Today is the second Sunday of the Advent season, a time of holy waiting as we pray and watch for the rebirth of Christ’s light in a world that so sorely needs it. Our responsive reading today—written so beautifully by Bill Medlin many years ago—points us toward God’s desire that we live in peace in this world. It seems all but impossible right now doesn’t it, with the virus raging almost unchecked—and for many of us, impacting members of our families now—with job losses and hunger at record highs, with people suffering, fighting, blaming, despairing, and dying at a rate that is hard for us to grasp and harder to respond to.
But if God’s desire for us is peace, peace must be possible, even now—especially now. Our work becomes a work of trust, encouraging our hearts to watch faithfully—as is the task of Advent—to see how God brings peace to our circumstances and to our world. And to discern our faithful part in that. This week I’ve been thinking about all the things that distract us and take us away from a sense of inner peace. There is so much! I wanted to know, what is it we think we need before we can let ourselves rest, feeling as certain as we can, that God is unfolding the way in love.
All the conflict in the world in the world right now certainly contributes to our distraction. Plus the very real concern for our health and safety—and that of those we love–every single day. But even more than the high-stress events and spreading threat in our world, there is a sense that we will get to a place of lasting peace—a quiet place where we can rest and feel like all is well—only when everything is fixed, when the risk is gone, when we have all that we need. There’s a problem with that thinking, though: It pushes peace way off into an imagined future when things will perfect. But the grace we need, the peace that heals, is the one that shines unabashedly into the darkness. This is the moment is when we need God’s peace most–in the messy, turbulent, and often scary Now.
You may remember learning about Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when you were in school. Maslow was an American psychologist and researcher who identified the key things all people need in order to thrive in their lives. His research revealed five types of needs: (1) physical needs like food and shelter, clothing and health; (2) security needs, like personal and emotional safety and financial security; (3) social needs, that help us feel we are connected to people and groups, we belong somewhere; (4) ego needs, that help us feel good about ourselves, like we’ve contributed something meaningful to the world; and (5) a type of need Maslow called self-actualization, which has to do with each of us reaching our potential in life.
Having these needs is a good thing—they keep us moving and learning and trying and building the lives that we want and that we hope will bless others in the process. But it gets complicated because we all go about meeting our needs in different ways, at different rates, by different means. Some people get stuck in one stage; some in others. And all our personalities add complexities to the mix. Some people have needs that are so loud they don’t even see that other people have needs as well too. Others try not to have needs at all or put their own needs so far in the background that they have little chance of ever getting them met. Throughout our lives, we navigate toward a balance of recognizing our needs and finding a healthy way to meet them while staying in harmony with those around us. It’s a whole level of human functioning that goes on behind the scenes of most surface interactions and events.
I was curious about where human needs first showed up in the Bible and wasn’t particularly surprised to discover that needs arrived not long after the first humans did. In fact, the way Genesis tells the story, the first need wasn’t really a true need at all, but a crafty ploy by a serpent designed to drive a wedge of distrust between God and his children. I’m sure you know the story well. We begin with the last line of chapter 2:
“And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; 3but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” 4The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! 5“For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.”
I wanted to start with the last verse of chapter 2—“And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed”—because it shows that at the outset of this story, Adam and Eve were completely at peace. They lacked for nothing. They walked and talked with God in paradise each day. They had no clothing and felt no reason to cover up. In its natural, harmonious, uninterrupted state, everything was perfect. Prior to the slithering arrival of doubt, there was only peace and beauty and wholeness.
But the serpent shows up with the express purpose of breaking the bond of trust between God and his children. The serpent introduces for the first time the wily suggestion that God might be hiding the truth to keep them powerless, to deny them a power that would put them on par with their creator. Whether Eve even wanted that kind of power or not the scripture doesn’t say, but we learn that when she saw the fruit was edible and “a delight to the eyes” and that it might make her wise, she took a bite. She wasn’t thinking of God at all in that moment. It was all about what she wanted. And without any resistance, Adam followed her lead. As a result, their eyes were “opened” and they saw a different reality–suddenly their nakedness was a bad thing. So they covered themselves with fig leaves—an action that would soon let God know everything had changed.
Before the serpent planted the seed of the doubt in Eve’s mind, Adam and Eve seemed perfectly content, their every need met by close relationship with God. And now, after choosing to act on their own will instead of God’s, they would discover they would have many needs that would consume and distract them for the rest of their lives. The need to toil and work the land. The need to struggle in childbirth. The need to navigate the conflicted web of human relationships. Life would get full and frantic and loud—with endless struggle and unmet needs—from here on out.
So this painful story in the Garden of Eden represents the moment when our trust in God was broken and we began to suffer the effects of seeing ourselves as separated from God. But let’s fast-forward now to the New Testament, to the moment when an angel comes to announce the beginning of the repair of that broken relationship.
In our New Testament scripture this morning, we’re standing with Mary when the archangel Gabriel comes to her and delivers the amazing news she is favored by God and that through her, the son of God will be coming into the world. At first she is confused and concerned, but when the angel answers her questions, her sweet, humble, quiet response is simply, saying, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
What a remarkable and improbably accepting response. Mary—who scholars believe was a only teenager at the time—had the gentle faith and great trust to simply say “as you wish” to God’s otherworldly and seemingly impossible plan for her life. She might not have had much faith in herself, much experience of the world, or much of an expectation for what her future married life might be, but she had unquestionably great faith and trust in God. And that lovely, in-the-garden humility, knowing that God’s plan was the best plan for all, enabled her to step into her place in history—come what may—with a heart of peace.
Both of these stories say so much about who we are as human beings and as people of faith. Putting them side by side, we can see several clear and important things about our trust in God. We can see that when we choose to feed our self-interest like Eve did—“I want that apple, no matter what God said”—we show that either we don’t trust God’s plan for us or we feel like we know better than God. Both of those ideas are problematic and will create trouble for us, sooner or later. And both beliefs drive the wedge of division further and make more real the idea that we’re separate from God, and that ultimately robs us of the peace and security we seek. Following that path brings the things that make us miserable–shame and distrust and fear. Inevitably lies and blame come to cover up what we already know, deep down, was a bad choice: “No, that’s not what I meant,” we say. Or we make excuses: “Well, it wasn’t really my fault—Eve is the one who gave it to me.”
But Mary chose something different: A humble peace. She listened to what must have been the mind-blowing news the angel shared and then she quietly accepted God’s plan for her part in the salvation of humanity. She would—like the rest of us this Advent season—watch and pray and be a witness to the miracle of God’s grace unfolding in her life and ours. She couldn’t have had any conception of what this news could mean for her life. She didn’t know what to expect, what people would say, whether her engagement would remain intact. But she trusted God. And she honored her connection to God and it stayed strong. And that bond gave her the deep trust she needed to simply embrace God’s plan for her life, wherever it might lead.
As we do our best to live through this tumultuous, loud, uncertain, and anxiety-provoking time, we yearn for that place of rest that helps us feel that God is near. Where our trust is frayed, we can spend some time in that humble quiet and God will bring repair. Where our hope is fading, God will bring restoration. Where the stress of this life is taking a toll, God brings renewal and draws us back to the peace that was God’s once-and-always plan for us.
It’s our moment by moment choice. Let’s listen to the angel, and not the serpent. And let our love for God and our desire for peace guide our hopes and beliefs, our choices and our actions. The One who loves us is still with us, leading and guiding, healing and loving, guiding us step by step back to the paradise of his peace. This Christmas let’s let the child in the manger draw us into a more humble quiet than we’ve ever felt before. The Lord is near. Let’s give thanks—and trust that.
- OT Genesis 2:25 – 3:7
- NT Luke 1: 26-38