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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 1:26-38
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

If you do the Facebook thing, then you have probably had the experience of seeing a graphic that you really appreciate for more than one reason.  It’s happened to me with a graphic a couple years ago.  Of course, I can’t find that graphic now.  That’s right:  Google let me down.  This diagram is close to it.

As a former mathematician, it tickles me that we’ve got some set theory at work here.  As a pastor, I love that it’s subject is one of my favorites, scriptural study.  The Venn diagram compares Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives.  While there are a lot of words in the center, the overlap between the two is really quite small.

One of the big differences between the two stories is who is center stage.  Mary and Joseph are both mentioned in both versions, but Joseph is center stage in Matthew’s gospel, being named 8 times, and Mary is center stage in Luke’s gospel, being named 11 times.

Sometimes Luke uses a subtle line to remind us of the importance of Mary to his story.  For instance, when we get to the birth itself, the shepherds tell the people in the stable about how the angels had directed them there.  Luke has a line, just a few words, to tell us about Mary’s (not Joseph’s) reaction.  “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

But I think it’s the story of the annunciation that really puts Mary center stage.  Gabriel may do most of the talking, but the story is about Mary.  There are several things that are established in Gabriel’s words that are important, that lay the foundation for Luke’s gospel.

Twice Gabriel says that the baby Mary will have will be called the Son of God.  This is not a statement about Trinitarian doctrine.  This is a title that Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and Luke’s original readers would be familiar with.  It was one of the titles that emperor Caesar August was known by when Jesus was born, a title Roman emperors claimed when Luke wrote his gospel.  Gabriel sets up the story – this Jesus we’ll be reading about, not the pretender Augustus, is the real Son of God.

Another thing that gets established in Gabriel and Mary’s dialog is that Mary is a virgin.  I think there are two reasons this is important to Luke.  First, it established that Jesus is greater than John the baptizer.  John’s birth was miraculous because Elizabeth and Zechariah had never managed to have a child and, as it’s translated in the New Revised Standard Version, “both were getting on in years.”  But Jesus’ birth is more miraculous because, though young, Mary had never had sexual intercourse.

The other reason I can identify, thanks to the work of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, that this is important to Luke is that Mary’s virginity sets Jesus up again in opposition to Caesar Augustus.  They detail in their book The First Christmas a legend that originated roughly thirty years before the birth of Jesus about Octavian, the person who would become Caesar Augustus, about how he was conceived.

“When Atia [Octavian’s mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep,…  On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away.  When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband,…  In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.”[1]

Borg and Crossan point out that legend of Octavian’s divine conception is modeled on similar, earlier legends of the conceptions of legendary Generals Alexander and the Roman general Scipio Africanus.  Augustus was to out conquer them all.  “The reason for an emphasis on [Mary’s] virginity,” according to Borg and Crossan, “is in order to exalt the divine conception of Jesus over all others – especially over that of Augustus himself.”[2]

They also note that there is a big difference in the way divine conception occurs between the story of Augustus and the story of Jesus.  “In Greco-Roman tradition, and notable in [the] Augustus story …, divine intercourse takes place in a physical manner, so that it was necessary for Atia to purify herself ‘as if after the embraces of her husband.’  Even with Greco-Roman divine conceptions, the male god engages in intercourse, so that the human mother is no longer a virgin after conception.”  They argue that the “claim that Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after conception … made her divine conception different from and greater than all others … especially over that of Caesar Augustus.”[3]

It is not surprising that a story that plays such a foundational role in Luke’s gospel is well remembered.  Luke’s telling of the story helps.  There is something that is both grittily human and mysteriously divine in his telling.  It is no wonder it has inspired so much art.

We’ve been looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation,” 1472-1475.  There are certain things in the image that became standard elements in artistic depictions of the annunciation in Western European art.  You’ll notice the lily that Gabriel is holding.  Mary is reading a book and she is wearing blue.  She has somehow become pretty wealthy by the looks of those clothes and house behind her.  How she became a woman of letters and means is beyond me.

This is a depiction of the annunciation by Luca Signorelli, from the late 15th century.  It has the standard elements – the lily, the book (that Mary has dropped, perhaps startled by Gabriel), and Mary is in blue.  In the upper left, you’ll see God and the heavenly host, and on a line from God to Mary’s head, you’ll see a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit coming down to Mary to impregnate her.

This is a contemporary depiction, by John Collier.  You’ll see the lily, book, and blue dress.  He purposefully set it in American suburbia.

I love this contemporary depiction by the Chinese artist He Qi, with Gabriel sticking his head in the window.  You’ll notice the lily and the blue in Mary’s clothing, but the book is missing.

This 20th century depiction of the annunciation is by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabi.  The blue has moved into Mary’s hair.  The book is present, subtly my Mary’s knees.  The lily is missing, but the Holy Spirit is there in the upper right.

I found this annunciation online.  It’s a contemporary piece, but I couldn’t figure out who the artist is.  The lily is present and Mary is in blue, but the book has been replaced by an MP3 player, and all we see of Gabriel is a hand.  I’m struck by the fact that one of the ear buds is pulled out, suggesting to me that maybe we need to unplug if we’re going to hear what God has to say to us.
 

This is by Simone Martini, part of a triptych altar piece, painted in 1333.  The classical elements are here.  Mary’s reading her book; the lilies are there; Mary is in blue; the Holy Spirit is right there in the wall paper.  But Mary’s body language is different from the other art we’ve seen today.  Mary is pulling away, pulling her cloak more tightly around herself.

This painting and the popularity of the #MeToo hashtag raise some interesting contemporary questions about this story.  As far as we know, Mary was a young woman, a teenager, a girl by today’s standards, when the archangel Gabriel visits her.  They have this conversation in which Gabriel invites her to participate in this grand plan to birth a child to transform the world.  Yes, it’s an invitation to participate, but how free was the consent?  There is a huge power differential between an angel sent by God and a teenager.  And Gabriel, on behalf of God, doesn’t explicitly ask for Mary’s consent, though she does eventually say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

It’s dangerous to read present-day cultural standards and mores into an ancient document, but given what is happening right now in American culture, I can’t ignore these issues.[4]  So, I read on in the story, in Luke’s birth narrative.  It doesn’t stop with the annunciation.  Mary goes off to her cousin Elizabeth’s home.  Elizabeth, pregnant with the child who will become John the baptizer, greets her, and Mary launches into song, a poem we know as the Magnificent.

It is a radical song.  Pay attention to the words when we sing our next hymn.  If you were unclear about what God thinks of a tax plan that, in ten years, has people making between $50,000 and $75,000 per year paying $4 billion more in taxes while people making $1,000,000 or more are paying $5.8 billion less, I think Mary’s song will clear it up for you.[5]  And it’s there in Mary’s song that any doubt I may have had about Mary’s willingness to participate in this plan of God’s is erased.  It is clear that she embraces her role in salvation history.

There’s one more picture I want to show you.

This is a reproduction of a billboard posted by a church in New Zealand in 2011.  It’s not, strictly speaking, an annunciation, but it’s awfully close to one.  And it echoes some of the musing I’ve been doing this week.

If Luke were to tell the whole story of Mary’s pregnancy, not skip over the second and third trimesters, how would the story have gone?  Would he have included the morning sickness? the need to pee all the time because her baby is kicking her bladder? the inability to find a comfortable position for sleep during those final weeks of pregnancy?

And I can’t help but wonder, did Mary ever doubt her calling?  Pretend, like the artists, that the story isn’t only a parable to set the foundation for Luke’s gospel, but that it actually happened the way Luke describes.  Did Mary ever think it was too much – too much work, too much of a burden?  And if she did, did the spirit of her grandmother come back to her,[6] or did the archangel Gabriel come back to her and offer a word to help her figure out how to carry on with her mission?

And what of Gabriel?  What was all this like for him?  He had his marching orders, so he did what he was told.  Or did he?  A friend shared Jan Richardson’s poem, “Gabriel’s Annunciation,” with me.[7]

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her –
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me –
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so –
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me –
her first deliverance –
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time –
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest –
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

Luke’s telling of the Annunciation invites us to engage our imaginations, and to even ask ourselves:  How might we be Gabriel?  How might we be Mary?

_______________

[1] From The Lives of the Caesars, in the section The Deified Augustus, 94.4, as quoted by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 211-212.

[2] Ibid, 212.

[3] Ibid, 212-213.

[4] Thanks to Kira Schlesinger, “Mary, #MeToo and the Question of Consent,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8617/mary-metoo-and-the-question-of-consent (posted and accessed 28 November 2017) for helping me articulate this.

[5] Fareed Zakaria, “Maybe Trump knows his base better than we do,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/maybe-trump-knows-his-base-better-than-we-do/2017/11/30/b4ca2164-d60e-11e7-b62d-d9345ced896d_story.html (posted 30 November 2017; accessed 1 December 2017).

[6] The plan was to show a clip from the movie Moana (starting about 1:17 into the movie), but we had a technical glitch that prevented us from showing it.  The spirit of the grandmother line is a reference to that scene.

[7] Copied from http://adventdoor.com/2014/12/19/advent-4-gabriel-and-mary/.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 2, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 1:38-55
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Hang on just a second while I make this call.

Hello.  God?  Yeah.  Gabe here.  Look, I’ve been all over Nazareth looking for this girl “Mary.”  Do have any idea how many Marys there are in Nazareth?  You do?  Yeah, I suppose you would know.

Look, this is getting pretty repetitive.  I find a girl named Mary.  I tell her, “Greetings favored one, God is with you,” and she looks at me like I’ve got drool dripping form the corner of my mouth or some spinach stuck in my teeth.  I explain that you want her to get pregnant so that she can give birth to a son who will inherit the throne of David and do really cool stuff, and before I can get to the part about her cousin who’s been barren into her old age being pregnant, too, I’m getting chased out of the house with a broom or worse.  None – I mean NONE – of these girls is interested.

I haven’t what?  I haven’t been to the right Mary yet.  Do you really think there is a Mary in this town who’s going to say, “Yes”?  I mean these other girls have been SO negative on the idea.  Maybe you need to switch strategies.

Okay, okay, I’ll try the next one on the list.  Okay.  Bye-bye.

I try to imagine the story of Mary, much of which we heard read today, from Mary’s point of view, too.  What do you say when an angel visits you?  I imagine it must be a little disturbing.  There she was, minding her own business, making some bread or doing some household chores, when she felt this presence.  I wonder how she would have described it.  I imagine seeing an angel as being like seeing light and hope and peace and joy all at once.  I imagine it would be wonderful and scary and a little overwhelming.  Okay, a lot overwhelming.

This angel speaks:  “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  Favored one?  What does that mean?  “Don’t be afraid,” the angel says.  Don’t be afraid.  Don’t think of a pick elephant.  I don’t imagine that helped.

And then the angel goes into this whole bit about having a son by the Holy Spirit of God.  What would you say?  This could get messy pretty quickly.  Sex outside of marriage was seen as a no-no.  No being a virgin at marriage was seen as a no-no.  If all this happens, Mary could be dragged away and stoned to death.  Convincing Joseph that the baby isn’t his but is his – I see guests for a future episode of the Jerry Springer show.

What does Mary say?  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  I think the most miraculous part of this story is Mary’s “Yes.”

We are invited to identify with Mary in her pregnancy, experiencing her unborn child kicking in her womb.  By claiming her story, by claiming the birth story, we name ourselves people of possibilities.

“When we don’t want to even pick up this morning’s newspaper, when confronted with yet another death toll, when angry with our fellow citizens – we claim that there still exists a possibility for understanding, a possibility for peace and reconciliation, a possibility that today, or maybe tomorrow, good news will triumph, change will happen.

“When we see some of this darkness, violence, and apathy inside of ourselves and do battle with our responsibilities in this world – we claim that a possibility still exists for renewal, for light to enter into ourselves, a possibility that we can actually show love to others.  There exists a possibility all around us and within each of us for incarnation to occur.  The mystery and the glory of incarnation … are that we will always confront it in the region of the unexpected.”[1]

Listen to the words of Mary’s song.  Listen to her sing of her hope in what God is doing in her “yes.”

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me …  God has shown strength with his arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Maybe all of this really could happen.  “Maybe people will be healed.  Maybe the poor will be fed.  Maybe all will be treated and loved as equals.  Maybe peace will reign and wars will cease. …  Maybe Word will become flesh.  Maybe God will become human, just like us. …  Maybe the dead will rise again.  Maybe the old will become new. …  Maybe God will be revealed in the beggar, the prostitute, or even the politician we wrote off years ago.”[2]

And I don’t want the sinless Mary.  I don’t want the Mary, meek and mild.  I want the Mary of the magnificat.  I want the Mary who raises a scandal with her pregnancy, who has a past, who has problems, who could have said “no” to God and had the chutzpa to say “yes.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”[3]

That’s why it doesn’t matter if the Mary story ever happened.  What’s important is how the Mary story touches us, how it stirs us, what it moves us to do.  Will we, with our scandals and pasts and problem have the chutzpa to say “yes” to God’s call and “yes” to God’s vision?

I believe that God is at work in you and me in much the same way that God was at work in Mary.  Not that God is knocking any of us up, but that God is inviting us to carry in our bodies the blessing of God for the world.  Having the faith and vision Mary had means allowing yourself to trust how God is at work in our lives.  Mary knew about the radical social upheaval that was about to be ushered in, thanks to her faith and her vision.

“You couldn’t get much lower in those days than to be a woman in a patriarchal society, a Jew under Roman occupation, and a peasant in a land of plenty.”[4]  And that’s what the story tells us Mary was.  A poor, Jewish woman in occupied Palestine chosen by God to bear the gift for which the world longed.

“God’s promises had already become truth in her flesh.  The poor were already being exalted. …

“At the news, she went ‘with haste’ to see her cousin Elizabeth.  It was a natural response.  When afraid, go see a friend who will listen and make it all feel a little less lonely and overwhelming.

“… Mary, still trembling with the news of what was to be fulfilled in her, ran to the elderly Elizabeth and embraced her.  At Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s womb came to life, and the child ‘leaped for joy’ within her!

“The Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise and hope, flowed forth in this setting.  And two miraculously pregnant women basked in the secret of the quiet revolution that was to be accomplished through them.  Two women incarnated the truth that, with God, nothing is impossible.

“I like to imagine what their days together were like.  They must have been filled with shared secrets, laughter, a few tears, and dreams of a future unlike any they had conceived before.  They watched their wombs swell, felt their sons growing within, probably rubbed each other’s aching backs and sore feet at the end of the day.

“Elizabeth, in her experience and wisdom, had much to share with her younger cousin.  She understood the requirements of faith and the challenges of marriage.  She knew that some would point with scorn at Mary, pregnant before her wedding, just as some had spoken of her own barrenness with reproach.  She knew how to live proudly despite the whispers behind her back, and how to be grateful to God no matter what the circumstances.  She understood what it meant to be a vessel of God’s will. …

“Together they nurtured a revolution.  The tables began turning.   The thrones began crumbling.”[5]

Though I must admit that I feel like I’ve been left out of this revolution.  The lofty are brought down and the outcasts are lifted up, but what about the middle class?  Where are we in this revolution?

I think we are to sing Mary’s song and do some soul-searching to figure out where we fit in the cosmic order of God’s reign.  For instance, do we rely on God to fill us with good things?  All too often, I know that I rely on myself to fill my physical and spiritual belly with junk food.  I’ve perpetuate this bad habit of stuffing myself on commercial Christmas crap instead of figuring out a deeper place in God’s reign that moves me away from materialism and into trust.  And in singing Mary’s song, we can embrace her faith and her vision.[6]

There’s an old Slavic fable.  Once upon a time, God decided to make Godself visible to two humans – one king and the other a simple peasant.  God sent an angel to each of them with the message:  “God has condescended to reveal the Lord to you in whatever form you wish.  In what form do you want the Lord to appear?”

Seated pompously on his throne and surrounded by his awestruck subjects – not to mention basking in the glory of having been addressed in public by no lesser a personage than an Angel of God – the king proclaimed (in all his majestic pomp):  “How else would I wish to see the Lord, except in his full majesty and power?  Show the Lord to us in the full glory and majesty which is the Lord’s alone!”

And with that, there appeared a bolt of lightning that instantly incinerated the king, his throne, and the entire Court.  And there remained only the Might of God, who had appeared exactly as the King had specified.  Except that now there was none left to see.

Then the angel appeared to a peasant, who of course knew nothing of what had happened to the King.  The angel gave him the very same message as he had the king.  “God has condescended to manifest the Lord to you in whatever manner you wish.  How do you wish to see the Lord?”

The peasant scratched his head a while, and puzzled for a good while longer.  He was a simple man, but an honest and honorable one.  Finally, after long and obviously painful thought, the peasant said:  “Change me so that I can see the Lord in those things with which I am familiar.  Let me see the Lord in the earth I plow, the water I drink, and the food I eat.  Let me see the presence of the Lord in the faces of my family, my friends, and my neighbors, and – if God wishes it, and thinks it good for myself and for others – why, let me see the Lord even in my own reflection.”

And God granted the peasant’s wish.[7]

Perhaps, if we embrace Mary’s faith and vision as our own, God will grant the peasant’s wish for us as well.  Amen.


ENDNOTES

[1] Andrew J. Hoeksema, “Speaking of Maybe,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0512&article=051222&mode=sermon_prep&week=C_Advent_2 (1 December 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] at least according to a quote someone posted on Facebook.

[4] Joyce Hollyday, “Vacant Thrones,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_941249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Malinda Elizabeth Berry, “Becoming Mary’s Servants,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_061249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).

[7] I don’t remember the source of this folktale.  I probably collected it years ago when an ecumenical electronic bulletin board, a precursor to the Internet called “Ecunet,” existed.

Additional sources used:
Martin L. Smith, “A Body Prepared for Me,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_121249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).
Madia Bolz-Weber, “There’s Just Something About Mary: The Power of Yes,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=bl_111220_Bolz_Weber_Theres_Just&week=C_Christmas_1 (1 December 2012).
Richard Rohr, OFM, “Matter and Spirit,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_791249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).

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