Muriel Lipp: The Annunciation

December 19, 2004

When I first came to the Church of the Saviour in the mid-50s, I told Gordon Cosby after a sermon on salvation that I did not know if I was saved, and when people asked me, I never knew what to say. He gave me an answer that has lasted these fifty years: Just tell them you’re in the process.

Sunday, December 19 2004
A Sermon for Seekers Church
By Muriel Lipp 

The Annunciation

Matthew 1:18-25

Reading today’s Matthew text, I was inspired — seeing in it so much beauty and simplicity, starting out with the sentence, “This is the story of the birth of the Messiah.” Throughout the Hebrew Bible, we can hear the words of the prophets saying a Messiah was to come, and now we read, “This is the story of the birth of the Messiah.” Finally, the time has come. Now. It is such a simple sentence for such profound news.


Also in this Matthew paragraph, we have so many heavenly images. There is the unnamed, but understood, presence of God, the angel sent by God to Joseph in a dream, the Holy Spirit who is supposed to have impregnated Mary, and of course, the soon-to-be-born Jesus. All three members of the Trinity are in one paragraph.


I am always carried away by things I don’t understand, and in our faith there is so much I don’t understand with my brain that I do appreciate with my heart. In this text, I do not understand how a virgin could conceive. I do not understand how that conception could happen through the Holy Spirit. I do understand how an angel could come to Joseph in a dream: Haven’t we all had dreams that were wonderful and perplexing?


It is Christmas, or rather, Advent, and we are celebrating this amazing story: the birth of a baby who is destined to save us from our sins and lead us in the way of truth — and then be savagely killed and resurrected. Look around us at the crosses. However, this is not Good Friday or Easter. This is Christmas. Innocence. Birth. Now.


The skeptic inside of me asks how we know he was born on December 25. How about that virgin birth? Moreover, what about the Jews who for centuries predicted a Messiah, then did not believe Jesus was the one? What about all the killing in the name of Jesus — I repeat, in the name of Jesus–who did not believe in killing?


It is not easy to be a Christian and to deal with that skeptic within. Nevertheless, I am so used to that war between my believer self and my skeptic self. My believer self tries to love that doubter, who is constantly ready to ask the next perplexing question.

Jesus tried to help us with our unbelief. He used parables, metaphors; and when we got too smart for our britches, he bounced a story or two off us. Like when the woman caught in adultery was about to be stoned, and Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” With Jesus, you had to use more than brains to understand what he was saying.


Yes, our brains get us into trouble trying to understand the Gospel story. My brain asks questions about facts. I have learned to believe that in religion, dependence on facts can lead to rigidity. We must enlarge the picture–shift from our brains to our hearts. For instance, we can never know who or how God is, or why we were born, when the union of a sperm and an egg could have produced so wide a selection. Why me? How should we handle these questions? Perhaps there are no answers. Nevertheless, we are called to meditate. Contemplate. Pray.


In this Matthew passage about the virgin birth, thinking of the Holy Spirit impregnating Mary is a beautiful thing and our thirst for facts need not spoil the big picture. “A virgin will conceive and bear a son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel, ‘God with us’.” This comes from the prophet Isaiah and is repeated in Matthew.


What do Christmas trees, wreaths, candles, lights, carols have to do with the celebration of this Holy Birth? For me they are beauty and truth that cannot be explained. They are a wild burst of wonder. Do some of you think of childhood Christmases as I do? In my childhood we were allowed to stay up late on Christmas Eve, go to the midnight service, which was mostly carol singing, walk home in the darkness, and open one present. It was truly a magical night. Our family lived a block and a half from our Reformed Church. My parents, two brothers, and I all walked together. Once, as we were walking home, having sung those beautiful carols, I was afraid to look up at the star-studded sky–afraid of seeing angels. They seemed so real to me: fearsome and wonderful. Angels still seem real to me, but do not ask me to pin them down factually.


The word now is an interesting word. Somewhere in Corinthians — I am not sure where — Paul says, “Now is the day of salvation.” Moreover, in this Annunciation scripture there is a feeling of Now. Christ, the expected one, is to come. Now. Time stands still.


I remember another time from my youth, when I was a student at Temple University in Philadelphia. This is a story not about Christmas, but about my struggles with my faith. Anyway, I sometimes attended the Baptist Temple, where the founder of the University, Russell Conwell, was once the preacher. He is the one who preached that famous sermon, Acres of Diamonds. Since I was brought up in a Reformed Church, I had never experienced an altar call. However, at the Baptist Temple, they had revivals and altar calls. The choir would sing, “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me” The hymn ended, “O Lamb of God, I come.” At this time, you were supposed to come up to the altar if God had called you to confess your sins and change your life. Many people would come. Some cried. I wished God would call me to come forward, but God never did. Then one time I went up anyway. I figured that if God was not calling me, God should have. Afterward I debated if I had done the right thing.


When I first came to the Church of the Saviour in the mid-50s, I told Gordon Cosby after a sermon on salvation that I did not know if I was saved, and when people asked me, I never knew what to say. He gave me an answer that has lasted these fifty years: Just tell them you’re in the process.


So while the word “Now” can be a wonderful word, it can also be too exacting for us. However, at Christmastime I like to feel that the whole story–God, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Holy Spirit, and all–are one big eternal Now. The event is on stage before us in the form of carols, Christmas trees, wreaths, candles–the whole thing. Of course, the secular world has stepped in, and when we are shopping, we hear “Silent Night” interrupted by what is on sale for 50% off.


Recently I had the opportunity to see Deborah Sokolove’s presentation of medieval paintings of the Annunciation. These paintings evoked awe in me, rather than a need to ask why, when, how. They were beautiful as art is beautiful when the artist is inspired. Something about the gift of art takes us out of the skeptical realm and into the spiritual. These medieval paintings of Deborah’s did that for me: Joseph listening to an angel, and in other renderings from the Luke Gospel, Mary and the Angel. These paintings, both simple and grand, evoked in me a need to be still. As when I listen to that part of Handel’s “Messiah,” sung by a beautiful contralto voice, “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel.”


Speaking of beauty, Keats sums it up for me in his Ode to a Grecian Urn. Referring to that urn, he says, “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty. That is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”


Now I must ask, how do we become part of this beauty, how take the Annunciation into our lives? For me when thinking no longer serves me, I call on the mystics, who always tell me there is a dimension I am missing. It is grace–that communication from God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit directly to me. It is a very mysterious thing. When we sing “Amazing Grace,” you can feel it, just as the man who wrote it felt it. God does call us to the altar, though we may not know it at the time. We are saved, or are in the process, though we see only our wretchedness.


When I call on the mystics, my favorite learning comes from that strange, medieval book, The Cloud of Unknowing. You must forgive me; I always talk about that book because it teaches me so much about God — first, that God is not to be thought of, only loved. Second, though God is behind a cloud, we are encouraged to keep beating on that cloud. How do we beat on it? Through contemplation, meditation, prayer, we lay aside thought and feeling and let God speak to us in the silence. The Cloud’s author recommends we use one word to take us into that silence. Today we call this centering prayer, and it has been popularized by the Cistercian priest Thomas Keating in his book, Open Mind, Open Heart.


Another one of those mystics who has meant a lot to me is rarely heard of. She is Mme. Jeanne Guyon, a French woman who was the spiritual director of the monk Fenelon. She lived a dramatic life in the 1600s, and, like many of the mystics of her day, was under house arrest for her writings. The book of hers that has meant so much to me is her book of spiritual letters written to Fenelon in response to his letters.


In one letter she says, “God would teach you, my dear child, there is a silence of the soul through which He operates. He fills it with the unction of grace…, often more efficacious than words to replenish the soul…O, that all Christians knew what it means to keep silence before the Lord!


And Meister Eckhart, a German mystic who lived in the 1200s, says, “It may be asked whether this (holy) Birth is best accomplished in us when we try to think ourselves into God, or when we keep silence, stillness, and peace, so that God may speak and work in us.”


So how do these mystics help us with this text we have today–this Annunciation of the birth of Jesus? Well, for me they call me to silence when that skeptic within would like to be busy trying to figure things out. God is all mystery, and we do not need to know answers. Nevertheless, we do need to have faith that God is with us and somewhere answers exist. When I am at the end of my rope, or conversely, when I am in the presence of something utterly wonderful or beautiful, thoughts fail me. At such times I repeat, “God, God, God….” Then there is a welling up in my throat, and I know that God is with me. At other times, when I am confronted by a coincidence so bizarre that I name it God–like the sudden and unscientific healing of someone I was praying for–or in dreams, when an answer or words to a hymn are given me. I think God is more present to us than we can ever know. I feel sure that God is present everywhere, but sometimes hidden behind that cloud that separates us. We need to beat on that cloud with darts of longing love.


Getting back to the Annunciation, I did look to see where other stories of the Virgin Birth appear in the Gospels. According to the Interpreters Bible, it is nowhere but Matthew and Luke, though it is predicted in the Hebrew Bible.


Picture this beautiful scene: A young expectant mother discovers she is to parent the Messiah. Joseph, who loves her, is visited by an angel, who tells him she is a virgin and the Holy Spirit has conceived the child. It is a scene that defies all reason. It is a scene that calls for silence, reverence, awe. I would suggest we take this scene into our celebrations and let it haunt us with its mystery and beauty.


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