University Congregational Church
Dec. 14, 2014
“Stirring Up Advent ~ Recipes for Relationships: Empowerment”
Luke 7: 18-22
Over the centuries, much has been attributed to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Typically Mary is portrayed in blue and white – symbols of purity and humility. You’ve no doubt, heard numerous sermons featuring Mary. These are some things we know about her:
- She is the mother of Jesus
- She was betrothed to a man named Joseph
- She found herself pregnant at a very young and vulnerable age
- She responded to the news of her pregnancy with “I am the Lord’s servant.”
- She observes what unfolds and “ponders these things in her heart”
Today, I would like to offer another perspective on Mary – and that perspective may inform us about how we may respond to the news that God is coming into our midst.
Mary’s body was the place where God came to dwell in a real, physical way. We are told that The Spirit of God came upon her. The result was that she would deliver from her body one who was to be great, holy, born of the Most Holy God. Conceived in the body of a woman was the Messiah – the hope for the nation of Israel. Her body, her flesh, is the place of divinity. Whether you believe this story in a truly physical way or in a symbolic way doesn’t change the fact that it is on her body that the spirit of holiness comes and over her flesh that the shadow of divine power falls.
Not bad for a woman in that culture – a piece of property owned by a man. God’s plan for saving the world is dependant on her. In fact, Mary of Nazareth was reminiscent of another Mary – or Miriam – the prophet-sister of Moses and leader of God’s people during the Exodus.
When God comes upon Mary of Nazareth, she is emboldened. No longer young, innocent, or timid – she is strengthened and determined to give birth to new life. We’re told in the gospel of Luke that she sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God… for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed!” Luke 1:47-48
Isn’t that what we mean when we say the word “Incarnation”? God breaks into our lives and our world and gives us hope to carry on. Like Mary, god can come to dwell in us in a very real, physical way.
This very week, a woman I’ve known for several years came to me. She has leukemia and has been on unpaid medical leave from her job for most of 2014. Her husband works full-time but does not make enough for both of them to live on. Their bills get paid, but it is a constant juggling act. She came to me to share news about her newest blood work and the implications for continued chemo and injections. While we were visiting, she mentioned that her husband’s car needs some work desperately but it is just not in the budget. We had a bit of money in UCC’s “discretionary fund” which is designated for these kinds of emergencies. I asked her to give me the mechanic’s name and the amount to get her husband’s car fixed. UCC was able to cover that bill so that he can have reliable transportation to work.
The next day, the woman called me. Neither she nor I knew, but her husband had been for a walk the day before, and during the walk, he spoke to God. He said that he felt God had forgotten them and that he was tired of just squeaking by all the time. He asked for a sign from God that they had not been forgotten. And the very next day, his wife told him about the bill for his car being paid. They are only one of the many who have received the blessings of this congregation’s generosity.
What does it mean that God came into the world? It means that we put aside our doubts, fears, timidity, and reluctance and allow God to give birth in us – the birth of new life. We are not bystanders in this Advent – we are emboldened participants!
William Willimon tells a story that illustrates the power of a child being born. He says that one of his parishioners told him that he had been a less than responsible adult and marriage partner. This man lived for himself and his own gratification. He wasn’t living purposefully – that is until the birth of his daughter. “One night,” he said, “I got turned around – the night I walked into the hospital room and held my little baby in my arms for the first time and realized that she was part of me even if she was better than I deserved. I said to myself, ‘You’re going to have to stop your foolishness and start living like somebody, because she’s somebody.’”
Over the last three weeks we’ve been exploring the elements or stages of relationships. God’s relationship with us is the same as Christian relationships with one another – they contain the same elements. These elements – these “ingredients” in God’s recipe for wholesome relationships – are covenant, grace, empowerment, and intimacy. God’s relationship with us began with a covenant. This covenant was possible only because of grace. Likewise, our commitments and covenants with one another are also possible because of grace.
The ingredient we are adding to the mix today is empowerment. Every person has a certain amount of power to influence another person. We can use that power to strengthen ourselves or we can use that power to help another person recognize the potential he/she has. Empowerment means encouraging and guiding the development of another’s potential. It’s helping the other person be everything he or she can possibly be. Such empowering in a Christian relationship is reciprocal and mutual. It’s like God coming upon Mary and emboldening her to birth a new life.
Empowerment is the very essence of what Jesus came to earth to do: “to have life and have it abundantly!” (John 10:10) John puts it this way: “To all who receive Christ… he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of humankind, but of God.” (John 1: 12-13)
Our gospel reading for today speaks of John the Baptist and Jesus – and how they came to build others up. The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. Luke 7:18-22
Jesus did not use power to control others. He used his power to serve others, to lift up the fallen, to forgive the guilty, to encourage responsibility and maturity in the weak, and to enable the unable. In everything he did, Jesus offered his own power to others in service ~ he healed them, he met them where they were, he accepted them and challenged them to grow. Jesus came to empower others. This is what Incarnation means. Jesus dwells in us when we offer ourselves for the sake of another.
John Dominic Crossan says that John the Baptist had a ministry that ended when he was assassinated. But that Jesus structured his ministry differently – he invited his followers to be ministers too – so that when he was crucified, it continued into the future. Jesus empowered those around him and he lifted them up so that they could become more than they ever dreamed.
Empowerment is the action of God in our lives. Christmas is the time when we realize again that God came to earth in a child – to offer love to the world. That love translates into our lives as empowerment to do likewise.
In this season of repentance and change, let’s examine our relationships with others. Are we exhibiting our power over another by trying to control them? This season is an opportunity to give up control – and to pledge instead to empower – to help others become everything they can possibly become in the New Year.
It’s like the mentally challenged young man who shows up one Sunday at church. As carefully as he tries to hide it, it is clear that he has many needs – he is out of food, out of money, out of family to take him in. No one makes a big fuss. Very quietly, someone takes him grocery shopping while someone else finds him a room. Someone else finds out what happened to his disability check while someone else makes an appointment to get his teeth fixed.
It’s like the woman with a recurrent cancer who is told she has a short time to live. The church gathers around her and her husband – laying hands on them, bringing them casseroles, cleaning their house, offering rides to appointments. Someone comes up with the idea of giving the woman a foot massage and painting her toenails red, which does more for her spirits than any visit from the pastor.
On Christmas Eve she is back in church for the first time in months, with her oxygen tank slung over her shoulder and a clear plastic tube running under her nose. After the first hymn, she makes her way up to read the lesson. Her tank hisses every five seconds. Every candle in the place glitters in her eyes. “Strengthen the weak, and make firm the feeble. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.’” When she sits down, the congregation knows they have not just heard the word of the Lord. They have seen it in action. (Barbara Brown Taylor)
Choose one person this Advent whom you want to help. Empower that person – help that person become more of what God intended him or her to be. It can be a partner, a child, a co-worker, a neighbor, a friend, a church member. As our scripture said “God is sending a messenger … to make the road smooth for you.” Jesus said of John the Baptist “No one surpasses him, but in the kingdom he prepared you for – the lowliest person is ahead of him.”
The best Christmas gift we can offer another is the gift God gave us… lifting another person up and affirming the best in them. Christmas is the time when God can come upon each one of us – and create a brand new life we couldn’t have ever imagined!