Mysterious Announcement – Luke 1:26-38
December 13, 2015 – Third Sunday in Advent
A friend of ours was sent by her fundamentalist pastor father to buy Christmas stamps. Part of his instructions was “no halos.” Any nativity scene of Mary and Jesus should not have halos around their heads. At least, he said, not around Mary’s head. He did not want anything on his cards which might suggest an idolatrous view of Jesus’ mother.
Halos are not idolatry. They are an ages old Christian way of expressing truth, truth the Bible teaches. Those golden glowing circles show that the figures beneath them have been chosen and used by God for His holy purposes. God’s presence in their lives shines in and around them. For Jesus, of course, a halo also shows God in Him in the fullest sense. The light around that baby head is the artist’s way of saying “Here is God.” Halos are beautiful art and sound doctrine.
The real question about halos is why they are only in paintings. How is it God’s arrival on earth appeared in such an ordinary way? One of the mysteries of the first Christmas is that there were no visible halos there in the stable. Anyone looking at the infant lying in a bed of straw saw nothing particularly remarkable. He cried and ate and wet His swaddling clothes like any other newborn. If you had been there, you might have lent Mary a hand with changing Him, but you would not have seen anything really unusual about that boy.
Yes, in today’s text a visible and audible angel appeared to Mary. She saw and heard Gabriel. It frightened and perplexed her, as verses 29 and 30 tell us. But the angel announced an almost invisible miracle. Without any human father in the picture, she would become pregnant. She would have a son. The mystery, greater yet even less visible than the biological miracle, is that He would be God’s Son.
This story is the beginning of the glorious fact at the center of our faith. God has entered our world. C. S. Lewis called it “The Grand Miracle.” Yet it all began microscopically. The greatest thing God has ever done began with a tiny cell brought to life by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s body. For weeks no one but Mary would know. The miraculous power which created the stars, carved the Grand Canyon, and holds the world in its orbit has, as Lewis put it, narrowed down to a point and focused on one “Jewish girl at her prayers.” Almighty God was among us and there was nothing to see, no halos, no lightning flashes, no grand displays of power.
Even as the announcement spread, next to Joseph, then to Elizabeth Mary’s cousin, and then to shepherds and finally to a strange party of intelligentsia from the east, even then it was almost unnoticeable. One small boy was being born to a poor woman in a corner of a village in one of the punier and less important countries of the world.
The angel said big things, yes. The baby would be called the Son of the Most High in verse 32. He would have a throne. He would reign over His people. His kingdom would never end in verse 33. There were large words spoken about this little boy. Yet His birth remained small, a barely perceptible event which would not have made the evening news, much less CNN. God was coming into the world and almost no one knew or cared.
- K. Chesterton wrote, “…the whole universe had been turned inside out… all the eyes of wonder and worship which had been turned outward to the largest thing were now turned inward to the smallest… God who had been only a circumference was seen as a centre; and a centre is infinitely small… The faith becomes, in more ways than one, a religion of little things.”
In verse 37, the angel told Mary that it would all happen “For nothing is impossible with God.” Nowhere else in all God’s miracles do we feel that so deeply. The tiny size of it all seems impossible. God made Himself a baby. Only a truly all-powerful God could do such a thing.
As fantastic and glorious as angels are, they could not do what God did. Look through the Bible. Every time an angel encounters a human being there is fear and distress, just as Mary experienced. Real angels, who are not silly little cherubs on Christmas cards, come too big and too bright for us to be comfortable with them. That’s why our angel Gabriel will be carrying a sword tonight in our Christmas program. That’s why my wife Beth enjoyed so much a blog entry she found about Christmas carols. In the comment on “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” the blog writer celebrated “six-winged cherubim and seraphim that could zap Rudolph into venison with one glance from their laser-focused sleepless eyes.”
Real angels are scary. So it takes someone greater than an angel to arrive with peace and comfort rather than fear. C. S. Lewis wrote that it takes the greatest to become the littlest. “Its power to do so is almost a test of its greatness.”
You can ring the changes of this mystery in any number of ways: With Chesterton, “the hands that had made the stars were too small to reach the heads of the cattle.” With Chrysostom, “He was placed in a manger so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother.” With the Venerable Bede, “He who has clothed with varied ornament the world is folded in poor swaddling clothes.” With the poet Robert Southwell, “Behold the Father is His daughter’s Son.”
It is all, says Chesterton, “much too good to be true, except that it is true.” And that is the crucial matter for each of us, to simply believe it is true. If it is, then it changes everything. There is a God who knows you. There is a God who cared enough to become like you. There is a God who drew near enough to save you. Believe in the truth that God’s Son was born, and your life receives a whole new significance.
Louis Cassels, long time religion writer for UPI, wrote a Christmas parable about a person who had a hard time believing it was all true. Once upon a time there was a man who looked upon Christmas as a lot of humbug. He wasn’t a Scrooge. He was a very kind and decent person. But he didn’t believe all that stuff about an Incarnation which churches proclaim at Christmas. And he was too honest to pretend that he did. He simply could not understand the claim that God became a man. It didn’t make any sense to him.
On Christmas Eve, his wife and children went to church for the midnight service, but he stayed home. It began to snow. “If we must have Christmas,” he thought, “it’s nice to have a white one.” He sat down by the fire to read the newspaper. A few minutes later he heard a thudding sound, followed by another and another. Birds, caught in the storm, and in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his window. Now they lay huddled miserably in the snow. “I can’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze.” he thought. “But how can I help them?”
He thought of the barn. It was a warm shelter. He put on his coat and overshoes and tramped out through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light. But the birds didn’t come in.
“Food will bring them in,” he thought. So he sprinkled a trail of bread crumbs from the birds to the sheltering barn. To his dismay, the birds ignored the crumbs and continued to flop around helplessly in the snow.
He tried waving his arms and shooing them into the barn. They scattered in every direction—except into the warm, lighted barn. “They find me a strange and terrifying creature,” he said to himself, “and I can’t seem to think of any way to let them know they can trust me.”
Then he thought, “If only I could be a bird myself for a few minutes, perhaps I could lead them to safety.” Just at that moment, the church bells began to ring. He stood silently for a while, listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. Then he sank on his knees in the snow. “Now I do understand,” he whispered, “now I see why you had to do it.”
Southwell’s Christmas poem has this line too: “The bird that built the nest is hatched therein.” God became one of us. For our sake the Creator became a creature. God the Father brought His Son into the world as a human baby so that as a grown man He might lead us to salvation.
He could not come with blazing glory, nor with the power of heavenly armies, nor with some vast rearrangement of the natural order. You and I would be overwhelmed and frightened out of our wits. Scripture says correctly that it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Only if we could see hands like ours, strong yet gentle, pierced for our salvation, only then could we meet our God and love Him and follow Him into warmth and light. So God came to us by giving us His Son.
Our other Scripture readings for today speak that same huge announcement of God in the little place, God with us. Zephaniah 3, verses 14 and 15, told us to sing and shout because “the Lord is in your midst.” In Philippians 4, verses 4 and 5, Paul told us to rejoice because “the Lord is near.” That’s what candles and lights and church bells on Christmas Eve announce. God has come to nest among us, to make His home with human beings by being a human being. It’s a mysterious announcement that changes everything.
Mary’s response to that mysterious announcement is the model for us all. She is the first Christian. She was the first person ever to accept Jesus Christ into her life. God made Himself small enough to live in Mary and she welcomed Him. She asked her questions, she wondered how it was all going to happen. But when all God had to announce was said, she bowed her head and invited the mystery into herself in verse 38. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” Mary answered, “let it be with me according to your word.”
Jesus God’s Son is God large enough to be Lord of everything that concerns you and God small enough to come to you wherever you are. If you find yourself pushed into a tight corner by circumstances out of your control, Jesus can still slip in there to help you. If you’ve rolled your heart up into a compact little ball so it can’t ever be broken again, it is not shrunken so much that Christ cannot enter in and heal your wounds. If your sins against others have shut you in a tiny box, cut off from love, it is still not too small a place for the Son of God to come to and offer you forgiveness.
Listen to the angel’s mysterious announcement and then respond to your own situation as Mary did. Become the Lord’s servant. Say with her, “Let it be with me according to your word.” There is no heart on earth too small for Him, no area of your life so cramped and crowded that He cannot find room. Jesus is great enough to help you and humble enough to be with you. God announced the gift of Mary’s Son to enter your life and save you. The answer to that mysterious, wonderful announcement is to give yourself to Him.
That man in Louis Cassels “Parable of the Birds” was finally able to hear the bells, to hear the announcement of God’s Son because he found he could not help those dying creatures. He had nothing to give them. But Mary’s answer to God’s announcement shows us that like her, we do in fact have something to give in response. We may not have any way to give ourselves to beings not like us, but we can give ourselves to God and to others.
As we emphasize “Give More” this Advent, please don’t hear it as just one more plea for our church’s financial need. That’s there, yes. But hear it much more as God’s request to return His gift of Himself by giving yourself, your time, your presence, your listening ear, your encouragement, your personal attention and love to someone else during this season. It could be a family member with whom you haven’t spoken in awhile. It might be a neighbor who lives alone or who has suffered a loss this year. It could be a person on the street for whom you buy a hamburger, but then sit down to talk with as the food is eaten. It could be a child not your own to whom you give an hour or so this evening just by being here to see him or her dress up and learn the Christmas story by acting it out.
God’s mysterious announcement is that He has come to be where it seems like the Lord of the universe could not possibly fit. But part of the grand mystery is that He asks, and makes it possible, for you and I to give ourselves away in places where we might not at first feel we fit. God gave Himself to us by humbly entering our lives. We repeat that sweet announcement by humbly entering other lives and giving away our time and presence.
Our psalm, our Old Testament reading, and our epistle lesson all ask for serious rejoicing. Both the psalm from Isaiah 12 and Zephaniah 3 tell us to sing and shout. Paul in Philippians 4, says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” But then right away in the next verse, Paul says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” That’s a powerful way to repeat the announcement that God is here among us, by being gentle people who demonstrate in ourselves just how the Lord entered this world.
In contrast to all the harshness and violence which seems to permeate our perception of the world and the news we hear, you and I announce something different, simply by gently being different. Instead of brushing past the people around us or turning away the world at our door, we can be humble, gentle doorways by which God still enters.
Mary was the door by which God entered the human race. She quietly, gently, but firmly held it open for Him by her willingness to be the Lord’s servant. Now you and I have the opportunity to be that open door for someone else, to be, by kindness or welcome or witness or generosity or simple listening, the opening for the Lord Jesus to enter another life and bring His gift of saving love. Please listen today to the mysterious announcement of Jesus’ birth. Receive it first into your own life. Then go and plan a way to share it.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj