Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year A – Fourth Sunday of Advent
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – December 22, 2019
Right before Christmas 2012, an upset woman approached the staff of Embankment London Underground Station, asking where “the voice” had gone. Confused, they asked what she meant, and she said, “the voice that says ‘Mind the Gap.’” The staff told her not to worry because the announcement still happened, just made by updated, new, digital voices so there would be more variety. They asked her if she was ok. She replied, “that voice was my husband.” That woman, Dr. Margaret McCollum, was married to an actor, Oswald Laurence, who never became famous, but did record all of the Northern Line announcements in the 1970s. He had died in 2007 and with his death, Margaret had experienced a huge loss. But one thing helped – hearing her husband’s voice on the announcements each day on her way to work. When the pain was too much, she’d sit and listen a bit longer. For five years, she had done this, knowing while Oswald might be gone, the memories were still there. It was a reminder of her beloved. Now, with the updated system, even that was gone.
The staff apologized and said the upgrade had to be done, but if they could find a copy of the old recording for her, they would. She thanked them, and went on her way, not believing much would happen. One day, in the new year, she heard a familiar voice on the loudspeakers at the Embankment Station. You see, a lot of people on that staff had lost loved ones and wished they could hear from them again. They realized they could make it happen for one person. So some scoured archives, some found and restored old tapes, others digitized them and altered computer code, and still more sorted out paperwork and acquired exemptions. And together, they made Oswald talk again. Even today, if you sit on the northbound platform of Embankment Station you will hear a voice entirely different than anywhere else on the London Underground.
Hearing from those who are important to us, whom we love, is so important. It makes us feel like we are cared about, seen, and understood. It makes us feel like we are not alone. So I can only imagine what it meant to Joseph when he heard from an angel of the Lord in a dream. I don’t know how Joseph received the news of Mary’s pregnancy, whether she told him or he found out through the rumor mill. In any case, he had been pondering, turning over in his heart, what to do. He had considered divorcing her quietly, rather than causing a stir, or even stoning her, which was his legal right. But just then he receives a message in a dream. A message telling him not to be afraid, but to step out in faith and trust. To take Mary as his wife and to love courageously. And so he does. He marries her, takes responsibility for a child that is not his, and names him Jesus, just as the angel told him. Joseph doesn’t even help pick a name for his adopted son.
Matthew’s account breezes through all of these plot points, but I cannot imagine what this situation was like for Joseph or Mary. What conversations did they have about all of this? What about the discussions with their families and friends? What did the neighbors say? It is astonishing to think God’s redemption plan for all of creation centered on such a risky, scandalous-sounding situation.
In the 21st century, we hear these stories of women and men receiving messages from God and we take them with a grain of salt. We know more about how the brain works, sorting through and processing information and even creating elaborate dreams. We know how synapses fire and connections are made. We may cherish these stories we hear in scripture, but does God speak to us?
The answer is an absolute “yes!” God speaks to us in ways we can receive and perceive particular to us and our specific situations. Joseph is told people will call Jesus “Emmanuel,” meaning “God is with us.” It’s a name describing how people will experience God present in and working through Jesus. If we believe God speaks to us in ways we can grasp and that pertain to our lives, it means God knows us inside and out and wants to communicate with us. God is a friend and companion, longing to hear from and to speak with us. In Jesus, God is not only with us, God is one of us. Jesus is God with us here and now – not just way back when. He is active and present in our lives, conversing with and in us. In him, God is hidden in simple human flesh. And God wants to interact with us.
But this kind of intimacy with God is not always something we wish to embrace. We worry what we perceive as God might just be our own ego or we might misunderstand. We fear God might ask us to do something. We fear God’s request might ask us to reconsider how we think, speak, and act. We worry we won’t be enough or we will fail. And maybe at the very heart of it, we feel we are not worthy of hearing from God. Why would God have something to say to me? Why would the creator of the universe – vast oceans, mountain heights, far-flung stars – want to speak to me?
Out of deep love, Dr. Margaret McCollum shared and was vulnerable with the staff of Embankment Station. It would have been easy for staff to ignore her plea or feel like it was too much time to invest for one person. But they chose love. As Brené Brown explains, “Courage originally meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world, that’s pretty extraordinary.” This kind of vulnerability and courageous love is exactly what was at work in God coming to Mary and Joseph, working through ordinary people and asking them to say “yes.” It’s the vulnerability of a God who takes on flesh at Christmas.
God wants to be at work in you and in your life, just as God was at work in very powerful and unexpected ways in the lives of Mary and Joseph. God is deeply in love with you and so wants to communicate with you. This communication might be different, person to person, but it will always align with who God has revealed Godself to be in scripture. Perhaps God is guiding you through changes needed for healing. God might be asking something of you – something only you can do. Maybe God is calling you to trust God can actually see you through whatever you are experiencing right now. Maybe you’re asked to do that thing you always longed to do, but didn’t seem “reasonable” or “practical.” Perhaps it’s giving more generously, trusting God can and will provide. Maybe it’s risking failure to find greater joy and freedom in being who you really are and have forgotten along the way. Maybe you risk putting yourself out there to serve others. Perhaps you are called to admit you were wrong.
I don’t know how God will communicate with you. It could be through the readings, hymns, a baptismal reminder, tasting simple bread and wine, preaching, speaking with another person, enjoying creation, through books, movies, or even through dreams like with Joseph. One of the ways we can listen to God is through conversation and prayer with others we trust in community. That is a gift we have been given. We have each other. Someone else might be able to hear something we can’t and point us in the right direction. They might be able to pick up those threads and help us see the larger picture. But it takes vulnerability to share those nudges with others because we might be afraid of how others will view us when we share how we believe God is speaking.
Yes, God may ask you to do something bold, daring, or different. But God will never ask you to do something or go anywhere where God will not accompany you. If Jesus will be known by others as “God with us,” there is no place we can go and nothing God will ask of us where God will not empower us. If God is asking us like Joseph to love courageously, to take risks for the sake of sharing good news with the world, God will not leave us out there by ourselves. We will have everything we need. I don’t know how Mary and Joseph navigated those murky waters of telling their families what was going on or how they dealt with the shame, stress, and stares from neighbors. But God gave them strength and courage to face their fear and trust in God’s promises.
All of this requires a degree of courage – owning our fears and dreams with honesty and vulnerability. It requires embracing the love God shows us so we live confident in who we are and whose we are. It means taking a risk to use our God-given gifts for the sake of our neighbor. It means loving courageously – God, ourselves, and others. But it all starts with having the audacity to believe God loves you enough to want to communicate with you, here and now. Take courage to believe God is speaking to you – for your good and for the good of the world. Amen.