If At First

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, 2017, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered the wonder of what it means to be in a position to be called by the Lord.  We heard the stories of God’s calling the boy Samuel and the annunciation to Mary and thought about how or when we might be able to respond to God’s call on our own lives.  


To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the player below:

It wasn’t a joyous Christmas for everyone when Mikayla brought home her final report card from the first half of the third grade. Although she had been a wonderful student in previous years, every single subject showed a marked decline. Worse than that, at least for her mother, was the fact that Mikayla’s teacher indicated that Mikayla’s attitude had become really negative. The teacher said, “It’s almost as if she doesn’t care about school.”

Well, as you might imagine, there was a pretty serious conversation at dinner that evening. Mikayla’s mother was appalled by her daughter’s blatant disregard for her concerns. Finally, the child blurted out, “Look, it’s just too hard! Multiplication? Sentence structure? I hate that stuff. I’m just going to quit school.” At this point, Dad tried to take the long view, and asked about her future. Mikayla’s face brightened immediately, and said, “Oh, there’s nothing to worry about there. I have it all figured out. I don’t need to finish school or go to college. When I grow up, I’ll be a Kindergarten teacher. That stuff is easy! I understand all that.”

How frustrating is it when you find yourself in a situation where you are not able to understand what’s going on? Maybe it’s when you walk into a room and everyone is laughing… and you’re not sure why… You’re given an assignment at work or at school, and you just can’t figure out what is expected… You know what it’s like to encounter a situation in which you know that something should make sense, but you have absolutely no idea how to make it comprehensible.

We want the world to make sense, to have order, and to be predictable. We want to know what to expect, and when, and why. And yet all too often, it’s not that way. Especially, it seems, when God is involved.

Eli and Samuel, unknown illustrator.

Each of our scripture readings this morning presents us with a biblical character who simply cannot get a grip on what God is up to in their lives or in their world. In the first reading, we encounter young Samuel, who believes that the most important thing in his life at this point is to help Eli get through his days and nights in service to the Lord at the temple. Samuel respected the old man and he probably felt sorry for the ways that Eli’s sons had turned out. And Samuel probably wasn’t sure exactly why all the other kids lived at home with their parents, and he was here in the Temple, but he was making the best of it.

As you know, he heard a voice, repeatedly, and is finally able to ascertain that the voice belongs, not to the ancient priest, but to the God that they both serve.

Luke tells the story of a teenaged girl named Mary who is, by all accounts, simply minding her own business and planning a wedding. There’s a lot to do, and I’m sure that tensions were high. All of a sudden, her reverie is interrupted by the appearance of an angel who tells her something that she simply knows to be flat-out impossible.

There is not a person in this room who hasn’t asked each of these questions before: “Is that really you, God?” and “How can this be?”

You know what it’s like to ask these questions. How do you respond when you are faced with a situation that is puzzling, or confusing, or heart-breaking? It would seem to me that we could learn a thing or two from the models we have encountered in scripture this morning.

Samuel might tell us that it’s ok to slow down when you are confronting a perplexing situation. “Take some time,” he would say. “Get your bearings and try to discern what is really happening, not merely what is apparently going on.” He would know, since as you heard he didn’t get things right on his first, second or even third try.

Samuel’s willingness to restart, and his acknowledgement that his perception might not be ultimately accurate allowed him to embrace the new thing that God was going to begin in his life and in the experience of his people.

Our sister Mary would add that it’s ok to ask for help. When Gabriel started spouting all of this nonsense about her being pregnant she listened politely, but then she reminded him of the facts of her own life. And then she simply asked a question: “How can this be? I hear your words, but it simply seems unbelievable to me. Can you say more about this, please?” And in response to that, the messenger from God does, in fact, elaborate. He says that the Holy Spirit will “cover” her. The word for “cover” that is used there is the same word that the Greek Old Testament translators used to describe what was happening in the very beginning – when back in Genesis 1, the Spirit of God was “hovering” or “moving over” the water.

Mary’s willingness to ask for support and encouragement brought her to a place where she was able to see herself as a part of God’s creative movement in and through the world. She came to see that this thing was not happening to her, but rather in or through her.

Annunciation, Matthias Stom (c. 1600 – 1652)

In both instances, we see that slowing down, seeking alternative understandings, and asking for help leads God’s people to a deeper self-awareness and greater self-understanding. As young as they were, Samuel and Mary were each in a position (guided, I will note, by a mentor of one kind or another) to step outside of their own hurt, pain, confusion, or bewilderment and in so doing gain a deeper understanding of the roles that were being offered to them in the Divine economy. And in the security of that mentorship, the assurance of God’s presence, and with the gift of faith, both of these young people were able to redefine themselves, first and foremost, as “servants” of the Lord.

Mary, in fact, goes even further, referring to herself as a doulé of the Lord – a “slave”. Singer-songwriter Michael Card notes this in his volume on Luke, saying,

Her final response to the angel is conclusive proof. Essentially she responds, “Look, the slave of the Master.” Of all that she does not know, one thing seems perfectly clear to her. It is a perspective that will help her navigate the deep waters into which the small vessel of her life is about to go. It will be the source of her disturbingly clear obedience… She is surrendering her rights, her hopes and dreams and her own body absolutely to him. Mary seems to know that she is owned by Another. The message that has come to her through the angel is absolute and life-changing.[1]

So when you find yourself up against things – whether you are confronting some of the great existential questions of life, such as “Why is this hurting so much?” or “When will healing come?” or “What next?”, or whether you are encountering yet another situation where it seems as though a colleague is determined to ride your last nerve, to poke and dig at some source of irritation, or to accuse you of that which is not true… When any of those things are going on in your life, it might be helpful to remember the practices enjoined by Samuel and Mary.

Remember that you are still – and that you are always – learning how to live in the life of faith. There is no one in this room who can claim to have mastered that. Some days, you may feel as though you’ve made a lot of progress, and you can think, “Wow! I’m glad I am not where I used to be…” But never forget that each and every one of us has a long way to go on our journey toward maturity and discipleship.

Try to remember what you told your daughter when she was learning to tie her shoes, or what your friend told you when he was trying to teach you how to drive a stick-shift car: Slow down. Relax. Let’s try this again. Watch.

Remember not to take yourself so seriously. In all probability, the situation in which you find yourself is not really and ultimately about you anyway. In any case, the realities of your life at this instant are offering you with an opportunity to come alongside of God and to help conform God’s world to God’s intentions.

You know, that all sounds pretty good. Relax. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Give yourself a break. As God for help. Remember that you are a part of the thing that God is doing in the world.

Nobody would be surprised to show up for worship on the fourth Sunday of Advent and hear the preacher spouting stuff like that. It’s the sort of thing that we think we pay for from the pulpit.

But here’s something that struck me as I contemplated the nativity narratives: actually doing those things is easier for some people than others. I know, you’re thinking, “Wow, Carver goes to school for a hundred and twelve years, and then serves as a pastor for a quarter of a century, and he’s beginning to get a glimmer of understanding that we’re not all alike…”

That’s not what I mean. Look with me at some of the stories you all know about the birth of Jesus – the biggest, newest, most amazing thing that God is doing. The angels are dispatched to the Shepherds – a lowly, marginalized group on the fringes of that culture – with a message of God’s new and amazing thing, and how do the shepherds respond? “Let us go to Bethlehem and see!” The star shines in the East, and a group of foreign non-believers sense that there is something overwhelmingly compelling about this particular event, and they leave everything behind and prepare themselves to worship whoever or whatever they meet at their journey’s end. In each case, you have a group of people who are less invested in the status quo, less tied in with how they think that the story should end, and they respond by saying, “Wow, this is the coolest thing ever. Let’s move into this a little deeper!”

On the other hand, the more entrenched the participants are in their own practices and understanding of the life of faith, the harder it is for them to perceive this new thing that God is doing.

Mary is a teenaged girl who is, from everything we can tell, simply trying to do the right thing: to worship and serve God, to honor her parents and her commitments… she hears word of this astounding plan and raises her hand, haltingly, to ask a clarifying question…

Joseph is a responsible, righteous, well-regarded member of the community. He is afraid of bringing disgrace on his own family as well as that of Mary, and when he is confronted with this impossibility, he decides in his heart that he can’t possibly get behind this and so he plans a quiet bit of legal action to make everything go away quietly.

Zechariah, the priest serving in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the one who was chosen to be the father of John the Baptist – the man who, as much as anyone in this part of the story is an insider aligned with a particular way of understanding God at work in the world – he hears word of what is happening and is so surprised and upset by it that he actually argues with the angel and is struck mute as a result. And although the other priest of whom we read this morning, Eli, does not figure in the narrative of the nativity, it is worth pointing out that he cannot even hear the voice of God speaking when the Spirit announces the intention to do something new.

Could it be that in our quest to consider ourselves “mature Christians” and “growing disciples” that we may be prematurely declaring that we know what God wants and we can take it from here, thank you very much? Could it be possible that in my quest to take care of things and try to impress either you or God with my wisdom or insight or faith or whatever… that I have lost something of my ability to wonder at and seek to join in with God’s purposes?

At the end of the day, both Samuel and Mary are able to adopt a posture that is first and foremost humble, teachable, and trusting.

Samuel says, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”

Mary echoes, “I am your slave. Let it be to me according to your word.”

When Jesus’ friend John wrote his account of Jesus’ life, he didn’t tell any stories about when Jesus was born. But he did give Jesus an interesting label: John said that Jesus was the “word” for God. There are all kinds of good reasons for that, I’m sure. Perhaps chief among them for me, this morning at any rate, is the fact that Jesus was the Word that was shaping Samuel (“Speak, O Lord…”. Jesus was the Word that was preparing Mary (“Let it be to me according to your Word…”).

Today, dear friends, and in the days to come, let me encourage you to find some quiet spot. Unplug. Listen. I suspect that the Word which became apparent to Samuel and to Mary is longing to become audible to you in a new fresh way here in Advent of 2017.

And you say, “Yeah, but it’s Christmas Eve! And did you see the news? Taxes! Russia! Cancer! Wildfires! Jobs! Those idiots in congress! How am I supposed to unplug?”

Listen. Seek God’s face for half an hour. None of those things are going anywhere fast. They’ll all be right where you left them when you get back. The question is, can you be different as you consider the questions in your life and in our world? If Christmas means anything, it means that you can. Thanks be to God, we all can. Amen.

[1] Michael Card, Luke: The Gospel of Amazement (Biblical Imagination Series, IVP 2011), p. 39.

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