Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sermon for the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord

                                                                        Lk 1:26-38

            The news that a woman is pregnant can be met with a variety of responses.  There is obviously the response of joy and excitement.  And even this varies depending on the situation.  Learning that a wife is pregnant with a couple’s first child is a once in a lifetime experience.  The knowledge that the union of husband and wife has produced a new life – a life that will be your child – brings joy and wonder that is hard to describe.
            Couples naturally assume that they will have sex and the wife will then get pregnant.  After all, that is the way things are supposed to work.  It comes as a shock when time passes and it doesn’t happen this way.  Infertility is not something anyone expects.  It is even a common experience that couples who had no trouble getting pregnant with their first child can then experience secondary infertility and they are unable to have another child. There are, of course, things that can be done to help alleviate this problem that don’t present ethical issues for Christians. When couples pursue some of these options and the wife finally becomes pregnant there is joy and excitement that is of a different intensity because it has been preceded by so much frustration and effort – though to be sure not all of that effort has been an undesirable experience.
            Pregnancy can also bring surprise and shock.  A wife may become pregnant when the couple had no plans to have a child.  It may happen at a time in life that they don’t consider to be ideal.  Or it may happen when they don’t even think it is possible to become pregnant. Amy and I experienced the first two kinds of joy and excitement I have described with Timothy, and then with Matthew and Abigail.  And then after trying so hard to have the twins, we experienced the surprise of Amy getting pregnant again when we didn’t even think it was possible for her to do so. It was a surprise, but without that surprise we would not have Michael.  And so the surprise brought another blessing to our marriage – a blessing born on this very day.
            Of course, the news of pregnancy can bring a reaction of fear and worry.  When sex is used outside of marriage the news of pregnancy raises issues that cannot be ignored.  Having used sex in ways for which it is not intended, the unplanned result of a human life brings great uncertainty about the future.
            In the Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord, Mary learns from the angel Gabriel that she is going to be pregnant with a son.  She is a virgin – someone who has been following God’s plan and ordering of his creation.  Yet now she learns that something that does not fit the natural order of things is going to happen to her.  Her remarkable response to this news is that of faith and trust in God.  We see tonight that it is because of this amazing news that we are able to live by faith and trust in God as well.
            In our text we learn that the angel Gabriel was sent to Mary, a girl who lived in Nazareth.  No doubt she was a teenager.  As a faithful part of God’s people, she wasn’t married and so she was a virgin.  She was betrothed to a man named Joseph who descended from the house of David.  Her future was quite clear. She would marry Joseph and they would have a family together.
            However, Gabriel had been sent to announce something that she did not expect.  He said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”  Mary was no different from you and me.  Angels didn’t show up and talk to her every day either.  She was greatly troubled as she tried to understand what was happening.
            Gabriel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 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 father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
            The angel told Mary that she was going to conceive and give birth to the Messiah.  The language of our text comes from 2 Samuel chapter 7 in which God promised King David that he would establish his throne forever.  Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth to the One who would fulfill this promise. This child would be called great and would be called Son of the Most High.  God would give him the throne of David and he would rule over Israel forever. This language signaled the fulfillment of all the wonderful promises that God had made about the Messiah through the prophets.  It meant that God was going to defeat all the enemies of his people and give them peace forever.
            This all sounded great, but how was it going to happen?  Mary asked, “How will this be, since I don’t know a man?”  She asked how this was going to happen since she wasn’t married and so wasn’t having sex with anyone.  Apparently Mary took Gabriel’s announcement to be a description of something that was going to happen very soon. And if it was going to happen before her marriage to Joseph, how was this going to take place? 
            Mary’s question was obviously bounded by the natural order of things. In that order created by God, a husband and wife come together as one flesh and they produce a child.  Yet God was going to do something very different. Something never seen before.  Gabriel answered her, “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 called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
            In a clear yet also vague way, Gabriel described to Mary that she would become pregnant through the work of the Spirit of God. The kings who had descended from David could all be called God’s “son.”  But this was something different altogether.  From the witness of Scripture we know that her son Jesus was not only the Messiah; he was – and is – also the Second Person of the Trinity.  He is God.  Mary was hearing the incarnation announced to her.  She would bear in her womb and give birth to the Son of God.  She would be – as the Church confesses – the Theotokos; the God bearer.
            Mary could not have understood all of this in that moment. She was probably struggling to understand what any of it meant. Yet in faith she responded, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  In spite of the fact that she couldn’t understand it all; in spite of the fact that it obviously would mean tremendous changes in her life, Mary responded with faith and trust in God.
            What about you?  Is your life marked by faith and trust in God?  I know you, and so I can say that sometimes the answer is yes.  But there are also those other times when the answer is no.  Perhaps it seems like that latter is more common than the former.  You worry about things that are outside of your control – forgetting that they are under God’s control.  Mary expressed her faith in terms of service. She said she was the Lord’s servant – literally his slave.  But all too often you aren’t so interested in being a servant for anyone.
            The timing of the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord is unique. It is the timing of this feast that helps provide comfort for the times we fail to walk by faith and trust in God.  And it is the timing of this feast that makes us see why we can do so.
            Today is like a little pause in the midst of Lent.  A note of joy and celebration intrudes into this restrained season of repentance. We celebrate the incarnation of the Son of God -   that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. We marvel at the fact that Jesus Christ is true God and true man at the same time.
            And yet we do this a mere four days before we start Holy Week.  We do this as we are about to watch Jesus Christ suffer and die for the forgiveness of our sins.  The One conceived by the Holy Spirit is man, and so he can die. Yet he is also God – and so as God’s Son his death has meaning and significance found in no death before or since.  He came to fulfill a role that no one else could, for he took upon himself the sins of the world and by his death he redeemed us from sin.
            Yet the story of Jesus does not end with Holy Week.  Instead, it continues on into the next week – the week when the new creation began.  For on the first day of that week Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  God the Father raised up Jesus and in so doing he defeated death.
            This is the Good News that God has announced to you.  Sin is not the last word.  Death is not the last word.  And because you know this, the same Spirit who conceived Jesus Christ creates faith and trust in God.  He works this within you.  He sustains and nurtures its growth through the Means of Grace.
            The challenges of this life do not have to be times that cause fear and doubt.  Instead, through the work of Christ’s Spirit they become opportunities to believe and trust in God more deeply.  Rather than seeing them as times when God is abandoning us or ceasing to care, they become times when we see that God is at work calling us to ever deeper faith and trust in him. We can view things this way not because of wishful thinking, but because we know that the One conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary died on the cross and then rose again on the third day.

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