Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 20, 2020
“[The conquest of the Moon] deserves the best of all mankind,” JFK said in 1962. “And its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too” ( https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm).
In that memorable Bay State accent, this challenge was laid down to America fifty eight years ago on the campus of Rice University. President Kennedy had a vision, a mission, of landing a man on the Moon in less than eight years of that fateful speech. Though he did not live to see that vision come to fruition, think of what that speech put into action. The vast machinery of American industry and ingenuity found a new gear. To achieve this goal entire fields of science had to be invented; calculations never dreamed of before had to be created and solved. Engineers, scientists, astronauts, politicians, all working toward a common goal. “Not because it was easy, but because it was hard. Because that challenge was one that we are willing to accept.”
It is these once in a lifetime, once in a generation moments that stick with us, that inspire us to action above and beyond ourselves. It is not too often that someone answers the call to a seemingly impossible task. It is not often that an individual, a group, a Church, a society stands up to say, “Here am I.” But we thank God for those that do. “Here am I.”
An answer that runs throughout the holy scriptures; a refrain from the bravest and best among us who answer the call, not because it is easy but because it is hard. Abraham says, “Here am I” as God calls him to do the difficult thing, to take his son, his only son, to Mount Moriah as a sacrifice (Genesis 22). “Here am I,” Moses says. He’s a shepherd tending the flock of his father-in-law, and now he’s called to go into the heart of Egypt and demand liberty for the enslaved Hebrews (Exodus 3). “Here am I,” says Samuel, a simple boy attending to the work of the Temple, he’s an acolyte, and yet God calls him in the darkness of the night to begin a new line of priestly ministry (I Samuel 3). In a vision that is both beautiful and stunning, God calls Isaiah to be a prophet – “the pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called and the house filled with smoke” (Isaiah 6:4). In each of these cases God has a big idea, a saving act. The call, the vision, the mission – those belong to God. But God desires an instrument, a person to accomplish that which God has purposed. In each of these cases, the heroes of our faith simply answer that they are present, ready, and willing to accept the thing, not because it is easy but because it is hard. And in each of these cases God calls on someone whom we would not choose. Abraham, the nomad; Moses, a murderer; Samuel, but a boy; Isaiah, just a priest. Yet all of them answered the call from God in three simple words: “Here am I.” Those words changed their lives, and those words changed the world for God.
And so the eyes of our faith turn to a young girl. A virgin living in a backwater town in a backwater province. Nazareth of Galilee. But God has a big idea in mind. The salvation of all people. The Incarnation of God as Human. The King of Kings come to earth so that all would be saved. And God turns to the unlikeliest of heroes, Mary. Faced with such an overwhelming task, faced with such challenges, such unknowns, such terrors ahead she picks up the refrain from ages past – “Here am I.” Not because it was easy, but because it was hard.
The rest, as they say, is history. Neil Armstrong walks on the Moon. Abraham doesn’t sacrifice his child, because God provides a ram in the thicket. Moses leads the people out of slavery in Egypt into the land of freedom. Samuel’s prayers and ministry shepherd the people of Israel. Isaiah warns the people of their impending doom and encourages them with news of God’s salvation. All because someone, somewhere, answered the call. “Here am I.”
And yet, we know there is something different about Mary. She is not simply another prophet, priest, or matriarch. She is the Mother of God. Her womb is more spacious than the heavens, as they say. We honor her in ways that we do not honor the other saints. We give thanks to God for she accepts this call not because it is easy but because it is hard. And of course, the hard part was not just answering the call to bear the Son of God. Oh no. It will be hard road that she has for the rest of her days. Her Son, our Lord, will leave her behind to begin his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. He will be executed by the foreign oppressors. He will be laid in her arms at the foot of the cross. She will join the Church, the assembly of believers, even as they are persecuted and martyred for their faith in her son. Her decision to answer the call as a young girl becomes the inflection point in her life, the beginning of a hard life. And we can imagine that at every point, at every moment she had a choice, Mary had the same response to God: “Here am I.”
This call, this divine call, is the one that every Christian must take up. To pick up the cross and follow Jesus, no matter where it leads. Our lives as Christians are not supposed to be easy. They are supposed to be hard. If our Lord was crucified, what makes us think that somehow we’ll have it easy? No, our task, our mission, our purpose, is a challenge that we must be willing to accept.
But some will ask, why choose the cross? Why choose the self-sacrificial way of love? Why choose to follow in the steps of Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah? Why choose Mary as an example when there are so many more easier, more comfortable choices? Why choose to follow a Lord who was crucified as a loser when there are so many winners out there? Why choose the hard life of discipleship? We choose the cross because God has chosen us for the cross. There are only two options for the Christian. In a moment of decision, at the inflection point, when the Lord God speaks to us we can turn away and worship ourselves, or we can utter those three terrifying words, “Here am I.”
Whatever difficult decision you are facing right now, use those three words as your compass and guide. “Here am I.” Join the great chorus of saints who have gone before and pray those three courageous words in every waking hour. You will embark on a grand adventure of faith, an adventure more dangerous than a trip to the Moon most assuredly; a hard journey.
But one day, at the end of your days, you will stand and look back. As those astronauts stood upon the Moon and looked back on Earth. And like them, you will have perspective. The perspective of a hard life, a cross shaped life, but a good life with God. A life defined by those three words, “Here am I.”
So do not forget the urgent Advent tidings. Turn aside to see the burning bush, open your eyes to see the glory of the Lord filling the Temple. Listen for the voice of the Lord in the dark of the night. Behold the angel is speaking, beckoning you to a life of service. God is calling. How will you answer?