A Sermon preached by Reader, Eleanor Childs on 24 December 2017
Luke 1:26-38; 2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 16; Ps 89:1-8; Romans 16:25-27
I wonder if your life has ever been disrupted by a sudden piece of news, which has totally changed your direction in life? Maybe it was an invitation, a job move, a diagnosis, the death of a loved one, but it turned your world upside down for ever? Our gospel reading this morning is about such an event -the announcement to Mary which will turn her life upside down: the announcement by the angel Gabriel that God had chosen her to miraculously conceive and bear the long-awaited Messiah.
It’s not an out- of- the- blue event. It has a context that goes back hundreds of years to our OT passage. David, established by God as king in Israel, which is now secure and at peace, is sitting in his palace and suddenly thinks it is not appropriate that he has a palace and God, whose presence is symbolised by the Ark of the Covenant, is housed in a tent or tabernacle. He thinks it’s a good idea that God should have a more impressive dwelling and consults the prophet, Nathan. Nathan initially thinks it’s a good idea too and tells him to go ahead – until God speaks to him that night and reveals HIS plans.
Now we don’t know what David’s motives were – they might have been guilt that he was better housed than the God he worshipped; they might have been a desire for God’s glory for we know that David delighted in God and sought to please him; or he might have been the sort of person who liked to have a big project on the go. He might have been influenced by pagan notions that gods expected worshippers to build them temples. We don’t know what his motives were, but what he proposed sounds a really good idea and God-glorifying.
But God does not appear interested in either David’s motives or his good ideas. He’s on a completely different wavelength altogether, as we see often in his interactions with his people. God says to David, ‘The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you.’ Now the word ‘house’ in Hebrew could mean not just a building but a dynasty. We have the same double usage today – we talk about ‘the house of Windsor’ to refer to our royal family. David is not going to be allowed to do something for God, but rather, God is going to do something for David: he is going to establish through David a royal dynasty that will reign forever before God. God is not nearly so interested in buildings as he is in people. God indicates that he has moved from place to place with the Israelites in the portable tabernacle. His presence has been with them all the time. He does not need a building. Though later, of course we know he allows David’s son to build him a temple. God sometimes concedes to the limited vision of his children. But God’s plan was far bigger and more far-reaching than anything David could dream of. God’s plan was not to be located for ever in one holy place with very limited access for a tiny number of people. No, his plan was no less than the redemption of his lost and conflicted world and its restoration to relationship with him, through Christ, David’s descendant.
Which brings us to our gospel passage. Mary is of the house and line of David, and she is chosen to carry the Messiah in her womb. It’s an amazing account. On one hand it is so normal, ordinary, local. We’re given the time, the place, the person – this teenage peasant girl- of humble origin, engaged to be married,- nothing special there. And then the sudden arrival of the supernatural visitor, the angel with his incredible announcement that she will conceive miraculously and give birth to the Messiah, the Son of God. ‘You will be with child and will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. ‘
You know, we’ve romanticised and sentimentalised the birth narratives, with their star and shepherds and angel choirs so that they sometimes seem no more significant than a lovely fairy tale, but this passage reminds us that the claim Christianity makes for Christmas is that at a particular time and a specific place God came to be with us himself. ‘Emmanuel’ means ‘God with us.’ When Quirinius was governor of Syria, in a town called Bethlehem, a child was born, who was and is God incarnate, God in human flesh. The One who inhabits eternity comes to dwell in time. The creator of the universe puts himself in the hands of his creation. That is what we mean when we say that our God is both transcendent and immanent – transcendent means above, beyond, totally Other, immanent means within, pervading and sustaining. Most religions believe in a transcendent God, wholly Other and utterly different and removed from humanity and they are scandalised at the idea of a god taking human form or entering into personal relationship with humanity. They think that diminishes and insults God. But Christianity states that God is not only transcendent but immanent, involved, present to his creation. And it is a mind-boggling event for God to become man, but our God has always overthrown human wisdom and expectations and has always loved the creation He has made in His image.
God’s plans are so much greater than ours. And his time-frame is not easy for an instant-everything generation to appreciate. In the 8th century, the prophet Isaiah foretold the birth of Christ (Isaiah.7:14). ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.’ Jesus’ conception and birth were in God’s plan hundreds of years beforehand. As was his death. The name ‘Jesus’, which Mary was instructed to name him, means ‘God saves’. Jesus’ rescue mission to save mankind from itself and its bondage to evil and to restore access to God was also foreseen. The very manner of his death is foretold in accurate detail in Isaiah 53, over 800 years before.
Of course, there are many who deny the virgin birth, as there are those who deny the resurrection. The resurrection is, as we know, one of the best attested facts of history, considerably better than many other historical events. The virgin birth is not, of course. It is not open to proof or disproof. But you have only to read the gospels to recognise Jesus is no ordinary human being. No one could have imagined or invented the character and life and destiny of Jesus. We would have invented a superhero, not a suffering servant; and a noble death, not a humiliating one; staunch followers, not a bunch of flawed and scared disciples. Whenever we study the gospel accounts of Jesus, we are compelled either to say with Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God!’ or to turn our backs on Him.
And Jesus did not just make waves back then, for history is studded with the lives and testimonies of his followers who have discovered that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life and who have followed in his footsteps. You all know that St Mary’s has been running Alpha in the Whistlestop. It’s a very convincing presentation of the claims of Christ and one of the most convincing elements in the presentation are the present day witnesses who have encountered the living Christ today and have had their lives changed – atheists, scientists, drug addicts, violent criminals or just ordinary enquirers. They testify to Christ’s continuing power to forgive and heal and transform today. They testify to the reality of Emmanuel, God with us, and to the reality that Jesus saves today and that His kingdom has no end.
This Christmas we celebrate God’s coming to us in Jesus. And He is always coming to us, because He is love and He loves all whom He has made. That is why He was willing to go to the Cross, so He could reconcile humanity to God. He still seeks our co-operation to carry Christ in our lives in the world. It was a huge challenge for Mary. She could have said no, and opted for a nice safe marriage and future. To say yes opened her to danger and contempt. Who would believe the angel story when her pregnancy became obvious? Joseph could have divorced her. Her reputation would be in tatters. Legally she could have been stoned for adultery. Yet she did say yes. ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.’ The consequences of her yes have blessed many people. I think if there is one word that describes Mary and maybe indicates why God chose her, it is ‘available’. Mary was available for all that God wanted to do in and through her. That is what God asks of each of us, to be available and ready to do what he asks of us. It probably won’t be an angel that will indicate what that is to us,- Mary needed that special visitor to give her the certainty and courage to face all that she had to face. God indicates his will to us in many different ways – through Scripture, through our conscience, through circumstances and through people. May we this Christmas time be available to all that God wants to do in us and through us. For that is the greatest gift we can offer Him and the one He most desires.