Advent 4: 12/24/17: The Hospitality of Love, Luke 1:26-38
The Hospitality of Love
First Lesson: Luke 1:46-56
Second Lesson: Luke 1:26-38
Rev. Scott Dickison
For Joy, by Jan Richardson:
You can prepare
it will come to you
crossing through your doorway
calling your name in greeting,
turning like a child
who quickens suddenly
it will astonish you
how wide your heart
for the joy
that finds you
and still so
So ready and still so unprepared.
I can’t think of a better way to summarize this season of Advent, and perhaps even more, this morning of Christmas Eve. Looking forward in anticipation for Christmas to be finally here: for the family and friends and the candles and the presents—Jonathan Johnson singing “Oh Holy Night.” For the fullness and the joy and all the rest of it. And yet if you’re the one charged with hosting all of thee things…So ready and yet still so unprepared.
But it describes so much of life, and especially life’s seminal moments, life’s transitions: graduations, career moves, periods of discernment and anticipation and waiting. Test results. Diagnoses. The car ride on the way to the doctors office. It describes so much of life, even the end of life. I met with a friend earlier this week whose father is quite ill with an incurable cancer that they’re managing for now. And we spoke of this tension of wanting to prepare for what is surely coming: to say things that need to be said, to ask questions that need to be asked, to hear stories that need to be shared—to see and touch and hold and laugh and cry. But all the while knowing we can only prepare to a point. There’s no way to stand fully prepared for life’s end, but neither life’s beginning, which is, after all, what this season is about.
“So ready and yet still so unprepared” could describe any woman or couple awaiting the birth of a child. You’re ready, mostly. Ready to see and touch and hold and laugh and cry. But the rest of it? The long nights, the long days, the dirty diapers and doctor visits the constant worry, the incessant fear, the terrible vulnerability? There comes a point when the best we can do—and it turns out, it is quite a lot—but the best we can do, is simply stand ready to receive what comes. To keep our minds and our hearts open to receive what we know will be much more than we could ever plan for.
And this is where Mary gets it just right.
She was likely a younger girl, as was the case with betrothals in those days. Promised to Joseph, but not yet married, still living in the house of her parents. Thinking ahead, preparing for the new life she thought was on the way, the plans she thought God had for her, when the angel of the Lord appears to her and shares with her something far more.
And the scene that Luke gives us as to how this encounter happened requires some unpacking. We’re told when this happened: the sixth month following the conception of John the Baptist, which was described in the verses before, but we’re not told where she was or what time of day. Was she outside walking around the neighborhood? Was she fetching water or doing chores? Was she alone in her room? In any case, she seems to be alone when the angel comes to her and says, Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you. And then Luke tells us, with typical understatement, “But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
Um, excuse me?! An angel of the Lord appears out of thin air and this girl is pondering what exactly he means by the word “favored?” Even the angel seems a bit confused by her response. He tells her, Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And of course the Bible is littered with these words of divine assurance “Do not be afraid.” The people of God are called, over and over again, not to be afraid. And most every other time this command, this invitation, to “not fear” is found in Scripture, the person it’s said to is afraid. Moses was terrified when he saw the burning bush. The disciples out there stranded in the sea of Galilee were scared to death. The shepherds watching their flocks by night just one chapter later in Luke were “sore afraid,” as Linus put it. But Mary, here when the angel of the Lord descends upon her was…not afraid. At least not as far as we’re told. “Much perplexed,” but nowhere is fear noted.
The angel goes on to tell her what is to happen, how she will conceive and bear a son and name him Jesus. How he will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he’ll reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end. And Mary, not overwhelmed with all this talk of the Messiah, instead wonders about the mechanics of her role in it: How can this be, since I’ve not known a man?
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you—the same word used here as in opening chapter of Genesis to describe the Spirit hovering over the waters of the earth at creation. The angel tells her about Elizabeth who in her advanced age will bear a son, and closes this whole annunciation by saying another divine promise we’re told over and over again in Scripture, which is directly linked to the command not to be afraid, which is “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary—much perplexed, inquisitive, captivated, and so not afraid—says to him, Here I am. Let it be.
Madeleine L’Engle writes:
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
Had Mary been filled with reason—or fear or doubt or worry or any of the other things that tend to fill our hearts—there would have been no room for the angel’s words and so there would have been no room for Christ to come into her womb or into the world. But those things weren’t there, at least not in any discernible amount. And nor she wasn’t empty. Something was there within her in large supply: love was there. It could only have been love. Love is the only thing powerful enough to make us ready, to prepare us to receive the mysteries of life. Not fear, not anger, not disengagement, not worry, not self-protection, no amount of list making or Google searches—nothing but love will really do. Love with all its exposure, all its risk. Love with all its irrationality.
There’s a hospitality in love. A quality in love that prepares. That opens, that tenderizes. That turns over the sheets and vacuums the rug; has warm bread cooling in the kitchen. It’s difficult to describe but impossible not to feel. Love allows us to receive others with all their flaws but also their gifts. To receive life with all its pain, with all its uncertainty and frustration and disappointment and sorrow but also its beauty and tenderness and hope and peace and joy. And it often happens that all these things are not so separate as we’d like to think; very often they all come at once or in some combination, and it confuses us—it leaves us much perplexed—but if love is there, it will not leave us afraid or unready.
And understand that nowhere are we told it was because Mary carried herself in this way that she was chosen to bear God into the world—the reason why she was the one are kept tucked within the heart of God. We’re simply told that when the angel came upon her, her heart was found ready with the love of God. The love she had left her ready to receive the love that was on the way—and this is always how it works. Always.
So this is my prayer for you this fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve: that love would so fill your heart that you would be found ready to receive all God and life and the world has in store for you, in this season and beyond. Whether it be angels or demons, guests welcome or unwelcome, sorrow that’s fresh or has been lingering for sometime. Or hope that’s found, unexpectedly perhaps, to be growing inside you.
Whatever it may be—and we would be fools to try and predict—whatever it is, whoever it is, may you be astonished at how wide your heart opens in welcome.
And may the Christ you already know leave you ready to receive the Christ that is coming this year, this night, even if still so unprepared. Amen.
 From Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season, 27