Advent 2020: The Lord Is With You

“Annunciation,” Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1472–1475

Advent 2020: The Lord Is With You
A Message on Luke 1:26-28
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Dec. 13, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Luke 1:26-28 (NRSV)

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

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Today we continue our Advent journey, preparing our hearts and souls for the birth of the Christ child, by looking at Luke’s gospel and the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary, the mother of Jesus. It’s known as “The Annunciation.”

Now usually when angels show up the first thing they say is “Do not be afraid.” And I think the reason they say this is because it’s scary as all get out! But Gabriel doesn’t say that to Mary. Instead he says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

“The Lord is with you.” This is one of those verses that really doesn’t vary much between translations. Even the King James version says, “The Lord is with thee.”

What an interesting thing to say. What does it mean?

One way to look at it is that since Gabriel is an angel, and therefore a representative of God, that she is in the presence of God. But I don’t think that’s it. I think if that had been the case Gabriel would have said, “God is present,” “I represent God,” or even “God says hi,” or something like that.

“The Lord is with you.”

In the Roman Catholic tradition, Mary is venerated much more than we do in our Protestant tradition. They even have a belief in the “immaculate conception,” which refers not to Jesus, but to the conception of Mary. This results in a belief that Mary was without sin when she conceived Jesus.

As United Methodists, we don’t believe that. We believe that Mary was a virgin and conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit, but other than that she is just human like all of us. We believe that Mary is a good example of God using ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

“The Lord is with you.”

As you know when we begin our service, one of the first things I say is, “The Lord be with you.” And you reply, “And also with you.” This is an ancient greeting and is not done by accident. By proclaiming these words we acknowledge that God is indeed in our presence, that God is not some far-away deity but living and present with us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

There are even some pretty humorous memes out there about Star Wars, that when one of the characters says, “The force be with you,” that United Methodists will respond with, “And also with you.”

For Mary, up north in Nazareth, hearing Gabriel say, “The Lord is with you,” would have been one of those knee-buckling, heart-pounding, take-your-breath-away moments. It would have been one of those throw-yourself-face-down-on-the-floor moments, an encounter with the holy, an experience with the supernatural that could not be explained by science or the laws of nature.

For our first reading today we read from the Gospel of Matthew where Joseph, Mary’s fiance, also has a supernatural encounter. Joseph has a dream where an angel tells him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” Matthew 1:20b-23

“The Lord is with you.” “God is with us.” Hmmmmm

You know this year, 2020, has been a challenging year, hasn’t it? So many things changed. Our regular routines were turned upside down and shaken real hard. Our lives are still being shaken.

Pam and I certainly experienced that a few weeks ago when we, along with Emily, Sarah, and Scott, all came down with COVID-19. We don’t know where we got it, but boy, we did. And it was rough, especially on Pam and me. We never got so bad that we had to go to the hospital, but it was still very debilitating.

We were in College Station with the girls and Scott when we came down with it, and then Pam I drove back home to Jacksonville. And there we stayed. We were so blessed to have so many people offering help, which we took advantage of, and had things dropped off on our front porch. But we never left the house. We quarantined, just the two of us, at the parsonage for a couple of weeks.

Having COVID is bad, but it is much better when you’re not alone. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for someone who is by him/herself.

As humans we are not made to be alone. Now I know that in the early church and even some today there are sects to seek to live an ascetic lifestyle as a spiritual discipline. There were desert monastics who would go way off into the desert to live all alone in caves. People would go to visit them to seek wisdom and learning and would bring them food, or they would have starved to death.

And while I acknowledge the self determination for a person to be able to do that, I think the Bible calls us not to live alone but in community not only of believers, but also among those who don’t believe.

If you think about it, the most serious punishment we inflict on criminals in our justice system, short of lethal injection, is solitary confinement. The worst punishment short of death that we can give a prisoner is to lock them up by themselves. We remove their ability to interact and live in community with others and lock themselves up all alone.

Being alone makes it difficult to have hope for the future. Aloneness has the ability to sap one’s energy and optimism, to beat up one’s courage and self confidence to face the future unafraid.

We have seen this during this pandemic. While Pam and I were both sick, we still had each other. I really feel for those who are alone and fighting COVID-19. It has to be much, much more difficult.

As Christians we are called to remember that no matter what we are going through, even if we are by ourselves, we are not alone. The Lord is with us. God is with us.

Let me tell you of one example that I became aware of just yesterday. Debbie Mastin passed away yesterday morning after a heroic battle against cancer. I drove out to be with Danny to pray with him and read some scriptures.

While we were waiting for the funeral home people to arrive Danny started telling me about cards and notes that Debbie would receive in the mail from one of our young Mini-Methodist kids, Stevie Rae Gresham.

Stevie Rae is one of our regular Mini Methodist kids, and she is awesome. She is smart, talented, and a great soccer player. One of the “options” classes she attends at Mini-Methodists is “Tending the Flock.” Sarah Hugghins leads this class and the idea is for the young kids to connect with church members who may be shut-ins or in assisted living or nursing homes. The kids will create and write cards and notes during this class that we then mail to the people.

Danny was telling me of one particular card that Stevie Rae had made and sent Debbie a few weeks ago. It was a homemade card , and on the card Stevie Rae had written something like, “Remember, God will never __ you.” And in the blank space she had glued a leaf from an oak tree. In other words, the message was “Remember, God will never ‘leaf’ you.”

Danny said that Debbie really enjoyed that card, not just because of the visual pun, but because a young person who she may have never even met in person took the time to create a card and mail it to her. Debbie knew she was not alone. The Lord was with her and spoke to her through a homemade card.

During this Advent season it’s important for us to remember that the Lord is with us. Sometimes we may not feel his presence, but the Lord is there.

For the people in the First Century it was probably hard to think of the Lord being with them. They were under the military rule of the Romans who were brutal in their treatment of anyone who got out of line. And while they had the temple and were able to worship there, the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Saducees, demanded strict adherence to the 600-plus religious laws on the books.

They had heard about the prophets who had talked about a Messiah, someone who would come and save God’s people, but many false prophets had shown up, claiming to be the messiah, only to not be able to walk the walk that they had talked.

And then God puts on flesh and comes to earth, but it’s not in the way they had imagined it. Jesus comes to earth by being born to a young woman who wasn’t even married, and in a stable, a place for livestock. And the baby was born in a small, little town, not a big city like Jerusalem.

What a strange way to save the world.

The late Rich Mullins wrote a song titled, “Surely God is With Us.” Some of the lyrics are:

Well who’s that man who thinks He’s a prophet?
Well I wonder if He’s got something up His sleeve
Where’s He from? Who is His daddy?
There’s rumors He even thinks Himself a king

Of a kingdom of paupers
Simpletons and rogues
The [prostitutes] all seem to love Him
And the drunks propose a toast

And they say “Surely God is with us.
Well surely God is with us.”
They say “Surely God is with us today!”

The Lord is with us. God is with us. We know this and are able to claim this because the Holy Scriptures tell us the gospel, the Good News, of Jesus Christ. He comes as a baby, lives among us in flesh, grows older and teaches and performs miracles that pass beyond scientific knowledge not only of that age but of our own as well. He not only teaches us how to live, but gives us examples by the way he lives his life.

And he goes to the cross as one who is sinless, taking the place of every human who is sinful. His death does something we cannot do by ourselves: reconcile ourselves to God. His outstretched arms bridge the gap between God and humans, offering us God’s grace that goes beyond understanding and which offers us eternal life and victory over death.

And it starts with Mary and Joseph, living in Nazareth, obediently following God’s will.

So my challenge for you this week is to remember that the Lord is with you. God is with us. In the midst of the tinsel and presents and food let us seek to remember the reason for the season. God comes to us on Christmas Day as a newborn baby, gentle and meek, the son of God and the son of man.

Surely God is with us, surely God is with us today!

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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