David A. Davis
December 8, 2019
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Listen to what the angel Gabriel says to Mary. Listen as if you are hearing one side of a phone conversation. Gabriel to Mary without Mary’s responses; without the narrators comments. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you… Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give 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….The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, you relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
“You will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give 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… The child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God…For nothing will be impossible with God.” Jesus. Son of the Most High. Son of God. Throne of David. House of Jacob forever. And his kingdom will last forever. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Just Tuesday night last, my wife Cathy and I went to Lincoln Center to hear a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. As we waited for the artist to take the stage, we were a bit confused when, in addition to an absolutely stunning concert grand piano there were chairs arranged for what looked like a traditional string quartet. We knew that the piece was a work for piano. Sure enough, after the announcement about recordings and cell phones, the pianist and four string players came on. As it turned out there was a lecture on Bach’s Goldberg Variations prior to the playing of the Variations. The pianist gave the lecture and the strings were there to play particular melodies, demonstrate the base line which is the foundation of all 30 variations, and give examples of the intricacies of the canons that Bach wrote throughout. An early intermission came after the 30 minute lecture. The strings left the stage. When the pianist returned, he played for the next 70 minutes; all 30 variations and the two arias that come at the beginning and at the end.
I don’t think I have ever been better prepared and therefore better enjoyed a concert. The lecture was intended to help us to know how to listen, what to listen for. From what I learned, I could recognize the musical progressions of the base line throughout. It was as if one could better behold the wonder of Bach with having the ears to hear; having the ears just a tad tuned in. At the end of the brief lecture, the pianist used the first lines of the William Blake poem “To See A World” to describe the experience of listening to the Goldberg Variations.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
About an hour later, with the help of that lecture, I could hear his point.
For the reader of Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel’s words to Mary ought to serve as a whole lot more than the announcement of her conception. Because Luke is providing tips for what to listen for in the gospel that is to come. To isolate the voice of Gabriel is to hear a whole lot more than an annunciation of the birth of the baby Jesus. Luke, through the voice of the angel, gives a pre-concert lecture on how to read his gospel. It is the Angel Gabriel on how to listen to, better understand, and experience the birth, the life, the teaching, the suffering, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. The Angel Gabriel tuning the ear of Luke’s reader. Trying to give a follower of Jesus an ear to hear. Enabling a disciple to be better prepared to experience the child Jesus, the Son of God.
Son of the Most High. Son of God. Throne of David. House of Jacob forever. And his kingdom will last forever. “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Nothing will be impossible. Here’s a hot take for you: virgin birth is not nearly the most impossible part of the angel promise. Virgin birth, whether you believe in it or not, is not nearly the most striking and compelling part of this angel lecture on the promise and call of the coming Son of God.
It is the notion, the promise, that this child to be born of Mary would embody, give flesh to, fulfill the ultimate in the relationship between God and humanity. This child to be born of Mary would embody, give flesh to, fulfill God’s love. God’s love come all the way down in a way that could be seen and heard and touched and shown. This child to be born of Mary would embody, give flesh to, fulfill life on earth as God intends. A life defined by forgiveness, peacemaking, serving others, challenging the powerful, touching the outcast, and proclaiming, teaching, witness to the gospel way in the here and now. This child to be born of Mary would embody, give flesh to, fulfill God’s covenant with God’s people, God’s love for the world, God’s steadfast, saving grace. Nothing will be impossible. Son of the Most High. Son of God. Throne of David. House of Jacob forever. And his kingdom will last forever. Son of the Most High. Son of God. Throne of David. House of Jacob forever. And his kingdom will last forever. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
A salvation made known not just in the ark of Mary’s womb but in the arc of the child’s life. In this child’s mission to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim release to the captives. This child’s example of a mountain top, all night long, garden of Gethsemane kind of prayer life. This child’s charge to go and do likewise when it comes to showing mercy. This child’s lesson about the joy that comes when the lost son comes home. This child’s eternal promise to the two next to him as they brutally hung on the cross to die; “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” The impossible part in the angel’s words? It is the notion, the promise that this child to be born of Mary would embody, give flesh to, fulfill life as the Son of God. Mary’s holy encounter with the angel Gabriel; it’s not just an annunciation of a virgin birth. It’s the annunciation of God’s incarnation. With deepest apologies to William Blake. Not eternity in an hour but eternity in him. “You will name him Jesus”.
Over the years in pastoral ministry I have never kept count or catalogued the genuine theological questions I have been asked. By genuine I refer to the questions born out of a desire to grow in faith, a struggle to pair the complexities of life with faith, or the inevitable clash of childhood faith and the challenge of finding God in the grown up world. Or to use a popular expression these days, questions that come with the necessity of an “adulting theology”. Keeping track of those kind of questions as opposed to the questions intended to test me, or questions that reflect some sort of litmus test, or the questions intended to belittle faith or my life’s work. I never kept count of the genuine theological questions but if I did, my strong hunch is that questions about the bodily resurrection, “he descended into hell” in the Apostle’s Creed, and the Virgin birth would lead the way.
It has struck me this week that the tradition of the church, not just the Roman Catholic Church, but the tradition of the universal church; the theology, the preaching, the piety, the teaching of the church has so underlined, highlighted and been preoccupied with virgin birth here in these early verses in Luke that we miss Gabriel telling Mary so much more. So incredibly much more about the child Jesus! Gabriel telling Mary such mysterious, powerful, impossible things about her son. There is no way that Gabriel is talking just about his birth. He’s talking about his life and then some!
I began asking you to hear one side of the conversation. Here’s the other. Here’s Mary’s very brief side of the conversation. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?…. Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Just a few words from Mary. Not a whole lot more when you include the narrator. Right there, after the angel appeared and first called out to her. Luke tells “She was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort greeting this might be”. Perplexed and pondered. Just like Mary’s response to the message of the shepherd’s message after the baby was born. Mary treasured all that the shepherds told her and pondered them in her heart. Perplexed. Pondered. But notice? See what’s missing. What’s not there for Mary? No fear. No fear! For goodness sakes, when the angel Gabriel appeared to the old man Zechariah, as some will remember from last week, he was terrified, and fear overwhelmed him. Yes, Gabriel says to the very young woman Mary, “Do not be afraid”. That’s how he was taught in angel school. That’s what angels always say. A strict reading of Luke reveals no fear when it comes to Mary’s holy encounter with the angel. No fear with the greeting. No fear when told about conception. No fear with Son of the Most High. Son of God. Throne of David. House of Jacob. Kingdom forever. To sense fear, to assume fear, to read in fear…. may be more about our fear than hers.
You have heard me say from this pulpit before, the opposite of faith is not doubt. It is fear. The opposite of faith is not doubt. It is fear. Way too many of those theological questioners over the years were drawing near to the conclusion that their doubts about the historicity of the virgin birth would get them voted off the island. But the angel’s brief lecture on how to read the Gospel that tells of the life and identity of the child Jesus is about such an impossible hope and promise of God’s unending love for humanity, for you, and for me. Such an impossible hope and promise of God’s intent for a kingdom of justice and righteousness and peace. Such an impossible hope and promise that one day, one day, one day, the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, and they will not hurt or destroy on all of God’s holy mountain, and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, and a little child shall lead them. Such an impossible hope and promise. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Therefore, my beloved, when it comes to the things of God, when it comes to the child Jesus, when it comes to the gospel that tells of his life and identity, when it comes to your life in God, when it comes to God’s love for you, when it comes to your wonders and your doubts about God and Jesus and the bible, when it comes to the hope and promise of you and me nestled forever in the heart of God, do not fear. And when you read about, hear about, watch a pastor/preacher/public Christian figure whose loud voice gives them a pulpit a whole lot bigger than this one, when you see someone try to invoke God and stoke fear at the same time, when you hear someone preying on fear and using God, when you come upon a message of God and fear all wrapped up, just stop, take a deep breath, and remember Mary. She was perplexed. She pondered. But she didn’t fear.