Christmas, Huh? – Luke 1:26-38
I’m grateful to look out on such a large gathering of people. I know that there were many other places you could have gone this evening. I’m not just talking about going out for Chinese food for dinner or staying home to watch A Christmas Story five times in a row. You could have gone to many other churches which would have proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ birth. Most of the other churches you could have gone to would have presented a message along these lines: Isn’t it so wonderful that God came to the earth as Jesus so that one day he could grow up and die in order for everyone who believes in him to go to heaven.
You could have heard that message elsewhere. But you chose to come here; and if you’ve ever worshipped with us before, you’ve noticed that Pastor Mark and I like to present the good news in a way that you don’t hear anywhere else. I hope you came here expecting to hear better news than what typically gets labeled as good news.
It is good news that God came to earth in the form of a human called Jesus. But here’s better news: according to John’s gospel, God has always been present in creation. God existed in every facet of the earth and human existence even before Jesus was born in the stable. Just as incredibly, God is every bit as present in every inch of creation today.
It is good news that our faith in God leads to forgiveness and reconciliation. But here’s better news: forgives and reconciliation is possible only because God has faith in us.
It is good news that Jesus ushers in the Kingdom of Heaven. But here’s better news: the Kingdom of Heaven is a reality that transcends time and space, meaning we can participate in its reality here and now.
It is good news that Jesus was miraculously born to a virgin. But here’s better news: still today God miraculously works and miraculously reveals God’s self in and among the outcasts of society; just as God was revealed in two thousand years ago in a pregnant unwed teenage girl, stinky and despised shepherds, backwater unimportant towns, and entire tribes oppressed by ruthless empires.
In order to proclaim the better news of the gospel, I’d like to take us back a bit in the story, roughly nine months prior to Jesus’ birth.
According to the first chapter of the gospel of Luke:
“God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, ‘Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!’
But she was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.’
Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be since I am a virgin?’
The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.
Then Mary said, ‘Here I am, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me just as you have said.’ Then the angel left her.”
Mary’s three responses to the angel establish a profound pattern of faithfulness – a pattern that show up in our own lives whenever the divine confronts us in powerful and mysterious ways.
When God pronounces favor and blessing on Mary, her response is “Huh?”
That’s not a common theological word, but I think it’s the best one to get the concept across. God’s word is inherently confusing and discombobulating. Contrary to the Christian hymn, oftentimes, God’s word is less a lamp unto our feet and more like a strobe light whose halting rays of light cause us to question the reality of what exactly we’re seeing.
The first movement of Christmas faith is to receive the word of God and let it disrupt everything you thought you already knew. If you hear a spiritual idea and your response is “Yeah, I already knew that” or “Sure, that makes sense” then you probably need to adjust your spiritual radio dial. God’s word of truth and beauty is always initially unsettling.
Isn’t that better news? Doesn’t it seem like the solutions to the issues facing our world are yet to be uncovered from unexpected people and places? Doesn’t it make sense that there is truth and beauty beyond everything you already know and have experienced? God’s truth and beauty disrupts because divine truth and beauty cannot be contained within the human heart or mind. Therefore we are called to pursue truth and beauty, in whomever it shows up and wherever leads us.
The second movement of Christmas faith is to ask “How?”
The divine calls us beyond the self-imposed limits of our body, mind, and soul. The divine leads us to say, “Who, me? I could never do that.” This was Mary’s second response to the angel. The angel countered, “You’re right, YOU can’t do that; but nothing is impossible for God.”
Once you have acknowledged your discomfort at a new idea and sworn that the thing it requires from you is impossible, you are ready for the third movement of Christmas faith: the movement of saying, “Here I am, let’s do this.”
If nothing is impossible for a God who loves all of creation and is a part of all of creation, then our call will be to do the impossible.
The impossibility of a thing is precisely what makes it a miracle. The Christmas story is a miraculous story about light coming in darkness to people on the outside edges of society with no hope.
It is a story of people responding to God’s impossible claim of love with the words, “Huh?” “How?” and “Here I am.”
It is a story about movement from certainty to confusion; from confusion to questioning; from questioning to trust; from trust to action.
The glory of the Christmas story isn’t just in its historical truth, but in that it is happening right now; in your heart, in this church, in this community, in this nation, and in this world.
For inspiration, some you might need something more artistic than a three point bullet list, so here’s a beautiful poem, “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov. It is a depiction of the moment before Mary’s resounding, “Here I am.”
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–
but who was God.
This was the moment no one speaks of, when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,
She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
opened her utterly.
My Christmas wish is that you would have courage to utterly open yourself up to God;
that you would hear divine truth that surpasses all your current wisdom and experiences, leading you to say, “Huh?”
that you would feel God asking you to do something impossible even though you can’t understand how.
and that you, as brave as the bravest of all humans, would say, “Here I am, let’s do this.”
Amen. Merry Christmas.