Monroe Congregational Church, UCC
December 15, 2001 Rev Maria Hoaglund

In a United Church News of a few Advents ago, Editor Evan Golder had an article entitled "Christmas is God's `pastoral presence'." He began the article by saying that sometimes all that we can offer and all that's needed is "Being there." Then he went on to share three instances from, of all places, a UCC computer network "meeting" in which three pastors shared stories which illustrated this point: A pastor from Kansas wrote about the lack of a need to rationalize or defend ourselves when we're "in the presence of a true friend." A minister from Wisconsin "described the effect of a hug when no words came to mind." And a third from Nova Scotia commented on "a ministry of presence, just showing up at the right time to encourage, to lend a hand, to listen, to reassure."

I believe that actually, the MOST important things in life require our presence, our BEING THERE. Our relationships, especially our most significant and meaningful relationships , DEMAND our presence; our marriages, our children our parents, our siblings, and our close friendships would not be nurtured and be able to continue effectively without our consistent presence - our physical as well as emotional and spiritual attention. Who is a good friend but one we can call and expect to BE THERE for us, be there to listen to us, to hold us, to let us know that we are not alone in our time of trial.

And so it is with God. Our presence as a people of God is anticipated and also expected by God. We are here today to worship God together, and to wait and anticipate tog. The coming of the Christ into our midst. We came here to BE with this particular faith community because our rel with God has a significant place in our lives. We respond to God's expectation of giving God our undivided attn to do our best to LISTEN to God's Spirit and to obey it!

Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus, thanks to the messenger, angel Gabriel, seemed to have heard God clearly: and then she certainly obeyed! We hear this morning and remember with what amazement and fear and trembling, but also with confidence and joy, Mary heard and responded to God.

The angel Gabriel has just announced to Mary that she will bear a son who will take the throne of his father David and rule over Jacob forever. And the sign to confirm this promise is the pregnancy of the aged and up until recently barren Elizabeth. Not surprisingly, Mary can hardly wait to see her cousin! She perhaps can't talk to anyone at home about her unusual experiences - who knows WHAT, if anything, she was able to share with Joseph at this point, either! But she is quite certain that Elizabeth will understand. It required three or four days in those days to travel the 80 to 100 mile distance into the hill country of Judah, and Mary's haste was an expression of her faith in the angelic annunciation.

So here we encounter two faithful women coming tog and embracing one another in friendship, in solidarity, in sisterhood! Elizabeth must have symbolized familiarity and comfort for the young, unwed Mary. We are not told where Joseph is at this time. What seems to matter is that Mary chooses to BE PRESENT WITH another woman, an older, wiser woman, as she begins to sort out the reality which has overwhelmed her life. She stays for an entire three months, probably her first trimester and Elizabeth's THIRD, a critical time in BOTH of their pregnancies.

One woman meditates on the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth in the following way:

Mary, I lost that you rush to see Elizabeth - that you need to have the angel's silence broken for response to the hidden Word growing within you, who presses you to rush to the hill country. Up, up you go! And neither the darkness of the valleys from which you are coming nor the caves and tombs that lie ahead daunt you. ...
I see you skipping over the hills, glad to be alive, glad to feel life within you, ...
When you see Elizabeth, and four hearts leap for joy, your voices flash out your deepest thoughts, pondered long in silence. The words clarion the sign of the new dispensation - joy: "My heart praises ... My soul rejoices ... People will call me blessed!" You are not afraid to be happy, to share that happiness and to sing it out. And what gives you the strength to be happy?
(Bringing the Mother with You, p. 23)

In the midst of all the wonder, the surprise, and the fear, we DO wonder what gave Mary the strength to be happy. Or "to be joyful," would be my choice of words. At least in part, it was Mary's love and trust in the friendship she shared with Elizabeth which gave her strength. After all, Elizabeth and Mary shared the same family and worshipped the same God. Eliz also helped Mary to see more than she could have seen by herself. Mary somehow had BEGUN to understand that she was going to be the bride of the Spirit, mother of the Son of the Most High; but it was Eliz who called her by that magnificent title, Mother of God! At that moment of recognition, Mary's joy could not be contained! It was in the sharing with a friend who UNDERSTOOD, who was experiencing something familiar and also very special, that true rejoicing could begin!

But I believe what gave Mary the DEEPEST strength and meaning to be joyful was her faith and trust in God. In the angel Gabriel coming to Mary and in Mary's trusting this messenger, Mary was allowing God to move POWERFULLY in her life. She not only experienced God's amazing presence in her life, but she believed that what had been shared with her through God's messenger could and would take place! God's Good News would be possible through her body and her being. What an amazing thing; what an awesome, and joy-inspiring gift!

And do you know what? Christmas can be like this in our lives, too! Christmas is about God deciding to show up in our lives, "at just the right time to encourage, to lend a hand, to listen, to reassure." For me personally this year, I find myself being grateful for MANY things which God has blessed me and my family with. I am grateful for meaningful work in these challenging times - including your church calling me here this December to share in your midst! I am grateful that my dad and his wife have been able to make safely, a move to an assisted living facility in the last month. (and their condo sell JUST at the right time!) I find myself particularly grateful this Advent and Christmas for the dreams in my life. I have visions of some new creations and new possibilities in my life, which are bringing me New Life and hope for the future! I'm also extremely grateful for my dtr and all the various friends and co-workers in my life, not to mention my grandparents (who I'd never met!) who graciously SHOWED UP this Advent and let me know they're WITH ME...

I wonder, with you, too, whether you do not find when you look back at Christmases past, or perhaps even THIS Christmas, that what truly matters at Christmas is the special and perhaps unexpected PRESENCE of other people and friendships in your life. And of the reality of God working through those rich and amazing rels in your life - just as Mary and Elizabeth were given one another at a most critical time.

Let me share a number of examples which Golder offered in his article on pastoral presence, of instances when a person's presence made a significant different in another's life:

a mom's or dad's or grandparent's presence at their son's or dtr.'s soccer game or school play;
a friend's presence at one of your parent's memorial services
a husband's or wife's presence at your hospital bed;
a husband's or parent's presence during childbirth
a pastor's presence during a long hospital stay;
a church member's or friend's presence when you were griving or felt lonely;
a spouse's or friend's presence through a crucial decision;
a co-worker's presence when you were unjustly accused;
a loved one's presence after failure;
a loved one's presence after success.

All of these instances are of SHARING lives, allowing ourselves the gift of other people INTO our lives - as an expression of God's love. So is Christmas. Christmas is about God wanting to share in our lives, and our response of allowing and making room for God to move into our lives, to even help transform and heal the broken or stressed places. So really, Christmas is an experience which happens ALL YEAR LONG!

For some of us this Christmas, the challenge may be to pay attention and to LET GOD move into our lives. After all, as Fr. Henri Nouwen reminds us, we are sometimes a fearful and narrow-minded people: "A part of us clings to our aloneness and does not allow God to touch us where we are most in pain," writes Nouwen. "often we hide from (God) precisely those places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost." In this way we don't even "give (God) a chance to be with us where we feel most alone."

Christmas for each one of us can be a time when we share our presence - and God's presence - with others. When we do that, we'll probably find God's presence even more powerfvully and deeply in our OWN lives. Christmas is also a renewed invitation not to be afraid and to let God - whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend - INTO our lives to be our friend and companion. Perhaps the question is: Have we INVITED God to BE with US???

Whether we are very much aware of it or not, I believe that God is pouring and will continue to pour abundant grace and blessings into our lives in these days of Advent and Christmastide. May we be able to respond with our OWN best present: OUR presence to the Christ, to one another, and to ourselves, and also our opening up to, our letting INTO our lives, the presence of Christ which is yearning to be companion to each one of us!