Sunday, November 27, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "An Angel Comes to Mary"

Luke 1:26-38

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” 34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” 35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37 Nothing is impossible for God.” 38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Common English Bible)

“The First Christmas: Recreating a Holiday’s Original Meaning,” Week One

I have had the blessing to be at St. John Hospital for a number of births during my time here at FCC Longview over the past five years. I’m not in the room when the birth takes place, but I’m at the hospital that day or the day after, and it really is one of the very best parts of this job. Usually I am summoned to the hospital for much worse news, and being able to be there for the creation of life rather than the injuring or sickening of it is a great joy.

And it is a joy that it is indeed at, well, the hospital. Not all of us, even in 21st century America, are so lucky as to be able to give birth in so healthy and dignified of circumstances. Sarah Bessey, a Christian author and blogger, recounted the birth of her son in her book Jesus Feminist and, well, it went quite a bit different than what you or I might be used to:

But it’s the birth of our son, Joseph Arthur, that stays with me these winter months. His was an unintended, unattended birth in our building’s underground parking garage while we were on our way to the hospital.

No, I’m not kidding.

After beginning labor at home, we progressed far faster than we could have anticipated after our eldest daughter’s thirteen-hour labor. This was unprecedented for us, so Brian thought we had time to make it to the hospital just a few minutes away. I had four contractions on our way down the hall and in the elevator of our apartment building. My poor man half-carried, half-dragged me into the parking garage, now desperate for help. He leaned me up against a support pole and ran to the truck to pull it over to me.

We were on our own—no midwife, no doctor, not even in our own home with a clean floor. Instead, we were in a dirty garage filled with cars and the smell of gas and tires...Beside our old Chevy Trailblazer, standing up, with Brian’s arms under mine as a support, our son was born into my own hands…people applauded while they spoke to the 911 dispatcher.

I flat-out guarantee you that nobody has “make sure I crank the kid out in our parking garage” in their birth plan. But it happens. Life happens. And life comes into this world in the most unusual of ways—not just for us, but most famously for Mary, the mother of Jesus, who not only gave birth as a virgin but actually had an angel of God tell her so in no uncertain terms—something else that tends not to get penciled into our carefully laid-out birth plans.

This is a sermon series for the church season of Advent, which is known pretty much in every other context as “the Christmas season” or “the holidays.” Except it isn’t the Christmas season: the twelve-days-long Christmas season (yes, just like the Twelve Days of Christmas carol) begins on Christmas day and extends to January 6, the traditional date of the Epiphany, when the Magi arrived at where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had been bedded down.

Advent is meant to be a season of preparation, and not just preparing for the Christmas dinner parties and the tinsel and ornaments, but a preparation for the least material of all things: of divine life becoming human life. To help us prepare for the birth of the Christ child this year, we will be revisiting the work of John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg who, if you remember, were the authors of The Last Week, a book I used as the template for my Lenten sermon series a couple of years ago. The First Christmas represents their sequel to The Last Week, and much as The Last Week sought to go verse-by-verse through the Passion narrative and place it into its historical and anthropological context, so too does The First Christmas deliver a similarly thoughtful treatment of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. We begin our series, then, with this from Borg and Crossan’s commentary on the annunciation story of the archangel Gabriel appearing to Mary:

Matthew draws parallels between Jesus and Moses in order to exalt Jesus over Moses in Matthew 1-2. Similar parallels are drawn to exalt Jesus over John the Baptizer in Luke 1-2. But Jesus is not simply the new John for Luke as Jesus is the new Moses for Matthew. The point is that—for Luke—John is the symbol, synthesis, conclusion, and consummation of the Old Testament. John was conceived—to conclude the Old Testament—in an aged and barren mother, but Jesus was born—to start the New Testament—of a virginal mother…look at this specific parallelism between the conception annunciations of Jesus and John:

“But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John’” (1:13).

“The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will…bear a son, and you will name him Jesus’” (1:31).

And, beyond that parallelism, of course, Luke looks back before Elizabeth and John to Sarah and Isaac: “Your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac” (Gen. 17:19)

If ever you wondered just why the birth narratives are so different between Matthew and Luke, what Borg and Crossan are hinting at here is a very simple, very obvious, but easily overlooked truth: Matthew and Luke were very different people, very different believers, and very different evangelists. Matthew was an Israelite tax collector, highly educated and steeped in the Hebrew Bible; Luke was similarly highly educated but as a Gentile physician with far less of a knowledge of ancient Judaism.

So for Matthew, the key parallel is between Jesus and Moses. But for Luke, who lacks the same cultural and spiritual attachment to Moses that Matthew has, the parallel is to Jesus’s cousin John and, more historically, to Abraham, the forefather of Judaism itself.

For neither Gospel writer does Jesus’s birth fit neatly into a box that can be easily labeled and categorized. And for Luke, who alone conveys this story of the annunciation and who, far more than Matthew, lavishes attention upon Mary’s role as the focal point in the birth narrative, by harkening all the way back to Abraham in his wording, he is subtly telling us that Jesus’s birth is unlike anything else seen between that moment and this one when Gabriel appears to Mary. The closest Luke can get to it, aside from Jesus’s cousin John, is to reach 1,800 years into the past to Abraham and Sarah and their son Isaac.

But Luke also makes abundantly clear, in a way that Matthew does not, just how messy a birth story this really was: Joseph and Mary are traveling, not because they want to but because they have to in order to register for the census, and they have to cut the journey short because she goes into labor and the door to the inn is closed in their faces.

So Mary gives birth in a stable, surrounded by animals and all their (lack of) hygiene. Which is probably the ancient equivalent of giving birth in a parking garage next to your Chevy Trailblazer.

Put in that context, this story of the annunciation is the cleanest, least muddled or confusing part of the entire birth narrative. The part when an angel of God appears and tells a virgin that she is about to give birth to the Savior of humanity is the *least confusing* part of this entire narrative, because that way, we only have to come up with an explanation of God’s goodness rather than an explanation for why a pregnant teenager in labor and her husband were deep-sixed from one of the very few places capable of sheltering them on that given night.

Which action do you think is easier to justify—God showing to a young girl an angel, or a person showing that same young girl the door?

This is a powerful story, then, one that we must pay attention to, for already it shows the depth of character and bravery of Mary. She knows what she is signing up for. And in that way, too, she harkens back to that tradition of strong, courageous mothers whom God calls to be more than mothers but to be extraordinary vessels for God’s message—Mary’s relative Elizabeth, King David’s mother Hannah, and all the way back to the matriarchs: Leah, Rachel, Rebekah, and, of course, Sarah.

Lend an ear to their millennia of lifebearing, life-giving, and life experience just as you would to Gabriel; indeed, just as Mary does for Gabriel. For theirs is an important message to hear in the church, but one that Sarah Bessey points out in her book that we often do not hear, that we instead often hear metaphors of sports and war rather than of child-bearing and child-rearing, even though these are surely far more a part of God’s works than whether the Seahawks win this weekend.

After all, it was Jesus who would go on to compare Himself to a mother hen wishing to gather her chicks underneath her wings. That is surely more a part of God than many of the metaphors we use, and more than many of the plans we claim for God to have.

For God indeed has other plans. In this story, those plans are now revealed. An angel has come to Mary. And nothing will ever be the same again.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 27, 2016

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