Toorak Uniting Church

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Gifts – Advent and Mary

Genesis 12: 1 – 5   Luke 1: 26 – 38
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
28 November 2004

May I speak in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We receive many gifts as a congregation this morning. We receive and dedicate the refurbishment of our Church, we receive a wonderful new pulpit fall, we receive lots of guests who have come to celebrate with us here this morning and over the last week, in Kinross house we received a wealth of gifts from all corners of this congregation to become, together, the gift of the Advent gifts exhibition we will be opening later in the service.

It is quite awesome what comes together in the service here this morning: Years of thinking, planning, talking and dreaming have been put into the plans for the refurbishment of the Church, patience, skill and considered effort into the actual realisation of those plans and in the design and embroidery of the pulpit falls. Months of careful preparation and painstaking work have preceded the exhibition. Weeks of careful thought and preparation have been given to the organisation of this service and indeed this whole day of thanksgiving and celebration.

All of it coming together at this point in time and showing how richly blessed we are as a congregation with our resources, talents, skills, determination and imagination.
There is every reason to rejoice and be grateful for what we, as a community, receive in that.

In our readings we meet two of the giants of faith: Mary and Abraham, both also receiving a gift, in their case a promise coming from God himself. The gifts they receive however are very different from what we receive here today.

Theirs are unexpected whereas we put hours and hours of careful preparation into ours. Theirs break into their lives and change them considerably, bringing unrest and increased activity while most of us are probably hoping that with the refurbishment finished and Advent Gifts opened in Kinross house there will be time to slow down to enjoy some quieter and less stressful times in the life of our congregation.
Neither Mary nor Abraham were ready for the gifts they received and what they were given in promises and future prospects was completely different to what they might have expected. We have had ample time to prepare ourselves for our celebration this morning and have looked forward to it. The refurbishment, the pulpit fall, the exhibition, we’ve been looking forward to their completion for months, carefully planning and leaving very little to chance. And last but not least: Mary and Abraham both accept their gifts with some hesitancy and even (in Mary’s case) with some resistance (how will this come about? Why me?). These were gifts that didn’t make their lives any easier you see: for Abraham at 76 to accept the gift of God’s promise meant completely changing his lifestyle, and organising an international move for himself as well as his family. Mary, a young and unmarried girl, had to face the village and her betrothed with the news of an unexplained and unexpected pregnancy.

The gifts we receive this morning we expect will make our lives a lot easier: glass in the doors, shorter pews, more chairs, we all hope that they will enhance our life as a congregation, make things more comfortable, and more presentable.

So there is a big contrast between those biblical gifts both Mary and Abraham receive and the receiving of the gifts in and of this congregation here this morning. I think it is good to be aware of that.

More often than not you see, when God comes and gives, life does not become easier, things don’t quieten down and people aren’t really encouraged to sit down and relax.

To the contrary: Whenever God comes and breaks into our lives with divine gifts of grace and mercy, life changes, things start to move, set routines are challenged, the familiar is challenged with the unexpected, what is considered to be the norm turned upside down.

Abraham at 76 is confronted with a major life change, he has to move, quite literally, from a settled, quiet life in Haran to roaming around the Near East to God knows where. He who went out for a quiet evening stroll returns home with a vision and a promise that will not only upset his life and that of his family but will change the course of history.

Mary, a young girl receives a visit from an angel. She’ll become pregnant, something anybody would have thought was not a good thing to happen to her or any girl in her situation. She who was probably spending her morning doing some house work confronted with a complete change of plans. Her questions as to the how and why and where gently but firmly ignored by the angel who expects her to receive this gift and get on with it whatever the cost to her reputation and relationships at that moment.

I think we may be grateful that God, for the moment seems to have blessed us with gifts far less demanding and life changing then Abraham and Mary.

At the same time I think those stories are given to us to make us wonder before we settle down and enjoy all this wealth we’ve been given what call they are extending to us in God’s name.

Although not as dramatic maybe as Abraham’s or demanding as Mary’s I think the gifts God has blessed us with this year have not been given to us to just settle down and quietly enjoy, I believe they have been given to us to enable us to be the body of Christ more effectively. To build us as a community in Christ, and to help us share of this abundance with others and put it into service for the coming of God’s Kingdom. We have been equipped by God with an abundance of blessings and resources not to smugly sit down and relax, but as a rich means of support and encouragement on our faith journey.

A voice called Abraham away from the safe and familiar to a most unexpected journey. That voice has not stopped calling since. And it is calling us now. An angel came and turned Mary’s life upside down in a minute, we should be expecting that angel, disturbing and upsetting our routine, any minute how. There is no reason for complacency for God’s people until his Kingdom comes, the journey of faith can never be quiet, unassuming and smooth.
So it’s not the quieter times we anticipate will follow the completion of our ambitious projects that resemble the journey of faith as we are called to live it, but what has led up to today.

The twenty year or so process that was involved to come to this moment with the whole Church glowing, with all the advent gifts in place is a very appropriate image of that journey, the journey of us as the body of Christ towards God’s future. A journey full of challenges, difficulties, hurdles to overcome, errors made, small and bigger victories won, a journey of devoted commitment, dedicated purposefulness, flights of imagination and wonderful dreaming. A demanding journey where on the way there are moments like these: the joy of being able to come together and celebrate what we’ve been able to achieve so far knowing that this is not where the journey ends, but really just the beginning of the next part of that same journey.

We celebrate here today the richness of Gods blessings and the abundance of Gods gifts to this community, a community called to live a life of faith, to share, to practice justice and to bring peace and healing to the world. Wherever we can, not counting the cost, following the voice of Him who did not count the cost either when it came to saving us.
Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2004


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