Sunday, December 23, 2012

Longing for a Child: Advent 4 Sermon on Luke 1:26-38

"Annunciation" by John William Waterhouse (1914)

 Scripture can be found here...

She was nobody special. She was young. Someone told me this week that one of the most memorable things they ever heard in a sermon was her age: She was probably about 14 years old, when all these things happened—the angelic announcement, the most assuredly unplanned pregnancy, the being swept up in God’s Very Big Plan. Or maybe even younger. Maybe, according to scholars, as young as twelve.

Mary could have been in our confirmation class.

She wasn’t married, but plans were underway. That was pretty normal for girls her age. And unlike her older cousin Elizabeth, and her husband Zechariah, whose story takes up the first twenty-five verses of this gospel, Mary had no distinguished pedigree. She was not, best we can tell, a member of a priestly family, or a family with connections of any kind.

She was just a young girl, from an unremarkable family in Nazareth, a rural backwater if you want to know. Nobody special from no place special.

And yet. And yet.

As for the world Mary inhabited, here’s what we know: Since the passage we read last week, those words of encouragement to the people returning from exile, about five hundred years have passed.

Since the writing of Chronicles, the last-written book of the Old Testament, about 275 years have passed.

Since Mary’s people, and God’s people, were last oppressed… well, that has been an ongoing kind of thing. After the Babylonians came the Persians, and after the Persians the Seleucids. Then came the Ptolemaic dynasty, and finally, the brutal and ever-expanding Roman Empire.

Mary’s people are still not free. They still do not have the full extent of God’s covenant promise of land, offspring and blessing securely in hand.

And yet. And yet.

They continue to tell the story. They continue to hope for—no, expect—God’s promise to be fulfilled. They are still a people full of longing. They are longing for God to extend a mighty arm and save them. They are longing for salvation.

God has a funny way of replying to our longings.

Just to be clear, Mary is not, at the beginning of our story, longing for a child. Far from it. And that makes this birth announcement unique in the Bible (though, not in the ancient world). In the Old Testament, in the midst of a culture that places a premium on childbearing, and honors women for performing that function successfully, the longing for a child by a woman is an often-told tale. In fact, that is precisely Elizabeth’s tale, and Zechariah’s. It is a classic Old Testament story: a woman has all but given up hope of having a child. And then, by the power of God, it happens.

Here, Mary has not expressed any hope of having a child. She probably just wants to graduate from the ancient Palestinian equivalent of middle school before the wedding. And yet. And yet.

An angelic messenger arrives. Our translation sounds a little stilted, like a greeting Mr. Spock might give to a visiting dignitary aboard the starship Enterprise. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Presbyterian pastor, scholar and poet Eugene Peterson offers this translation:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

Good morning. We have spent some time over the past weeks reading accounts of angels in our Monday evening Bible Study. And it is not unusual for the appearance of a messenger from God to strike fear into the heart of the ordinary mortal. Most often, the first words out of an angel’s mouth are “Fear not.” “Don’t be afraid.” Remember the ecstatic, booming angel chorus at the call of Isaiah several weeks ago?  This is a very gentle kind of angelic greeting. A greeting for a young girl, a girl of twelve or thirteen or fourteen. Good morning!

Mary is troubled, though. She is perplexed. That message that “God is with you” is a perplexing one. In Mary’s world, God is with prophets like Isaiah, mighty kings and warriors like David, perhaps the ancient Judges like Deborah. God is not with young teenagers from unknown families in out-of-the-way villages.

And now the angel says, “Don’t be afraid.” And then he drops the bombshell, that first for the Bible—that one-and-only, in fact. A virgin will conceive and give birth to a son. That virgin is Mary, and the name of her son will be Jesus.

To a people longing for salvation, God will send an infant whose name means “God saves.”

It almost sounds like God is playing a joke.

God’s people: Save us!

God: Ok. Here’s a baby. And, trust me, you’ve never heard of his mother. Oh, and his patrimony is absolutely unbelievable, and will be the cause of scandal.

If the people are longing for salvation, God could have sent an army. An army of angels! An army of highly skilled warriors, a kind of Divine Delta Force, Holy Navy Seals. Or, at the very least, God could have sent a warrior, a king, a prophet unparalleled.

God did none of these things. Because the truth is, whether they knew it or not, God’s people were longing for a child.

And not just because the child would be a king, or be called ‘Son of the Most High,’ or  ‘Son of God.’ All these titles are titles Mary and her people have heard, time and again. They are all titles claimed by the Caesars, the Roman Emperors, the oppressors of Mary’s people.

Mary’s people are longing for a sign that God sees. That God hears. That God gets it. That God understands what they are going through, oppressive regime after oppressive regime, senseless death after senseless death, hard life followed upon by hard life.

What better way for God to show how fully God understands than this? Not to send, but to come. Not to swoop down in power, but to be brought forth with the cooperation of a young girl? Not to emerge in Jerusalem or Rome, but as nobody special, from no place special?

God’s people were longing for a child, because only by coming as a child could God truly reveal the extent—the length and breadth, the height and depths—of God’s own love and longing for humanity.

Longing for a child. This child. Not for the usual reasons we long for our children. More similar, perhaps, to the reasons we long for our parents—the irreplaceable knowledge, that we carry deep in our bones, that we are seen. We are heard. We are known. We are loved, without condition. And that someone is there to make it better when we are suffering. A tall order, certainly, and one that most of us who are parents know we fall far, far short of filling.

But God doesn’t fall short. Nobody special—we are seen. From no-where special—we are heard. Without pedigree—we are known. Without achievement—we are loved, we are cherished, and we are given, day in and day out, an opportunity, like Mary, to say, Yes.

Yes to the unknown.

Yes to our small part in God’s Very Big Plan.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

So, to you, from God:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment