Advent 4 – Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee. Gabriel had been rather busy, he’s a pretty significant character in Luke’s telling of the story. In the previous section of this chapter of Luke, we read about Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah and Elizabeth, bringing them news about an impending birth and giving them an instruction about the naming of their child. And here he is again, bringing news about another, even more significant birth.

Traditionally, angels are messengers, messengers from God – arriving without any warning and often bringing unexpected news. Gabriel came with very personal messages – he wasn’t broadcasting to a community, or sharing general information. His messages were targeted and precise. And they took the recipients by complete surprise. The surprise doesn’t seem to have been about the physical being of Gabriel, however that manifested, but about what he had to say. We’re not told that Mary was perplexed by his presence, but by his words. She pondered what kind of greeting this might be. So Luke is clearly telling us that this is about listening, rather than about seeing.
It’s not for me to speculate, perhaps, but I suspect that most of us won’t experience a visit from Gabriel – but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have a message for us. So how do we hear what God has to say to each one of us? Where is that angelic voice for those of us who won’t go down in history, or Scripture, but who are still called by God to listen and to respond.

God communicates with us in all sorts of ways – through Holy Scripture, through the ordinary, everyday people we encounter, through the arts – poetry, painting, music. Thinking about the content that Gabriel communicated, he brought one clear message. It wasn’t complicated; it didn’t need preparation or anything to be worked out before something happened. He came and said: this is the situation – and this is what God requires of you. When we think about hearing God’s word for us, we can often be looking or hoping for a plan – for an idea of what might happen several steps down the road. We’re often hoping for a big word, a significant message. We want to look into the future, to imagine where we might be in a few years time.
But look back at Luke’s gospel and what we see is that all that was imparted was one single piece of information and, of course, what followed was life changing – and, indeed, world changing, but the future wasn’t laid out, just the next step was articulated. At the heart of the response to the angel is an ability to trust, to be obedient – and to have the courage to stick with that regardless of how improbable things appear to be.

God’s word for us may come in many forms. It seems obvious to say that might be in the context of worship and prayer. That could be during a service, whether in person or online, or in personal prayer time. There are things we can do to make it more likely, to create a space for ourselves that is more open, more receptive. For instance, if we’re in church, we stand for the Gospel reading. One of the reasons to do that is that we’re doing something different with our bodies – we make a movement that takes us into a different physical space, and by doing so we’re automatically shifting our attention. When we stand we breathe differently, our bodies are more open, and that may mean that our attention is also more open.
And what we’re standing to do is to listen. The words may be in front of you, but the core task is to listen. Listen for a word or a phrase that resonates. Listen for the moment when something internal shifts. Listen for what is sometimes called the movement of the Spirit.

Our liturgy, the framework within which the service is shaped and formed, includes very many words. Those words can wash over you – and sometimes that’s what we need them to do. At other times, there may be a word or a phrase that is just the thing you need to hear today. It may be a phrase you have heard hundreds of times; it may be a newly written prayer that suddenly catches your attention. The temptation is to rationalise and to see those moments as interesting, to catch them cognitively and then move on to the next thing. I’m suggesting that you allow yourself to see them as significant. As angel moments when a message is perhaps being brought to you.

Of course, angel moments don’t only happen in church. Angelic voices come to us in all sorts of situations – and almost always when we least expect them. I’m not thinking here about what we often describe as angelic acts, however important they are, but about messages. About the thing someone says – whether or not it’s someone you know – that just lodges in your mind and begins to bother you. That thought or suggestion or thing you read that doesn’t go away. The nudge that can feel a bit like a scab that demands attention.

We can have angelic message moments when we engage with the arts – one of the great losses for our world over the past 10 months has been the silencing of arts performances, and the limited access there has been to galleries and exhibitions. The line of a poem or the phrase in an aria; the emotional response to a piece of music or a painting. These are the moments that we rush from to our own detriment. These are the moments that have the potential to open things up, rather than shut them down. And they may well be moments that touch into something that we would rather not know or hear.
Making ourselves open to those angelic voices doesn’t necessarily come easily to us. Making ourselves more open is a bodily thing as well as a listening thing. We’re more receptive when we listen with our whole selves, when we pay attention with our whole selves.

We may well know that if we act on what we have heard or felt, something will shift. And that may feel scary; that may feel dangerous or counter cultural. We may wonder about how we would be perceived; whether people we know would think differently about us; whether we would suddenly be labelled in a way that was uncomfortable.

Look at how Zechariah and Mary responded. Neither of them took the easy option. They each had the confidence and the courage to say yes. To go with what was happening and to trust that wherever it took them, they were doing God’s will.

What does it then need for us to find the courage to say yes. Having recognised a message that could perhaps be from God, we’re still left with a choice.
That choice may be easier when we remind ourselves that we’re not breaking new ground; we’re simply following in the footsteps of those who have heard and responded in the past. And the two examples we have in Luke’s gospel are of very different people – an older man and a young woman. Those two examples perhaps give us the confidence to dare to believe that it could be us that God needs; it could be us who have been given a message and have the choice about whether or not to respond. It could be us who are called by God to have courage and to take a risk.

May we have the strength to make ourselves open to hearing and trusting – and then to acting.

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