Sermon - 21st December 2014
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Scripture - Luke 1:26-38
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Much of the Church in the West has become bogged down in discussions about whether various things in the Bible actually happened or not or if they are examples of poetic or symbolic language designed to convey truth. This is the heart of the conservative/liberal divide and is often played out in the contemporary debates about human sexuality.
Conservatives will want to hold that the various miracles outlined in the Bible actually happened as God is sovereign and can do what He likes whilst Liberals will want to stress the fact that God won’t break His own laws and so when the Biblical authors wrote about miracles they were reflecting their own world view or were writing symbolically.
The various statements of faith we use in our church reflect both of these positions – but not normally at the same time! During the Advent and Christmas season we use the traditional Apostles’ Creed that mentions, like our Gospel reading today, the Virgin Birth of Jesus. At other times of the year we use statements of faith that don’t mention Jesus’ birth at all.
This preoccupation with whether things in the Bible really happened or not is something of a facet of European thought over the last 200 years ago. Christians in other parts of the world tend not to think like this at all – instead they focus on what the various stories in the Bible mean rather than whether they really happened or not.
I am more interested in the truth that is conveyed by the stories, miracles and events in the Bible and how they help us understand God and His purposes than I am in the bare historical facts – that’s the approach I take with the Christmas story; the start of which we heard today in our reading.
In Advent we’ve been reflecting on waiting. If we have children in our families we know they’ve been getting more and more excited in the run up to Christmas and the waiting, for them, must seem endless. Many of us are waiting for better times: for justice, for healing, for improved chances, for a better job, for a lover. We’ve been reflecting on our own experiences of waiting with the experience of the Jewish people waiting for the Messiah to come and with us, as Christians, waiting for the Lord to return.
In today’s Gospel we see another example of waiting – Mary’s wait. She was waiting to be married, now after Gabriel’s visit she had more to wait for and worry about. Would Joseph reject her when he found out she was pregnant? How would her family and neighbours treat her when they found out? What would the child be like and what future would he have? All these things must have played on her mind yet she said “yes” to God and trusted.
We all know that waiting can be agonising – especially if we’re worried about the thing we’re waiting for. We’re used to thinking about virginity as something to be prized – Christian, in particular, Catholic, culture sees virginity as a sign of holiness and purity – this wasn’t the case for Judaism. Virginity was a sign of waste, of not fulfilling God’s command to multiply. It was useful only as a sign that the husband-to-be wasn’t getting a woman who had been used by another. This sounds rather sexist to us but it was important in the ancient world to know that the children that were born to you were, in fact, yours. Mary says “yes” to God who asks something incredibly shocking and offensive as well as miraculous. Mary is asked to place herself in a place of total vulnerability. There is a huge cost to her “yes” as she is asked to place her life, and the life of her unborn baby, on the line. She could have been killed or cast out from her community simply for being pregnant out of wedlock. Until she told Joseph she would have been beside herself with worry and, even then, there was always the risk that Joseph would reject her. I suspect her wait was agonising.
What’s the truth behind all this?
So whatever we think of the historicity of today’s passage – regardless of whether we think Mary was a virgin or not – what is the truth behind the passage that we’re looking at today? What truths are being conveyed? Regardless of whether we believe in the Virgin birth or not it seems that the people around Jesus had profound doubts about his parentage. In the Gospels Jesus is referred to as Mary’s son – rather than Joseph’s. I suspect there was years of gossip about him in Nazareth. The truth this points to highlights themes in the Gospels.
Firstly, God is at work on the margins. We see this in the later story, from St Matthew, of the visit of the Magi. They, believing a new King has been born, go to the royal palace but Jesus isn’t there. Instead he’s born in Bethlehem. He escapes into exile in Egypt and grows up in Nazareth in the North – hardly the centre of power. Nazareth isn’t at the centre of things; Jesus’ early ministry is in Galilee - again on the edge. His time in Jerusalem is charged with danger as when he’s near the centre of power, those in power gets nervous. In today’s reading the birth of the King is announced in dusty out of the way Nazareth. The one who will challenge the power, authority, message and rulers of this world is conceived in obscurity. His birth - magical to us – is fraught with danger and gossip. The one who will change the world is on the margins of all that is respectable – no wonder that in later life he befriends sinners and those on the edge.
The second truth in all of his is that God is vulnerable just as Mary is vulnerable. The God of creation becomes a tiny child. The one from whom all things were made grows in the dark security of Mary’s womb. God becomes vulnerable through Jesus and risks everything. I mentioned last week that when Jesus preached his first sermon, in Nazareth, the crowd turned on him and nearly killed him. Time and time again Jesus comes into conflict with those in power and this culminates with his unfair trial and execution. No one speaks for Jesus at Nazareth, no one speaks for him when he stands before Pilate, no one speaks for him at his trial, no one speaks for him at his execution. Jesus is given no room in the world, no place of safety. After his birth he flees with his family and finds sanctuary in Egypt. As Jesus said later in St Luke’s Gospel: “Even foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to call home”. Jesus’ story is that of a God who comes to find us but finds no room and no welcome – except on the edge of society with those who are rejected and despised. In that vulnerability God is at work and God is found. Mary’s “yes” gave God room but that room was vulnerable.
This vulnerability of God in Jesus is seen in the politics of the age. The Jews longed for a Messiah who they conceived of as being a political leader that would make Israel great again like it had been under King David. David’s dynasty lasted, in one way or another, for around 400 years but by the time of Jesus had disappeared. The king, Herod, who ruled part of Israel, wasn’t really Jewish; he was a puppet of the Romans. So they longed for a leader who would lead Israel in to independence and freedom. Gabriel told Mary that her son would be greater even than David – the great king. This is a political claim – as we saw last week Mary recognised this immediately. It’s political because if a king is coming who is greater than David then what does this mean for those in power.
At the time the powers in Jerusalem – the Roman Governor, Pilate, the High Priests and Temple Authorities – would sit unsteadily on their thrones. Throughout his Gospel Luke takes us, with Jesus, on a journey of confrontation with those powers. Jesus’ message and his ministry put him into conflict with those who have power. Jesus shows that the myths of Roman power and the eternal endurance of the Temple are just that – myths. Jesus’ kingdom always involves conflict with power because the Gospel isn’t about a private spiritual experience but about a transformed world. Those who are happy with the way things are will always be threatened by those who wish to change it. So we learn the truth that following Jesus is political and threatening to those with power.
So as we’ve considered today’s reading we can see various things. Firstly, saying “yes” to God means we become vulnerable, it means understanding that we’re not in control anymore of the future. That can be very risky – especially if, like me, you want to have a certain amount of control over your life.
Second, God is willing to become vulnerable. Simply by becoming human God shares our weakness, frailty and vulnerability. This is not what people expect of God and is a model for us to be willing to risk becoming vulnerable ourselves – to each other and to those we don’t know so well.
Finally, it shows that the Kingdom - Jesus’ life, message, and ministry - is political. What is good news to the poor isn’t seen as that by those with power. When we stand up for the Kingdom we too will be accused of being political, of being naïve, of being simpletons.
Jesus proclaimed the transformation of our world into God’s kingdom – this transformation came about because of God’s willingness to be vulnerable and because of Mary’s willingness to trust her Lord. This transformation started on the edge – in an obscure hamlet called Nazareth in the far distant region of Galilee. It was heard first by a soon-to-be unmarried mum, later by shepherds in the fields and then by pagan astrologers. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas let’s remember the risk Mary took, God’s vulnerability and the way in which the Gospel is political as God always works on the margins in unexpected ways with unexpected people.