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Hope ~ The Lord Is with You!



Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
December 3, 2017

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. It is a time of preparation and waiting for the coming of Christmas! I didn't need to tell you that! The whole world seems to have already started that preparation with Black Friday! But the church sees this time of anticipation in a whole different light! This day marks the beginning of a new church year. We don't start the year in August/September when the school year starts or in January when the calendar shifts to 2018. As the days grow colder and shorter in anticipation of the Winter Solstice, we celebrate the darkening of the light with hope for the sun's return, the Son of God's re-birth day! We focus on the power of hope and are learning to wait for something big.     We focus on darkness as a time of beginning a new year!

As the church grew beyond the borders of Israel into the expanse of the Roman Empire, the Western European world, with its many earth based faith traditions already honored the cycles of the seasons with a sacred celebration at the Winter Solstice. The church simply co-opted those celebrations by declaring December 25 the Feast Day of Jesus, the Christ-Mass!

The wisdom of honoring the darkening of the light with renewed hope for the return of the light that is the Christ Spirit reborn in all of us at Christmas is too often co-opted by the busy-ness and consumer frenzy of this season. We may choose to over-schedule ourselves to avoid the pain and fear that world events continue to bring into our living rooms in the evening news. It has never seemed more important to me than now that we stop to reflect on the reason for the season, to go deeper into our faith so that the resources of hope, peace, joy and love that are our birthrights as children of God can be accessed and shared with our families, our community and the wider world. We need to resist the frenzy and say no to a few of the many offered events of this season.

We need to value the darkness of this time and the gifts it can bring:

was in the darkness of the womb that we all came to be! Jesus needed that darkness to be made ready to come to us. In this dark time something may be waiting to be born within us.

It is only in the darkness that we can see the splendor of the universe. It was the darkness that allowed the Magi to find the star that          guided them to where the Christ-child lay. A dark night can help us to see our own shining star within.
In the darkness of sleep, we are soothed and restored, healed and renewed. In the darkness of sleep, dreams rise up. God spoke to Mary, Joseph and the wise men through dreams. God is still speaking.

Sometimes in the solitude of darkness our fears and concerns, our hopes and visions rise to the surface. We come to face ourselves and the road that lies ahead of us. We may wonder and worry whether the human race is going to survive. But in the darkness we can know that God is with us, even as we await God's coming.
In the darkness that contains both our hopelessness and our hope, we watch for signs of God's hope. For God is with us, in darkness and in light.

Today we heard the story of the Annunciation of Mary. In this season of darkness we hear the story of a woman who trusted God in a dark time. Women throughout history have been relegated to the dark places, associated with the womb but also with Eve's temptation and the idea of original sin. The value of darkness and the value of women may finally be coming into light!

Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she is favored, that the Lord is with her, that she'll have a baby by the Holy Spirit, that her cousin Elizabeth is also to have a child in her old age, that she shouldn't be afraid. And she says, Yes! "Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word!" This is the response of a prophet, and Mary truly is a prophetic voice!

We don't need to take this passage literally or believe in the Virgin birth to find meaning and value in these words. In fact, when we step back and look for the metaphorical implications, there is power here that is too often missed in the argument over whether it really happened. Ever since the Reformation Mary has been delegated to the back room of our faith tradition. She probably wasn't a virgin, she certainly wasn't divine, only Jesus matters. But in being too logical and literal, we lost a wonderful model for the feminine face of the sacred.

Jesus shows us the way God's Spirit manifests in a man. He is compassionate, courageous, sensitive, a healing presence, powerful, transformative, humble. There is plenty in him that others might call feminine, He is whole, holy!

Mary shows us the way God's Spirit manifests in a woman. She is courageous, humble, open, vulnerable, but also powerful, transformative, and throughout history, a healing presence! And next week we'll hear her declare God's call to justice in the Magnificat as no other can. There is plenty here that others might call masculine. She is whole, holy.

Mary's significance and power is coming to the forefront of our tradition at a time when the power of women to stand for justice and dignity has never been clearer or more needed. Since January's Women's March on Washington and throughout the world, women have been speaking up, running for public office, declaring the need for justice as never before. And now the #MeToo movement is toppling the powerful in          unprecedented numbers. Courage has been inspired by the acts of others. We are declaring, "Here I am Lord!"

One of the most powerful speakers who addressed us during my study in Israel was a poet and author named Stephanie Saldana who is a Christian from Texas who lives in East Jerusalem with her husband and two children. All of us were touched by her eloquence and her humility, but also her passion for justice. She told us not to come to her Palestinian community with our anger to try to stir them up to action. It is dangerous! We are already angry enough and need to respond in our own ways. We will not give up. and we sometimes see our work as like building a cathedral. It may take several hundred years to complete, but we will each do our part!

I invite you to imagine God coming to you in a dream as an angel to declare that you are favored. That the Lord is with you! That you need not be afraid. Would you consider yourself on the verge of a nervous breakdown? Does God speak in dreams or through angels anymore? Does God choose you? Is God with you? Is it absurd not to be afraid in such troubled times as ours?
This is the great challenge of believing in the Incarnation of God in Christ: The Spirit that came to Mary, that lived in Jesus, now lives in you. We try to remind ourselves every time we share communion: "May you recognize the Spirit of the Christ in each other in the breaking of the bread!" The Annunciation that was delivered to Mary may or may not have been about a virgin birth, but it was definitely about being chosen by God to do great things.

So what does it mean to be chosen? The Rabbi Donnel Hartman that leads the program at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, responded to that question so often asked of those who have been called "the Chosen People": Are we chosen? Yes! Are you chosen? Yes! Are all people chosen? Yes!

But we don't all respond. God is always knocking on the door to our hearts, when we respond with a simple Yes! we can begin to be transformed within and to transform the world. to build a cathedral of hope and peace and joy and love, to do our part, however big or small. The Lord is With You! This is my hope for you and for all of us in this season of Advent.