In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38 NIV)
Pregnancy is a hopeful thing. We use the word: expecting to describe it. She is expecting. Pregnancy holds within it the promise and miracle life. It is hard to not set your mind to dreaming when you are expecting. Parents begin wondering, worrying, planning, dreaming, hoping for a better future. Many folks like a good friend of mine was underachieving terribly in college until he got married and then quickly had a baby. With a new baby, his first full time job, night classes, and caring for a newborn he moved from Cs & Ds to the Dean’s list. Hold a baby and see if you don’t long for a better world.
But pregnancy and parenting is full of risks, potential loss, disappointments. Pregnancy is uncomfortable, altering and challenging. Yet, pregnancy offers its own beauty. Our High Risk Obstetrician put Connie on steroids. One day, Connie ambled into the kitchen with the shoelaces of her hiking boots dangling out behind her feet and huge tears streaming down her face sobbing “I can’t even bend over to tie these cursed boots.” Pregnancy is not a dainty beauty- it is the beauty of stretching, discomfort, adjustment carrying, altering, preserving and persevering. It is the beauty of strength, courage, creativity, hope and the risk taken for a better world.
Christmas is a story of pregnancy, hope, risk and courage. Let’s consider our passage.
The angel said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
As a teen likely less than sixteen years old Mary is wisely cautious. When God sends messengers they do not come preaching the prosperity Gospel. Gabriel does not come to offer Mary a luxurious Mediterranean Cruise. Angels do not call us to comfort but come to put us to work. Noah, build an ark. Abraham and Sarah, go to a land I will show you. Go down Moses, way down in Pharaoh’s land, tell old Pharaoh let my people go. Jeremiah, go weeping and preach bad news to the king. Mary wisely fears the potential message for often the messenger suffers. God calls us to save the world not to nap on the beach.
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High…. How can this be,” Mary asked, “since I am a virgin?”
Now we have a choice to make in our sermon- do we consider why Mary might be afraid to have this wonderful child? Do we gloss over the risks facing Mary or engage Mary’s fears?
Mary knows pregnancy outside of marriage holds great risk and danger. The best outcome would be exactly what Matthew writes, “And Joseph her fiancé, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace Mary, planned to send her away secretly” (Matthew 1:19). What does “send her away” imply? Where would Joseph send his pregnant bride? Without a husband a woman could not own property and many were reduced to panhandling or prostitution. Would Mary need to run away to live with her Godly Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah?
Preachers might like to gloss over the culture that surrounds Mary. We might want to ignore the deepest fear Mary holds. We might avoid preaching about the danger that Mary faced, because the deep threat to Mary’s life and the life of the Baby Jesus is the Old Testament Levitical Law. “If no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 22:20-21 NIV). The Old Testament Law prescribes stoning for a woman who came to her fiancé pregnant. Stoning a pregnant girl is not pro-life.
So what do we do with these Old Testament laws? It is not intellectual honesty to condemn the extreme passages within the Koran without dealing with our own problematic passages. If we critique Islam, someone might say, well your scriptures say the same sorts of things. What will we say to that? Friends our Old Testament scriptures do prescribe stoning, Jesus does not. We follow Jesus not, a legal system. Friends, if we fear Islamic fundamentalism then we must confront Christian fundamentalism.
How do our Jewish friends deal with these troubling shared passages? Our Jewish friends maintain three defined traditions. The three rabbinical traditions or schools are Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed. Reformed Judaism says “The Jewish way of reading the sacred word is through interpretation. The ‘word’ is not inert, nor is it immutable. It is, instead, in dialogue with those who read it, apply it, and live it. The Torah changes meaning as we use …. We are most authenticly Jewish when we read the Torah in the light of the here and now, seeking its application in the context of our own needs.” www.reformjudaism.org “The Twice Told Tale.” Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis.
How do we Christians treat the Old Testament? What do we say when people say your Scriptures contain brutal prescriptions like stoning a potentially pregnant woman? Friends, our Old Testament Scriptures say that, but our Jesus does not! Jesus ushers in an area of forgiveness, mercy, love, and grace. Jesus brings a new covenant.
Honest faith acknowledges that legalism and religious police threaten Jesus even before he was born. How is it that Christians have forgotten that a religious court condemns Jesus to death for the sin of blasphemy? Friends, those who long to legally enforce the moral code are the enemies of Jesus even before he is born.
Jesus comes preaching love, mercy, and grace! Christians reject the law on stoning, because Jesus proclaimed “you without sin cast the first stone”! (John 8) Jesus does not write a new law, but appeals to the hearts and minds of those seeking to carry out the Old Testament law. We lean with Jesus into grace over the law. We break the Old Testament Law when we fail to stone to death Sabbath breakers (Numbers 15:35). In Mark 7:19, the Gospel writer makes clear that Jesus sets aside the Old Testament Kosher Laws writing “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.” Jesus does not directly say we can break kosher laws. Mark’s Gospel infers and preaches that idea. Jesus becomes the standard of the Law for Christians. The writer of Hebrews goes even further, “But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior… the covenant of which (Jesus) is mediator is superior to the old one …. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, there would have been no need for a second covenant to replace it. … (God) has made the first (covenant) obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8). Indeed, the Apostle Paul may be the grand champion of grace writing: “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). We see the Law through the gracious lens of Jesus. Jesus told us “all the law and prophets hang on” loving God and neighbor! (Matthew 22:40) Imbued with grace we reconsider Paul’s teaching on slavery and women’s roles.
When people say “well your scriptures teach…”, we must say that Jesus is our standard. It is time for us to step away from wooden fundamentalism and say clearly that we are New Testament, New Covenant Christians- we are Christ-followers. Friends, how can we wag our fingers at the murderous passages of another faith’s scriptures if we do not deal with our own scriptures? Friends, we need to offer the world Christ! Let us preach Christ, who battled legalism, from the manger to the cross!
Let us live into our Methodist ideals …. “the law given from God by Moses … doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral”(article 6 1784). Methodist set aside the Old Testament law in 1784!
So let’s be honest, the biggest threat to Jesus’ birth is the Old Testament law. Let us be Christians who proclaim with Paul “Christ has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter (the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone,) but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life…. Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold…. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:6-7, 12, 17 NIV)
The world needs Jesus not some non-binding blend of amalgamated faiths- the popular notion that all faiths are the same- and what you believe does not matter too much. That is untrue, insulting and non-transforming. Neither does our world does need more legalists seeking to enforce a religious moral code upon others. The world needs Jesus. The world needs Christ-like love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, compassion and empathy. Perhaps the purveyors of hate in other religions do not see Jesus’ love, mercy, and grace because we Christians fail to emulate Jesus. Perhaps we are not winning the world to Christ because we Christians are too busy battling each other. Let us offer the world Christ- not an ideology but a spiritual movement.
Mary feared for her life because of the religious laws!
“How can this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. … For no word from God will ever fail.”
Mary hears od’s call to save the world and offers herself to that work.
Knowing the risk Mary offers to help God change the world.
“I am the handmaiden of the Lord,” Mary answered. “May God’s word to me be fulfilled.”
Mary says I will face the legalists. I will face the stones. I will face the whispers and innuendos. I will face my synagogue. I will face Joseph. I will face my parents. I will flee if I have to or maybe worse. I will see my teenage body altered. I will lay aside comfort and luxury and enter God’s risky endeavor. I will answer the call with Moses and Miriam, Sarah and Abraham, Rahab, Ruth and Naomi. I can do it with God’s power. I will offer Jesus to the world.
Hope implies a certain risk. When everything is comfortable there is little reason to Hope. Hope travels from the dimness of uncertainty, insecurity, doubt, fear and brooding towards the light of faith, courage, risk, confidence and love. Hope is eternal- the Apostle Paul tells us that only Faith, hope and love endure. Hope holds a hunger- a longing, a fight for a better world a holy restlessness with the unsatisfactory status quo.
Maybe a teenage Mary dared to sing a song of hope. Maybe filled with the spirit Mary sang: “This is my fight song. Prove I’m alright song. My power’s turned on. Starting right now I’ll be strong. I’ll play my fight song. And I don’t really care if nobody else believes. Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight” (Songwriters: Platten, Rachel / Bassett, Dave)
Hope gets out there. Hope changes the world.
Around the days before his house was firebombed by white terrorists. Martin Luther King confessed being ready to give up. In “the Strength to Love” he writes of praying “I am at the end of my powers, I have nothing left. I can’t face it alone. At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I Had never before experienced Him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying ‘stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forevermore.’ Almost at once my fears passed from me. … The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me an inner calm. God is able to give us interior resources to face the storms and problems of life. …When our days become dreary with the low hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and God is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows! This is our hope for becoming better men and women. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38)
So will you dare to hope for better world?
Will you risk it? Will you offer Christ to the world?
Will you allow God’s word to become your life?
Will you risk believing we can remake a Christ-like world or will you accept the unsatisfactory status quo or seek to build up walls to contain what is good?
Will you say yes to God’s hope?
As a young teenager facing huge risks from the Levitical Laws, Mary says yes to Hope, yes to risk, yes to life, yes to God’s plan to save the world. Will we say with Mary “Here I am, the Lord’s handmaiden. May God’s word to me be fulfilled”?