Theme: The Annunciation & The Peace of God
Now the sharp eyed amongst you who've been coming for the last few weeks may have noticed that - unusually, we have tried to get our act together and preach on a theme of sorts through the season of Advent. I'd be fascinated to know if anyone can remember what the theme is?
So our theme is the Peace of God and I want to come on to that in a little while but I want to start with today's reading which leads us very elegantly back to our theme. Believe me - it will get us back there I promise!
"In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him 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 ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 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. 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. For nothing will be impossible with God." 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."
Now I don't know about you - but whenever I listen to that wonderful passage from Luke, it brings into my mind some very traditional Christmas images. I cannot listen to the annunciation without picturing it being acted out by a group of small children because in the last number of years, I have been to countless nativity plays and listened to numerous Gabriel's (variously angelic) muttering, lisping or shouting those words to a range of little girls draped in blue curtains and tea towels.
My latest experience of this was, of course this week in this church at the Bunbury school Christmas nativity and as I sat there, I found myself musing on the purpose of our modern nativity play. I'm afraid I was being a bit naughty and wondering whether the nativity is now geared to the needs of the parents to bask in the reflected glory of their offspring's performance rather than to the reinforcement of God's words in the young minds of the performers.
I actually had to leave Wednesday's nativity a few minutes before the end to go to a dinner engagement with work and as I arrived apologised to my colleagues for being late and explained the reason for my delay. "Did you get into any fights?" asked one colleague. "No" I said, "Why on earth do you ask that? It was a school nativity". "Exactly" he said and went on to tell me about a story he had recently read in the papers about two fathers who had to be pulled apart from a brawl in the middle of their school nativity play. The reason for the fracas? They were both trying to claim the same prime spot for their video cameras.
This was fresh in my mind when I read Thursday's papers and what should I see but a lengthy and amusing article in the Telegraph on just this issue. I know that seems like an oxymoron - but occasionally the words "amusing" and "Daily Telegraph" can go together. Anyway, the title of this particular article was "Peace? Not at the Nativity Play". The author, Tim Firth, has just written a TV play, which I believe is on sometime over Christmas, called "The Flint Street Nativity" a comedy that explores this issue. I'll read you a short section of the article to give you the jist of it. It is nearly Christmas so you could do with some light relief.
Anyway, to return to the main point of my talk, this idyll that we tend to create of the nativity scene with our little darlings under the glare of video cameras and flash bulbs and that we see repeated on Christmas cards and Advent calendars and crib scenes everywhere needs a bit of debunking. You know the scene. Mary is there on her knees in an attitude of prayer, head turned upward in praise and worship. Joseph is standing stoically beside her, aloof and stalwart - a bit detached from the whole proceedings. I don't know about you but when I get out the crib figures, I have to check a few times to make sure I've got Joseph and not one of the shepherds - as they all look pretty much alike.
Anyway, there they are, these two new parents in these attitudes of detached reverence. Now I can tell you that in the three times that Elaine and I have found ourselves in the aftermath of a new arrival in the delivery room of our local maternity hospital, detached reverence wasn't in it. Relief, exhaustion, amazement, wonder, love, passion yes - but not much detachment and not much reverence either.
Ah yes - you say but this was different, this was the birth of the Son of Man - but it was still a birth - an essentially human experience - in fact the very human experience that God chose as his way of showing his love for us. Mary and Joseph will have gone through those same emotions that we all go through at that time. They will have been anxious and apprehensive, positively frightened I shouldn't wonder. No clean modern maternity hospital for them with it's endless supplies of gas and air. They were in a nasty dirty cold and draughty stable - not the beautiful warm and cosy idyll presented by the Christmas cards - but a real animal stable. I don't know when you last visited a cowshed or a stable but I can assure you that it does not smell of antiseptic and clean linen and you need to watch where you stand.
So these new parents will have been even more relieved than most that this birth was over and had gone well. They had a healthy baby boy - who presumably was making good use of his newly discovered lungs. If we went in with our photographer to capture the image for posterity, I doubt that we would find Mary kneeling and gazing beatifically towards heaven, nor Joseph standing in detached aloofness staring into the middle distance. We would have been much more likely to find Mary lying down getting some well earned rest.
The chances are she would be cradling the new baby and both parents would have been staring with undisguised amazement at this new life that they had brought into the world against the odds in that cold and dark stable. Joseph, rather than looking stoic and dependable is much more likely to have that dopey 'new father' grin on his face. They would have been cuddling this new baby, stroking and wondering at the softness of his skin. Counting his fingers and toes just to make sure that there really were 10 of each. Doing all those things that new parents do.
So why don't we represent the nativity scene like this? Why is Mary represented in this detached and superior way? Through the centuries, we seem to have to depict Mary and the infant Jesus as sacred objects somehow above humanity. But Mary was "ordinarily sacred". Who could have been more ordinary than Mary, a simple unassuming peasant girl from nowhere - Nazareth. Not some ruler's daughter from Jerusalem or Rome. But it is her very ordinariness that provides such a perfect foil for the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit in her life. It was in her quiet, unremarkable day-to-day life that Mary "found favour with God".
I think it shows our lack of faith in the possibility of the ordinary being lifted to the heavenly, that we have this need to portray Mary as some saintly figure kneeling by the crib and the infant Jesus as some tiny deity that somehow magically materialised onto a straw manger surrounded by a glowing light. The vision we need to create for ourselves is an ordinary looking Mary looking pale exhausted and washed out but with her face transformed by joy and love as she snuggles her wonderful new baby close to her.
This is the true miracle of Christmas. That Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was not some glow in the dark Christ Child. Jesus, God Incarnate, was a real live ordinary, crying, cooing, sleeping, eating, wetting baby and that, as with all babies, his greatest need was to be held in human arms, touched by human hands, soothed by human words of love and encouragement.
But lets get back to our theme - what about the peace of God? Where does this fit for us in the scenes we have viewed today - particularly in Luke's account of the annunciation of Mary. Well - wait and see. - Let's take a break and sing about the wonders of Christ's incarnation as one of us in a song that reminds us that our Lord and Saviour was born in a dusty, draughty stable.
Hymn 589 - See Him Lying on a Bed of Straw
So we have Luke's account of the annunciation of Mary - but we can now view it in a new light. No longer is this the Angel Gabriel coming to some saintly blue clad figure. This is the angel appearing to an ordinary peasant girl but a girl whose faith is so strong that it gives her the strength and inner peace of assurance in the word of the Lord. She does not shy away and say - "Me? Not me please - can't you find someone else? I don't want all that hassle. I don't want all that responsibility." She welcomes God's intervention into her life with open arms. Given that we are into debunking the myth of the Christmas story this morning, here is the exchange between Gabriel and Mary in language that you may find more accessible and may help to better understand how God was working in Mary's life. This is taken from The Message:-
Read passage from The Message - page 118
So as soon as the angel greets her, he perceives the depth of her faith. The inner peace and assurance that her faith has given her make all things possible - even the seemingly impossible. "You are beautiful, inside and out" says the angel. Wow - so that's what it must be like if your faith can achieve such heights. How do we measure up? Does our faith create in us the Peace of God which passes all understanding? If the angel came to us today with a proposition such as that received by Mary would we respond with such abandon and commitment?
And why should the angel not come to any of us? Mary was just an ordinary girl - we're just ordinary folks so what's the difference? The difference is the peace of God in our lives. Could we claim to have it? Is our faith and trust in God such that we hand our lives to him in simple trust as Mary did? In return, has God visited His perfect peace on us so that our behaviour, our words and deeds show that beauty inside us spilling out for all to see?
I haven't felt it much lately so I must have miles to go. I haven't felt it as I've been running around at work trying to get everything sorted out before the holidays. I haven't felt it as I've been running around at home trying to do 5 different things badly. I'm sure my kids would be the first to say that they haven't seen much evidence of the wonderful peace of God emanating from my every pore as I've been screaming blue murder at them to tidy up or practice their instruments.
So I've got a million miles to go before I can say, that my natural reluctance to let go of control, to give myself truly to God is rewarded by the gift of inner peace. I pray that this Christmas I might move closer, even a little closer to that goal. If I'm in need of inspiration, I need look no further than Mary for help. The peace of God in her life that made her God's chosen. The peace of God that led her to say "Let it be to me according to your word". The peace of God that sustained her as she watched her Son grow into his destiny and the peace of God that held her up as she watched her son tortured and die for our Sins. That's the peace that I want - it's just a shame that my faith is still too weak to earn me that reward.