostage in a coffee shop in Sydney, Australia. Two people and the hostage-taker died. I felt fear as I watched that horrific and tragic event and wondered about my “yes” response. But my thoughts went to the angel’s response to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” Meeting one of God’s messengers who is asking us to birth Christ into the world can be unsettling and even frightening. And yet, like Mary, we are left to respond to these messengers among us. Are we listening? Are we willing?
For a moment, look at that picture again from that unknown artist that you hold in your hand. For the past month, I have watched on television as demonstrators protest police brutality—as they often brought traffic and passersby to a stop in major cities throughout our nation—from Boston to Seattle, Chicago to Miami, from New Orleans to Durham—a messenger has reached out to us over and over through our television screens with one simple sign that reads: Black Lives Matter! In one screen shot a black grandmother holds the sign. In another a white father holds the sign. In another a young Hispanic couple cuddling their newborn holds the sign. There are many messengers among us delivering the message that black lives matter. Are we willing to say “yes” to birthing a nation that not only says but acts as though every life matters—black, white, brown; rich, poor, in between; Muslim, Jew, Christian?
This Advent/Christmas season God’s messengers are all around us. That message alone should bring us hope and comfort. They are speaking, if not shouting, to us the message embodied in the babe lying in the manger: God is with us. God is in all of us. Every life matters. And every life represents God in our world. That is why we call this baby the Christ-child!
There are messengers among us every day asking will we birth love, peace, hope, joy and justice in our world. The question is: Will we be vulnerable enough, will we be courageous enough, even in our fear, to take that risk to say “yes” to birthing the Christ-child in our world today. This story is not simply about some past event. It is still happening in our world and in us when we say “yes” to God. But there is one last question this Advent/Christmas: Will we also be the messengers among us?
Who of God’s messengers are tugging at and nudging your heart this Christmas season? What message are you carrying in your heart and soul that needs to be shared? Will we, like Mary, say “yes” to that tug? Will we, like Gabriel, deliver the message?