Scripture Reading: Luke 1:26-55
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
If you have taken a walk past Crown Church recently, you will see that they have a wonderful bit of public witness happening in their wee church garden just now: a crib scene. Mary and Joseph are standing at a stable, awaiting the arrival of the baby Jesus. Meanwhile, out on the lawn, the wise men are approaching (I think they get nearer every day). No doubt there are shepherds and angels still to come. You should go and see it if you haven’t yet.
Sometimes symbols speak louder than words. The crib in the church garden is a symbol. The folks at Crown are reminding those who pass what the Christian Christmas- and Advent- is all about. We await the coming of a child: a special child, the child who is the ground of our hope.
But when I walked past Crown Church this week, I noticed that there was more, unplanned symbolism. Right in front of the garden is a lamppost. It is one of those with struts on either side, to hold hanging flower baskets in the summer time. There were no baskets hanging on the lamppost but something else: garish, colourful signs. The lamppost was festooned with general election placards.
The garish party signs looked a bit incongruous in front of the crib. And yet, perhaps they were not entirely out of place. It reminded me that Christ was born, not into a Christmas card, but into a world where there are other claims to our allegiance.
For the placards reminded me of how the Gospel writers place tell us who the rulers were at the time of their stories. Luke starts his account of birth of Jesus with:
At that time the Emperor Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Roman Empire. When this first census took place, Quirinius was the governor of Syria.
Matthew’s Gospel begins with a list of the ancestors of Jesus, in the line of his father, Joseph- a list which includes King David. His nativity story begins:
Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the time when Herod was king.
And then those strange men from the east who studied the stars come to Herod’s palace looking for
the baby born to be the king of the Jews.
Those wise men may well have been advisors to a king. But Herod’s jealousy of another king in his domains leads to the massacre of innocent children in Bethlehem, and the Christ child begins his life, not at his family home in Nazareth, but as a refugee in a foreign country.
And yet, the baby in the manger is still the One born to be king. He is a king in a way that none of the names of parties on those election placards will ever rule.
But none of that would have been possible without one young woman being willing to say ‘yes’. Marriage, betrothal, the expectations of what it meant to become a mother, were all very different back in the time of Mary, and so some of the details are a bit hard for us to follow. But the story, as told by Luke the Gospel writer, is clear enough.
God has decided to act, decisively, in the history of the world. Six months earlier, Elizabeth has unexpectedly become pregnant with the boy who will turn out to be the last of the prophets of the Messiah- the one who will prepare the way. Now the angel Gabriel appears to Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, who is promised in marriage to Joseph (he who had King David among his ancestors).
As is usually the case in the Gospels, the story is told very briefly:
The angel came to her and said, “Peace be with you! The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you!” Mary was deeply troubled by the angel’s message, and she wondered what his words meant.
How would you feel if an angel suddenly appeared to you? What would your reaction be if an angel suddenly said to you, ‘Peace be with you’, God is with you and blessed you? You might be surprised to be meeting an angel, but you may well be pleased to be told that God has blessed you. But Mary’s reaction, according to Luke, was that she was ‘troubled’.
Why be troubled when someone wishes you peace, tells you the Lord is with you, says that you’re greatly blessed? Aren’t those good things to be told? But it isn’t just anyone who says these things to Mary. It is an angel of God who is speaking to Mary. And for Mary, meeting an angel is a big deal.
For Gabriel is no greeting card angel. In the Hebrew scriptures, Gabriel was said to have helped the prophet Daniel to interpret terrifying visions of the fall of empires and the end of the world. Mary is confronted with a messenger from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, who parted the Red Sea and led the Israelites out of Egypt, who led the people across the desert in a pillar of fire. Gabriel is the messenger of none other than God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. If God sends the angel Gabriel to you, it is serious, it is important, and it is probably going to change your life.
Too often, we domesticate God. We think of God, when we do think of God, as someone we can send up a wee prayer too, if we are unhappy, if we lose our car keys. We come to church to worship God, but too often our time in church is spent just enjoying the music, chatting with our friends- it’s just part of our week that we take for granted.
But as student, I once went into a pulpit where I was doing holiday cover for the minister, and found there was a text inside which only the preacher could see. It was the words of Jacob, after he had dreamt of God at Bethel, in the words of the Authorised Version:
How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
‘Dreadful’ in that old English is nowadays usually translated as ‘terrifying’. To meet an angel of God is a terrifying thought.
Mary is meeting a messenger from the God who, as she knew from her Bible, sent fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, and who sent an angel of death to kill the first born of Egypt. This is the God who called Abraham to leave his own country when he was 75 years old, who sent Moses to say to Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go’, who appeared to Isaiah, on his throne, his robe filling the temple, surrounded by winged creatures calling ‘Holy, holy, holy’. Mary is getting a message from her powerful, awesome God. No wonder she is ‘troubled’. Because quite often, when God comes into the picture, it means trouble!
The angel tells Mary not be afraid, that God has been gracious to her. But he then goes on to tell Mary what it is she has been chosen to do: to have a child, a special child. She will become pregnant, and the child will become a king. If Mary had ever sought a quiet life, she now knew that it would never be so.
Mary, as yet unmarried, a virgin, asks ‘How can this be?’ And the angel points her to the miracle of her relative, Elizabeth, now six months pregnant, even though she is so old. It is confirmation, here in the real world, for Mary, that God is definitely up to something. As the angel Gabriel says, ‘There is nothing that God cannot do’.
And here the Gospel text goes straight on with the story. The angel said:
“For there is nothing that God cannot do.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary; “may it happen to me as you have said.” And the angel left her.
Straight from the last words of the Gabriel, to the words of Mary: verse 37: ‘“there is nothing that God cannot do”’; verse 38: ‘“I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary’. But surely, between those two verses, between the end of the angel’s message and Mary’s reply, surely there must have been a silence. A pregnant pause, if you like.
For Mary has been through so many emotions in the last few minutes: troubled by meeting an angel, joyful to hear she has been blessed, questioning how this could all be happening, reassured by the odd story circumstance of what has happened to Elizabeth. How could she not have been silent, hesitant, pausing, before she gives her reply?
For on this reply hangs- everything. For God, and all humanity, and all the universe, is waiting… waiting for Mary to say ‘yes’ to God. God may have made deep and mysterious plans, before time began, to reconcile the world to himself. And, as the angel says, there is nothing that God cannot do. But for a moment, all God’s plans hinge on this silence. God’s messenger has said his piece, has called Mary to take part in the work of the salvation for the world. And for a moment, the fate of eternity is the hands of this very young Jewish peasant girl, a woman of apparently no importance. Mary holds in her hands, in her silence, the choice of heaven or hell for all creation. Because God lets Mary chose.
In a way which is more or less impossible to understand, our troubling, troublesome, terrifyingly almighty God allows all of us to choose. To make choices which affect, not just us, but all of creation. We humans are beings created with the gift of choice.
And so, I often think of Mary as the first Christian. She is the first person who is faced with the choice which God presents to us all: ‘are you going to choose Jesus?’ To choose Jesus is to put ourselves in the hands of the living, unpredictable and sometimes terrifying God of Mary’s ancestors. And it is a choice. We can choose domesticated religion, a God who nice to have around for Christmas. Or we can choose to follow the One who, although he is truly the way, the truth and the life, may make such demands on us we might react like that rich young man who, when he met Jesus, thought he demanded too much, and went sadly away, instead of following him.
We are given the choice follow Jesus. Mary was asked to bear him, to carry him in his womb, to give birth to him, to mother him and love him and bring him up to be man God intended him to be. But it is Mary’s choice whether she says yes or no. So of course she is troubled.
And yet, despite it all, Mary says yes:
“I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary; “may it happen to me as you have said.” And the angel left her.
Mary- the first person to say yes to Jesus. The first Christian. She rushes off to visit Elizabeth, who assures Mary that she is the blessed of all women, for she carries a blessed child. And then, Luke gives Mary a song of ecstatic joy to sing, a song of praise to the troubling, terrifying God who remembers his lowly servants, who stretches out his mighty arm and scatters the proud, who lifts up the poor and the lowly even as he brings down might kings, who keeps his promises to Mary’s ancestors.
For, as Luke’s Gospel tells us today, the child who was laid in the manger is
“the Son of the Most High God… a king, [whose] kingdom will never end!”
unlike governments and kingdoms that come and go with wars, revolutions and elections. He is the king of kings, who it is a joy and privilege to serve, the only king in whom we can put ultimate trust. Only this king can defeat death, despair and evil. Like Mary, we may be troubled by the call to be God’s servant. And, like Mary, we are free to say yes or no to following Jesus. But why we would we say no to the mighty God who remembers his lowliest servants?
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo
 Daniel 8.15-26 and 9.21-27
 Genesis 28.17, AV