4th Sunday of Advent

December 21, 2014


Ah … experiences

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and 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 Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38 ESV)

The announcement of the imminent arrival of God onto the world stage – the annunciation – is a favoured moment in art and among those for whom Mary has a special significance. It is a dramatic scene – angel and teenager or young woman – and not without some tension. The topic of conversation is not exactly ‘everyday’ – unless we were listening in on a married couple discussing when they might have children which of course implies sex but that’s ok because they’re married. That’s not the case in this conversation – and neither is Mary talking to her doctor. No, the tension exists because this is not the topic of conversation one expects between strangers – one masculine possibly and the other definitely feminine. We don’t have the concern however as listener or reader because Luke tells us – before the conversation begins – that the angel Gabriel was sent from God. So if we believe God then this is dramatic but in a good way because God is doing something – but is it judgment or rescue? – and we can expect people not to understand or ‘get it’ straight away. However from Mary’s perspective there is a concern and confusion – I mean what sort of opening line is ‘Greetings, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!’? Like so much of speech, words can have many interpretations and knowing the speaker and the context greatly aids comprehension and understanding. In fact there is an etiquette that strangers introduce themselves first. No wonder the next line Gabriel says is ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary …’.

We know the message from Gabriel – that Mary’s son would be called Jesus – he will be great and be called the ‘Son of the Most High’ – that he will be another and better King David – that he will reign forever and his kingdom will never end (which Mary may have interpreted as her son’s descendants will stay on the throne). Her son will be a special king.

Mary goes from great confusion, great trouble and turmoil and perplexity to practicalities, pragmatics. How? It’s certainly a fair question. We might imagine she’s hoping the answer is Joseph; after all, he’s from the line of David and she’s definitely not hoping that this is a rerun of Genesis 6 when the angels fooled around with women. But she gets an answer, I think, she doesn’t expect – and something in these words – grabs hold of her and opens for her a future – just not the one she planned. The child born is not ‘just a king’ but he is holy – the Son of God and it is by God’s power and the work of the Holy Spirit overshadowing her that this little one arrives in her and therefore in the world. God can do what he wishes and look at what has happened to Elizabeth for whom pregnancy wasn’t part of her world and now look, she’s six months pregnant.

And the next thing we hear from Mary is her submission – she is God’s servant – ‘let it be to me according to your word’. Mary’s story leads us from great perplexity and confusion to seeking to
understand what God wants of her (how will this affect me?) and then we have – note no guarantees given – no card with a special number to God direct – no special prayer or word to cut through to the top of the queue – no change in material possessions – no angels as personal servants – with just words in her ears, Mary acknowledges that she is God’s servant and God’s name and plan be hallowed, God’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done on earth and at this moment for her.

Why? Why did she do that?

We might reply that if we had seen an angel, talked with him, and this wasn’t a momentary quick glimpse but a conversation length meeting where we can look and study face and clothes and make links with the sound of his voice – as this experience becomes embedded in our consciousness – well, then duh! – of course, we’ll do what has been asked. We rate experience highly in life.

Of course when we pause to think about such a basis for living then we can see problems with it. Not all our experiences – not all the patterns of behaviour that can accompany our experiences – are good for us or for the people around us. We teach our children that just because they want or feel something, that doesn’t automatically have to translate into behaviour that matches or maintains the experience. Betrayal is so devastating because it flies in the face of our experience – let alone all the words that have been said that are now seen as sham. Much of our modern living today seems to revolve around our experiences – which in turn determine what we regard as right and wrong. So an angel coming to talk with us would be something we’d all notice. In fact many religions do teach as part of their fabric certain experiences – meditation, peace, joy, ecstatic moments – and churches can market themselves as places where you will have this or that experience.

The thing is that experiences will pass away. We know this already now if we’ve listened to a song often enough – once liked a lot but now … you can turn it off. It can be the same with relationships where the tyranny of the new experience competes against the experience of longevity – and us humans can make both experiences unpleasant! The only thing that will never pass away is the Word of God – and I don’t actually mean printing on a page – but firstly the Word made flesh. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1). He will never pass away. And the words from and of this Word have power – power to create light and ‘stuff’ and also relationships – and the faith that holds those relationships together.

What would you do if an angel came to visit you tonight? I hope you would have a good talk – enjoy the experience – tell us all about it (and you’d have to trust us that we’d believe you, I suppose) but you wouldn’t blindly follow this experience and simply do what the angel said. Rather you would listen to hear whether what you were being told squared with what you’ve already been told by the Word of God. Paul bluntly told the Galatians: ‘But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed’ (Galatians 1:8 ESV).

Now my guess is that the angel experience will be powerful, maybe almost overwhelming and drown out any reflection on other words but as Elijah discovered when on the mountain experiencing storms, earthquakes and fire that God wasn’t in the storms, earthquakes and fire but rather in the still small voice – the ‘daughter of a voice’ in Hebrew – a little voice – one you have to actively listen to. God is heard above all else.

We don’t know what part of Gabriel’s message convinced Mary that he was telling the truth and God had chosen her for her special task in the rescue operation of humanity. As you can see I’m not at all convinced that Gabriel’s appearance while no doubt dramatic was what moved Mary from perplexity and unease to servant obedience. If I was to give a hunch it would be the account of what God was doing in Elizabeth’s life and her pregnancy that took hold of Mary.

I’m in white in front of you but I’m no angel. We all might want dramatic experiences – especially spiritual ones – but we don’t actually need them for we already have the Word of God – we have Jesus – we have teachings and accounts and letters which the Holy Spirit directs us constantly to and in them we encounter God. This side of eternity, faith – and there are experiences that go with faith – and there can be times when faith is almost experience-less or even anti-experience – but faith best describes our relationship with God. We probably think that means that we’re trusting God in faith when strictly it means that the Word of God holds us. We see drops of water in baptism when really it envelopes us and drowns our sinful self while also becoming the waters by which our new birth occurs. We see a tiny morsel of bread – a wafer – and we have a tiny sip of wine but in truth Jesus holds us close to his chest in an embrace of love and forgiveness and whispers that no matter what happens this week in your world, he will not forsake you or abandon you.

No matter the experiences we have this week and with the activities in the next few days I’m thinking we’re all going to have a bit of a roller coaster what holds firm – what is dependable, reliable, and won’t break – is God’s Word. Jesus is the fulfilment of Gabriel’s message to Mary. Mary’s son is Mary’s Lord and his kingdom will have no end.



Bible References

  • Luke 1:28 - 36