Sermon, Dec. 18

It’s one week till Christmas Day!

That means it’s almost time for our pageant.

Every year on Christmas Eve we do a special little play of the Christmas story. Some of you are here, some of you are traveling to see family. (So we usually do another pageant in January.) 

This year we’re trying something new – instead of acting it out, we’re going to have our performers make pictures of the different scenes – not by drawing but with their bodies – costumes, etc. 

Getting ready for this – interesting to think about what people in the story would have been feeling. 

Chance for our actors to really think about that –  not just to stand in a particular place or pose, but how to show with their faces and their bodies how they would have been feeling. 

I thought today maybe we could practice that a little bit. 

Let me give an example. 

First scene in the story the way we usually tell it: An angel comes to Mary to ask her if she is willing to become pregnant with God’s son who is also God, Jesus. 

What do angels look like?…

In pictures they usually look like very pretty people, with wings, right?

Angels are messengers for God – that’s what the word angel means. They are God’s helpers. 

In the Bible sometimes they look like people, like in the Tobit story. Sometimes they are invisible, like in the Balaam story. Sometimes they look blindingly bright and strange and terrifying! 

One thing people have noticed is that a lot of the time, when an angel appears to a person, the first thing the angel has to say is:

Fear not! Don’t be afraid!

Which makes it seem like something about angels must be kind of scary, at least at first!

Here is one of my favorite pictures of this scene when the angel comes to talk to Mary. 

The artist is named Henry Ossawa Tanner. 

What choice did he make about how to show the angel?…

I like that part of the picture. 

But what I really like about the picture is how he painted Mary.

Look at her face and her body. What feelings do you think she is feeling? …

I like how this painting invites us to think about all the big mixed-up feelings Mary might have been having, when the angel asked her to do this big thing for God. 

Let’s try on a couple of those feelings with our faces and bodies. 

Mary might have been afraid of what the angel was asking her to do, and what it would mean for her. 

Not, like, I just saw a ghost afraid, but, this changes everything about my life, afraid. 

How can we show afraid with our faces?…

With our bodies?….

At the same time, Mary feels hopeful! 

That’s why she says Yes!

We hear that later when she sings her bold song of hope to her cousin Elizabeth, about how she will be remembered and blessed by future generations because of what she is doing, and how God is working to raise up the lowly and feed the hungry. 

Can we show hopeful with our faces? Our bodies? … 

Mary says Yes, to the angel, right? She agrees to do it. To become God’s mother. What a huge thing to do!

But then Joseph comes into the story. 

Mary is engaged to get married to Joseph, but now she is pregnant and Joseph doesn’t know anything about it. He’s upset!

Maybe he doesn’t believe her story about what happened. 

So God sends an angel – maybe the same angel? – to talk to Joseph too. To tell him, It’s OK. Go ahead and get married. This baby who is also God will need a human daddy. 

I wonder what Joseph would have been feeling?

I think he was probably kind of sad. 

Getting married is a big deal, and this wasn’t how he thought things were going to go.

Can we show Sad with our faces? 

Our bodies?….

He was probably also confused, right? 

He didn’t know what to think! 

Mary’s story didn’t make sense.

The angel’s story didn’t make sense but it’s hard to argue with an angel.

How could God have a baby, or be a baby? 

Why would his fiancé be chosen to be involved? 

Why would HE be chosen to be involved?

It’s a lot to take in and figure out!!

Let’s show confused with our faces… and our bodies.

Okay, let’s do one more scene! Later, in the story, after the baby is born, the angel shows up AGAIN to tell some shepherds all about it, and that they should go visit the baby and worship him.

God wants ordinary, poor people to be the first to know the good news about God coming into the world to dwell among us and share our lives.

The shepherds were just sitting around, waiting for the next sheep to be ready to have her lambs so they could help her, and making sure wolves or lions don’t come steal the lambs that have already been born.

And suddenly there’s an ANGEL!

And then there are a LOT MORE ANGELS!

How would they have felt?….

We already did Scared; let’s show SURPRISED with our faces and bodies! …. 

And then when the angel tells them that God is doing a wonderful thing, and that they should go visit the baby Jesus, they feel so EXCITED! They can’t wait to go! 

Let’s show EXCITED with our faces and our bodies!….

There are so many feelings in this story!  Lots more than we’ve talked about today. I think that’s one reason why even though we tell this story every year, I’m always glad to see it again.

Thanks for exploring those feelings with me! Maybe this will help some of our pageant actors when we start our work later today. 

Now, I have something I want to say to the bigger kids, before we go on. So while I’m doing that, I have a little project for you.

I thought you might like to make some angel ornaments.

We talked about how in pictures and paintings, people usually make angels look like pretty people with wings.

But some people have found that there are some pretty weird descriptions of angels in the Bible. Like, angels that have six wings instead of two, and are entirely covered with eyes!

So if you’d like, you can take these ornament bases, and use some sticky dots to stick on feathers for wings, and some eyes… and make a biblically accurate angel ornament for your family. 

* * * * * * 

Okay, now I want to say a few words to the bigger kids.

I gave a longer version of this sermon a few years ago but I think maybe it’s important to talk about now and then. 

There’s a word we’re going to hear a lot over the next couple of weeks. 

That word is Virgin.

We heard it once today already, in our Gospel.

Matthew thinks he’s quoting Isaiah, though actually the word in Isaiah is just “young woman.” 

And we’ll hear that word a lot in hymns and carols, as Christmas approaches. “Round yon virgin tender and mild,” and so on. 

We know several things about Mary. 

God chose her to bear Godself as a human infant.

God respected her enough to ask her permission.

She was bold enough to say Yes.

In the song of faith we call the Magnificat,

She celebrates being chosen by God – 

“All generations will call me blessed! How cool is that!!”

And she talks about the things she hopes to see God do:  

Tear down the powerful from their thrones! 

Raise up the powerless! 

Fill the hungry with good food and send the rich away empty! 

Nothing mild about all that. 

Much later in the Gospels, we see her struggling with her son’s mission. Fearing for him. 

Later, she follows him to the cross and watches him die.

She goes on to be one of those who tells his story. 

And, yes, at the very beginning, here, she is a virgin. 

Somebody who has not yet had that special kind of physical closeness with another person that they teach you about in … is that sixth grade Health? 

She says so herself in Luke’s Gospel: 

“How exactly am I going to get pregnant with this special baby? Because….” 

Out of all the things that we could say about Mary, the fact that she is a virgin is what churches have chosen to say over and over again, down through the centuries. 

It’s kind of strange that the historical Church managed to make Mary this icon of purity, when in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph nearly abandons Mary because he doesn’t know how she got pregnant! 

That shame and struggle is part of what Mary agreed to face, 

when she said Yes to the angel.  

It’s important to Matthew, our Gospel writer, that God works through situations that humans find awkward and shameful. 

We learned that through the stories we heard last week, of the women Matthew names in his genealogy of Jesus. 

But somehow, through the ages, that’s not the message that churches have taken. 

And churches have not only obsessively focused on Mary’s virginity; they have made it an ideal for all young people – especially for those categorized as girls and young women. 

Many of our sibling churches still put a heavy emphasis on virginity and purity. You may meet people who are wrestling with those “purity culture” messages as they try to build healthy intimate relationships. 

Physical intimacy and our choices about it matter, of course. 

But I think a lot of the reasons for this focus among some churches and church leaders, over the centuries, are more people-reasons than God-reasons. 

Reasons like controlling young women’s behavior, and making sure men know whose children they’re raising. 

When the word virgin starts cropping up all over the place in our churches as Christmas approaches, it’s weird because it can evoke or trigger all that stuff. 

And it’s weird because out there in the culture virgin is also often used as an insult, especially for young men and amab folks. 

When I was in my teens, the message was pretty clearly that girls are bad if they’re not virgins and boys are bad if they are – which was a heck of a double-bind, especially for the straight kids.

My sense is that today the cultural messaging around all that is more complicated, but not necessarily better.

And that there’s still a lot of potential for confusion and shame. 

Here’s what I want for the youth and young people of this church. I want physical intimacy to be something you are able to choose freely, if and when you want it, with joy and curiosity and safety, and with somebody who thinks you’re amazing. 

I want you to know that your value, your worth, in church and in the world and before God, does not depend on what you have or have not done with your body. 

And I want you to be able look to Mary, the mother of God, and not see some icon of purity and perfection we can never live up to, but a young woman – youth group aged! – whom we honor for her courage, her faith in God’s purposes, and her vision for a better world.