Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 21st December
Announcing the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38)
Imagine what some of our national newspapers would make of the of nativity story, because it has all the elements they’d love to cover : “Yahweh’s love child”; or (how about) “Deity has secret affair with under-age teenager”
Our minds get conditioned by sensational – often sleazy, suggestive and certainly lazy reporting. So when people read the story of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, promising that a child born to her will be the future Lord of the World, they can easily respond in the way tabloid journalism has shaped us to think – and as a result people read into this story all sorts of things that aren’t there – and have failed to notice some of the really important things that are. So I’ve put together some thoughts from Jane Williams (wife of the previous Archbishop of Canterbury) and Mike Lloyd who’s the new principal of my Oxford College) – and maybe a couple of my own.
Did you notice God ever so patiently explaining to King David through Nathan the prophet that it wasn’t his job to make him a home? That ‘Creation’ is God’s great work, not ours - and after bringing everything into being God faithfully continues: calling his people out of slavery in Egypt and protecting them in captivity in Babylon (and you can put your own story in there about all those times you’ve felt abandoned and alone or tied up with your own stuff!) – and then calling people into a new community which is completed as God himself comes and makes his home with us (Emmanuel).
Did you notice too how “Patiently the angel comes to negotiate with Mary for the kind of home that God is making” (and this is amazing). “God – whom the whole world cannot contain – God - waits quietly while his angel has a chat with Mary. And how gentle the angel is as they talk. Mary - not surprisingly is confused, bewildered and totally uncomprehending, but (seemingly) not afraid of Gabriel, God’s messenger”.
We always try and portray this scene with a cosmic laser show and special effects – but how ‘the angel sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth’ -must have muted himself so that Mary could ask what she needs to know. Mary’s one question gives us a clue to her character. She doesn’t demand to know exactly what God thinks he’s hoping to achieve; she doesn’t ask how much it’s going to cost, or how she’ll be able to cope with her reputation in tatters; & she doesn’t demand celebrity status or special attention because she is the one God is asking.
All she asks is ‘Aren’t I a bit of a problem? Are you sure I fulfill your requirements? And when the angel replies, ‘Don’t worry it’s all taken care of’, Mary simply replies ‘Fine’. Okay then – let it be to me according to your word.
Now then come off it! Isn’t all of this just Christmas schmaltz - we live in the real world, don’t we (??) – where angels don’t appear, stars don’t guide people – and we’re left to stumble about in our mundane lives not knowing what we should do, trying to make decisions for the best – maybe even praying about them – and still things go wrong and cause pain and frustrate us – and we get kicked around anyway. That’s the world we live in.
But actually – when you look more closely at the story, it’s not a different world than our own – it’s real, not an episode of the Waltons! Think about it…
Mary’s pregnancy outside of marriage would have exposed her, not just to community gossip, but to being ostracized and threatened with violence in what Mike Lloyd calls “the Taliban-like environment of her society.” He thinks maybe that’s why Mary chose to go up to Bethlehem with Joseph - perhaps this was an opportunity to get away from the cruel gossip and the self-righteous cold shouldering of her former friends in Nazareth?
And the young couple wouldn’t have been able to easily trace the hand of Providence in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus would they?. You’d have thought that if God had chosen them to be parents of the Messiah, he’d have looked after them a bit better?!
It’d be an understatement to say the timing of the taxation census was not ideal for Mary – who had to make the long trip in great discomfort (& by the way that can only be a man’s euphemism for extreme pain!!).
When they got to Bethlehem there was nowhere to stay – just a less than hygienic outhouse where the domestic animals were either still there – or had at least left their own less than hygienic gifts!
And if they weren’t protected from medical threat, they weren’t protected from political danger either. (Let me tell you something about Herod) He was a particularly vicious small-time dictator. The story of the murder of the innocent children has a ring of historical truth about it. We know from other people writing at the time that, when he was dying, he arranged for leading citizens in every town and village to be murdered, so that there would be weeping when he died instead of the rejoicing that he was finally out of the way (nice guy huh?!). Jesus escapes being murdered, for the time being, but the family become refugees in a foreign land.
All that sounds pretty real doesn’t it? Back to the Annunciation for a mo – notice an odd, almost low key conversation saying that God is coming to make the world his home. Such sensible, manageable care for Mary, at this stage of the proceedings - putting her in touch with Elizabeth, - who would be the one person able to understand what had happened.
Luke the gospel writer had no thought that his conception and birth might somehow make Jesus anything less than fully human. The angel gives an explanation for the whole event. The Holy Spirit will come upon Mary, enabling her (as the Spirit always does) to do and be more than she could by herself. But at the same time, we’re told, ‘the power of the Most High’ will overshadow her.
Gabriel even starts his message with an interesting word – ‘hail’– which in the Greek (‘chaire’) is an everyday, casual greeting. He’s almost saying, ‘Wotcha’ Mary – ‘be glad’. The importance is in how very commonplace this is – a simple greeting that masks the incredible drama of what’s really happening.
So Luke’s making a profound theological point: the dawn of our salvation is spoken in the language and context of the ‘everyday’ – that this is how God chooses to slip amongst us; this is how he… intersects time and eternity – not with a huge flourish, not heralded by a fanfare of trumpets – no fuss, no entourage like Prince Charles coming to Swansea and snarling up all the Kingsway traffic. There’s so much in this story if we look carefully….with eyes that are open, not conditioned to be half shut!
Julie and I hope this Advent has helped us realize that this is not the Christmas we’ve got to know and love from pretty Christmas cards and sentimental crib scenes. This is raw – and real – and therefore relevant to us now. It’s the same world we have to live in that God entered in the baby of Bethlehem.
Christmas doesn’t offer us a God who promises to prevent the pain or to deliver us from every difficulty.
We’ve been saying many times how painful and poignant this season can be for many. I saw Ian Rees from Gowerton yesterday and he said the church in the States has developed a fabulous thoughtful liturgy for “Blue Christmas” – for those who find it all too much.
So as I close what does Christmas offer?: What Christmas does offer is a God who knows pain from the inside – and who is not fazed by this – who can give purpose and meaning to the otherwise purposeless events of our lives.
It offers us a God who shares our pain and thereby transforms it. “A God who opens up our love-hungry hearts to his endless love for us. A God who works out his purposes, not by by-passing the pain and hurt and messiness, but precisely in and through them.”
What Christmas does offer is a God who can take our lives just as they are, with their mixture of joys and fears and frustrations and if-onlys – and make them rich with purpose and hope and the fullness of his presence.
The sort of God who begins in a cattle trough and ends up on a cross is not a God of fluffy escapist unreality – “a fluffy-bunny Jesus”. This is God in Christ whose very scars prove his relevance and his love.
So on this final Advent Sunday we remember Mary who, in many ways, is the supreme example of what always happens when God is at work by his grace in and through human beings. “This is the hinge on which history turns – this fragile bit of bone and breath in the arms of its frightened mother.
So may the Holy Spirit work in each of our lives so that we give ourselves to God’s purposes, unfamiliar or bizarre as they might seem to our thinking – and may he find us willing and obedient to venture out on the basis of all that he promises. Amen