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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

SMALL STEPS

Fourth Sunday in Advent


In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”


Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”


“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”


The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”


“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Luke 1:26-38


We Americans have been captivated by the fantasy of Christmas for some time now. We have applauded numerous children in countless productions of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet, with its mice who turn into fierce warriors, its Sugar Plum Fairy and dancing Flowers, its ugly Nutcracker toy that becomes a handsome prince. We’ve enjoyed multiple retellings of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and imagined again the ghosts that Mr. Scrooge encounters – the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future. We’ve stayed up late to see, just one more time George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, live through the nightmare of viewing a world in which he never existed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And we’ve cheered and cried when he and his wife, played by the lovely, never-changing Donna Reed, received their friends and their money that bailed them out of their financial crisis. We’ve taught our children to look for Santa Claus and flying reindeer, and snowmen who come to life, and animals who speak English on Christmas Eve. And don’t forget the Grinch who wanted to spoil Christmas and the kid who wanted nothing but a Red Ryder BB Gun! We love the fantasies of Christmas, so much so that we almost believe that in fantasy is found Christmas joy!


Sometimes we treat the Angel Gabriel and Mary as if they were as much creatures of Christmas fantasy as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Frosty The Snowman. After all, few if any of us have ever seen an angel! Certainly not a Gabriel as he is depicted in the pictures drawn by Christian artists for centuries. Gabriel with a shining halo around his head, and huge wings protruding from his shoulders. In the ancient world angels were depicted as warriors fighting in the heavenly hosts and messengers with awesome messages from the Lord. And they were always male, as were their names. Today angels are almost always pictured unmistakably as females! More fantasy?!


And Mary? Way too often she seems otherworldly because we make her too good to be true. For centuries we’ve carried around an image of her as so pure, so faithful, so obedient and so innocent that we have a difficult time connecting to her as another human being. She walks at least three feet off the ground and her feet never get dirty in our popular depictions. Her face is always blissful, her manner is always calm and pleasing, her hair is in place and her eyes are locked on things above. She is no one we know, and no one to whom we can relate. Certainly, she’s unlike any teenage girl we might recognize in our lives. We’ve made her a creature of fantasy, as surely as the Angel Gabriel seems to be, and as definitely as a nutcracker prince and flying reindeer are. They are characters in really good adventurous yarns, but they have nothing to do with us!


And yet, if we strip away the overlay of centuries of interpretations of Mary, centuries of paintings and artistic renditions, and if we try again to see her as the simple young girl she was, we might find more than a fantastic creature in another unrealistic Christmas story. We might find a model of faithfulness that we can not only admire from afar, but imitate up close!


First, note how small things really are in the event that Luke describes here. In the Roman Empire of the first century, Galilee was next to nowhere and Nazareth was only one of its many insignificant villages. A virgin was among the most unimportant human beings in the society – an unmarried, unfruitful young woman whose parents were so inconsequential that they have no names, at least not given in Luke’s account. Luke also omits any mention of whether or not she was virtuous, whether or not she was faithful to God, or whether or not she was kind to others. There was no honor, no status, no greatness here. Just a girl in an out-of-the-way little village. How often do we feel like “just a nobody” in a nowhere place? How could God call that girl of Nazareth to be faithful? How could God call us?


But after noting how small this setting and this character really are, notice what great claims are made. Gabriel, the warrior-messenger-angel, greeted Mary like a queen! And then he proclaimed her the mother of “The Son of the Most High”, the heir of “The Throne of David”, a king “of whose kingdom there will be no end”. And this would come about as this little-known virgin was to be “overshadowed” by the very power of the “Most High” God – the most significant, most consequential, most important being in the universe!


Doesn’t God also invite us into something awesome and majestic? Doesn’t God also make extravagant promises to us about blessing and eternal life? So Mary, the small and meek, was to encounter the Lord God Almighty and become the mother of God’s child! And then she does the one thing that matters in this whole account. She says, “Okay.” That’s all. And that is everything! Because when she says, “Okay,” she takes the first small, but amazingly heroic, step into the destiny of God. And that first step would lead to a thousand more steps, through a scandalous pregnancy, a difficult birth in a barn, the perils of her son’s childhood, his rejection of her home as he set out to change the world, her embrace of his broken, lifeless body. And suddenly, when we consider all that, what looked like fantasy becomes reality. It becomes our reality!


For all of us face a hundred choices a day to advance God’s plan into our world, or stymie it with our own self-centered desires, our own despair, our own faithlessness. So we choose, over and over, to say “Okay” with Mary; to say with her, “Use me in this moment even though I have no idea what happens next.”


That’s the meaning of faith, and it’s the practice of hope. So, many of us take these small steps every day. The Parkinson’s patient who wakes up every morning and with courage places his feet on the floor and starts the struggle of getting dressed; the mother with the autistic child who once again runs to stop him from banging his head against the wall; the teacher who faces a classroom of seemingly indifferent students, and tries again to say something that will turn them on to learning; the teenager who walks back into the school full of kids who laughed at him yesterday. Small steps, but incredibly heroic steps. People who know they have a choice, as Mary did, and choose to move forward into whatever future God holds out for them – and us. These, like Mary, are the true heroes of Christmas, not because they participate in something fantastic and something beyond the reality we share as human beings, but because every day they live out the life God has given them with courage – no matter how small their lives may seem at the moment.


In a few days it will be Christmas morning. If we’re fortunate this year, we’ll celebrate it with imaginations full of magic and fantasy, and “visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads.” If we’re lucky, we’ll have lots of fun this year and be a bit happier for it. But some among us will not be so fortunate. Some of us will know that Christmas morning, like every other morning, brings its own challenges, responsibilities, even heartaches. And if we are among them, we may be weighed down by the burdens we carry.


But regardless of our outward circumstances, all of us will have the opportunity to say with Mary once again, “Okay God we’re with you all the way!” Like her, we’ll have the chance to act out our commitment in small, heroic steps. And when we take those steps and all the others on our journey toward Mary’s son, Jesus, we’ll learn that happiness, sadness, and all other emotions, are nothing compared to the true joy that God is offering this Christmas – and every Christmas.


Amen

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