St Michael & St Barnabas, Sunday December 7th 2014
Readings – Psalm 131; Luke 1:26-38
There is no doubt that 2014 has been a year of particularly bleak headlines. Think for a moment of some of the stories that have hit our screens: the ongoing atrocities in the Middle-East; the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa; the abduction of schoolchildren in Nigeria; the downing of not one but two Malaysian airlines, and the civil unrest in the United States. The more I talk to folk, the more I know I’m not alone in feeling that the world has become a darker, more uncertain place, and certainly my cry this Advent is more than ever, “Maranatha – come, Lord Jesus”. There can’t be a single one of us here this morning who does not long for a new heaven and a new earth when finally the pain and misery of this world will come to an end.
But we mustn’t forget that when Luke came to writing his gospel, the world was in many ways equally dark and troubled. For a start, the Romans occupied most of Europe, North Africa and the Near East. Yes, they may have brought with them a sophisticated civilisation but they were also capable of the most brutal and savage acts. When Luke reports in chapter 13 how Pontius Pilate mixed the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices, this was only one account amongst many of Romans viciously suppressing any act of rebellion. And what about the kings they allowed to rule over the state of Judea? We all know how Herod responded when he heard the news of Jesus’ birth, and every single ruler of that royal family was known for his cruelty.
Life in the first century could be at times extremely brutal and harsh. And as people sought for meaning and purpose amidst all this chaos, so there developed a whole extraordinary range of ideas claiming to provide the answer. You could, if you so wanted, go for the pagan gods, or perhaps choose Greek philosophy, or maybe dabble in Jewish religion, or even choose a bit from all three. It was up to you really, whatever worked for you and helped you get through the day.
It was in this environment Luke picked up his pen and wrote to his friend Theophilus. He had one very clear and simple purpose in mind as he began his gospel account, which he explains in verse 4 of his introduction: that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. Luke, quite simply, wrote his gospel to provide hope and assurance in a confused and troubled world.
It seems to me, we particularly need to remember this purpose as we come to the Christmas story. All those details we know and love so well, such as the angel’s visit to Mary, or the manger in the stable, or the shepherds on the hillside, were never designed to provide an escape or fantasy from life today. Rather they were intended to be part of a larger story offering good news, not as rumour, or as make-believe, but as certainty that could be accepted, trusted and believed.
So how does this account of the angel’s visit to Mary help us as we grapple with all we see and hear in the world around us?
First of all, let’s pause and reflect how God sends the angel to a most unexpected place.
Verse 26: In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee. What’s so surprising about that? I hear you ask. Quite simply this, that God does not choose a safe location for His Son to be born. You might have thought that if He was going to risk sending Jesus as a new-born baby He would opt for some out of the way place where there was very little going on and a very small risk of danger, somewhere like Cornwall perhaps. But no, He chooses the very place – Israel – where three continents come together, Europe, Asia and Africa, a place which has been contested for thousands of years, and still remains a place of strife. In choosing such a place as this, I believe the Lord is making an important statement, that He is deeply concerned and involved in those areas of the world we call trouble-spots, that there is no place where He does not claim to be Lord.
Secondly, let’s also reflect how God sends the angel to a most unexpected person.
Reading on from verse 26 to 27: In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
Now surely Mary has to be the last person you would expect to be the bearer of God’s Son. She was a young woman, almost certainly in her teens. She knew nothing of motherhood, and she probably hadn’t had that much experience of life. She was not, for example, like Elizabeth her cousin who had been waiting for a child for years, or someone well-used to the demands of parenting.
But then again, one theme that keeps coming out again and again as we read Luke’s gospel is the Lord’s concern for the marginalised, the weak and the vulnerable. When the adult Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, the first thing He does, according to Luke chapter 4, verse 18, is preach good news to the poor. Now in the culture of the day, Mary would have had very few rights of her own. She may not even have had much say in the person she was going to marry. But God chose her because He wanted to show His power to transform even the most ordinary life in the most unexpected of ways, and to reveal how even the most humble are so deeply valued in His sight.
And I think there is an important lesson here for us as we look at the world today. This year we have come across again and again shocking stories of young people, particularly girls, who have been exploited and abused by others. We can argue long and hard why such exploitation occurs, but one thing is clear. Very few young people grow up knowing they are valued and loved by God and seen as precious in His sight. They see the Christmas story as something for old folk or a tale told to little children. How different things would be, at least in this country, if there was a new generation of teenagers who knew how much God cared for them in Christ Jesus! Mary provides proof that God really is interested in all ages, and when it comes to the good news of Jesus Christ there is no group beyond His reach.
And thirdly, the Lord gives the angel a most unexpected message.
30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God.
31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32 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,
33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.”
Again, we need to realise that nobody expected the Saviour to come in this way. The Israelites at that time believed that their deliverer would suddenly appear in all His glory, to boot out the Romans and make their nation great forever. But instead, the one to be called Son of Most High comes as a newborn baby, who will grow up weak and vulnerable and who one day will suffer and die.
Now that was a message which would have deeply shocked all those who heard it for the first time. It went against the way they thought God was going to act, and it hardly seemed to be the answer to all their prayers. So they might well have asked: what was the point of this virgin birth? Why did God choose to intervene like this in human history?
The simple answer is surely to show us the nature of the God we claim to worship. You see, even today, there are so many people who think of God as being impersonal, remote, somewhere out there. They have this image of a distant being, sitting on a cloud, possibly surrounded by harp-playing angels. But actually the image of God is found in the baby born in a manger. We see in Jesus a God who identifies with us and our experience of being human at the deepest level. So when we come to God in prayer through Jesus Christ we find He already understands us and is able to respond to our deepest pleadings.
But of course if we only focus on the weakness and humility of Jesus’ birth, we do not have a God who is able to make that much difference. We have a nice story we can repeat once a year and it can give us an illusion of comfort and joy, but the warmth and glow of the season will soon be shattered by the next big news story or personal tragedy.
That is why we need to move on and consider the next part of the angel’s message: 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.” Because this too is another important aspect of the good news we need to share this Christmas. We have seen too many times this year governments fall and the rule of law collapse. We have witnessed the pain and despair of refugees fleeing their lives, and the suffering of the dispossessed. The message of the angel speaks into those situations and says there is another kind of kingdom that gives a hope which is solid and secure, a kingdom not of this earth that will never come to an end, but which is open to all.
Which is all very well in theory, but it does lead to a very obvious question – why, then, doesn’t the Lord Jesus reveal Himself more clearly?
Perhaps the answer lies in the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16. How does it begin? For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son… Now the thing about a lovegift is that you cannot force it on the other person or control their response. You might hand over the most costly and precious present you can possibly imagine this Christmas, but if it is a lovegift there is always the risk it will be rejected, ignored or despised.
And sadly this year we have seen all too often the response of so many to the lovegift of the Christian faith. We have, for example, witnessed the murderous intent of groups like Isis purging whole regions of their native Christian populations, or militias like Boko Haram or Al-Shabaab executing any follower of Jesus Christ they happen to come across. Because such people know nothing of love or truth or goodness, their misguided zeal means they see the greatest gift the world has ever known as evil and will do anything to get rid of those who bear His name.
Then in the West we have others who while perhaps not actively hostile to the Christian faith certainly no longer see the name of Jesus as a positive or welcome influence. They lump all religions together as extreme, intolerant forces for division or conflict, and in the name of tolerance seek to remove whatever impact the Christian faith still has. The threat to us believers here is clearly not as blatant or life-threatening as that facing our persecuted brethren across the world, but with each passing year new laws and changing attitudes make it harder and harder for us to stand out and be counted as followers of Christ.
But then if we know the Christmas story we should not be surprised at such reactions. We have already mentioned the fury of King Herod to the news of Jesus’ birth and he certainly wasn’t averse to wiping out a whole village if it meant he could protect his position. We also saw last week the hardness of Zechariah’s heart and his failure to believe Gabriel’s message. The Christmas story tells us that until Jesus comes again there will always be a variety of reactions to the good news of His kingdom. This is the risk God chose to take by sending Jesus to us in this way. Not because He Himself is weak or impotent, unable to deal with the evil all around us, but because He gives us the freedom to decide how we will respond to His love.
However while God gives us the freedom, if we choose, to reject or ignore the good news of His Son, Jesus Christ, He also tells us plainly that one day we will be judged on the basis of the choice that we have made. Because, you see, the kingdoms that we mere mortals set for ourselves will one day all pass. I do not simply mean that as history unfolds, one empire will vanish, and another take its place. I mean that one day every government will fall, every ruler will be stripped of his authority, every militia disarmed.
And when that day comes, there will be just one kingdom left – that eternal kingdom which Gabriel proclaimed to Mary. This is why it is such a tragedy when people reject the good news today and are blind to the consequences of their rejection. One day all of us, whether we choose to believe it or not, will stand before Jesus, who will not be lying in a manger, but seated on a throne at the right hand of God, as judge and Lord and king.
It’s for this reason that the response of such an unexpected person in such an unexpected place to such an unexpected message matters to us today. Because although she is young, although she is marginalised and poor, Mary shows us the right response to the lovegift of Jesus Christ. Yes, she does not understand exactly what the angel is saying and, yes, she still has her questions, and who can blame her? But she is nonetheless prepared to say, “I am the Lord’s servant,”… “May it be to me as you have said.”
Because what Mary does do is cling to the promise of the angel that nothing is impossible with God. For her it is enough to know that God has spoken since she knows that God’s word can be trusted. And even though her life is about to be turned upside down, and even though all the old certainties she relied upon are about to be ripped up forever, she puts herself totally and fully in the Lord’s hands.
There can be little doubt that Luke recorded Mary’s encounter with the angel as an encouragement to his friend, Theophilus, and to us. Yes, the world we see around us is a dangerous, confusing place. Yes, we may wonder at the suffering and the pain that so many experience. But even through it all we have a God who can be trusted, a God who has given us His promises in Jesus Christ that He will never break.
So it seems to me that our calling this Advent is to become a community that does not simply listen to the familiar promises of the Christmas story, but actually lives by them; that we stand on those promises even when so many reject or ignore the glorious good news of Jesus Christ and that we show through our life together that we worship a greater king whose throne will last forever.
Let’s then, as we ponder the news headlines, treasure the Christmas story all the more, and let us have the courage to respond in faith as Mary did: “I am the Lord’s servant,”… “May it be to me as you have said.” For the sake of His glory and His kingdom. Amen.