Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Then the Angel Departed..."

Credit for the direction this sermon took goes to Connie Waters. My thanks to Kathryn Matthews Huey for her excellent commentary, which helped me immensely (as is often the case).

I was tempted to base this sermon on Roger Wolsey's excellent blog post, "Jesus' Mom Was A Punk." I didn't, because sometimes these sermons write themselves in a different direction. Perhaps next year...

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.”
But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.
Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.

Romans 16:25-27
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

This is the Word of the Lord.

“Then the angel departed from her.”

And Mary sat there in the darkness. No one else in the tiny house stirred – no one had heard the conversation. What had just happened? Had it really happened at all, this conversation with an angel? Mary tried to think of anyone who had spoken to an angel since the time of Abraham and Sarah, but it made her head hurt.

Instead, she lay back down, and mulled the conversation over in her head.

The angel’s first words had awakened her, but if she’d been wide awake when he… or she? It? …had spoken, the words would have still made little sense: “Greetings, favored one!” "Favored one?" Her? After all, she’s just Mary, just another teenager in a nothing town in the middle of nowhere. And a girl, at that. Everyone knew that women didn’t get to make many of their own choices. Her father decided who she would marry, and her husband-to-be would decide where she lived, she would cook what he liked to eat, when he liked to eat it; she would bear his children and wash and mend his clothes and go with him to synagogue, just as her mother did, and her mother’s mother, and as far back as time itself. It wasn’t a bad life, per se, but to call it “favored” was a bit of a stretch.

Just as it had begin to dawn on her that it might not be the best of situations, this stranger in her room and all, the angel – deep down, Mary thought she had known from the beginning that this… person? …was an angel – spoke again. Don’t be afraid, he (?) said, and the thing about being favored by God again. Then, “You will conceive and bear a son, named Jesus. He’ll be great, he’ll be called the Son of God. He will restore the throne of David, and reign over Israel forever.”

Now, Mary knew all about the Messiah, the one who was to come and restore Israel to her former glory. The promise of the Redeemer was a source of strength when the tax collector came to town, when her father lost a days’ work carrying a soldier’s pack, when the crops were failing and it didn’t make sense to go on another day. Mary might have been “just” a girl, but she knew the burning desire that all of Judea shared to have the oppressive boot of Rome removed from the throat of the Jewish people!

Of course it had to happen! Messiah had to come! But why her, she wondered. And more than that, how?

It may be a bit of artistic license, but Mary strikes me as the kind of person who never met a question she couldn’t ask. Maybe she had inherited the job of milking the family goat early on because she had asked how to do it. Perhaps she occasionally shocked the younger rabbis in the synagogue by daring to ask questions about the teachings – the older ones had long ago gotten used to her cheekiness, and now rather enjoyed her genuine curiosity. I imagine she secretly hoped that Joseph, her husband-to-be, would show her how his carpentry tools worked.

And unlike far too many people, both in the Scriptures and in real life, who laugh and reject the will of God for themselves when a messenger delivers that news, Mary instead reacts with bold curiosity: “How exactly is all this going to work?”

The angel explains that God will be the child’s father. In fact, as proof that God could do whatever God chooses, even now Elizabeth, who had been childless and was now too old to hope to have a baby, was six months along in her own God-ordained pregnancy!

Mary’s head swam. What the angel was suggesting – the very idea! This “favor” she had somehow found with God was staggering, the implications immeasurable. God intended to put things right with the world through the promised Messiah, but in doing so, Mary’s world would be turned irrevocably upside-down.

The angel had not, at any point, asked Mary what her opinion was in the matter. Mary was, of course, use to this kind of thing; a girl not yet fourteen, no one asked her what she thought, there weren’t may opportunities for her to make choices. Her father told her who to marry, her mother told her what to wear, she never went anywhere alone, and it never occurred to her to think this was wrong.

But now, the angel waited. Waited for her to answer, to make a choice, to say yes or no to the task set before her.

The angel waits for Mary’s “yes.” God waits for Mary’s “yes.” All of creation waits; Adam and Eve wait, the dead in the underworld wait; the angels wait.

With Mary’s “yes,” her reputation would be ruined. Mary’s “yes” would destroy her chances of marrying Joseph, forever brand her as a harlot, a loose woman, and it may well get her stoned to death! If Mary said “yes,” how was she going to explain this to her family? What would she say to her friends, and how would she face Joseph, who, though he was older, and a successful, sought-after artisan, always looked at her with such kindness, such love?

But with Mary’s “yes,” hope is enlivened and history is changed. Say “yes,” Mary, and there is an unimaginable future for all people, a future that comes from God. With Mary’s “yes,” all nations assemble in justice, compassion and gratitude. Salvation is created among us, and the fate of history is altered by a godly presence.

I cannot in good faith imagine that it ever crossed Mary’s mind to tell the angel thanks for the opportunity, but please go and ask someone else. What was it that angel had said? “Nothing will be impossible with God.” The Scriptures were packed with the stories of how God had made the impossible a reality – parting the Red Sea, feeding the children of Israel with manna, bringing down the walls of Jericho, raising the dead, cleansing the leper, causing the sun to stop in the sky, fire from heaven and water from a rock…

Mary didn’t have the benefit of higher Biblical criticism to help her determine which stories were likely redactions and insertions from this or that group of writers; she didn’t see the accounts of God’s mighty acts as something to be taught to children and enjoyed by adults as stories with an important moral to help us all in our daily lives. Please understand that I love Biblical scholarship, and I enjoy learning all that I can about both higher and lower Biblical criticism, textual analysis, and history, from a wide variety of perspectives, but there’s something to be said for just believing that “nothing will be impossible with God.”

I wonder what would happen if we all believed – really believed, and by that I mean didn’t just say it or think it but acted like “nothing will be impossible with God?” What if we said “yes” to God? What could we change? What brokenness in ourselves could be healed, and what brokenness in this world – poverty, racism, war, classism, genocide, greed, hatred – could be healed if we, like Mary, said “yes” to God – if we, too, truly believed that “nothing will be impossible for God?”

The angel waits, and, finally, Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And with that, salvation was born. This salvation resides in the hearts of those who believe in the gift, who know that, in Jesus Christ, salvation has come, and who stay awake eagerly, awaiting its coming. With David we await it, with the nations we long for it, and with Mary we behold it.

And for Mary, the morning will bring a whirlwind. She cannot know, laying in her little bed in that little house in that little town, that Joseph himself will meet an angel, that somehow he will remain and will marry her, and that he will raise this child, God’s own son, as his own. She cannot now see the miracles, she cannot now hear the words of God which will fall from the mouth of her son, she cannot yet see the cross, the shame, the horror, and she cannot yet comprehend the Resurrection that will bring salvation to herself and the entire world. All this will come. But for now?

For now, her eyes grow heavy, her heart is at peace, and she sleeps.

1 comment:

  1. What a great message of hope, John! Not just because we have Jesus, but because this shows us the power of YES.