"A Better Story"
The First United Presbyterian Church of Loveland
“A Better Story”
Rev. Amy Morgan
December 13, 2020
14 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,
27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.
28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."
29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.
32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.
33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"
35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.
37 For nothing will be impossible with God."
38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
It had all the makings of a great story of divine activity. A blinding bright light shooting forth out of the ground. A people in darkness, confusion, and despair. And finally, after a long wait, power restored to God’s people.
But the story we told at the church in Michigan was that a 50-year-old transformer blew out. The staff anxiously waited for the utility company to replace and repair our decrepit equipment. And when the work was done, the lights came back on.
What a missed opportunity. What a mundane story.
We do this to ourselves all the time. When the car breaks down on our family trip and we are rescued by a stranger, we might be grateful, we might be relieved, but we’re not convinced that God has mysteriously intervened in our practical reality. When the letter arrives announcing our acceptance into the college of our dreams, we might be excited, we might be feel proud, but we likely won’t label it “good news of great joy” from a divine source. When, after long months of searching, skimping, surviving, the long-awaited job offer comes, we might be elated, we might feel hopeful, but we likely won’t attribute this success to God’s favor and activity in the world.
The ancient Israelites didn’t have this problem. In the prophesies of Jeremiah, we hear everyday events interpreted with divine meaning. Throughout his prophetic career, Jeremiah proclaims God’s intentions and bears witness to God’s activity in the rise and fall of empires, in the capture and deportation of his people. Human activity – how the poor and widowed are cared for, where the hearts of the people are oriented – has meaning and importance in a cosmic narrative that supersedes even the great human conflict surrounding Jeremiah and his people. In Jeremiah’s world, divine activity in the practical reality of human life is an assumption, not an exception.
This makes for a better story. Instead of military alliances and political power plays, Jeremiah tells a story of God’s might and the divine covenant with a chosen people. Instead of pointless suffering and alienation from their homeland, Jeremiah interprets God’s desire to protect God’s people and create in them a new heart.
But more than telling a better story, Jeremiah’s prophesy, his ability to recognize divine activity in the particularity of places and time and people, also gives him the ability to proclaim God’s promise full of confidence and hope.
And what a promise it is: a person from the royal line of David, to rule with justice and righteousness; someone with the power to contend with the rulers of Babylon and Egypt. The promise of salvation and safety for a people devastated by war and living fearfully in exile. What a promise.
For hundreds of years after Jeremiah’s prophesy, God’s people held on to this promise. You have to wonder how they managed to do it. As the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, the Persians by the Greeks, the Greeks by the Romans – the Israelites were occupied and subjugated again and again to foreign powers.
But the people knew that the promise was real. They saw God’s activity all around them, every day, in time and space. Seeing God’s activity in the everyday and mundane helped the Jewish people hold onto God’s promise for more than half a millennium.
And that is when a young Jewish girl in the rural town of Nazareth was told how that promise would finally be fulfilled.
It makes for a great story. An angelic visitation. Mary’s confusion and uncertainty. The announcement of a coming miracle that will change this girl’s life, lead her people with the power of God, and disrupt the cosmos with a never-ending kingdom. Natural and divine laws must stand aside for a virgin to conceive and for God to dwell with humankind.
That’s all well and good. If you can believe it. If it’s just a story, if it’s so far outside the realm of fact and truth and experience that there’s no practical significance in it – then what’s the point?
In the face of this story, and many others like it found in our scriptures, we seem to have only two choices: fact or fiction. This event only has meaning as a factual, historical occurrence or as an illuminating metaphor. This creates problems for a lot of people. Some people are not able to connect to this event as a reasonable possibility. Others feel it loses meaning and power if it is only a glorified fairytale.
But I don’t think those are the only two approaches available to us. Like Jeremiah, like the Jewish people, like Mary herself, we can leave room for mystery in the mundane. We can look for the exceptional in the ordinary. We hear the promise in the practical. It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and.
This is Mary’s approach. She regards the angel and his divine missive with confusion and doubt. Visitation from a celestial messenger is no reason for her to toss aside known realities and experiential truth. And yet, she ultimately submits herself to God’s implausible plan because she agrees with the angel’s assertion that her cousin’s late-in-life pregnancy is the work of divine intervention, not merely a fortunate biological accident.
It is as though Mary has one foot in our lived reality and the other in divine reality. Even with the limited scientific knowledge of her time, she seems to understand certain facts about the way the world works. And the miraculous events that she experiences aren’t meant to change those facts. There is simply a recognition that God’s activity happens in time and space, sometimes interrupting our perceived natural order, sometimes disrupting our plans and perceptions. Human and divine realities are not always the same, but they are, in fact, both a kind of reality.
Living in this paradoxical reality allows us to see purpose and promise in our lives and in the world, in history and in the present. And it gives us a more hopeful future.
But it also takes courage to live this way. Numerous times in the biblical narratives we hear echoes of the angel’s imperative, “Do not be afraid.” This is generally followed by some kind of terrifying assignment. Leaving ourselves open to divine intervention in our comfortable reality tends to have the effect of disrupting that comfortable reality.
Mary is ready to be happily married to a nice Jewish boy and instead finds her marriage, and indeed her very life, in jeopardy because she is called to participate in a plan of cosmic importance. James and John were preparing to take over the family fishing business when they are called to the lucrative and prestigious occupation of fishing for people. Paul was hoping to lay low and regroup for a bit in Corinth when he was told to speak up and not be silent. These divine messages and interventions are all accompanied by this message to “fear not” for good reason. The call placed upon the lives of those willing to see human experience infused with divine purpose is often daunting if not downright terrifying.
It’s much easier to live in the dualistic realm of either fact or fiction. It’s much easier to say, “this is what I know to be true, and this is what I find to be inspiring, and the two are different, separate, and essentially unrelated.”
It’s much more dangerous and difficult to be inspired by our lived reality and to hope for a truth we can’t yet see.
But it does make for a better story. And it is an essential ingredient of faith. We are called to have the courage to encounter the transcendent in the tangible, the mysterious in the material, the eternal in the everyday. This way of living is challenging, but it makes for a better story and a more believable promise.
We have been through a challenging year. And we are in the midst of the most difficult phase of this ongoing crisis. But as we begin to look forward to the promise of this pandemic’s end, we also must consider what story we are going to tell about this historic event.
Will we remember the global spread of the pandemic and the rapid development of vaccines? Or will we remember how God comforted the ill, the dying, and the grieving, provided compassionate, courageous, and committed healthcare workers, and inspired us to innovate new ways to connect and care for one another through the crisis? Will we celebrate the work of scientists, public health workers, and drug companies, or will we praise God for human intellect and innovation? Either way of telling this story can be true, in a sense. But the better story is the one that infuses divine purpose into human reality, that allows us to bear witness to the work of God in time and space, in trouble and triumph. The better story allows us to “fear not,” to trust in God’s faithfulness so that we can follow the call placed on our lives.
In this Advent season, and in all the seasons of our lives, may we have the courage to see God’s activity in our lives and in the world: in unexpected interruptions, in the kindness of strangers, and in impossible good news. And may this help us to wait for God’s promises to be fulfilled: promises of abundant life, of a creation made new, and of life everlasting. Amen.