Advent 4: The Things We Miss (sometimes): Gabriel & Mary

I am posting my two morning sermons from Christmas Eve & Day. They don’t particularly overlap (except for the introduction) but the style is similar. I decided to read slowly through Luke’s Gospel telling of the First Christmas and let various aspects fall on me in a new way. I then did some exegesis to unpick some of the ‘new’ aspects.

Christ the Worker  9:30
St Mary’s 11:00
Advent 4
24/12/17 (Morning Services)

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm 89
Romans 16:25-end
Luke 1:26-38

One of the many things that I love about this season is how the story of the first Christmas comes alive. We see it in the pictures on Christmas cards; we hear it in the words of Christmas carols; we see the drama played out in Christingle and Crib services.

Even in commercialization and secularization of our society the story of that first Christmas does get told – not always in words but in the symbols and pictures; seen if we pay attention to the world around us.

We know that many people who do not normally darken the door come to church for Christmas services. Why is that? Tradition and ritual? Just the done thing? Maybe – naively on my part – they want to hear the first Christmas story told again in a way that is familiar, comfortable. The church tells the story of that first Christmas through our worship and liturgy.

But sometimes if or when we pick up the Bible to read it – we can lose the sense of awe and wonder. I was aware of this as I sat to read all of Luke’s First Christmas account as I was preparing for this weekend. Sometimes when I read familiar passages I like to get behind the story. Go slowly through it and see what is going on behind it. It helps me to do undo some of the assumptions I may have developed. Helps to regain my awe and wonder of the words.

I want to highlight a few parts of this amazing story this morning.

The angel Gabriel. 4 words in! Gabriel is a fascinating character; he is a Messenger of God. In any depiction, Gabriel looks to be tall with huge white, feathery wings. He often has a trumpet or a lily in his hand. Angels are created beings of God – as we are. They are not made – as it has been popularized – out of dead human beings. There is no biblical evidence for this – however comforting this notion might be.

Gabriel appears in the Old Testament as he was sent to explain the visions that the prophet Daniel was having. Gabriel has been around for a few hundred years at least.

Gabriel is now back on the scene – six months before greeting Mary, God sent Gabriel to Jerusalem to foretell another unexpected birth – this one to an elderly priest named Zechariah whose aged wife would Elizabeth would bear John the Baptist. On that occasion Gabriel was sent to Herod’s temple – one of the wonders of the civilized world. This time Gabriel is going to a backwater town called Nazareth.

Does he fly? He has wings after all! Does he cross the sky like a shooting star? A rocket?

Prior to these visits approximately 400 years had passed since God had sent any message to earth. Then twice in 6 months Gabriel is called into service with life changing news for the most unsuspecting of people.

Now we move on a few verses and turn our attention to Mary. Mary the Virgin, maybe 13 or 14 years old, engaged to be married to that bloke Joseph. He wasn’t a local though as his family came from Bethlehem, the house of David. Bethlehem is about 80 miles from Nazareth – takes about 2 hours to drive between the two places. Would have taken about 5-6 days to walk. How and why did Joseph’s family end up in Nazareth? It wasn’t exactly a desirable place to live. People on the whole didn’t tend to move around very much – you stayed where you were from.

Doing well – 3 verses in now. Gabriel’s opening to Mary of ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you!’ I wonder what Mary was doing at that moment – she was alone. Was she in her bedroom or our carrying water?
It sounds nice doesn’t it – you can read it as a positive message, friendly even. A large, friendly, winged man with a trumpet or a lily in his hand approaching a 13-year-old girl. Nothing weird about that!

But seriously – Mary is perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. There is a lot of meaning here – Mary is deeply agitated – she is taken aback, disturbed, anxious. One explanation that I particularly liked was ‘stirred up throughout’ – by this appearance of Gabriel.

Some of us here know what it is like to be ‘stirred up throughout’. I know a lot of people who have been stirred up throughout this year. That news that comes unexpectedly that moves adrenaline at lighting speed – good or bad that shakes us to the core.

It is not just by Gabriel’s appearance – it is his greeting, his words that have caused her reaction. Mary’s reaction could be that she knew that this greeting was coming with an overwhelming challenge.

Paula Gooder in her Advent book ‘The Meaning is in the Waiting’ writes, ‘Gabriel’s greeting is somewhat reminiscent of the ancient Chinese proverb ‘May you live in interesting times’, which can be seen as either a curse or a blessing. In the same way, Gabriel’s greeting can either be seen as good or bad: to be in receipt of God’s favour, especially beloved and granted his presence, can only mean that Mary’s life is about to be turned upside down. She is surely right and sensible to be disturbed by this greeting.’

I think that being a Christian is sometimes an overwhelming challenge. Forget being a priest – just the act of being a Christian is daunting! Doing what God’s asks of us is often hard, it is inconvenient, it is messy sometimes.

The giant winged Angel-man then declares ‘Do not be afraid!’ Yeah okay! The phrase ‘Do not be afraid’ appears 366 times in the Bible. One for each day of the year and an extra for Leap Years.

Do not be afraid is then followed with the sweet words ‘you have found favour with God.’ How did she do that? A 13-year-old girl from a poor, back water town. What was it about Mary?

We can do all the religiousy, churchy stuff in the world – but this doesn’t mean we have found God’s favour. It isn’t in what we do – it is in who we are. We were created by God out of God’s love for us – despite everything about us that is unlovely. We can still find God’s favour. What we do should be an offering back to God – out of our love as thanksgiving for his love.

Mary then gets the news that she is going to conceive and bear a son whom she will name Jesus.

Jesus. Do you realize that this was the first proclamation of our Saviour’s personal name since the beginning of time? Jesus. The very name at which one day every knee will bow? The very name at which every tongue will confess? A name with no parallel in any vocabulary? A name with power like no other name? Jesus.

Gabriel tells Mary ‘He will be great’. Oh yes he is.

Gabriel then carries on with some details of what is to happen. On closer reading, these details are not as shocking to Mary as the first appearance and greeting of Gabriel were. Paula Gooder again writes, ‘For Mary – the message that God has chosen her is far more frightening than what he has chosen for her to do.’

Not sure about you – but if a winged-man angel appeared to me and started to discuss my womb and its imminent call to service – I would have a little more to say!

Mary’s concern is for the practicalities – she obviously knew were babies came from. We see something of her innocence too. Gabriel has the answer for Mary – ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’. Come upon here means ‘to arrive, invade, resting upon and operating in a person.’

For nothing will be impossible with God says Gabriel. This was in one of the readings at Morning Prayer this past week. It is a verse that I remind myself of frequently. But sometimes it just comes in a new way.

Nothing will be impossible with God. I sometimes laugh to myself when I hear people resisting change or offering up a list of excuses about why something can or can’t be done. If it is of God – nothing is impossible.

Imagine for a moment if Doreen/Peggy/Joan – lovely Doreen/Peggy or Joan – came to church pregnant! It could happen! It happened to Elizabeth in her old age. This is the impossible thing that was made possible that Gabriel is referring to!

Sometimes it is us who need a little more courage or imagination.

It is after she heard ‘that nothing is impossible’ – that Mary says ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ I seriously wonder what our lives, our families, our community and our world would look like if this was our response to God. ‘Here am I’.

And not just when the news is good or happy or the request is something that we really want to do. When about when the news is uncertain or just plain hard, comes with a price tag we don’t want to pay. Or the inconvenience doesn’t seem worth it. ‘Here am I.’

Then the angel departed from her. As I am about to depart from you, I hope that you will know and experience the great love God has for you this Christmas.

Not just at Christmas but at every moment of every day of your life – when things are calm and happy but more so when you are stirred up throughout.

I hope that you will know the Lord’s favour upon you.

I hope the name of Jesus falls sweetly on your ears and off your tongue.

The Lord is with you. Nothing will be impossible with God.

Do not be afraid – The Lord is with you.