(sermon for March 25, Feast of the Annunciation)
Isaiah 7:10-14 and Luke 1:26-38
In our readings on this Feast of the Annunciation, we have the story of two visitations: one to Ahaz, King of Judah, and the other to Mary, mother of our Lord.
In the first of these visitations, God promises, through the prophet Isaiah, to rescue Ahaz and the people of Judah from the hands of their enemies. They have only to put their trust in God and God will deliver them. Furthermore, God invites Ahaz to ask for a sign so that he will have no doubt or fear about placing his whole trust in God’s promise. Ahaz declines the offer, saying he does not want to put the Lord to the test. But what seems at first glance to be a humble and appropriate response is revealed instead to be a sign of the king’s stubbornness and resistance. Ahaz actually resents God breaking into his life; he prefers to make his own decisions and to map out his own path, and this stubbornness and pride leads to his destruction.
Mary also receives a visitation. God promises, through the angel Gabriel, to bless her with a son, who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High,” and through whom God’s people will be established forever. Mary’s response is the opposite of Ahaz’s. She accepts the intervention and the promise with openness and trust, and responds with those familiar words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
Two visitations. Two invitations to cooperate with God’s saving work and to reap the benefits of God’s promise. But two very different responses: one of resistance, the other of acceptance. One person says ‘No,’ while the other says ‘Yes.’
I suspect we would all like to think that if God were to call us to some special task we would respond as Mary did, saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord…” But we know that we are also capable of turning away, of delaying our answer, of looking for a way out. We see our bestselves responding with openness and generosity, but we know also that selfish side of ourselves that loves to have its own way and doesn’t like being moved out of its comfort zone. And sometimes, if the truth be told, the call is, well, daunting, and we just don’t see how we can do it.
We’re not alone in this. Consider the reluctance of Moses, who in response to God’s call insisted that hewas not the right man to appear before Pharaoh and to demand that the Israelites be freed from their captivity in Egypt (Ex 3:11). Or think of Jeremiah who, when God called him, protested that he was too young and inexperienced to be a prophet (Jer 1:6). Or Jonah, who hopped on a ship headed in the opposite direction from where God had called him to go (Jonah 1:1-3). Or Mary, whom we remember today, whose initial response to the angel’s message was “How can this be?” (Lk 1:34). We, too, may feel overwhelmed or afraid or unqualified in the face of God’s call. We wonder how we will ever be or do what God seems to be asking of us. We may be tempted to turn away, to go our own way, or to look for a way out.
God’s response to our fear and anxiety is always the same. To Moses, God says, “I will be with you” (Ex 3:12). To Jeremiah, God says, “Be not afraid…for I am with you to deliver you… Behold, I have put mywords in your mouth” (Jer 1:7-10). To Mary, God offers comfort and assurance, saying, “Don’t be afraid. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk 1:35). In like manner, God says to us, “Do not be afraid. I will be your strength in weakness. It is my mission to which you are called; I will do this work in and through you.”
It may not be fear that prevents us from embracing the call; it may be our own stubbornness and pride. Ahaz was determined to go his own way, to maintain control of his destiny. Jonah’s willfulness and resistance had to be broken by a storm at sea and a few nights in the belly of a great fish (Jonah 1:4-17). Paul had to be struck down and made blind before he could be turned around. God may work to overcome our resistance.
Tonight we remember and celebrate the annunciation to Mary. But the truth is that annunciations come to all of us at some point or other in our lives. God speaks and draws us towards God’s good purpose for us; a door opens and we are invited to step through. The choice is ours. The door may remain open for a time; we may miss the opportunity it presents if we resist or turn away or give in to fear and anxiety. Ahaz turned away from the call, but Mary embraced it. The choice is always ours.
Here are some things we can say about the call of God:
First, that every person is called by God to some particular purpose or task. God calls us all. Everyperson has a vocation, “a purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God.”[i] Don’t think for a moment that it is only priests or religious who have a “call” or a “vocation.” EveryChristian is called to be a channel of God’s love and blessing in the world; not one of us is exempt.
Second, note that this call can come to us in a number of ways. Some of us may experience a dramatic call, which turns us around and points us in an entirely new direction. Think of Moses responding to a burning bush in the wilderness, or Paul being struck from his horse on the way to Damascus. But mostof us, most of the time will experience God’s call as something that only becomes clear over time, and seems to unfold gradually in very ordinary ways. Don’t wait for the writing on the wall; pay attention to the ordinary and the everyday.
Third, the call of God will always benefit others. God never calls us simply for our own happiness or fulfillment. There is always some benefit that God intends to give to others through us. The call of God alwaysis a call to service. It always extends beyond our selves, joining us to others in community. It will always be of benefit to others. Always.
Fourth, we are not called to do everything. Even if a need presents itself and we have the gifts and the interest to take it on, we have alwaysto listen carefully and to discernwhether we are calledby God to do this thing. Sometimes it is not for us to do; instead, we might serve God best by encouraging someone else to take it on. This is a lesson some of us need to learn and practice.
Fifth, God’s call requires a response. God is asking something of us, but it is not necessarily to “carry out an order” as if we were soldiers being deployed by a commander. No, the call of God engages our creativity and initiative as well as our obedience. When we receive a call, it is like being given a set of building blocks and being encouraged to see what we can make with them. God promises to work with us in this process, guiding and directing us in all things.
And finally, God not only calls us, but empowers us. We are never alone. God is always with us, working in us in ways we can scarcely imagine. “My power is made perfect in your weakness” (II Cor 12:9). Our sense of weakness or inadequacy is not an obstacle to God; in fact, it may be the very thing that qualifiesus for God’s service. When we realize our need for God, we find ourselves turning to receive God’s help and God’s strength. This is a good and necessary thing. “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).
So where are you tonight? What challenges and responsibilities have been set before you in this season of your life? How are you being called to respond to them? What is God asking of you? What does God want for you? And how will you respond? Will fear or anxiety or stubbornness or pride prevent you from embracing the call, or will your heart open willingly and generously to God’s invitation?
Don’t be afraid. The call of God springs from God’s love and compassion. God’s call, as daunting as it may seem, is an invitation that arises out of love and concern, for us and for others. It may seem too difficult, too demanding, but remember that it comes with a promise. “Do not fear,” God says, “I have created you and redeemed you and called you by name. You are mine. I will never leave you or forsake you. My grace will always be sufficient for you, no matter what it is that you are facing. Put all your hope and confidence in me, and abidein my love.”
When we embrace and hold fast to this promise, we will be given grace to say with Mary: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
[i]This definition of ‘vocation’ comes from Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann.
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