Honest Advent: Vulnerability

This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on November 29, 2020. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here.

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” 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.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change. To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that.” 

-Brené Brown

What feelings come to mind when you think of vulnerability, or a time you were vulnerable?

When I think about this story, Mary finding out she was pregnant, I think of the vulnerability of pregnancy as a whole. While I’ve never been pregnant myself, I’ve journeyed with many who have gone through that experience, and wow, scary, heartbreaking, beautiful, challenging. These are all words that come to my mind. 

There’s a certain point in one’s pregnancy where they must decide the right time to start telling people that they are indeed pregnant. Some say that should happen around 13 weeks, at the end of the first trimester. Some wait longer or tell people sooner. But no matter when that announcement takes place, there is a fear that it’s too soon. It puts the one who is pregnant in a difficult spot, because they are sharing an announcement prematurely, while the baby has not yet been born.

There’s also the whole, growing a human in one’s body that is incredibly vulnerable too. The one who is pregnant, their body has decided to share space with another thing, a clump of cells, and those cells will grow and grow and grow alongside the one who is pregnant for an extended period of time, until one day, if it makes it to term, it becomes time for that growing thing to leave the body as a baby.

You may have noticed me using language to describe pregnancy that is unusual or perhaps not entirely specific. I use this language because, just like the biological process of carrying a child, pregnancy as a whole is an expansive subject. I use phrases like ‘the one who is pregnant’ because not all people who are pregnant are women. In the same fashion, not all pregnancies are carried to term, either by choice, or due to a miscarriage. Not all people want to become pregnant, and some aren’t able to. Some people who do choose to get pregnant have a partner, and some do it by themselves. Some have supportive family, and some need to find support elsewhere. Some are financially privileged, and have no worries about the cost having a child will take, and others are barely scraping by, even before a child is born. Some feel joyful about being pregnant, and others do not. 

There are a lot of factors, a lot of diversity in the pregnancy narrative, and so much that is out of our control, which is often where vulnerability begins, with a loss of control. Like any loss, we grieve it. We grieve what our life used to be with that control in it; how it felt, what it enabled us to do, the freedom it gave us. And so, vulnerability as a loss of control, it’s often a place of grief for us.

Do you enjoy being in control? What do you think has framed that thinking for you? What experiences have led you to feel the way you do about control and vulnerability?

The Luke story today certainly shows us an example of vulnerability as a loss of control.  The story begins with an angel, Gabriel, showing up to speak with Mary. Gabriel gives Mary a strange greeting, calling her ‘favored one’, indicating a status of some kind. Mary is immediately thrown off by this, because she simply was not a girl of status. Confused, the angel then told Mary not to be afraid, which is never a good way to lead into scary news. 

You are pregnant, and this baby will be the Son of God, the angel exclaims. My mind floats to the scene in the movie where a doctor shares the news of a pregnancy excitedly, while the one who is pregnant is in shock, confusion, and not nearly as excited about the news as the doctor had thought. Mary, a virgin, wonders aloud how that could have happened, and the angel does his best to give her more information. He also tells her that hey, your relative Elizabeth will also be pregnant, even though she is past the age of childbearing. Mary, I’d imagine, still in a state of shock, essentially said, ‘okay, if this is what God is saying, then I have no choice but to follow it’. “Here I am, Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

We spoke about the factors in pregnancy, the loss of control and the vulnerability, and we see that illustrated with Mary too. The shock, the wonder, the surprise, the questions, and maybe even the shame, these were all surely radiating through Mary’s body, a teenage unwed mother to be. How would her family react? Joseph? His family? Mary was being invited to be vulnerable like she’s never been before, opening herself up to wonder, which ultimately begins with vulnerability.

Today, we lit the hope candle, the first of our Advent candles, and so, we must ask, where is the hope in this story? If we put ourselves in the position of Mary, she is given this news suddenly, and seemingly out of the blue. Mary doesn’t have all the answers she wants, and she has very little information in general. To be in this position is a vulnerable one, yes, and it’s also a position that requires a hope, a hope that there is something good for her here. It’s a hope that something bigger than herself is happening. It’s a hope that God is with her. 

We light the hope candle with those same ideas in mind. That God is among us, not just in times that are good, but also in times that are challenging, heartbreaking, terrifying, and confusing. That while we don’t know all the answers, there is something to look forward to out there.

This Advent, there is much out of our control. We are safer in our homes, not knowing when we will be able to leave again, when we’ll be able to see the smiles of our friends again, unsure of what the next year looks like. We grieve the pause of in-person church services, of family dinners, of mask-less trips to Target. We have lost control. We are vulnerable, now more than ever. Like a pregnant teenage mother-to-be, we are in need of hope, that something bigger than ourselves is out there, guiding us and journeying with us. 

Can you think of something that gives you hope in this season?

The angel, Gabriel, told Mary that nothing would be impossible without God, offering Mary a message of hope at the time she needed it most. And Mary replied, still unsure of most of her circumstances, assured by the hope of God, “Here I am, Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

As we move from this time, may we carry Mary’s story with us, a story of vulnerability, of loss and of hope. May we too, expand the themes of this season of change, acknowledging the pain and resting in the assurance of God’s hope for us. Let us pray:

God of hope, we thank you for the gift of Mary, who like us, encountered moments of surprise, unexpectant news, and unanswered questions. In this season of our lives, inspire us to remain hopeful, seeing the gift of vulnerability and the possibilities you spring forth from it. In your name we pray, Amen.

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