The Fourth Sunday of Advent
21 December 2014
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
2 Samuel 7:4, 8-16
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
When I teach my students how to do exegesis of the Greek New Testament, or when I train translators, one of the first things I do is to give them a non-biblical Greek text—something from Josephus or Philo, or perhaps a text from the early church Fathers—and ask them to translate it. In most cases they find the text completely unfamiliar, strange new territory, and are forced to ask all of the right questions to tease out the meaning behind and beneath and between the words on the page themselves. The next time we meet, they tell me they spent hours on the assignment, which took them far beyond the text into other sources. We then open up the Greek text of the New Testament, which they already know well and read fairly fluently, and they have little trouble rattling off translations on the fly. The problem is these translations are superficial, completely dependent on their favorite translations of the Bible; these translations have worn grooves in their brains and in some ways anesthetized them to anything foreign, anything surprising, that might still lurk in these texts we have read so many times. So after scolding them for their lack of imagination (a teacher’s prerogative), I embark with them on a course of defamiliarization, so that they might see the text with a new set of eyes. This is a challenge for us too. Especially in our high season of Advent (as in Lent and Holy Week) we come again upon stories in Scripture that we regard as old friends. We need only hear the opening statement—“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man . . .”—and we begin to coast. We’ve come out of the rough seas we encountered in the hard parables of the last weeks of Pentecost and their disconcerting imagery of “the outer darkness” and “the weeping and gnashing of teeth,” and we’ve glided into the calm, wind-protected harbor. Of course, you know what I would say about that. Rubbish! In Luke especially, the stories of Advent, the Annunciation, the Magnificat, the nativity, the whole story of what God is doing and how he is doing it, are astonishing shocking, explosive and utterly unimaginable. And Luke tells his story not to repulse his audience but to thrill them right down to the core of their being. Let us revisit some old haunts.
The Annunciation, the story of the angelic visitation to Mary, is one part of a longer story of waiting—waiting for God to act again. The prophetic voice had gone silent; Maccabean revolts had waxed and waned; darkness and desperation covered the land of Israel now occupied by the Roman army. This is what lies behind Luke’s apparent historical observation at the beginning of the Gospel: “in the days of King Herod of Judea” (1:5a). Herod was a brutal dictator, a puppet of Rome, who masqueraded as a Davidic king, renovated the temple and erected grand buildings in honor to himself, but was despised by the common people and opposed by the Jewish elders in Jerusalem. This comment is no mere factoid that allows us to place the birth of Jesus on a timeline. It is rather an allusion to the unjust balance of power, the oppression of the poor, and collusion at the highest level of Israel with God’s enemies. A more contemporary parallel would be “in the days of Watergate.”
And on the other side of our story is Luke’s reference to the Roman census: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Again, whatever this does to establish the timing of Jesus’ birth, it does far more to define the deep darkness of this age into which God’s salvation was breaking. This is Octavian, known in his time as “the divine savior who has brought peace to the world.” This Pax Romana, attributed to Octavian, was produced initially through conquest and plunder, and maintained subsequently throughout the Empire by taxation and the brutal and vicious force of the Roman Army. Herod and Octavian in Luke’s mind stand for corruption, oppression, godlessness, the darkness of evil, and hopelessness.
But it is precisely in this “worst of times” that the God of the covenant has begun to move. The sleeping giant has awakened, the clock has begun to tick; promises uttered long ago in antiquity are taken out, dusted off, rehearsed, and their fulfillment will be decisive and as scandalous as they will also be momentous and glorious.
Not yet aware that her kinswoman, Elizabeth—poor, pitiable, barren, and beyond all hope Elizabeth—is pregnant, Mary is about to be astounded. Listen again to the text, a defamiliarized rendition: “Toward the end of Elizabeth’s second trimester, the angel whose name was Divine Warrior was sent from God to a disreputable backwater village of Galilee called Nazareth, to a thirteen-year-old virgin betrothed to an older man named Joseph of the house of David. Her name was Mary, the same as Moses’ sister, but there was nothing much to say about her family. The angel greeted her: Rejoice, O favored one, for the Lord is with you.” Of course the point of this kind of exercise is to imagine what the first audience might have heard, to tease back to life the hidden details, understood by the first audience but often lost to us or driven from our minds by an over-familiarity with this beloved story. Gabriel was not the heavenly FedEx; he was most widely known as the one who destroys the wicked. His appearance here is tantamount to a declaration of war . . . the decisive war against evil and its embodiment in human political and religious institutions, to be waged through the birth and incarnation and messianic ministry of God’s son and ultimately won through his display of divine power-in-human weakness on the cross.
And what a surprising place to make such an announcement—Nazareth, despised by any and all respectable Judeans as a place desecrated by heathen Gentiles, rife with tax-gathers and prostitutes, a place from which no good thing could come. Scandalous; surely God would reserve such matters for Jerusalem—but apparently not.
And is Mary not also something of a surprise? I don’t mean the matter of a virgin conceiving. When Luke introduces Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and (later) Simeon and Anna, he is careful to present those markers of social status and piety that set these characters apart (Zechariah is a priest and he and his wife are righteous; Joseph is of the house of David; and so on). In contrast, Mary’s introduction is surprising: no reference is made to family background, so crucial to identity and social standing in Jewish culture; it is as if she is an orphan: she is betrothed to Joseph but has not yet inherited his status (as she would at marriage). If she has a father, she is yet his property; soon, according to custom, if her virginity can be demonstrated, she will become the wife and property of someone else. But Mary . . . She herself is in-between. What commends her for this undertaking?
Nothing; despite the hero of the faith she would become. What commended Moses? In both cases, and in so many more throughout the biblical narrative, God does the unthinkable; God chooses the outsider; God appears to the scoundrel; God bypasses the firstborn of Jesse and several other brothers, selecting the youngest to build his kingdom; God operates in the margins; He defies the sense and sensibilities of even his chosen people’s social world; God dares to do the scandalous. Moses (whatever else he was) was a murderer and the Hebrew people who would follow him knew this. But God favored him—looked upon him and exercised the divine grace of selection, a hand extended to be grasped in response. The classic and climactic episode of the meaning of God’s favor comes in Exodus 33, where Moses is back up on the mountain with God after the people had worshiped the golden calf and the first tablets had been smashed. Moses and God converse around this whole idea of what it means that God has favored Moses. God says, “You have found favor in my sight, and I will go with you.” Moses then says to God, rather surprisingly, “Show me your glory.” And because God has granted this decisive grace to Moses, he agrees, places Moses in the cleft of the rock, and in all his glory passes Moses by.
This is the background, the theme that is rung like a bell as Gabriel says to Mary, “Hail O favored one, for the Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.” God has acted again, surprisingly, scandalously, risking the reputation of this tender, innocent girl—barely a woman. Moses was blessed with a glimpse of the retreating glory of God. Mary would conceive, carry and give birth to God in the flesh; she would hold God in her arms; nurse him; and gaze into his face.
All of the rest of the Divine Warrior’s message is a bringing to life of the messianic poems and fragments in the Hebrew Bible, a description of Messiah’s eternal kingdom and salvation, especially echoing Isaiah 7. As the Divine Warrior tells it to Mary and even as he answers her puzzling question—and . . . how is this going to happen?—the movement of the angel’s prophetic poetry takes the listener, you and me, down a staircase of excitement and certainty. God will do this thing . . . for nothing is impossible with God. And yet as we reach the bottom step, our breath catches; there is something hanging in the air, a final matter to be negotiated. The vulnerable Mary responds, “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word;” and the key turns audibly in the lock, and we breathe again.Unless Luke missed something in his research, Mary had little of the things her culture valued—low social status, a young woman living in obscurity, whose major life decisions would all be made for her by others. Except for that one decision which would change the course of history. What the angel announced to her with the certainty of divine decree still needed a human response of faith. That is how covenant works. And while Mary’s heroic acceptance of the task set before her is a cause of eternal rejoicing, it is also a challenge for us to take up ourselves.
© 2014 Philip H. Towner