LUKE 1:26-38

DECEMBER 6, 2009

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            A woman was doing her last-minute Christmas shopping at a crowded mall.  She was tired of fighting the crowds.  She was tired of standing in lines.  She was tired of working her way down long aisles looking for a gift that had sold out days before.

Her arms were full of bulky packages when an elevator door opened.  It was full.  The occupants of the elevator grudgingly tightened ranks to allow a small space for her and her load.

            As the doors closed, she blurted out, "Whoever is responsible for this whole Christmas thing ought to be arrested, strung up, and shot!"

            Most people nodded or grunted in agreement.

            Then, from the back of the elevator, came a single voice that said: "Don't worry. They already crucified him."

            This morning we turn our attention to the event that set this whole Christmas thing in motion.  We are continuing our Advent sermon series titled “Angels We Have Heard on High” wherein we are looking at the four angelic visits associated with the birth of Jesus.  We began last week with Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah, an elderly priest married to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who would go on to father the forerunner to Jesus, John the Baptist.  Today we turn to the second angelic visit associated with Jesus birth, and likely the best known, Gabriel’s visit to Mary, and I like what Frederick Buechner said about this visit.  In his little book of character sketches of people from the Bible he imagines what it must have been like for the angel Gabriel as he encounters Mary.  He writes, "She struck him as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child.  But he had been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it.  He told her what the child was to be named, who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her.  'You mustn't be afraid, Mary,' he said.  As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn't notice that beneath the great golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of Creation hung on the answer of a girl."[1]

            In the book, there's a sketch of Gabriel above that brief description. He's viewed from the rear. His hands are behind his back, and his fingers are crossed.

            As we unpack this familiar story today, I want to divide it into four sections, just as we did with last week’s message: the surprise, the question, the birth, and the response.  Let’s begin with the surprise. 

            Do you like surprises?  Some do, some don’t, and fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, life is full of them and they will come to us whether we want them or not.  Some surprises, of course, will be bigger than others.  Ask Mary.  The angel’s visit was certainly a major surprise to her.  There she was, doing the dishes or sweeping the floor or sitting engrossed in the latest Twilight novel, or whatever young Israelite girls did back then, when the angel Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Surprise!  Guess what’s going to happen to you, Mary.” 

            Of course, we should not find all this that unusual.  To read the bible, to look at history, to examine life shows that God regularly works, not only in mysterious ways, but also in surprising ways.

            Think about it.  When God choose one nation to be a “light” to all the others which nation did God select?  A little, tiny, fifth-rate one ... a nation of slaves in Egypt, a nation of wanderers in the wilderness.  How odd of God to choose the Jews.  Surprise!

            Or what about Saul of Tarsus?  He had more religious conviction than all of us put together, and his goal in life was to destroy this new heresy called Christianity.  According to the King James version of the bible, he went about the countryside “breathing out threats and slaughter”  (Acts 9:1).  If you recall the rest of the story, Saul got bounced on his babushka on his way to Damascus and the became the greatest missionary the church has ever known.  Surprise!

            Or what about the guy who lived in North Africa 500 years after Christ, who led such a riotous life, that even after he decided to become a Christian he refused baptism because there was still some sinning he planned to do, and he wanted to go wild with at least a relatively clear conscience.  He made a prayer once in reference to his wanton womanizing; he prayed, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”  His name was Augustine, and St. Augustine, even though he lived a thousand years prior to the Reformation, he became the inspiration to the Reformers to change the church.  Surprise!

            And here we have a heavenly messenger coming to a young girl, probably in her mid-teens, from a no-account family, in a no-account town, in a no-account nation, and announced that she had been selected for the great honor of giving life to the Savior.  Surprise!

            And here’s one more surprise.  The surprise that God had for Mary is not entirely different from the surprise God has for you and me.  If you can believe it, God has actually chosen us to bear his only begotten Son, not physically, of course, but spiritually.  God asks you and me to bring Christ into our own individual worlds ... into our relationships, into our joys and sorrows, into our disappointments, into our grief, into our fear, into sickness and into health, into good times and bad.  Surprise!

            OK, that’s the surprise, now for section two: the question.  Mary asks Gabriel, “How can this be?”  Related to this, I love the words of the author Madeleine L’Engle.  In her book The Weather of the Heart she says of Advent and Christmas,


            This is the irrational season

            When love blooms bright and wild.

            Had Mary been filled with reason

            There’d have been no room for the child.[2]


            To ask a question like, “How can this be?” or “Why me?” suggests that we expect some understandable reason for a strange or unexpected occurrence.  The question itself is understandable.  It has been said that the longest distance one can travel is from the head to the heart.  Probably, though, the reverse journey is harder - heart to head - for it is uphill all the way. 

            For example, someone says, “Mrs. So-and-so, we are sorry to have to tell you that your father passed away last night.”  “How can this be?” she wonders, “I was with him just hours before and he looked fine.”  Hard to move from heart to head at such a time.

            Mary’s question, you see, does more than ask for a reason.  Mary’s question also reminds us that some things in this world just don’t make rational sense and never will.  For example, a mother says to her young child, “I love you.”  The child says, “But how can this be?  I just broke your favorite crystal bowl and you have sent me to my room.” 

            Some things in this life defy reason, and Mary’s question to the angel typifies our human response.  It is hope seeking understanding, the heart realizing that it may never reach the head. 

            This leads us to section three: the birth, and Gabriel’s response to Mary’s question.  Honestly, Gabriel’s response that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” asks a lot of us.  It asks us to embrace a gynecological wonder, an immaculate conception, a virgin birth.  We grasp it in our hearts, but not necessarily in our heads. 

            Did you know that the Church does not insist we believe in the doctrine of the Virgin Birth to be a member of a church or a follower of Jesus Christ?  Of course, most of us do.  In fact, three times as many Americans believe in the doctrine of the Virgin Birth than in evolution.[3]  You heard me correctly.  Three times more Americans believe in the doctrine of the Virgin Birth than in evolution, 83 percent to 28 percent to be exact.  Moreover, 47 percent of non-Christian Americans believe in the Virgin Birth.  Yet, why do some not embrace it?  For most, it’s a matter of the head.  For them it’s too big of a leap of faith.  For others, they don’t embrace the Virgin Birth on purely biblical grounds.  They point to the fact that both genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke trace the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, which is strange if Joseph was not the real father, and they point out how the rest of the New Testament, other than the beginnings of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, know nothing of the Virgin Birth.  It’s never mentioned again, and the gospel writers Mark and John, don’t mention it at all.  They claim there is not enough biblical evidence for it.

            And still others who do not embrace the Virgin Birth point to a Jewish saying that in the birth of every child there are three partners - the father, the mother and the Spirit of God.  They say these New Testament stories of Jesus’ birth are simply lovely, poetical ways of saying that, even if Jesus had a human father, the Holy Spirit of God was operative in his birth in a most unique and special way. 

            The bottom line is this.  Even though I happen to embrace the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, if you doubt it, and have trouble with it, you can still be a follower of Christ.  The church does not insist upon your embracing the virgin birth to embrace Christ. 

            Then, finally, section four: the response.  “Then Mary said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Then the angel departed from her.

            In Mary’s response I think of the aspiring young Bible student who asked, “I wonder how many other stops Gabriel made that day before he found a young girl who would say, ‘Yes.”  We’ll never know the answer to that question because the bible is only interested in the request posed to Mary and her response.

            “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”  What a response.  The conductor Leonard Bernstein, when asked the hardest instrument to play, answered, “Second fiddle,” because everyone wants to play the melody.  Why did God choose Mary?  In large part because she had the heart of a servant.  She was willing to put God before herself.  She was willing to play second fiddle.

            In 1904 William Borden, heir to the Borden Dairy Estate, graduated from a Chicago high school. His graduation present was a trip around the world. Traveling through Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, Borden was stricken by all the poverty and hunger he saw. Writing home, he said, "I'm going to give my life to prepare for the mission field."

            When he made this decision, he wrote in the back of his Bible two words: No Reserves.

            His parents tried to talk him out of it, but to no avail. He graduated from Yale University. Turning down high-paying job offers, he enrolled at Princeton Seminary.

At this time, he entered two more words in his Bible: No Retreats.

            Completing studies at Princeton Seminary, Borden sailed for China for his missionary work, stopping first in Egypt for some last minute preparation. While there he was stricken with cerebral meningitis and died within a month.

            Most people said, "What a waste." Even Borden's parents thought this until they paged through his Bible. In his Bible, underneath the words No Reserves and No Retreats, he had written the words, No Regrets.

            No Reserves. No Retreats. No Regrets. That was Mary's attitude as she dedicated herself to the Lord's service. May that be our attitude too.








[1] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 39.

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, The Weather of the Heart, (Colorado Springs: H. Shaw, 1978), p. 45.

[3] Nicholas D. Kristof, “Believe It or Not,” N.Y. Times, 8/15/03.