Sermon - 9th December 2018
Saying yes to God
Scripture - Luke 1:26-38
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
As we approach Christmas, the Bible texts we hear read in church are very familiar: we hear them every year. Today, we are looking at Mary, Jesus’ mother, who says “yes” to God when visited by the Angel Gabriel. Our overfamiliarity with the story can cause us to stop hearing the message.
As children, at primary school, we probably took part in a nativity play, dressed in towels, tea-cloths, paper-hats, or as an angel in a white sheet and tinsel for a halo. For many in our world, that is where their contact with Christianity has its beginning and, sadly, its end: faith consigned to being nothing more than a children’s story.
Before we hear today’s reading, let us spend a moment setting the scene in the bigger picture. Jesus’ birth is not an isolated incident. The Old Testament tells the greater story where God’s hand of blessing is to be found through many unexpected births.
In Genesis, the aged Abraham and Sarah bore Isaac; and, the childless Isaac and Rachel bore Jacob and Esau. In Judges, Manoah and his unnamed wife eventually bore Samson. In 1 Samuel, Hannah and her unnamed husband desperately prayed for a child, and Samuel was born. And at the start of Luke’s Gospel, we read of Mary’s relative Elizabeth, long past child-bearing age becoming the mother to the future John The Baptist.
All of these wondrous births were a great blessing to these parents, all of whom were past the usual age for child-bearing. Fulfilment of their hearts’ desires was not months or years, but decades in the making.
Mary and Jesus’ story is different.
Our overfamiliarity with this narrative is compounded by its frequent depiction in art and other media. In fine art, we are used to this kind of painting: Gabriel’s halo and wings, Mary’s characteristic blue garment and halo. In film, we are used to seeing Mary as a woman in her 20s.
This painting by the American artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner, is different… how? In his painting, we get a more realistic and more probable depiction.
Mary is wearing simple clothes, typical of who she was – a peasant girl - not the fine blue garments seen in much fine art depictions of the Annunciation.
Jewish boys and girls have their transition to adulthood on their thirteenth birthday and mark it with their bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. That age broadly coincides with the on-set of puberty. This would have been the trigger for Mary’s parents to look out a husband for her. It is Matthew’s Gospel which tells us more about Joseph. Luke gives his name and his ancestry. It is Joseph who is a descendant of King David, whose blood-line goes back through the generations to Abraham.
While the Gospels are silent on the couple’s ages, from historical tradition, we can assume that both were in their early to mid-teens. This might not sit easily our 21st century minds. Why not? Do we dismiss this idea because we think they are simply “too young”, measured against our societal preconceptions about teenage mothers; or do we dismiss it because we do not like accept that young people cannot possibility be part of something world-changing? And maybe it is this prejudice which is one reason why we do not see teenagers in our churches.
Back to Tanner’s painting, and we see Gabriel as a column of light: no halo, no tinsel. The image of light is a powerful one, one on which John expands in the first chapter of his Gospel where he writes about the Jesus, the Word made flesh, and as the Light of the World which the darkness cannot put out.
In our Protestant tradition, Mary’s role in Jesus’ story and our faith is very different from our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. Many in our church come from a Roman Catholic background and will use the prayer known as “Hail Mary”. The opening words of that prayer are an echo of Luke 1: in Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, and in her relative Elizabeth’s greeting, which you can read about in the next part in the Gospel following today’s reading.
The Bible translation we used for our reading says “young woman”. The original Greek word is ???????? (parthenon), meaning virgin. Luke deliberate chose that words, so that we the readers were clear in our minds about her sexually untouched state.
Let us pause there to consider the enormity of what these means: a virgin birth. A miracle.
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we can read about Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah and the birth of John the Baptist. Zechariah is a priest and Gabriel appears to him in the Temple. Despite being a priest – and one would hope he would have been open to God’s miraculous doings – Zechariah doubts and is struck mute until John is named (8 days after his birth).
Mary’s response to Gabriel is to be “deeply troubled”, and that is only after the angel’s greeting! The Gospel is silent on how she felt about the angel’s next words, when he recalls the prophecy in Isaiah about the virgin conceiving. As a good Jewish woman, she will, of course, have been familiar with this. After all, the Jews were a conquered people living under Roman rule. We know from contemporary historians that there were several ‘false Messiahs’. Doubtlessly, the promise of the Messiah and the prophecies surrounding the Messiah’s birth were known to all.
The text also tells us that she was betrothed/engaged to Joseph, and while we, the reader, would expect this marriage to be consummated, Mary is adamant that she is still a virgin. Here, our translation does use the word “virgin”; however, the Greek text uses the euphemism “not known a man”.
Mary emphasises her virginity; she is not stupid: she knows that to become pregnant needs a man. Gabriel’s answer is two-fold: firstly, a practical answer to her question in that it is the Holy Spirit of God whose power will cause the conception.
Secondly, Gabriel offers proof of God’s power by citing the news that her elderly relative, Elizabeth, is pregnant. It is perhaps no surprise that in Luke’s account that the first thing that happens after the angel leaves Mary is that she travels to visit Elizabeth. Mary may have had doubts, or maybe she just sought confirmation. The proof of God’s miraculous hand at work will have been self-evident in Elizabeth, and within Mary as her belly grew.
And thirdly, the angel states the obvious, but maybe it needs repeating: “For there is nothing that God cannot do.” In this, we need to remember that God is not a Divine wishing-well or Father Christmas who grants our every request. As Jesus alludes to in His own teaching, God is our parent, and just like a human parent, there are times when our requests are met with “no”, just as they are sometimes met with a “yes”.
Mary said “yes” to God. Her words are humble: “I am the Lord's servant, may it happen to me as you have said.” However, for God’s plan to be fulfilled, it required one another to yes, and that was Joseph. Joseph’s part in God’s plan was his ancestry. It is he who is the direct descendant of David and Abraham. Matthew’s Gospel tells us about Joseph’s journey, the potential shame at Mary’s pregnancy. And it is his encounters with angel in dreams, that he learns why he should say “yes” to God. Without Joseph to be Jesus’ step-father, the human lineage and prophecy could not have been fulfilled.
In closing, let us consider three last thoughts.
Firstly, we know that Mary and Joseph were simple peasants who got caught up in The Greatest Story Ever Told. They were humble, poor people. As Jesus grew up in that household, he will have experienced for himself the life of the poor and lowly in society. It should, therefore, come as no surprise to us, that when He began His ministry, His teaching carries with it a powerful message of social justice to support the weakest in society.
Secondly, God is not interested in the so-called perfect model family of mother, father with their biological children. Jesus own home on Earth comprised mother, step-father and half-brothers and sisters. When we look back through Jesus’ ancestry, we see other relationships that do not conform to the so-called norm. We see King David, an adulterer, a bisexual man, whose greatest love in life was another man, Jonathan. We see Ruth, a despised Moabite woman, who raised her son together with another woman, Naomi.
Finally, we have the miraculous, but the miraculous could only have taken place with the consent both Mary and Joseph. Without Joseph agreeing to marry Mary, despite the shame and the scorn from others in the community, Jesus would not have been born into the Davidic lineage.
Without Mary agreeing to be the Lord’s servant, she would not have born Jesus. Unlike Zechariah/Elizabeth, Abraham/Sarah and the others in the Bible who were longing for a child, that was not Mary’s prayer. God suddenly burst into her life… and she said “yes”.
So, when God calls, are we there to listen? Are there things in our lives, where God is wanting us to say “yes”? Are we willing to say the same words that Mary said: “I am the Lord's servant, may it happen to me as you have said.”?