St Michael’s 4th December 2011
Reading – Luke 1:26-38
Some twenty years ago a bishop called John Finney set out to discover how people become active Christians and participants in their local church. So instead of writing another weighty tome or putting forward an interesting theory, he went out with a team to interview a whole range of churchgoers of different ages and different backgrounds, and ask them some very simple questions about their faith. The published research: Finding Faith Today was a ground-breaking book and it’s one that’s still worth reading today.
And as you might expect one question he asked was: which factor led you to become a committed Christian? There were a whole variety of responses. Some of them talked about a particular event or reading the Bible. Rather more talked about the support of a friend or a minister. But what surprised the researchers was how many people talked about the birth of a child being an important event that led them to ask questions about what they really believed.
That’s something that has been borne out in my own experience. There is something about having a baby that changes the way you view the world. No matter how much you prepare for the big event, or how much you think you are ready, suddenly finding yourself in charge of a living, breathing creature 24-7 acts as a real shock to the system. I think one of the more honest cards we had when our first daughter was born read: This child will bring more joy into your life than you can possibly imagine and more stuff into your car. Having a child really does turn your whole life upside down.
And as parents learn to cope with the upheaval, it’s not uncommon for them to start thinking, however vaguely. about God.
For some, it’s the sheer sense of wonder at having this tiny bundle of joy in their arms. Yes, of course we know the biology and the practical nitty-gritty of how babies are conceived and develop. But for so many folk, when they hold their child for the first time, they realise they are clutching a little miracle, a new creation that seems nothing other than a gift from a good and wonderful maker.
For others, a new-born child brings out feelings of responsibility and the sudden awful awareness that from now on they have to look and after protect their offspring, from the first day at school, to the teenage years, even into adulthood. And one of the biggest decisions parents have to make right at the beginning is what to call their child. As some of you know all too well, the name your parents give you will stay with you for the rest of your life. I was chatting to my brother recently and apparently he has a colleague at work called Mr Seal. Not too bad, you might think, until you understand his first name is Ron. I am sure Mr Ron Seal must by now be tired of jokes about doing what it says on the tin.
For still others, they start to think about God as they begin to wonder and dream about what this child might become – possibly an astronaut, maybe a brain-surgeon, or then again, a world champion cyclist. As they think about the big wide world into which they will be launching their little darling, it’s not surprising that they turn to prayer, for safety, for wisdom, for guidance.
But of course it’s one thing developing a vague sense of wonder, or praying about your responsibility or wondering what the child might become. It’s quite another finding out what this God is like, whether He is really there and whether He will hear you when you call.
That’s why I want to turn to our reading this morning from Luke’s gospel. Now even if you know very little about the Bible, or have hardly ever set foot in a church before I reckon you are probably very familiar with this story of the angel’s visit to Mary. In fact is there anyone here who has played the part of Gabriel or Mary in a school nativity? Or seen your child or grandchild perform the part? It’s a well-worn, familiar story that gets acted out thousands of time across the country each year.
But just because it is well-known doesn’t mean we should lose sight of what it is really all about.
Because, first of all, this is good news of a baby who is in the most literal sense of the word a miracle. That message of the angel about the Holy Spirit coming upon Mary and overshadowing her wasn’t designed to puzzle or confuse. It was to reveal the great, earth-shattering truth that God has come among us in human form. So if this morning we are wondering if there is a God somewhere out there, who might listen to us and help us, we can stop wondering. For God has made Himself known fully and finally by sharing in our life, by sending His Son to be born as a tiny, weak baby, to experience all the emotions of growing up and becoming a man.
So in answer to the question: does God understand us? The answer is a resounding “Yes”. Not just because He is the creator of us all. But because He Himself has become part of this world, and understands at the very deepest level what it means to be human. That’s the wonderful and essential good news of this story, and I would encourage you to look it at again with fresh eyes, to see what it’s all about.
But there’s more. Because, like any other baby, this baby has a name. As the angel Gabriel says to Mary: You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. Not just because the name Jesus was trendy and fashionable at the time, or because there was already someone in the family with the same name. But because in those days names told you something about the nature and character of the person. And the name Jesus gives us an essential clue about the reason why He came to be born in a manger in Bethlehem. For his name actually means “God saves”.
Yes, Jesus came to be one of us, to share in our life. But He did more than that. He came to offer us a future and a hope beyond this life, to give us a remedy for the things we have done wrong, to put us back into relationship with God as our Heavenly Father. The Christmas story is not an isolated event we can bring out of the loft once a year. It is part of a bigger picture that leads through Galilee down to Jerusalem, to a cross and an empty tomb.
And this leads on the third point, what this child would become. Gabriel goes on in verses 32-33: He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end. What exactly does he mean by this? Very simply, that Jesus will be given authority by God over every creature in heaven and earth. Not by setting up another physical kingdom, where the rich and the powerful have the top jobs and the positions of authority. But by setting up a spiritual kingdom which is open to all by faith, particularly and including the lost, the lonely, the poor. More about that next week.
This baby Jesus shows the miracle of God becoming one of us; the mission of God in securing our salvation; and the purpose of God in establishing His authority over all people everywhere. So I hope you can start to see that this story is not something we can read and then simply forget again. If it is true, and the evidence is fairly overwhelming, then it demands a response. We have to decide whether we will allow these great truths to affect our life, or whether we simply try to ignore them and pack them away again round about January 6th.
Now if you here last week, you will know we looked at an earlier appearance of the angel Gabriel, to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. We saw how Zechariah was a righteous and religious man, who was known for living a good life. And so you might have thought that when Zechariah was told that his wife Elizabeth was going to bear a son in her old age he would welcomed the news with great joy. Not a bit of it. Luke 1:18 gives us his response: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.” It seems that despite all his religion and his respectability, Zechariah still doubted, still refused to believe God could make a difference to His situation.
What about Mary? On the surface her response to the visit of the angel Gabriel might sound rather similar. Verse 34: How will this be…since I am a virgin? But if you probe a little deeper, you can see there is in fact a world of difference between the two questions. When Zechariah asked: How can I be sure of this? he was revealing the fact his heart remained fundamentally unmoved by the wonderful good news he had been given. Never mind the fact an angel appeared to him in the holiest place, or the fact he was told something he had been waiting his whole life to hear. He wanted more proof from God before he was even willing to consider trusting Him.
But Mary – she was prepared to take God at His word. Of course she had questions. One moment she was are a young teenage girl preparing for marriage, the next she suddenly found herself bearing the Saviour of the world. But her question reveals a very different attitude. Yes, God I believe that you can do this. But I need to find out more. I can’t quite get my head round this at the moment. How will this be…since I am a virgin? Please just give me a little more information.
And the fact the angel Gabriel answers her questions so graciously shows us a very important point. God is not looking for us to fully understand. He knows that we may well want to find out more, and indeed I believe He loves us asking questions. All He wants us to do is to take the first step of faith and be willing to learn. Mary had that faith, Mary learnt and she submitted to God’s will. Verse 38: I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Not because she fully grasped what was going to happen – how could she? – or the true cost of what was involved. But because she knew that God was good and could be trusted, whatever lay ahead, however much or little she understood what was going on.
So the question I want each of us to think about this morning is this: how do we respond to the wonderful good news of Jesus Christ? Are we like Zechariah, unwilling even to entertain the notion that Jesus has come among us, died for us and now reigns as King? Or are we like Mary still perhaps with questions, not necessarily sure what it would involve following Jesus, but willing to take the first step of faith?
We have just finished this week a course at St Michael’s called Christianity Explored. Not Christianity rammed down your throat or Christianity made muddled and confused. It was a simple and beautifully presented course designed specifically for people who want to find out more about the Christian faith but have questions. I think everyone who went on that course would agree that if you can in any way identify with Mary, this course is for you, and I have always said I would run it again next year.
But there’s action each of us can take now. Take time to reflect on the Christmas story. Read it for what it is, not a piece of fiction, but a real life event that has turned history on its head. And think what it means for you. Because the Christmas story is not simply about Jesus being born for mankind in general. It’s about Jesus wanting to be born in your heart, to give you His salvation, to become your king. What is, then, that is stopping you from putting your faith and trust in Him? Will you remain a Zechariah or become a Mary, a servant of the Lord? That is the choice you face, and it’s one all of us need to make.