Expectations. Advent is about expectations. About expecting the coming of Christ. About preparing a mansion in us for Christ’s coming. But I want to talk about a different kind of expectation. One we have all known and felt.
Think back to when you were 15, 16, 17 years old. For some of us that will be pretty easy … for some of us that doesn’t mean thinking back at all … but for others of us it’s a little more of a challenge. But if it is “back” for you … think back. In fact don’t just think back but feel back. Feel back to what it felt like to be in high school. Remember that child. Feel that teenager inside you.
Who had expectations of you? (shout it out)
What were their expectations of you?
What was it like to consider not meeting those expectations? Doing something different? Being something different?
The world runs on expectations. Societies – big and small – set expectations and demand conformance. And we are valued and affirmed and even celebrated by how well we conform. And when we don’t meet expectations, we are not only not valued and not affirmed, we are to some degree cast out. So there are pretty strong incentives out there to meet expectations?
We’ve all felt that, right? We all still feel that, right?
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
From what we know, we can pretty well guess that Mary was 15, 16, 17 years old. Think Jasmine Cooper or Maya Jackson.
Mary had her whole life in front of her … and it was just starting to get interesting. Betrothal, engagement, was a time of excitement and anticipation but also trepidation. Because it was also a time of great expectation. Much would be expected of her – and at stake was not just her future but her family’s honor.
Mary probably thought of herself as nothing special. And really, as far as the world was concerned, that’s exactly what she was … nothing special. Just another faceless young woman in the crowd. She was expected to be good and obedient. And very soon to be a good wife and mother.
Whether or not she was content with those expectations, we can’t know. But one thing we can imagine is that she probably didn’t want to be different. Different was bad. Different was the widow, the poor unmarried woman, the prostitute. Different was being poor, unclean, pitied and alone. Different was scary.
So Mary’s life was pretty well set. There was the path of expectation, and anything that strayed too far from it was too scary to consider.
And then God enters the picture. And God did what God does. God changes everything.
God said, “I’m about to do something different. Something that will confound people’s expectations of me. Something that will change the world forever. And I’m asking you to be a part of it. And that’s not just about nodding your head and rubber stamping a form and saying, ‘OK by me.’ I am asking you to put some real skin in the game.”
“You see,” God says. “I can’t do this alone. I need a partner. But if you’re going to partner with me you are going to have to take all those expectations that people have of you – and you are going to have them matter less than this … you are going to have to have them matter less than me.”
“You’re going to have to be willing to be different. To be poor, unclean, pitied and even alone.
These are amazing, exciting and absolutely terrifying words. They must have been incredibly hard to hear. And yet Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Mary says, with her lips and with her life. “Yes.”
How? How did Mary say yes so completely?
Because God’s invitation to Mary was not all God said through Gabriel. Before Gabriel asked Mary to be God’s partner in changing everything, Gabriel said three things. Three things that Mary had to hear and trust before she took this incredible leap of faith.
1) God says you are very good.
2) God is with you.
And because of that…
3) You don’t need to be afraid.
The world tells us that our goodness depends on how well we meet its expectations. But what does Gabriel say to Mary … “Greetings favored one…. You have found favor with God!” Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases in his translation “The Message,” “You are beautiful with God’s beauty, beautiful inside and out.” It doesn’t matter what the world says. God looks at you and says you are very, very good, beautiful with God’s beauty inside and out.
The world tells us that our acceptance depends on how well we meet their expectations, and that if we don’t meet them well enough we will be cast off and alone. But what does Gabriel say to Mary … the Lord is with you. It doesn’t matter if everyone else leaves you, God says, you will never be alone because I am with you.
And because of these things, Gabriel is able to tell Mary, “Fear not. Do not be afraid.” Because there is no reason to fear. You don’t need to fear the world because the world has no power over you.
Mary, God says, you don’t need to fear those voices and looks in the world telling you that you are no good … because I’m telling you that you are very good. Mary, God says, you don’t need to fear the world rejecting you and casting you out alone … because I am with you now and I will be with you always.
The whole key to the annunciation isn’t that Mary was better or stronger or more holy than any of us. It’s that she was able to hear and trust when Gabriel told her that God said she was very good. She was able to hear and trust when Gabriel told her that God is with her now and always. And because she was able to hear and trust those things, she was able to hear and trust Gabriel when he said, Mary, you don’t need to be afraid.
And because she didn’t need to be afraid, she was free. Free to be a person of incredible power – God’s power. Free to be God’s partner in doing something that would change the world forever. Free to be a part of something that was so wild and nutty that Gabriel had to reassure her that “nothing will be impossible with God.”
A long time ago, I had a Roman Catholic friend named Bridget who loved her church dearly but was deeply frustrated and pained by the role of women in it. One day she said to me – you know what model is held up for women in my church? Mary. A virgin mother. That’s my model. That’s who I’m supposed to be like. How in the world am I supposed to live up to that?
I wish I could talk with Bridget again today. Because I think Mary isn’t just the standard for women, she’s the standard for all of us. And not to be a virgin mother, but to listen and trust and to be a fearless person of God’s power.
Because that’s the invitation to all of us. To listen. To trust. And to be fearless people of God’s power. Because God is speaking to us.
God is saying: “Greetings, favored one.” Greetings Emily and Celeste and Tom and Debbie and all of you, you are worthy and very, very good as who you are. Greetings, Franklin and Jeanne and Jim and Urlene, you are beautiful with God’s beauty inside and out.
God is saying, “I am with you.” “I have always been with you. I am with you now. I will be with you always.” People of Christ Church Cathedral, God says to us “I am with you.”
And if we can listen and trust those things, we can listen and believe when God says to us, “You don’t need to be afraid.” Because that is deeply true. Because God says we are good and beautiful with God’s beauty. And God says God will always be with us. There is nothing we ever need to fear.
But that’s not the end of God’s invitation to us. God is inviting us to be fearless people of God’s power today.
Because just as God said to Mary two thousand years, ago, God is saying to us today, “I’m about to do something different. Something that will confound people’s expectations of me. Something that will change the world forever. And I’m asking you to be a part of it. To let Christ be born in you and through you. To live out my mission in the world – to reconcile all people to God and each other in Christ. To be, as Paul says, ‘ambassadors of Christ’ entrusted with the mission of reconciliation, of healing all that is broken in a deeply broken world.”
And just like Mary, God is saying to me and to you, “I can’t do this alone. I need partners. But if you’re going to partner with me you are going to have to take all those expectations that people have of you – and you are going to have them matter less than this … you are going to have to have them matter less than me.”
“You’re going to have to be willing to be different. To be poor, unclean, pitied and even alone.”
Just like Mary, God is saying to us, “People of Christ Church Cathedral, this not just about nodding your head and rubber stamping a form and saying, ‘OK by me.’ I’m asking you to put some real skin in the game. I’m asking you to not just to give a little bit to this mission but to give yourselves to this mission. To be fearless people of my power. Fearless lovers with all you have and all you are. Because nothing extraordinary ever got done with people going half-way.”
What extraordinary, seemingly impossible thing God is asking us to partner with God in? How is God calling us to confound the world’s expectations in a way that helps God’s love break through in a new way? How is God inviting us not just to say “OK” to this work of changing our church and healing the world, but together, as one church, to embrace it with our lives? Together to be fearless people of God’s power. To be bold and confident and fearless agents of God’s love healing in this place and out there in the world.
Mary is our model because Mary heard and trusted but also because Mary didn’t just stay on the sidelines and cheer, but she got in the game in the fullest way imaginable. And so can we. We can do this together, because like Mary, we know that we are good and beautiful with God’s beauty. Like Mary, we know that God is with us and we will never be alone. Like Mary, we know we need never be afraid. And because of that like Mary, we are free to be fearless ambassadors for Christ, fearless people of God’s power for the church and in the world.
God, here are we, the servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your word. AMEN.