STARTLING, UNEXPECTED, STRANGE

Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:46b-55

Jennifer Hosler

The fourth Sunday in Advent

Last year at this time, our nephew was acting in a stage production of It’s a Wonderful Life. The theatre version was not a typical re-enactment – but was re-framed as a live, 1940s radio production, complete with sound effects created by Foley artists. The setup enabled my nephew to play both a young George Bailey (Hot dog!) and, later, George Bailey’s son Tommy. It’s a Wonderful Life, while one could say it’s a little sappy, is a pretty great secular Christmas story. One man realizes how his life and actions affect the community around him. It’s about re-framing from hopelessness to hope.

The movie was successful upon its release in 1946 and it continues to be a classic. It’s even playing today in several movie theatres around the city. What I learned yesterday surprised me: upon it’s release, the FBI suspected that the movie was part of a broader Communist plot. Apparently, according to a recent Washington Post article, “J. Edgar Hoover’s Communist-hunting agents thought it was a Trojan horse sneaking anti-American propaganda to the masses” (Andrews, 2017). Many in Hollywood were under surveillance and more than 200 movies were examined for “Communist Propaganda.”  Some of the screenwriters for It’s a Wonderful Life were “known” to eat lunch with people who were “known Communists” (this, of course, is in the paranoid FBI assessment of the time).

The agent was tasked with scrutinizing the movie “wrote a report claiming it ‘represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers’” (Andrews, 2017). Of course, this is true – Mr. Potter is greedy and cruel. The agent also wrote that the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show that people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” This was considered “subversive” and reported to the House Un-American Activities Committee which, thankfully, allowed the movie to keep playing.

While J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy were paranoid about the Communist threat, they clearly hadn’t understood that the true, biblical meaning of Christmas is rather subversive. It’s right there – right in our readings. Today, I imagine that most Christmas or holiday movies are what people would deem to be “wholesome” (aka. not radical). They might talk about family or love or generosity, which are all good things, of course. But as a church, we can’t focus only on a feel-good, sentimental Christmas because that would be a false picture from what we see in Scripture.

The biblical message we see in Luke isn’t wholesome. It’s startling, unexpected, and strange. It’s scandalous. It’s feminist. It’s radical and subversive. It’s mystical. It’s full of outcasts and folks who are on the margins of society. The Christmas story we see in Luke 1 is about God doing something that was considered obscene (knocking up an unmarried mother) – and working to turn the world as we know it upside down.

If the FBI wanted to find a subversive Christmas story, Mary’s song to Elizabeth is exactly so. It highlights what God regularly does and will do again: scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. The Commie Committee really should have looked inside those bibles that everyone was swearing on back then, to truly weed out the message that, today, most subversive to the American way of life.

There are many ways to preach our passages today and I had hoped to focus on both Mary’s encounter with Gabriel and Mary and Elizabeth – but then we’d be here all afternoon. As this sermon came together, what came out most distinctly was a focus on Mary, seeing her encounter God in a way that is startling, unexpected, and strange—and still say yes to all that would follow. Mary has been both neglected and hyper-idealized; I’m trying to aim for something in the middle.

 Setting the Stage of Luke 1

Our passage in Luke 1, though it is not far from the beginning of the chapter, has a fair bit of storyline before it. First, I should say that the broadest context of the gospels is a drought: the people of Israel and Judah have had 400 years without a prophet, without hearing a word from Yahweh as they did during the days in exile or when they returned from exile. There is a drought in hearing from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people are now under Roman rule, suffering under an occupation. This oppression and marginalization, this hunger for spiritual and social deliverance, is the big context of Luke and the Christmas story.

Earlier in Luke 1 (what we didn’t read) is a story about a priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth, both from priestly heritage, did not have children, which was a significant and sad circumstance in the ancient near east and in Greco-Roman times. As all priests did, Zechariah rotates to serve in the temple. A once in a life-time opportunity comes to him: he is selected by lot to offer incense in the holiest of holies, in an inner sanctuary part of the temple. Zechariah goes in while the whole temple is full of people waiting for him and praying outside. While offering incense, an angel of the Lord appears next to the altar. Zechariah is terrified and overcome with fear.

The Hebrew word for angel simply means messenger, while the Greek word specifically connotes a messenger from a deity. Contrary to popular fascination with angels, angels don’t take up a lot of space in the Bible. Prophets and priests and ordinary humans do most of the LORD’s work, with angels popping up occasionally. Yet after 400 years of silence, it makes sense to have a clear-cut, unearthly messenger to deliver the good news that God is speaking again.

Zechariah is cowering, but the angel reassures him, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” The angel then delivers a message that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, will finally conceive in her old age, and the son would be a special part of God’s plan – a prophet like Elijah, full of the Holy Spirit (who later becomes John the Baptizer).

Zechariah isn’t certain that this is the real deal. You’d think, though, that an angel in the temple, in the holy of holies, would be kind of legit. Dude, look at the setting around you. Zechariah asks for a sign (as if an angel isn’t enough) and the angel reveals himself as Gabriel, one who serves in the presence of God. The sign that Zechariah gets, after not believing the word, is that his own words won’t come out. Zechariah goes on mute for the next 9 months.

People realize, when Zechariah comes out of the inner sanctuary, that something unexpected has happened. Zechariah’s gesturing and can’t speak. But then things go back to “normal,” he goes home, and reunites with his wife. Miraculously, the promised baby John takes hold in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth begins preparing at home for the baby, in “seclusion.” This was probably a mix of cultural expectations with pregnancy and taking it easy because of the risks of miscarriage in any pregnancy (let alone in an elderly woman).

Here am I

Luke’s readers would have had all this in their minds when they get to verse 26. Our passage begins at Elizabeth’s 6th month (as an author, Luke likes to date things specifically). We learn that this scene is north of Jerusalem, in a town called Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. While the names don’t mean much to us, it would be clear to the reader that the setting is not anywhere important in either the Roman world or in Israel.

The readers have already been introduced to Gabriel, so Luke uses his name and continues with Gabriel’s second mission: he’s been sent by God to Nazareth to go talk to a young, unmarried woman named Mary, who’s engaged to a man named Joseph, from the lineage of King David. Again, it would be clear to the reader that this Mary lady is not someone who is important, well-known, or with any real status of her own. Young, unmarried women were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, pretty much equated to children.

Gabriel greets Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” The person and the greeting are startling, unexpected, and strange. My paraphrase of Mary’s internal response is, “Um… what is this?” Luke says that she was reflective in the awkward silence post-angel greeting: “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Poignantly, Mary is not worded as being terrified or scared and is certainly not overcome with fear. She doesn’t know what this startling, unexpected greeting, by a strange messenger, means exactly—but she’s definitely hanging around to find out. Contrast adolescent Mary’s response with that of Zechariah and, later in Luke 2, the male shepherds in the fields. Mary doesn’t lose her cool while everyone else freaks out when they encounter angels.

Gabriel, having just dealt with a terrified Zechariah, says, “don’t be afraid!” and gives her a rather startling, unexpected, and strange revelation. “It’s good news! You’ve found favor with God.” I should mention that finding favor with God in the Bible typically brings with it some type of call or burden—a task to complete or a mission to fulfill—and it’s not all roses. It’s usually something heavy, with great personal risk, like the calls of Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Mary, this nobody from a backwater part of Israel, is being drawn in to something much bigger than herself, into the overarching story of God’s plan of salvation, deliverance, and reconciliation.

Gabriel continues, “You’ve found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew, which means deliverer or saving one). 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 ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” There’s one detail that catches Mary’s eye, and rightfully so, since she’s a young, unwed woman who is engaged to a man: “How does this work, since I have never slept with a man?” Culturally and religiously, she presumably would not until she married Joseph, the wedding date for which was likely not yet set.

Gabriel explains: “The power of the Holy Spirit will cause the baby to be miraculously conceived within you, making the child holy and set apart for God. And though you didn’t ask for a sign, I’ll give you one: your relative Elizabeth is also expecting a child and is six months along. For nothing will be impossible with God” (paraphrase). With this information, Mary decides. It’s not assumed, after all, that she’ll say yes – she’s not a helpless tool, but a human with agency and even the ability to say no to God.  But Mary doesn’t say no. She answers using the language of many faithful people before her in Scripture (like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah), “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The words, “Here am I,” are used throughout the Hebrew scriptures as the faithful response to God’s call—one that involves complete availability for God to work, even in startling, unexpected, and strange ways. At this commitment by Mary, Gabriel departs.

There are many things to pull out from this text. One of the most important, particularly considering how women have been treated by society and the church over the centuries, is that here (here!) is an example of a faithful follower of God who undertakes an enormous task for the good of God’s plan. She believes this wild and absurd message from the angel and trusts that Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who worked through Moses to lead to Israelites from Egypt—is that same God who will lead her through the ridicule and shame of her pregnancy to deliver and raise the Messiah. Several commentators emphasize that Mary’s call here matches the pattern for other “heroes of the faith,” the calls of Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah.  

And yet we Protestants don’t typically put Mary up there as our example of discipleship along with Moses or Isaiah or others. It’s clear from the literary context and pattern of her call that we should value Mary more. Mary is blessed – not because she’s a woman. Not because she was pregnant and had a baby, but because she believed the word of God and said, “Here I am – ready to be an agent of God’s work in this world.” This text is radical and liberating for women, but it stands for all people (men and women) as an example of saying yes, agreeing that God can make you an agent of God’s reconciling and redeeming work in this broken, sinful, and hurting world.

From Bilbo and Harry to Mary and to Us

Across literature, storytellers have often depicted people from humble or despised circumstances getting drawn into something bigger than themselves. Their humble origins—their nobody-ness—stirs up our imagination and helps us picture that we, too, could be in their place. That we could be brave and fulfill difficult and unimaginable quests.

Bilbo is an ordinary hobbit, who likes things that are comfortable and warm, with a close supply of provisions always at hand. Harry Potter is a twerpy, orphaned kid who is belittled by his caretakers and lives in a closet under some stairs. Dorothy is also an orphan and lives with her aunt and uncle in Kansas, of all places. Each of these figures steps out into something more than they could have ever dreamed, into a big arc of good versus evil. There’s something biblical about all of that.

We see in the Bible that Yahweh regularly works through small-town nobodies (or, more accurately, that the Creator of the universe disregards the world’s “wisdom” on who is important). God repeatedly does things that are startling, unexpected, and strange, calls people we wouldn’t expect and brings them in as agents in God’s story. That story is the Christmas story, of Immanuel, God coming to be with us in Jesus, to bring justice, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation to the universe.

Sisters and brothers, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves – if we are willing, like Mary, to say yes to God. For some people, saying yes might involve something flashy (like preaching or speaking prophet truths directly in front of powerful people), but most often it involves quiet faithfulness.

The angels and virgin birth are kind of flashy, but parents know that 30 years of parenting Jesus until his ministry started was definitely not at all glamorous. Love and kindness, mercy, building relationships, doing administrative tasks, mowing a lawn: these quiet tasks are what fills out the story, defining us as workers and agents in God’s Kingdom, in bringing all people and all creation into the healing, reconciliation, and justice of Jesus.

Saying yes to God can lead to startling, unexpected, and strange things. If you look through scripture, it’s never easy – but the rewards involve being part of this grand, universal story of God making all things new. Whatever the world says about your status, rest assured that God regularly and consistently reels in the world’s “nobodies” to make them important agents in God’s work of healing and reconciliation. God calls each of us to take up our role in the work. Have you said yes to God? Are you continuing to say yes to God, on this journey?

If you don’t have a congregation or a community around you to explore God’s call on your life, we at Washington City Church of the Brethren would love to walk with you on this journey together with Jesus. Questions and questioning highly welcome.

Sisters and brothers, may we take heart and take courage in the faithful example of Mary, who trusted that God would do what was promised and stepped out in faith, courage, and hope.

 

References

Andrews, T.M. (2017, December 21). ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a holiday classic. The FBI thought it was communist propaganda. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/12/21/its-a-wonderful-life-is-a-holiday-classic-the-fbi-thought-it-was-communist-propaganda/?utm_term=.f34784cefbae

 

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