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December 21, 2014 - Luke 1.26-38

"Defying Conventional Wisdom"

Luke 1:26-38

December 21, 2014

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He 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. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The 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. 36And 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. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then 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.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, the long weeks of waiting and anticipation are almost over. Here we stand, days away from Christmas morning. It is a season of mystery and enchantment. All other words give way to the timelessness of Luke's gospel, Gabriel's announcement to Mary, that despite her physiological protests, she will give birth to the child whose kingdom will have no end. The sacredness of silence, the flicker of raised candles, the melodies of choirs, the sharing of Holy Communion, the presence of children narrate best the Christ child's birth this week.

 

The word of the day is incarnation. You will not find it in Luke's gospel. The angel speaks to Mary with simpler, more direct words. However, the church, in its attempt to make sense out of the mystery of Mary's pregnancy, has come up with the doctrine of the incarnation which is the gift of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. The gift of light that comes into the darkness of a broken world, light that will never fall under the spell of darkness again. Incarnation means the God who stands outside of time enters into time, the God who is infinite becomes finite, the God who is all-powerful becomes all-vulnerable. The God whose womb bore the world now is born of Mary's womb to bear the good news of peace on earth. The key for understanding incarnation is to think small. How ironic, in a culture that prides itself on thinking big, bold, and brash, especially at this time of year, we have to retrain ourselves to look for the God in the small and unexpected.

 

This Christmas, the ways of the world are once again turned upside down. Simply put, God’s Incarnation defies the so called “wisdom of men,” or conventional wisdom.

 

I have often found myself extolling the virtues of Conventional Wisdom (CW); CW is often known by another name: Common Sense.  Have you?  These are things that everybody is just supposed to know.  Pigs don't fly.  Ain't no free lunch.  Two wrongs don’t make a right.  Conventional Wisdom is another name for it.

 

Conventional Wisdom - is there room for a real personal God?  A present God?  God among us?  God at Wal-Mart.  Psychological disorder = hearing God's voice.  Conventional Wisdom HA!  We have heard the stories, and CW tells us that certain things just don't happen.  God is not at Wal-Mart, CW says.

 

The King of kings is born in a stable with a few lowly shepherds as the guests of honor. The gift of Christmas is God's love for the world and the package is flesh and blood, the most powerful force that the world has ever known. We who have been hardened by the tenacity of our lives, bruised and scarred by shattered dreams and broken hopes, have become steeled to the brutal stories of the world around us. We are saddened by the dark places in our own lives and exhausted by our efforts to earn approval; we need this gift of God becoming small, this gift of tenderness and mercy delivered in a manger.

 

We are like shepherds in the dark night, scanning the horizon for any signs of hope, for the promise that this world is not all there is, that the darkness will give way to a light that shall not be overcome.  

 

We have a God that goes far beyond Conventional Wisdom.  We have a God that will not settle for the way the world works for His children.   We have a God that defies expectations.  I wonder if we even have a clue how wonderful the Incarnation is?  I wonder if we can understand even for a minute how stunning the Incarnation is and how stunned we ought to be by it?

 

You see, Conventional Wisdom is all about what we can comprehend and what we find easiest to believe.  CW just don’t provide us with a God big enough to solve anything.

 

Conventional Wisdom told Abraham and Sarah that they were childless - that children were not possible.  Three angels appeared to Abraham - "You and Sarah will have a child." - Sarah laughs - out loud. You have found God's favor - discloses the birth of child - reveals the future role his children will play - Question - Response - Departure.

 

Conventional Wisdom told Elkannah and Hannah that they were childless - that children were not possible. Hannah is barren, and is taunted by her rival - husband is Elkannah, loves her dearly - Hannah goes to pray at the Temple - she will give her child to God - Eli, the preist, thinks she is drunk - but she lays her story on him - He is convinced - "you have found favor in God's sight, your request will be granted" - Hannah now knows the future her child will have - Hannah ROSE.

 

Conventional Wisdom told Zechariah and Elizabeth that they were childless - that children were not possible. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah - "Do not be afraid!" - calls Zech and Elizabeth by name - "You have found favor with God - You shall have a child - call him John - he will play an important role in God's Kingdom - "But we can't have children," says Zech - Gabriel says "If all that can come out of your mouth, priest, is doubt, then perhaps you ought not speak for a while." 

 

Conventional Wisdom told Joseph and Mary that they were childless for now - that children were not possible, since Mary was a virgin and they had not yet had their wedding.  The angel Gabriel appears to Mary - "Do not be afraid!" - calls Mary by name - "You have found favor with God - (Favor = grace in John 1:16 - grace upon grace) You shall have a child - call him Jesus - he will play an important role in God's Kingdom; he will be God's Son; his kingdom will never end  - "But I can't be pregnant," says Mary; "I am a virgin" - Gabriel says "God is at work Here.  The Holy Spirit is with you.  With God nothing will be impossible." 

 

If you think that skepticism about Jesus’ birth is a new thing, think again.  In a sermon preached in 396 CE, Augustine ridiculed a disbelieving world that regards, “this stupendous miracle as fiction rather than fact.” “They despise the human because they cannot believe it; they do not believe the divine because they cannot despise it.” Augustine went on to rhapsodize, “The one who holds the world in being lay in a manger; he was simultaneously speechless infant and the Word. The heavens cannot contain him; a woman carried him in her bosom. She was ruling our ruler . . . suckling our bread.” A strange wonder evokes strange speaking.[1]

 

     The scriptures tell us the truth about Jesus who is in turn the truth about God. If any of us limited creatures is able to comprehend, to believe, and in believing stake our lives upon the one who was and is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6), our believing is a miraculous work of God among us. Thus we, by the grace of God in our lives, become living testimony of the truth of incarnation. Theologian Karl Barth said that if you are able to believe in the strange, wondrous birth, your belief is a miracle akin to the miraculous birth of Jesus.[2]

 

One of the things I have noticed about Christmas is how much we like the older, more familiar things at Christmas.  We like what we know at Christmas.  We all watch, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” like we have every year.  We eat the same things we always eat at Christmas.  Our art for Christmas never shows a family pulling up the house in a brand new car, they pull up in a horse drawn sleigh.  In our church choirs all over the land, they sing all the older Christmas Carols.  We don’t want to hear new music at Christmas, we want the old Carols.  Yep!  When it comes to Christmas, we like and expect the old familiar stuff.

But that is not what Christmas is about.  God came to earth as a baby – not an old person.  God coming to earth was totally not what people were used to – it was NEW!  That is what Christmas is really about!  God doing new, unexpected, unconventional stuff in our lives!

God coming to earth as a powerless child, not an older, expected Warrior King, is the heart of the Christmas message.  It is new, unexpected, and better than we could have made up.

The idea of God used to frighten people.  The term “the fear of God” is used often in scripture, and it is more often than that misunderstood.

Henri Nouwen, Catholic priest and theologian, wrote about the powerless of the Christ-child in this way:

Jesus is God-with-us, Emmanuel. The great mystery of God becoming human is God's desire to be loved by us. By becoming a vulnerable child, completely dependent on human care, God wants to take away all distance between the human and the divine.

Who can be afraid of a little child who needs to be fed, to be cared for, to be taught, to be guided? We usually talk about God as the all-powerful, almighty God on whom we depend completely. But God wanted to become the all-powerless, all-vulnerable God who completely depends on us. How can we be afraid of a God who wants to be "God-with-us" and wants us to become "Us-with-God"?[3]

 

NIV says "nothing is impossible with God" - correct is "nothing WILL BE impossible with God."  Advent is the coming of God - it is happening all the time.  God is coming, and not like we expect.  That is the best news I can possibly bring you.  Are you ready for God to do something unexpected and unconventional?

 

Sarah laughs - Hannah struts - Zech speaks - Mary sings - Barren women conceive; Virgins are pregnant; The Lord of all comes into human history as a human; From a tomb comes the resurrection for all of us; and the Holy Spirit comes to Mandan, North Dakota to empower a church for God's worldwide mission.  It is a promise in the future tense: With God, nothing WILL BE impossible.  Nothing will be impossible, because God is here!

 

 

 

[1] Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, December 21, 2014.

[2] Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, December 21, 2014.

[3] (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.)