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December 22, 2002
by Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Luke, chapter 1 and follow along as I read verses 26-38. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,
27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.
28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."
29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.
32 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 ancestor David.
33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"
35 The angel said to 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 holy; he will be called Son of God.
36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.
37 For nothing will be impossible with God."
38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Christmas is a time of celebration, and part of the festive fun is food. Our Thanksgiving-to-Christmas consumption of goodies will surely lead to a few extra pounds and a resolution to start the New Year with a diet. Nothing is wrong with dropping your excess holiday weigh, but in our Ken-and-Barbie-doll culture, dieting has become a chronic obsessionwhich may not be very good. You may be losing weigh while slowly killing yourself with stress over losing weight.
There you are down at Dunkin Doughnuts, calculating the calories of that creamfilled doughnut, trying to figure out how much of it is going to show up on your hips. Do you realize that you could be doing more damage to your heart from stressing over calories than if you simply ate the doughnut. Happiness and self-acceptance are much better for you than stressful self-denial.
Stress and Fuss
Reduce stress, increase joythat is a diet I like. Refusing joy is nothing less than a form of blasphemy. Vanity kills, as does stressful self-denial. Happiness produces endorphins that keep you healthy. And even if laughter is not the best medicine, would you not rather enjoy your life than just live a long life?
The truth of the matter is that you can eat right, drink your bottled water, take your vitamins, get plenty of sleep, and still get hit by a bus, or fall down the stairs, or struck by lightning. The truth is we are going to die of something, so we might as well enjoy life nowparticularly during the holiday season.
I read on the Internet that If you had bought $1000 worth of Nortel stock one year ago, it would now be worth $49. If you had bought $1,000 worth of Coke (the drink, not the stock) one year ago, drank all the coke, then traded in the cans at a redemption center for the nickel deposit, you would have $107. So the moral is drink heavily and recycle. Well, maybe not, but in any case, God has created a delicious world for us, and he wants us to experience joy. The angels did not sing "Stress to the world, the Lord has come." The archangel did not say, "Fear not, for today I bring you tidings of great stress -which shall be to all people." That is usually the way it works though. When we are stressed, we bring our stress to all people - husband, wife, children, the family pet, friends, and co-workers.
Picture this: The entire family has gathered for Christmas. They rise early and dress in their new holiday outfits. After a morning church service, they open their gifts. It takes two hours, but meanwhile Mother is putting the final touches on the huge dinner featuring everyone's favorite dishes. After the children play with all their new toys, they stack them neatly and help set the table with the best lace tablecloth and the recently polished silver. Dad lights a roaring fire, and then everyone sings carols and sits down to the wonderful feast. What's wrong with this picture?
The truth is this festive scene is an ideal for which many strive but few attainand even those who attain it are exhausted, stressed out, and worried about impending credit-card bills. There has got to be a better way.
The Bible's picture of Christ's birth contains basic elements and symbols of the faith: longing and expectation, the joy of new beginnings, the intimacy of shared belief, the faithfulness of devoted seekers and followers. And yet in our culture, the meaning of these symbols has been lost. Commercialism reigns, and the Christmas season has become a season of panic and purchase instead of calm waiting and culmination. Most religious people want to reclaim a simple joy and celebration without the hype, yet they are unsure how.
Let's look at the scripture for direction. Luke's infancy narrative begins not with the story of Jesus, but with the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist (1:5-25). Luke is the only gospel to report the births of both John and Jesus. Matthew opens with a genealogy and the story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, while Mark and John contain no infancy narratives at all. Luke is also unique in its elevation of the roles of Elizabeth and Mary, while Matthew seems to be focused on Josephs part in the story.
In Luke 1:26-38, all the aspects of this expertly crafted scene emphasize Luke's point that Jesus' birth was the result of an intentional divine intervention into human history. While Luke's words reflect his unique mastery of language, the particulars discussed in this passage actually follow a standard style. Similar birth announcements, complete with claims of miraculous conception, were known among the written histories of ancient Near Eastern secular leaders and statesmen. Thus, although Luke's language is uniquely powerful, the form his message takes is not original.
Luke quickly makes it clear, however, that he is not speaking about events that will lead to the birth of just another great leader. Every detail pushes forward one ideathat Jesus' arrival on this earth was a true miracle, a result of a carefully choreographed divine plan for all humankind. Jesus' birth was divine love in action.
At this early stage of God's work, the individual most obviously affected by these divine plans is Mary. Her life is changed forever, even before Gabriel makes his remarkable announcement. This simple girl has been visited by an angel. Little wonder Mary is "perplexed" (v. 29) by the first words of the heavenly messenger. In Jewish tradition, women in general, and particularly young, unmarried girls, were not directly greeted. The fact that Mary is squarely confronted and addressed by her angelic visitor makes her a "favored one" even before God's special role for her is spelled out.
The First Disciple
Catholic and Protestant Christian traditions tend to view Mary with different lenses. Catholic tradition focuses on the favor Mary found in God's eyes and her unique role in Jesus' birth and life. Her miraculous conception through the power of the Holy Spirit, her obedience to the divine will, and her attentiveness to the divine message essentially make Mary the first disciple. In fact, Mary's response to all she hears makes her an example for all future disciples to follow.
Protestant theology, on the other hand, has often seemed to look past the birth of Christ to focus instead on the end result of Mary's visitation and obediencenamely, the human birth of the Son of God, the arrival of Jesus Christ on Earth.
Now I know that we are all died in the wool, blue stocking Presbyterians but if we try to be objective here, we can see that Luke's text offers weight to both interpretations. Clearly, the gospel writer wants to convey Jesus' divine origins and to emphasize the miraculous nature of his coming into our midst. Yet it is also true that Luke chose to look at Marynot at Joseph as did Matthew, not at the Spirit as did Mark, not at the pre-existent Word as did John.
Luke notes that instead of occurring in a distinguished location, such as Jerusalem, Mary receives her astounding news in dusty, insignificant, little Nazareth in Galilee. Yet the place of the annunciation reflects the location where much of Jesus' ministry will take place. Also, as in the announcement of John the Baptist's birth, the lineage of the one to come is clearly revealed.
In John's case, this heritage was priestly. In Jesus' case, it is royal. He is a descendant of the Davidic line. This heritage brings to life the ancient messianic promises made to David by Nathan in 2 Samuel 7 - a pledge that Gabriel repeats in his own words in verses 32-33.
Yet this annunciation does more than simply restate the promises and predictions of earlier Hebrew prophets. As Gabriel continues to reveal God's plans for Mary, the message he delivers becomes distinctly different. The Holy Spirit is described as the force that will make the birth possible and that will make the baby holy (v. 35). But the real difference comes when Gabriel proclaims the baby not just a Davidic Messiah, but none other than the "Son of God" (v. 35).
Mary's response is to hand herself over completely to God. Her declaration "Here am I" expresses an unhesitating willingness to serve or listen. Mary then describes herself as "the servant of the Lord." More poetic translations of this text have described Mary as the "handmaid of the Lord." But the term Mary uses could be just as correctly translated as "the slave of the Lord."
This startling designation, along with Mary's plea to "let it be with me according to your word" demonstrates her complete obedience. Mary gives over the very essence of her being, makes herself into a "slave" to God's will. She was indeed the first disciple of the gospel.
But let us think now about the greeting of the angel, who says, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you" (1:26-28). The greeting contains an assurance of divine favor and power and presence, and is meant to inspire joy. But Mary is much perplexed by his words, as any of us would be (v. 29).
"Do not be afraid, Mary," says the angel, "for you have found favor with God." The angel goes on to predict that she will bear a son named Jesus - one who will be great, the Son of the Most High, the heir of David and the ruler of an everlasting kingdom.
What an offer; what an opportunity; but what a stressful situation. The angel is giving Mary a shot at incredible joy: the chance to be the mother of God. That is a big opportunity for a Galilean teenager. Yet, this opportunity brings with it the frightening thought that Mary will soon be visibly pregnant. Aside from the damage to her girlish figure, what about the damage to her reputation? What will people say about a young woman becoming pregnant before her wedding day? According to the Mosaic law, she could be executed for becoming pregnant by anyone but Joseph, or punished in a severe and humiliating way. It is anything but easy for Mary to agree to this offer presented by the angel Gabriel.
But she says, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord." She says, "Let it be with me according to your word" (v. 38). She accepts the angel's offer, takes a big bite of the opportunity put before her, and does not fall into the trap of stressing out and refusing joy.
"Refusing joy"I like that phrase. We are so stressed by trying to live right, eat right, think right, act right, speak right, parent right, exercise right, look rightthat we have forgotten the joy of Jesus. Think of the many solid reasons that Mary could give for saying no to the angel Gabriel: not the right time, not the right place, not the right partner. And yet, she says, "Here am I ... let it be." In spite of all the seemingly solid reasons to say no, she does not want to be guilty of refusing joy.
How about us? Have we left the joy behind as we observe the birth of Christ? Do we feel pressured to practice massive self-denial as we face the dessert table at a holiday party? Do we feel guilty about loosening up and having a good time, eating some really delicious food? Have we lost the ability to happily chow down with no thought of calories, carbohydrates, or fat grams? Probably we have. Over the past several decades, Americans have become ever more wary about what they eat. Now we talk about cheesecake and pork chops in hushed tones, like those once reserved for conversation about sex and drugs. But come on, it's Christmas. Eat. Enjoy. That January diet will come soon enough.
But true Christmas joy is not about eating cream puffs without guilt. The joy we refuse more frequently has nothing to do with food. The happiness we often ignore is spiritual, not physical. It involves believing, not bingeing. The joy that we are guilty of leaving behind is the joy that comes from opening our hearts to the presence of Christ, the joy that comes from letting God bless us, the joy that comes from entrusting ourselves to his care. That's what Mary did, after all. And that is what saved her from the sin of leaving the joy of the Lord behind.
Christmas is more than an opportunity to eat and celebrate. It is also a chance to approach Jesus with an expectation of fulfillment. In a sense, we should come to Christ in the same way that children come to the dinner table. They come because they are hungry, not because they feel a social obligation. They come with trust, believing that the food will be nutritious. They come without worries about calories or additives. They come expecting to be filled, to be strengthened, to be satisfied, to be nourished. We ought to approach Jesus in the same way. Any other path could leave the joy behind.
A Lutheran named David Miller remembers kneeling in his pew after returning from communion, on a Sunday much like this one. Lost in a haze, he focused not on the Christmas holiday or the sacrament, but on his fears about what the next few days would bring. He tried to pray through his distress as the choir sang of Mary: "Hail, favored one, the Lord is with thee." But his thoughts connected only with his anxiety. Giving up his failed attempt at prayer, he listened to the choir, trying to catch his daughter's voice. As the soprano descant soared above the choir, surprising tears appeared in his eyes. These were not helpless tears of self-pity. Those he would have expected. It was not sadness that he felt, but a joy and gratitude that flowed from a mysterious world deeper and more wondrous than the one his troubled mind inhabited. David felt transported to another time and place, one where sadness and anxiety had no place. They had evaporated like so much morning mist, and a voice within him spoke to his fears. The Lord said to him, "It doesn't all depend on you. I am here." What a gift. David came to God with a deep hunger, and he was satisfied. He came needing nourishment, and he was filled. He allowed himself to be drawn out of the world of his fears, a world that he describes as being limited by his shallow insights, minuscule skills and all-too-human weaknesses. A sense of well-being washed over him, and he knew that the voice spoke the truth. He had no doubt that this joy was a pure gift - he had done nothing to produce it, define it or control it. But it was there. "Do not fear," the Lord said to him, lovingly. "I will not fail you. Don't you know by now how much I treasure you?"
In the middle of our stressful lives, God wants us to experience joy. He wants us to know that he favors us, that he treasures us, and that he will not fail us. God sends Jesus to remind us that he is with us, always, in the very center of the pains and problems of human life. May we accept this gift from God, as Mary did, as David Miller did. It is a joy that should never be refused. Amen.
LeFebvre, Philip E. "Diet for a small pleasure," Clamor, November-December 2001, printed in Utne Reader, March-April 2002, 74.
Miller, David L. "Swept up in joy," The Lutheran, December 1998, 8.
Walljasper, Jay. "The joy of eating." Utne Reader, May-June, 2002, 48.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 2/12/03