Brave New Day (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)
Here is my manuscript for the sermon that I preached on Sunday, Dec. 30 at The Bridge service. As always, this is not exactly what I said. For starters, we do sing the verse about the 6th Day of Christmas in between paragraphs one and two.
Pop quiz: Is it still Christmas? Yes, it is. I’m sure some of you are done with the holiday. You have moved on. Your tree is gone. If you hear another Christmas carol, you just might beat the figgy pudding out of the person singing it. Others of you are probably one of those individuals who sincerely wish that it could be Christmas all year along. And then probably most of you, like myself, are somewhere in between. Our trees are still up and we still like the Christmas stuff around, but come New Year’s, we start casting our eyes elsewhere. But today is the 6th day of Christmas and to get us all on the same page, I think we need to sing a song together: today’s verse of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
I have a few thoughts about that song. I know it is just a fun and festive song from probably Victorian England that really has no deeper meaning. It’s a fun song to sing with kids. I personally enjoy the version by John Denver and the Muppets. But can we be honest about something here? The true love in this song is obviously overcompensating in some way. He, and the true love here is most definitely a he, has done something and he is desperately trying to make up for it.
Or, this is my darker alternative theory, there is something nefarious afoot. Why do I think that? Days six and seven. He gives this woman six geese and seven swans. Now on the surface this might seem like an extravagant, impractical, yet harmless gift. But I have spent a fair amount of time around water fowl. Furman University, where I went to college, has a lake on campus that is populated—some might say overpopulated—by ducks, geese, and swans and, let me tell you, these creatures might look like beautiful birds of water and sky but they are in reality hissing, feathered dinosaurs that if given the means will murder you. I can’t tell you how many times I picked up the pace of a run in college because an angry Canadian goose reared its wings and started hissing at me. It’s terrifying. And this so-called “true love” wants to give this woman thirteen of these lake demons? This woman needs to run for her life.
That’s not what we’re talking about this morning; just a little insight for you on the weird stuff that goes through my mind virtually every time I hear a Christmas carol. My main point is that it is still Christmas. As such, we shouldn’t sprint past the manger quite yet. We are also in a time during which we are looking forward to the new year.
I don’t know if you are the type of person who makes new year resolutions. I don’t officially make any though I did sign up for a spring half-marathon in a potentially ill-advised attempt to get myself to eat better and exercise more. But as the calendar turns, many of us cannot help but think about what this next year is going to look like for each of us. Keeping Christmas and the New Year in mind, I wanted us to reflect this morning on how the former might inform the latter. How can the Christmas story propel us forward in being the kind of people God desires in 2019?
I want us to circle back to Mary and return to the moment when she first found out that she was going to be carrying a child. Luke 1:26-32 is the passage in which she receives some earth-shaking news:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
We know this story well and we hear it so much that we take Mary’s ultimate response for granted. Yet I want us to take another look at her because I would argue that in this moment, she is one of the most brave people we find in scripture and a guide for us as we head into the new year.
Mary was a teenage girl of probably 13 or 14 years living in a backwater town in a region that was repeatedly conquered by whatever nation was the ruling empire of the day. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph. When the angel Gabriel finds Mary, her entire life is set out before her. And with this one bit of news, Gabriel takes a sledgehammer to her future. Her security and her safety were all potentially threatened.
We know from Matthew’s Gospel that Joseph quietly considered calling off their marriage. Hypothetically, Mary could have still lived with her family. But what if they put her out of the house for this supposed transgression? What if her community cast her out because of the child that she carried? What would she do if everyone turned her away? Would she have to beg? How would she and the child survive?
Even worse, what if Joseph or some self-righteous individual in the community wanted to make an example of Mary? In John’s Gospel, an overzealous mob took a woman accused of adultery and threw her down before the feet of Jesus. Someone in the crowd stated that it was lawful for them to throw stones at that woman until they killed her. Jesus intervened on behalf of that woman, but would there be anyone to intervene for Mary?
On top of all these factors is the simple fact that surviving childbirth is not a given. Survival was certainly not a guarantee in first century Palestine. There are many ways that this pregnancy could have gone sideways for Mary. Plus this child would be a king. Her country already had a puppet king and Herod the Great had a reputation for killing anyone that threatened his power. What if word got to him about this child she was carrying? Gabriel said that Mary was highly favored, but you have to wonder if Mary felt that the opposite might be true. One can see a scenario in which Mary considered the potential damage to her social reputation, her personal security, and her very life, looked at Gabriel and said, “Hard pass.” Who could have blamed her?
We don’t know how long she thought about it. Scripture cuts to the chase because there is a story to tell. Yet what we do know is what Mary ultimately said: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” This teenage girl whose future was completely upended, whose very life could have been at risk with this hair-brained divine scheme for God to be with us said, “Yes.”
And this wasn’t a naive “yes.” Later in Luke 1, she sings a song about how God, through the child in her womb, is pulling rulers off their thrones and raising up the humble. Mary says “yes” and she says “yes” day after day after day for over three decades because when her baby boy is arrested and executed as an enemy of the state, she is there. I am sure she wasn’t perfect. There are passages in which it seems like she butted heads with her son. Yet she kept saying “yes” to what God asked of her.
How incredibly, ridiculously, beautifully, unbelievably brave was she? How much did she trust that God would take care of her? How much did she see the bigger picture beyond herself? To continue to see herself as God’s servant in such a volatile time and place, as whispers of her son’s legitimacy hounded her, as rumors swirled, as the baby boy she nursed faced threats on his life and was ultimately killed on trumped up charges, she remained a servant of God. How brave was she? And how can we be like her?
As we consider Mary, my hope is that we will see ourselves as servants of God and that we will be brave. Not brave in a way in which we beat our chest or in which everybody admire our great courage. But brave in a way in which we take these incredible leaps of faith to be the kind of people that God desires us to be, the kind of people that the world needs us to be. The truth of the matter is you have to be brave to embody all the qualities that we talked about during Advent. You have to be brave in this world to have hope. You have to be brave to embody peace. You have to be brave to exude joy. You have to be brave to love. It’s risky. You must stick your neck out on the chopping block. What God requires of us is not easy for the easy path does not lead to transformation.
So what does God require of us? One could preach a thousand sermons on that. You can say that we must love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves. You could look at Micah 6:8 and say that we are to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. You could look at the Great Commission in Matthew where we are instructed to go into all of the world and to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded. The things for which we need to be brave, the ways in which we can embody hope, peace, joy, and love go on and on. And as you go into 2019, I would encourage you to study scripture for all that to which God is calling us.
One passage I want us to consider as we go into the New Year is 2 Corinthians 2:17-19:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
One of the braves things to which God is calling us is to be messengers of reconciliation. In a world of intense division and hatred, reconciliation can seem like a fool’s errand. Some people run with this verse and think that all we need to do is tell the world to be reconciled to God. Stand at an intersection with a sign or fire off a tweet about how all y’all need Jesus and we’re good. But God is reconciling everything. And God wants us to be a part of that.
So we are called to reconcile broken relationships. We are called to be agents of reconciliation who help people find the wholeness and goodness of God in every aspect of their lives: heart, soul, mind, and body. So where there are divisions of prejudice, we are called to reconcile. Where people are living lives divided from the basic necessities of food or shelter, we are called to reconcile there too. Where people are divided from mental well-being, we reconcile. Where people are separated from the good God who loves them more than they could imagine, we are messengers of reconciliation. We are servants of the Lord and we must bravely seek to be part of bringing the wholeness, God’s shalom to this earth.
How is this possible? The stakes may not be as high for us as they were for Mary. You and I are likely not going to find our physical well-being threatened. Nevertheless we have to wonder how on earth we could even begin to live out this reconciliation. That is where we come back to the beginning of the 2 Corinthians passage: in Christ, you are a new creation. You are not in this alone. God was with Mary. God is with you. If you follow Christ, then you bear Christ and Christ is with you. You are not alone. God does not ask you to do something then leave you alone. You are a beautiful, new creation. You are not just a new creation at New Year’s. You are not just a new creation at Christmas. You are one every brave new day that you take air into your lungs. You can do this because of Immanuel: God with us and God with you.
I don’t know what specific area of reconciliation to which you are called in this world. Each of our callings look different. But as you muster up the nerve to be brave and follow God out into the world, I hope this church can be a laboratory for bravery, a studio of bravery. May this be a place in which we practice being brave so that we may go out into the world and do likewise. May we encourage each other to be like Mary. To close, I want to leave you with this from the activist Micky ScottBeyJones. Her words are my prayer for us each brave new day that we gather together:
Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of this outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
It will be our brave space together
We will work on it side by side