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December 18, 2005 (Advent IV)—“Placing Ourselves in the Hands of God”

Pastor David Barber

Luke 1:26-38

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

One of my favorite prayers is a prayer that I became acquainted with from the Vesper Service in our Lutheran Book of Worship. I may have shared this with you before, but it goes like this:

"Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord."

I have thought this prayer and I have prayed this prayer in so many situations and circumstances that it has become a mantra for many areas of my life. When we don't know where the path is leading us, all we can do is to venture forth and rest securely in the loving hands of God.

The angel Gabriel did most of the talking when he encountered and confronted Mary one day many years ago, and when she did respond, she did so with little fuss and with great efficiency. But I wonder as well if she didn't have such a prayer tucked away in her back pocket. And if she didn't, she should have.

There she was just minding her business one day--doing those things that girls her age do all the time. Perhaps she was excited as she thought about her future and her imminent marriage to Joseph of Nazareth.

Mary was a simple, peasant girl with no status. She was vulnerable and poor with no apparent qualifications that made her worthy or deserving for what she was about to receive. The angel Gabriel wasn't even sure that he was at the right location or had the right person when he finally found her.

In fact, Frederick Buechner tells us that Mary wasn't the only person at this scene who happened to be trembling that day. He writes:

"She [Mary] struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he'd been entrusted with the message to give her, and he gave it.... As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn't notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl."

This was the way it often happened in the history of God's people. Mary wasn't the only person who was chosen without any credentials or chosen in peculiar circumstances. Nor was she the only person who ventured forth in trust.

The prophet Isaiah couldn't understand why God was at his doorstep with a summons one day. After all, he was lost and a man of unclean lips. But then after a little arm-twisting along with a spectacular light show including some magic, Isaiah responds, "Here am I, send me!"

If we go back to more than a 1000 years before Isaiah, we encounter the father and mother of faith itself--Abraham and Sarah. Abraham couldn't believe it when God told him to look at the stars of the sky and to consider that he would have that many descendents.

Sarah his wife was a barren senior citizen, and when she heard such outlandish news, she burst out laughing.

It seems as if that's the way that God does business. He sneaks up on people in peculiar situations and with nothing to recommend them--at least on the surface--and God says, I'm calling you. I have something special in store for you. And what is your response?

We often talk about this as happening to pastors. We ask, "How were you called into ministry?" And it would be interesting to hear from Intern Joshua how God trapped him and tapped him on the shoulder and said, "I've got a good job for you, Joshua."

Perhaps the most interesting story that I read recently was from a student at seminary. During his teenage years he was a student from hell. He made his parents' life utterly miserable. He was so irresponsible in college that he flunked out and spent a couple of years working.

While working, he met a woman and married. They began attending a little church. Gradually, he came to the surprising awareness that God seemed to be calling him into the Christian ministry.

So he went back to college. He dreaded telling his parents. After all he had put them through, now his life was taking another unexpected turn.

He met with his parents and told them the story of the surprising turn of events.... Though his life had been a tortured series of mistakes and accumulated irresponsibility, he now believed that God wanted him to become a pastor.

Suddenly, his mother burst into tears, "I'm so ashamed! I can't believe this has happened! Didn't I tell you that before you were born I had a couple of miscarriages? I didn't think we would ever have a child.

"So I promised God that if he would let me have a baby, that I could bring to term, if it were a boy I would name him Samuel and would dedicate him to God, just like Hannah did back in the Old Testament."

"Why didn't you ever tell me?" he asked. You could have saved me a whole lot of trouble if you would have told me about this."

"We're Methodists," the mother replied. "How was I to know something like this would work? I didn't even know that we even believed in this kind of thing. How was I to know that it would work?"

It's often said that truth is stranger than fiction, and God appears to be the author and the master of such a statement. "God's truth and God's call is often stranger than fiction."

You have your own stories to verify this. You have your own call stories that are just as strange and just as far-fetched as Mary or Samuel. It's not only pastors who feel the shove or the tap from God upon their shoulders. Many of you as well have experienced a call to the roles and passions of daily life.

I just recently read a little blurb that mentioned a survey of public school teachers in Wisconsin. 24% strongly agreed and another 34% agreed with the statement, "I have been called by God ([or] felt a deep knowing and a sense of mission) to teach." But then again maybe they were just high on cheese and beer!

What makes our call stories strange is not the appearance of a heavenly messenger. Sometimes God might summons us in that fashion, but more often than not, such calls are strange because we're the ones being called.

Like Mary, we, too, have all of sorts of reasons why none of this makes sense. We're not perfect people. We're people with baggage and with lots of issues. We're people with limitations, and we can think of all sorts of reasons why we lack the proper credentials.

And yet, many of us, in our own way--in our own manner--but perhaps not as quickly as Mary--have said, " am I...let it be with me according to your word."

It seems to me that for God to conceive within us and to be open to God's call, we, too have to be vulnerable and empty like Mary. We, too, must be willing to place ourselves in God's hands and venture forth without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will end.

We, too, must be willing to say, "I don't know what this means or where it will lead but I'm going to follow it."

This means that we live by trust and not by certitude. We live without having all the answers. For instance, I like these refreshing words from a Baptist pastor. "When I was younger, I thought there was an answer to every problem. And for a time, I knew all the answers.

"I knew about parenting until I had children. I knew about divorce until I got one. I knew about suicide until three of my closest friends took their lives in the same year...

"I still have a few friends or acquaintances who are 100 percent sure on almost everything, and are ready to make pronouncements on marriage problems, teen pregnancies, AIDS, or whatever is coming down the pike.

"But when we get shoved into our valley of the shadow, a pronouncement is the last thing we need. We try to make everything fit our easy answers, but more important and satisfying than getting all the answers is knowing the one who is the answer."

Many times there are no easy answers or no easy directions. Life is often complicated and messy when trying to sort out God's call and what all of this means. But like Mary we trust the One who is the answer.

We trust the One who says to us, "Don't be afraid. Your little life is about to count for something larger than your life. But I am with you. You are not alone."

For those of us who like structure and security, these kinds of situations can be scary and unsettling. But they can also be terribly exciting as we watch and wait to see what God will conceive within us.

This is true for us as individuals, but it's also true for this congregation as you enter another transition and a call process for a new pastor. This, too, can be somewhat unnerving because you're starting on a journey, and you don't know where this journey will lead you.

I'm not sure what the future has in store for Karen and me, and I don't know how the future will unfold for LCH, but we, too, must be willing to place ourselves in God's hands knowing that God will make us pregnant with all sorts of possibilities for mission and ministry.

What an adventure and what an opportunity God is giving to us in this moment as God births within us something new and wonderful. And together, we trust the One who says to us, "Greetings favored ones! The Lord is with you."

"Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord."


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