190324 Lent 3C The Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Isaiah 7: 10-14, Psalm 40 6-13, Hebrews 10: 4-19, Luke 1:26-38
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
When we dig into our ancestry we can find out all sorts of things. When we look into the Old Testament writings, we find the aspect of birth and the history of our faith linking Jesus via his earthly Father, Joseph to the house of David with their colourful history, warts and all. Ahaz was one of Israel’s worst kings. He was under siege from a northern coalition of Israel and Syria and he was scared. Fear had taken hold of him and he was not behaving in a rational and God centred way. He refused God’s help and instead he tried to buy aid from the Assyrians with silver and gold from the temple. When the Assyrians came, they brought further trouble instead of help. In 722 BC Samaria the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian armies. Ahaz appeared righteous by saying he would not test God by asking for a sign. In fact, God had told him to ask for a sign, but Ahaz didn’t really want to know what God would say and he did not trust God.
The ancient writers used and chose words carefully, and relied on the theological study of the words to reveal the mystery of what God was saying. Ahaz got the sign anyway that a young woman, unmarried, but old enough to be married would bear a son and name the child “Immanuel”. The sign was telling Ahaz that God was already planning protection for Judah against the invaders. The name Immanuel means “God with us”. God is with his chosen people to bring about what is best for them, but this may not have been what Ahaz or the people had in mind at the time. The sign Ahaz received could be interpreted in different ways. It could mean that soon the two invading Kings would be destroyed in possibly three years, or it could, as the gospel writer in Matthew has interpreted it, be referring to the birth of Christ.
The readings today are full of theological mystery. The ancient peoples took their words seriously when they were writing about the mystery of God’s ways. We can see that there is a deep conviction as well as certainty and uncertainty that God cares for his people, despite the failures and disasters that have always been.
Living with uncertainty may be a sign of strong rather than weak faith and he writer of the Hebrews letter seeks to show us the uniqueness of Jesus’ saving death claiming that God takes no pleasure in the burnt offerings of the temple liturgy, but obedience to his will is what God desires. The key thing is to do God’s will with the right heart and Jesus did this in a way that fulfilled Old Testament rituals and rendered them unnecessary. God’s new and living way for us to please him is not by keeping laws or even abstaining from sin. It is by coming to him in faith to be forgiven and then following him in loving obedience. The words of the Psalm can be invoked to show that the Old Testament was in the limited way of inspired human words pointing to this. In the same way the words in the letter to the Hebrews is in line with some Rabbinic thinking that the temple sacrifices would cease with the establishment of the messianic age.
When we consider the words of the gospel reading, we find that more than 60 years after the event, an almost eye witness account of a transcendent summons experienced by a young unmarried woman of childbearing age, points her and the reader to the mystery of call and vocation. Here we have a story of an intimate scene between Mary and an angel called Gabriel with no one else present and we find that no one else has written the story in the same way. Matthew’s story of a child’s conception is quite different. Where does this story take us? It is not history, it cannot be proven as scientific fact, but it is a pivotal story in the words of our faith nevertheless. Luke is not writing words of history he is writing about God. He is writing theology. Luke is explaining who God is and how this Creator God relates to human beings and how human beings relate to God. To meditate about who God is and who we are before God is to be on the edge of mystery and the encounter between Gabriel and Mary point to the significance of the divine call on our lives and how that call can be lived in obedience to God as a life’s vocation. It also points to the revelation of God at the human level of his creation. God is always present in our lives and in our world, but we don’t always see him there. But we all know of the supernatural and transcendent instances in lives which point to the work of God in the world and his care and direction for those who are listening and willing to be obedient.
I have very clear recollections of times when God un-mistakeably had shown himself, and in the course of ministry have heard many stories of others who have had encounters with the divine. There have been visions, supernatural feelings, angelic and unexplained appearances, dreams and sudden words of wisdom and insight given. People tend not to speak about this for fear of being thought nuts. Obviously, Mary and Joseph did not tell many people either, but her relative Elizabeth understood, and both eventually believed that nothing is impossible with God.
We may ask, what is God doing in the world in the face of tragedy? What is God doing in the face of the loss of lives in New Zealand on 15 March? Those of you who were here last Sunday on 17 March and recall the hymns we sang, “When pain and terror strike by chance, with causes unexplained, when God seems absent or asleep, and evil unrestrained.- 262 TIS do not know that those hymns were chosen through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit long before 15 March and the pew Bulletins were already printed and in the Cathedral vestry on 14 March and hymns had been practiced by the choir during the week before. If we are aware of what is happening around us, and are prayerfully mindful, we will see God at work in the aftermath of tragedy. We will look back, just as Luke has done, and just as your ministry team have done, and see where God has been working. We see in the story of the promise of a child to the unwed Mary the incomprehensible and incredible story of people when they encounter God, when they are face to face with the appearance of God in our world and in spite of wondering how this can happen and asking “How can this be? , or as I often do What is God up to now? ” or “God is up to something”. they simply accept what is happening and step out in trust.
Mary’s story is our story. God chose to create new life in Mary, and he chooses to create in new and unfathomable ways, new life in us, in our community and in the communities around us. God is showing us the way in the word made flesh. What we know that modern biology can explain the process of conception and birth, but there is still an awesomeness and mystery in the miracle of life, and despite all our knowledge and technical expertise there are still unanswered questions. Luke’s story is so important because it describes a theological truth and mystery which is fundamental to our faith. God is with us, he is at work in the world and he is always up to something and whatever we do, whether we sin or not, or whether we are obedient to his call or not he is working towards reconciling a broken and messed up world.
Mary’s story is our story, it is the story of our amazement, our confusion, our uncertainty as Pastor Greg Holder said on Monday evening, we do not have a guarantee of tomorrow. But the story is about when God appears; it is about the fact that nothing is impossible for him to accomplish; it is the story of God’s faithfulness to his promises, generations before and his immeasurable love in the story of our salvation through the humanity and deity of Jesus his Son.
Let us dig into our own story, into our ancestry and see where God has been at work. Let us begin to be aware and mindful of what God is doing in the lives of ourselves and the lives of those near us. Let us open our eyes, hearts and minds to the possibility of being part of what God is up to, and like Mary when she finally understands that God has really looked with favour on her, praise God in every thing and in every situation we find ourselves in.
Let us then recognise God’s call on our lives, turn that mysterious call into a vocation, be ready to change, step out in faith and hope and obedience and be in the midst of what God is up to.
The Reverend Camellia Flanagan tssf