Merely Beloved: Possibility as Practice

Merely Beloved

This post is part of a series called Merely Beloved. It is adapted from a sermon to be preached on 12/23/12 at Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church, Kettering, OH. For more information about the series, click here.

“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.” –Luke 1:38

In the passage prior to Mary’s response to the angel from the Gospel of Luke, we find Mary going through a series of steps, one by one.

The first step is when she realizes the mission to which God has called her. As far as we know, Mary is simply minding her own business in Nazareth…she’s been promised in marriage to Joseph…and an angel pops up He calls her “Favored one” and tells her that “the Lord is with you.” This doesn’t exactly get the angel off on the right foot, because Luke tells us that Mary is perplexed—she can’t figure this angel out. She learns that she will conceive, even though she is a virgin, and that her son will be the son of God.

Now, these days, the first thing that pops into Mary’s mind would probably be: “Great! I’ll get a reality show! It’ll be a cross between ’16 and Pregnant’ and ‘Virgin Diaries.’ It won’t be long until I’m on the cover of People magazine and then there’ll be book deals and maybe one of the Kardashians will play me in the movie!”

But back in those days, the first emotion would probably be fear, the next step in the cycle. Fear, because Joseph could divorce her. Fear, because she might even end up killed by stoning. Fear, because nothing like this has ever happened to her before—or to anyone else before, for that matter.

A baby in these circumstances would not be a blessing—this would seem like a curse. And I’m betting Mary feels afraid, and overwhelmed, and worried about what it coming next.

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Gabriel gets it. He knows it’s hard to live up to the mission he’s given to Mary. So he breaks out with the promise, the next step in the cycle: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) Not a virgin having a baby. Not that baby being the Son of the Most High. Not a young teenage woman accepting her overwhelming mission from God. And not Mary conquering her fears and being faithful.

Gabriel knows all this, but the question is: will Mary believe it? She’s got a choice (the last step in the cycle) to make. She can say, “This is all too overwhelming; I can’t do it; just leave me alone and let me live my life the way I’ve got planned.”

Or she can say, “Bring it on.”

You know her answer: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) “Bring it on.” Bring on the challenge, bring on the excitement, bring on the pain, bring on the anxiety, bring on the obedience. Mary trusts God enough to say, “Bring it on!”

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Do you? Do I?

After all, the movement from mission to fear to promise to choice is one each of us faces.

I don’t know the specifics of the mission God is calling you to. I do know he’s calling each one of us to become more and more like Jesus, each and every day. But I don’t know the specifics of what that means—how God’s calling you to live out this mission in your specific life right now.

I do know that understanding our mission more and more clearly can often lead to fear and a sense of being overwhelmed. That’s when we need to hear the promise from God, that with him, nothing will be impossible. And that’s when we face our choice: will we say “Bring it on!”?

I was on a trip to Taiwan earlier this year where I got to see the cycle play out with Pastor Chen. To understand his mission, you need to know that the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan literally picks names out of a hat for where its graduating seminarians will serve. Pastor Chen’s name popped out for a church in central Taiwan with members who are aboriginals—the poorest ethnic group on the island.

While he was initially very enthusiastic about serving there, it didn’t take long for the fear to set in when he realized that the church had taken on a lot of debt. Because not very many of the church members had jobs, the church couldn’t pay off the debt, and needless to say they couldn’t pay him. So here he is, having been chosen for a new call without any pay…trying to support his family.

Pastor Chen prayed about it, and he heard God’s promise that nothing would be impossible. He heard God’s promise to make a way where there seemed to be no way. And he heard the rustlings of the Holy Spirit to give him some inklings of what he could do to be faithful to his mission in this situation.

Pastor Chen was faced with a choice. And his answer, again and again, was “Bring it on!”

The Holy Spirit inspired him to start a company. Soon afterwards the local Presbyterian hospital asked him if he and the couple of church members he had hired could clean the hospital. He didn’t have any experience with cleaning, but of course, he said, “Bring it on!” Then he said he went quickly back and read everything he could find out about cleaning hospitals. And clean the hospital they did.

Next the hospital asked him if they could fumigate the hospital. “Bring it on!” he said. Then he quickly went out and read everything he could about fumigation, because he knew nothing about it at all. But soon afterward they were handling the fumigation.

Next the hospital said, “Can you do landscaping?” By now you know his answer. And you also know he knew next to nothing about landscaping. “Bring it on!”

To make a long story short, the company that started with Pastor Chen and three church members now employs three hundred aboriginals, many of whom are church members, and all of whom are grateful for Pastor Chen and the work they would never have gotten otherwise, if he hadn’t said, “Bring it on!”

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Mary said it. Pastor Chen said it. What about you? Will you say it?

What mission does God have for you? How will you live out Christ’s call to serve the world this Christmas season, and into the new year? What’s that mission?

What fear does it provoke in you? Put your finger on it, so that you can give it over to God.

Can you hear the promise, that all things are possible with God?

cbh headshot suitThe Rev. Dr. Charles B. Hardwick has served as the Director of Theology, Worship, and Education for the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (USA) since January, 2012. He most recently served as Pastor/Head of Staff of Second Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, IL, a congregation of 1700 members. He has also served a new church development outside of Princeton, NJ; the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA; as well as congregations in New York City, London, England, and Madrid, Spain. Chip’s education includes a B.A. from Alma College (Spanish), an M.B.A. from the Kellogg School at Northwestern University, a Th.M. from the Candler School at Emory University, and an M.Div. and Ph.D. (homiletics) from Princeton Theological Seminary. The biggest competitor to Christ’s lordship in his life is the University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team.

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