(Luke 1: 5-20, 26-38)
There was a knock at the door. Not a “tap-tap” but a “boom-boom!” – the kind you can hear down in the basement or up on the second floor. I was actually in the living room watching TV. It was my senior year in college; I was renting a house with a few fraternity brothers. This house was located in a residential neighborhood not far from campus, so it was not uncommon for a neighbor to come knocking every now and then. Just not knocking like this.
I peeled myself off the couch and got up to answer the door. And when I opened it, I saw him there – a man in his 50’s, well-dressed, carrying a small tattered leather Bible in his right hand. I had barely taken in the scene when a wide smile spread across his face and he said: I have some good news to tell you! May I come in? We sat out on the porch instead.
And for the next half hour, this man and I had a deep theological conversation. Because he was, as he shared with me, a messenger from God – some even called him an angel, he said. And he had come knocking on my door that day to tell me the good news that the messiah was coming soon, that the wait was almost over. And he wanted to know if I had Jesus in my heart. And when I told him that I did, he seemed so very pleased to hear it.
We prayed together and then he was on his way. On to the next neighbor to knock on their door and share some good news with them. And I went back inside to my couch and TV.
I don’t think of that incident all that often anymore – it happened years ago, more years than I care to count. And like many memories that get relegated to the “Odd and Slightly Surreal” folder, I don’t find myself revisiting it all that much.
But I do think about it every time I come upon our scripture today. A messenger from God. An angel knocking at the door. Funny, isn’t it, how we tend to think of guys like the one who visited me as not quite playing with a full deck; and yet we don’t think twice about dressing our precious children up in white robes and halos and angel wings in the children’s Christmas pageant, where they recite those famous words: Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy! All messengers from God, apparently, are not created equal.
Although Gabriel might take umbrage with that. He might be inclined to suggest, based on his experience, that the issue is less with the messenger and more with the one receiving the message. Our passages from Luke chronicle two very different responses to the same basic message. Gabriel “knocks on the door,” if you will, of the first “house” – the temple in Jerusalem. And Zechariah answers it. Zechariah, the head priest of the temple, faithful in his service. Zechariah, husband to Elizabeth; the two of them childless for years upon years. A dream unfulfilled.
And Gabriel says to him, I have some good news to tell you! May I come in? He tells Zechariah that a child will be born – his and Elizabeth’s child. And the priest greets this wonderful news with understandable skepticism. They are too old to be parents, he tells him. There’s no way this could happen.
See, sometimes good news is so good that it’s too good. Too good to accept, too good to grab hold of; because even the possibility of it not coming to pass is devastating enough.
And for this, Zechariah is struck silent, unable to talk. And we should not look at this as some kind of punishment as much as divinely-imposed silent meditation. Time to think about things a little bit, time to ponder this news; until that news, that promise, is fulfilled.
The angel goes on to knock on the door of the next house; this one a small shack in the rural town of Nazareth. And Mary answers – Mary, the teenager in the house, still growing up and learning her way in the world. Mary, engaged to a nice young man named Joseph.
And Gabriel says to her, I have some good news to tell you! May I come in? And the angel tells her that a child will be born – her child. Which is ridiculous. She’s too young, not even married yet. It’s not only impossible, it would be a travesty were it to happen. Good Lord, what would the neighbors say??
And yet, Mary doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t question. She doesn’t make excuses. Instead, Mary starts singing a song! A beautiful song about the greatness of God, the faithfulness of God, and how she will do what God asks of her, singing:
Here am I, the servant of the Lord;
Let it be with me according to your word.
This story in the first chapter of Luke is familiar to us. We read it every Advent; we see it played out in Christmas pageants. We can almost hear Linus reciting the words in that Charlie Brown Christmas special; standing on the stage with the single spotlight. Like all stories that take root in our collective consciousness, Gabriel’s message to Zechariah and Mary is a narrative we know in our heart.
But sometimes – most of the time, actually – stories like this are about a whole lot more than a simple narrative. They’re also about a message. And not just a message about Christmas or Jesus or unexpected births. But a message about good news – the good news of the new thing God is doing in our lives, in this world – and how we hear and receive that news.
Or, how we do not. It’s not always easy hearing good news, is it? Truth be told, you and I have grown somewhat accustomed to the bad news. It’s what we hear more often. It’s what sells. I mean, turn on the TV, scroll through your social media feed. What do you find there?
And the worst part? We pretty much expect it now. We’re more or less resigned to the fact that most of what we hear from day to day is going to reflect the broken world we live in – a world where lines are drawn, where fear seems to win out over love, where good news is far overshadowed by the bad. It is not hard, is it, to sympathize with Zechariah here, because chances are that our response would look awfully similar to his.
And then there is Mary! Gabriel drops this good news in her lap and she sings a song. And in this song, Mary lifts up all the things that God is in the process of doing in the world. But she does something fascinating inthis – she refers to it all in the past tense:
God has shown strength,
God has scattered the proud
God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly
God has filled the hungry with good things.”
Why, we wonder, does she speak of these things in the past tense? Could it be because one of the ways that faithful people express that faith is to speak of the future with such confidence that in a sense it has already happened. Gabriel shares news of something that hasn’t come to pass yet. And Mary receives it. She steps up to the plate, she accepts the task at hand. And in doing so, she expresses the kind of faith that one scholar describes as “partnering with God in bringing about the future, where that future is articulated as memory.”
In other words, Mary’s response to the angel is the very definition of timeless.
Adam Clark, Associate Professor of Theology at Xavier University, shares that in the church’s more mystical traditions it has always been understood that there are three Advents. The word “advent” means coming. There is the first Advent of Jesus being born into the world. There is the second Advent of Jesus coming into our hearts. And there is the third Advent of Jesus coming at the end of times.
Now that visitor who knocked on my door all those years ago was bringing a message of the third Advent, the coming of Jesus at the end times. You and I, every December, get all caught up in making plans and preparations for the first Advent, the coming of Jesus into the world. But it’s the second Advent – the coming of Jesus into our hearts, that deserves the most attention, because that Advent is happening all the time. And while it is true that Gabriel’s visits with Zechariah and Mary were intended in part to prepare each of them for imminent arrivals, in a very real sense the angel continues knocking and sharing good news, to this day. And when Mary sings her timeless tune, it is the second Advent she is singing about.
My friends, it is this second Advent that we are called to prepare for because the good news is waiting for us. And that good news, it comes knocking on our door whether we expect it or not. It comes whether we recognize it or not – and most of the time, truth be told, we don’t. And it is so amazingly good, so incredibly hard to fathom, that it verges on being scandalous in its impossibility. And I’m not talking about news like: You’re going to be successful in your business or You’re going to get an “A” on your biology mid-term.
No, I’m talking about this kind of news:
You – you who are old enough to be a great-grandmother, you who are so young that you’re not even married yet – you are going to have a child.
You – you who are struggling to make sense of a world where some have so much and others have so little, you will witness a great abundance where there is enough for everyone.
You – you who cry yourself to sleep at night and put on a happy face during the day, the deep and dark sadness lurking just beneath the surface, you will encounter and be embraced by infinite joy.
You – you who live in fear because that is the world you’ve been brought up in, that is the world you have to face day after day, you will finally get to experience living in a world where love is greater than fear.
This is the kind of news that awaits us in Advent, it is the kind of news that has always awaited us. It is news that is meant to interrupt our lives, to catch us off-guard, to make us pivot and deviate from the normal script of things.
Wally knew what that was like. Bear with me if you’ve heard me tell this story before. Wally was a grade-school kid who’d been chosen to play the innkeeper in the church’s Christmas pageant – not the innkeeper who took Mary and Joseph in, but the one before who turned them away. Wally was this large kid with a reputation of being a bit of a bully, so the pageant director, Miss Lumbard, figured he’d be all the more convincing in the role.
And so the day of the pageant arrives. The children are all backstage, dressed in their costumes. And no one is more caught up in the wonder of it all than Wally. He waits expectantly in the wings until the time comes for him to walk out on stage as Joseph knocks on the wooden door of the inn. (knock, knock, knock)
“What do you want?” says Wally in a gruff voice as he opens the door.
“We seek lodging, sir,” replies the second-grade Joseph.
“Seek it elsewhere, there’s no room here,” answers Wally.
“Please sir,” says Joseph. “This is my wife Mary. Soon she will give birth to our child, and she needs a place to rest.”
And now, for the first time, Wally looks down at Mary. Her name is actually Taylor, just a childhood friend of his. But as he gazes upon this tiny girl, decked out in robe and sandals and a small pillow tucked in her stomach, it is as if in that moment he sees someone else and something more. And like Zechariah, he is struck silent.
There is this uncomfortable pause. In the wings, Miss Lumbard prompts Wally with his next line, whispering intensely, “No. Be gone!” Wally snaps out of his trance: “No. Be gone,” he says, unconvincingly. And as scripted, Joseph turns sadly and takes Mary’s arm and the two start to walk away.
And it is in that moment in the Christmas pageant when Wally experiences that second Advent. Because when the good news has been shared with you, when the promise of God’s amazing and everlasting love is on the verge of arriving, the script gets flipped. For that is when Wally flips the script and blurts out, “Wait! Don’t go! Please, bring her back. She can have my room!”
Beloved, the meaning of Advent is about more than just our preparations for Christmas. It is, at its very heart, the mystery of God coming to us at every moment. So come, Immanuel, Come. Knock on our doors. Interrupt our lives. Flip the script. Share with us your good news and fill our hearts with joy.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.