A sermon on Luke 1: 26-55, 2 Samuel 7: 1-16 & Romans 16:25-27 by the Revd Marita Munro
Advent 4 – the concluding Sunday of the Advent season – a season of waiting, expectation, looking forward to the coming of Christ.
All the lectionary readings speak about prophets –
Nathan, Mary, Elizabeth and the prophetic tradition referred to in the concluding doxology/benediction of Romans.
Luke’s story is the story of Mary. It assumes knowledge of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible)- where the birth of significant figures needed special announcement (Samuel – Hannah’s song). The aspect of promise is central. Jesus comes out of a great Hebrew tradition but he also represents something new. God is bringing about a startling, new creation.
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord”.
The angel appeared to a woman in a town in Galilee called Nazareth.
The town of Nazareth. What is it like today?
The town of Nazareth has over 60,000 people – the largest Palestinian city in Israel. Over 70% of the population of Nazareth are Muslims. About 20% are Christians with the majority being Orthodox (Greek Orthodox). The Protestants are very much in the minority.
In Nazareth you can visit the Church of the Annunciation (Franciscan) with copper detail and relief work on the doors emphasising international peace.
Inside are banners, tapestries from all over the world depicting Mary and Christ. The church is intended to be a place of reconciliation for all the Christian traditions. In Nazareth there are tensions between Arab Muslims and Christians, some of whom have been forced to leave Nazareth and live elsewhere.
In the time of Jesus, Nazareth’s population might have been a couple of hundred people. The Nazareth of today may seem very different from the one 2000 years ago yet there are similarities – Still political tensions. Still the divisions between races and beliefs. Still a hard road for women whose identity continues to depend on having a husband and children, especially sons.
The angel Gabriel appeared to a woman in a town called Nazareth with a message of grace.
Luke tells us that the angel had also appeared to Zechariah, father of John the Baptist with extraordinary news.
The announcement to Mary was puzzling and perplexing: “Rejoice, highly favoured one! The Lord is with you.”
Reiterated in word plays in the Greek text is grace. “Hail Graced One!” “You have found grace with God.”
What would this woman have had to rejoice about really?
A young slip of a girl.
Rural life. What lay ahead for most girls her age?
Marriage at 12 or 13. Lots of children. Hard work in Galilee – not the favoured place of the Roman Empire. Hotbed of sedition.
In contrast to Zechariah the father of John the Baptist, Mary holds no official position among the people. She is not described as righteous in terms of observing the Torah. Her experience of God’s messenger does not take place in a cultic/religious setting.
She is among the most powerless people in her society. She is young in a world which values age.
She is a female in a world ruled by men.
She is poor in a stratified economy.
She has neither husband nor child to validate her existence.
We don’t know who her father or brother is. That she should have found favour with God and be highly gifted shows Luke’s understanding of the nature of God.
The promise to Mary is that she shall bear a son – whose name means
“Emmanuel” = God is with you. But what kind of a son? The child is to be the Messiah, the long-awaited descendant of David who will restore the glories of David’s Kingdom and usher in a period of freedom, prosperity and peace for Israel. These were normal, conventional expectations of the Messiah.
But a Messiah born among the marginalized. Surely not!
Mary reacts strongly to the announcement. There is total disbelief and questioning of the message: To bear a king? A threat to the existing powers when she is young and as yet unmarried, although betrothed (a stronger agreement than our understanding of engagement today)-
Betrothal meant that Mary was incorporated legally into the line of Joseph, the descendant of King David. The legal act of betrothal was more important than the first act of intercourse. Virgins who lost their betrothed before marriage were regarded as widows.
The significance of Jesus is announced even before his birth.
He has a lot to live up to. Even before he has uttered a syllable the church has learnt that he is someone who will make a real difference. His career is laid out in extravagant terms. Here will be one greater even than John the Baptist – identified quite clearly with God.
The virgin birth served originally to emphasise the uniqueness of Christ. For Luke what is important is the grace and favour of the Word of God that is able to bring forth life out of nothing.
Possibly both Matthew and Luke received traditions of the illegitimacy of Jesus and transmitted it very differently. Both stress that the child is Messiah and holy, in spite or because of his origins.
[An audience familiar with stories of miraculous conceptions of heroes and immortals would think either of divine and human paternity or of the divine mating with the virgin (sacred marriage). Greek readers were familiar with such stories. An audience familiar with stories from the Jewish traditions would not be prepared to think of virginal conception. In those traditions, divine paternity did not replace human paternity]
The virgin birth served originally to emphasise the uniqueness of Christ
Mary is to name the child. She is the receiver of the promise. She is not bearing a child for her husband. Mary is to function as a prophet. “The Holy Spirit will come over you”.
In the same way Luke spoke about the Spirit descending upon the group of disciples gathered in the upper room in Acts 1:8 and also of the Transfiguration (Lk 9:34) when “ a cloud came and overshadowed them and they were terrified”. Refs to the encounter of the divine with the human.
Mary is filled with the Holy Spirit – a creative, life-giving Spirit that is introducing a new act on the part of God – like the act of creation depicted in Gen 1. God is doing something new! This is an act of grace. It’s not a particular reward for a righteous life. Mary is praised for her belief. She has no need of a sign or proofs, unlike Zechariah who asked for a sign and became mute.
Mary is urged to trust. Is she however, just a passive character? Is she just a submissive female? Is this an endorsement of a patriarchal model of female inferiority, dependence and helplessness? “I am the handmaid of the Lord”.
Notion of slavery is not a positive one. This remains something of a difficulty for modern readers of the Gospel story. But others were also referred to as slaves of God. Moses, Abraham, David, Isaac, the prophets, Jacob and Hannah. Even Jesus himself claimed to be among them as “one who serves”. The female slaves in Acts at the end times would prophecy.
The prophetic spirit comes through Mary’s Song of Praise, the Magnificat.
A marvellous song of liberation. A challenge issued to the existing structures of power and oppression. She declares God to be the one who bypasses those at the centre of power in favour of the lowly and marginalized. All the verbs are in the past tense – this is not just ‘pie in the sky when you die”. It is something to be claimed here and now. The Magnificat concludes with an invitation to Mary’s Community and the church to join her in making this experience of liberation and salvation their own.
What is Luke’s message?
It is an affirmation about the way God acts and continues to act.
For Zechariah and Mary to respond to God’s extraordinary announcements, required more than ordinary reserves of faith and trust. God is being generous. They are invited to be generous in receiving the gifts of God.
The old cultural barriers of age and sterility, youth and virginity have been overturned.
Luke tells us that God is always acting, but often in surprising and paradoxical ways. The ways of God often reverse human expectations.
You and I are invited to reflect on the ways of God in the world – in our hearts and minds, our families and communities, our churches and neighbourhoods. We are invited to be on the lookout for the God who makes all things new, in often surprising ways.
This is the God who, according to the Book of Samuel, seemed happier living in a tent than a temple; a God who granted Sabbath rest to the people; who disciplined their kings and longed for the people to have a resting place of their own. This is the God, who, according to the Romans Benediction, is a God of mystery who chooses to reveal Godself in the Christ event and in the tradition of the prophets new and old, ancient and modern, so that all may enter into the experience of faith. May we listen to these prophets.
With the knowledge of this God in our hearts and minds this Advent and Christmas, we can be set free to hope and dream for things unimaginable and in small ways bring hope and new life in the situations in which we are placed. Here let us flesh to those hopes and dreams.
You might have a Christmas wish list like this one of Alan Marr’s, the General Superintendent of the Baptist Union.
That George Bush, John Howard and Tony Blair will get a whole new bunch of toys from Santa this year to distract them from the war toys they got last year.
That Carols by Candlelight at the Sydney Myer Music Bowl this year will be a joyous celebration of the birth of Jesus.
That very busy Baptists like me will find time to sit with the challenge of what it means for “the word to become flesh” in me.
That the Myers Christmas window display will feature the stories of Jesus with their warnings against accumulation of wealth, consumerism and credit card debt.
That the breweries and wineries will say “enough is enough”.
and That Phillip Ruddock will take time to listen to his daughter over Christmas Dinner.
May God be with you. Emmanuel.