"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)

18 December 2011

One of the versions of this week's sermon that didn't get preached

We like to take the Bible in small chunks, maybe just a verse, maybe a little more, a story, a chapter, an idea. If we’re really ambitious we may tackle a whole book of the Bible, but we take it in isolation, with no idea of how one book lends to a coherent whole. A particularly cranky Old Testament professor I once endured referred to it as “cross-stitch it on a pillow syndrome.”
But the Bible, all sixty six books written over centuries and by many human hands was inspired of one Holy Spirit, and makes one coherent whole, one narrative, one history. And Luke was quite aware of that when he told the story of a young woman and an angel and a moment that would shatter the reality we think we know.
Luke surely remembered another young woman who was visited by an angel. Like this Mary, she was an innocent, and the angel took a harmless and common enough form, enticing her to take and eat. And as Father Paul is known to say, her day did not end well. When Eve ate the apple and gave it to her husband and he ate, the very fabric of the universe was changed. Human kind had been given the power to introduce sin into perfection, and that’s exactly what they did. But in God’s love, right there in the Garden the woman was also promised the power to introduce perfection into the world of sin. That fallen angel, that serpent of old, was forewarned… the offspring of the woman would be the one to crush his head.
Luke would have known the stories of other women, young and old, women like Hannah and Sarah who had no children. Barren women are a theme in Scripture; fruitlessness attributed to the eating of that first fruit. A barren woman was unworthy, to be scorned, presumed overlooked by God. And if she should be left a widow, she had nothing. It happened that an angel visited Sarah, a promise was made, with God all things were possible. Hannah called out to God, a prayer was heard, and not one but seven children were born to her.
And it happened that in the city of Jerusalem, somewhere about 5 or 6 BC that angel visited Zechariah and promised him that his barren wife would have a child. And half a year later, another woman, not barren by physiology but having no business bearing children in her unmarried state, would learn that she, too, was to bear a son.
The Bible, you see, is like a symphony, each movement repeating its theme, each theme contributing to the whole, slowly building until that point where, with the crash of symbols (pun not intended) and the frantic hum of winds, the symphony reaches its great moment, where it all comes together, where the music makes sense.
The incarnation, in the life of the church, is that moment.
Isaiah had promised, seven hundred years before, that a young, unmarried woman would conceive and bear a child. Of course it was assumed at she’d conceive in the normal way, get married and birth babies. But how much greater when we find that a woman, engaged but quite biologically a virgin (you can doubt the Hebrew word in Isaiah means virgin, but there’s no questioning Luke’s Greek… the good doctor that St. Luke was, is pretty certain of the medical meaning of what he’s putting forth here) conceives a child by the mere power of the Holy Spirit.
And so an angel once again visited a young woman, and Mary was rightly afraid. This was no cute cuddly little cherub from some Renaissance painting, this was one “who stands in the presence of God.” This was God’s own messenger, of the ilk that carried flaming swords before the entrance to Eden and would charge forth to cast Satan out of heaven at the end of time. And here one was, right there in the room.
And there are a million reasons for Mary to run. A million reasons to say no. A million reasons. It’s a horrible time to bring a child into the world, occupied Israel, Romans everywhere. She’s betrothed to a man who knows for a fact the baby isn’t going to be his. The punishment for adultery is death by stoning, Joseph could have her publicly shamed, or even executed.
But for some reason, Mary only asks “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel tells her, your child will be the very son of God. Your child shall be holy, the Holy One himself. And just so you know my words are true, your cousin Elizabeth, who could not conceive a child, is now outgrowing her clothes with pregnancy.
Luke knows the story, how a woman known as the mother of all living saw fruit that looked pleasing and denied the will of God in favor of her own will. Now he tells the story of a woman who saw fruit that looked quite difficult indeed and answered “let be to me according to your will.” God’s will, not hers.
And the world as we fallen people know it began to unravel that day.
There is a word in Hebrew, which we usually translate “visited.” But as my favorite Hebrew professor used to say, “its not like visited for tea.” The best translation of the word is to break into the timeline and change the destiny of the one being visited. In this way, the angel visited Mary, and God visited humanity, and the destiny which began at the fall began to be changed.
And it was a terrible time to have a baby, just like every time in which every baby since the Fall had been born. The Jewish king would try to kill this baby, the Roman Emperor would send the young family on a desperate pilgrimage, the world would whisper about his paternity, even his earthly father would for a while consider ridding himself of the whole mess. He would be born in an occupied country, far from home, in a world hostile to him.
And yet, “he will be great,” says the Angel. “And he will be called the son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
And, as if that were not enough, because every baby ever born is born into the same fallen world as he has emptied himself of the splendor of heaven to visit, his name shall be called Jesus.
Which means “God saves.”

1 comment:

  1. "Luke knows the story, how a woman known as the mother of all living saw fruit that looked pleasing and denied the will of God in favor of her own will. Now he tells the story of a woman who saw fruit that looked quite difficult indeed and answered “let be to me according to your will.” God’s will, not hers."

    Yes. So glad you "preached this" here even if the actual sermon ended up different! :) (And I'm sure it was blessed and a blessing too...)

    Do you know this poem by Madeleine L'Engle? It sang in my head as I got toward the end of your reflections...

    This is no time for a child to be born,
    With the earth betrayed by war & hate
    And a comet slashing the sky to warn
    That time runs out & the sun burns late.

    That was no time for a child to be born,
    In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
    Honour & truth were trampled by scorn-
    Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

    When is the time for love to be born?
    The inn is full on the planet earth,
    And by a comet the sky is torn-
    Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

    Thanks, friend.