Were we even given a choice? (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva Day Centre (WWHS) for the chapel service on Tuesday 10th December 2019.  This was the final service for 2019.

Luke 1:26-38

Today’s story is often told on 25th March, or at least the Sunday closest to it, and it is the story that some Christian traditions call “The Annunciation” and other Christian traditions seem to ignore. It is the story of Gabriel coming to a twelve year old peasant, Mary, with the news of Emmanuel and her role in the LORD’s own coming.

Well, there’s a lot that can be said about this episode, and a lot has been said, on various 25th of March in years past. So this morning, 10th December of all days, I want to focus on one thing. Or rather not a thing but a person: a man. Joseph.

Every year it annoys me that I can’t remember what it was called, because I’d love to find it and be able to have a copy. Anyway, about 15 years ago while I was living in England, the BBC put on a story of the Passion, a mini-series which they had made, and it was shown on BBC One at Easter. In a particular episode the adult Jesus is talking with Mary, and he’s explaining what God is calling him towards in the coming week, so the crucifixion and all that. However distressing it is for Mary, she must understand that he must follow the will of The Father. You can imagine it, “yeah sorry Mum, but God says there’s a cross for me Friday week, and you’ll just have to accept it because I’m the Christ, yeah”. It’s not quite that direct, or Cockney, but anyway the important thing is what Mary responds with, and this I remember pretty much verbatim. She says “don’t you presume to tell me what the will of The Father entails, I know the call of The Father. Don’t you think, can you even imagine, what if Joseph had said no.”

What if Joseph had said no.

Not everyone who is called by God, not even everyone who is specifically and uniquely set aside by God, follows God. Think of Jonah who was called east and so he went west. Think of all the kings of Israel and Judah who inherited the throne promised to David’s line (and in Judah they were David’s grandsons) but who did evil in the LORD’s sight. We are blessed that Mary said yes, and her song Magnificat expresses the depth of her yes. In Luke’s gospel account Joseph doesn’t get a say, Mary meets Gabriel and the next thing she’s at Elizabeth’s house for six months. It’s only in Matthew 1:18-25 that we are told that Joseph has the opportunity to do the honourable thing and divorce Mary, (so that she can then marry the unborn child’s real father before it’s too late), and God’s messenger tells him the real story. We are blessed that Joseph said yes, and that Joseph did not say no.

What then happens within Mary’s body we are not expressly told. Did God fertilise one of Mary’s ova, or was Emmanuel a fully established zygote implanted in Mary as a surrogate? We know Joseph had no part in this, but I wonder whether Jesus actually looked like his dad growing up. I look like my father, and I have a baby nephew who looks like me because he looks like his mum, my sister. Jesus could have looked like anyone really, if he wasn’t genetically the son of his parents. That’s a bit deeper than we need to go now, the nature of the incarnation and the form that God The Son took as The Son of Man has been argued for as long as Jesus has been proclaimed LORD. But I’d like to think that Jesus bore a family resemblance to his dad and mum, and to his younger brothers and sisters; not because it matters to theology or salvation doctrine but just because in a world where Joseph might have said no, God said yes and gave the Carpenters of Nazareth a boy who fitted in.

But it is a little bit important, I think. Not significant for salvation, Jesus could have been angelically blonde and blue eyed and his death as messiah still would have cured our sins. But significant in that we can trust God to do right by us when we place our lives in God’s hands to do God’s will. God chose Mary, and by choosing Mary God also chose Joseph, and in choosing Joseph God did not set him up for embarrassment by allowing Mary to give birth to a boy so remarkable that he was obviously not the son of Joseph, setting off a scandal.

The story of the annunciation is the story of a trustworthy, faithful God. It is safe to follow The LORD’s leading, God will not abandon you to shame and God is considerate of what you will face in God’s name. This is not to say that discipleship is easy, Jesus died and Mary watched it happen, but God was kind as far as God could be, and the story of God with us, Emmanuel, remains so. God gets what it is to live amongst men and women, Jesus lived amongst men and women, and God has got your back if you have got God’s mission.

Amen.

Yeah-yeah! (Yeah-nah)

This is the text of the message I prepared for proclamation at Kaniva Church of Christ on Sunday 24th March 2019, the Sunday of Annunciation.  It was a combined, ecumenical service with the Anglican, Church of Christ, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, and Uniting Churches of Kaniva gathered.

Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 40:5-10; Luke 1:26-38; Hebrews 10:4-10

I am blessed to be able to address you all today.  By “all” I mean a gathering of Christians beyond my regular congregation; and by “today” I really mean tomorrow.  (Except that none of you would have come tomorrow, so today will have to do.)  What’s so special about tomorrow you might ask?  Well if you don’t know, find an Anglican or a Roman Catholic and let that person tell you.  (And if that person doesn’t know, tell me and then I’ll dob them in to Fr Nagi.)  Tomorrow, in those flavours of Christianity who pay attention to such things, is the Feast of the Annunciation; the day upon which we celebrate the messenger Gabriel and his news to Mary that she has become pregnant by God.  So, for those of you from Protestant traditions, for whom this is not a central event, have a think about it; it’s nine months tomorrow until Christmas day.  Have you heard of that idea before?  March 25th as the date of Jesus’ conception, yeah?  Yeah.

Well if you did know that, well done, but do you also know the tradition that the actual Good Friday upon which Jesus died was March 25th?  The theory goes that Jesus died on the anniversary of his conception; thereby completing the cycle of God the Son’s incarnation all rather neatly.  I must admit that I am radically unconvinced by this theory, for many reasons, but it is a rather nice puzzle even if it is all conjecture.  And hey, “Christ was born for thi-is, Christ was born for this” as we “good Christians all rejoice” back in December.

So tomorrow is potentially the two thousand and twenty third anniversary of the annunciation, and possibly the one thousand nine hundred and eighty-ninth anniversary of the real “Good Friday”.  It probably isn’t, but that doesn’t matter: it’s a good opportunity to be reminded that Jesus really was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried.  We may not all say the creed, but we all acknowledge the truth of Christ Jesus who is The Word Incarnate.

But what’s the point?  Well other than showing that “I is well ecumenical” and that even as a Uniting Church minister in a Church of Christ house I am on the ball with the varied flavours of Protestants, Anglicans, and Catholics in my town at large and congregation this morning, (and in my personal history as a worshipping Christian in this country and the United Kingdom), I believe that annunciation is actually worth celebrating just for what it commemorates.

So what does it commemorate?  Well it commemorates God choosing someone ordinary and anonymous for the most amazing act in all of global history.  Jesus is God the Son: on earth he lived as the Son of God and the Son of Man; exalted today in Heaven he reigns with the Father and the Spirit as Christ the Lord, King and Messiah.  But Mary?  Nah, Mary was just Miriam the teenager from Nazareth.  God did not choose Mary because she was special; Mary was special because God chose her.

And if God chose Mary, God can choose you.

But that’s not the whole story, is it?  Is it?  Well I’ve just told you it isn’t, so “no” is the answer I’m looking for here.

Take a look at Ahaz, whom God also chose.  We find part of his story in today’s set text from the Hebrew tradition, specifically Isaiah 7:10-14.  So as far as choosing proof-texts for annunciation goes this is a good one because we read where God previews the name and character of Jesus’ birth in the days of pre-exilic Judah: a young woman will give birth to a son who shall be named Immanuel, a name which means God with us.  But remember that Isaiah who spoke this word didn’t think he was addressing a peasant family in Galilee seven hundred and thirty years later; he is speaking to the king of his day in the culture of his day.  That Matthew 1:23 quotes this verse as proof to Joseph that the baby in Mary’s womb is God’s own is appropriate, I’m not saying it isn’t, but the point that Isaiah was making is very important and must not be overlooked in our rush toward Christmas.

The story around Ahaz, king of Judah, direct descendant of David and ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:9), is that Jerusalem is in peril from military attack and siege.  As king Ahaz has a few options, one is to form an alliance with Assyria which is the local superpower, and thereby come under its protection (in brackets “protraction racket”).  Another option is to seek to maintain Judah’s national independence and integrity by trusting in Jehovah and the promises made to Abraham and David of an eternal home from the Judahites and an eternal throne for the Davidic family.  Jehovah personally intervenes in the decision making process, speaking through the court prophet Isaiah, to say “I am God and here’s a tangible event to show that I’m with you, or even I AM (YHWH) is with you”, and then the baby thing.  That girl, yes that one, will have a child, which will be a boy, who shall be named “God is with us” because…well…I AM God and I am with you.  Isn’t that great?  A personal message from God to a leader in distress, with real evidence.  And just look at how this son of David, a son of Abraham, responds to this declaration of God’s faithfulness.  “Ahm, yeah-nah.” It probably sounds more epic in Hebrew, but essentially Isaiah 7:12 reads “yeah-nah”.

Yeah-nah.  Yeah-nah?  I mean, what the actual is “yeah-nah”?  God says “ask me for anything you wish as evidence that I am with you” and Ahaz says…well you know what Ahaz says.  The point is not the piety of Ahaz, “do not put the Lord to the test” is in Deuteronomy and is also one of the things Jesus says to the accuser during his temptations, so it sounds good.  But it’s not good.  No, it’s not good because Ahaz isn’t really saying what Jesus said.  Jesus said “I don’t need miracles to trust God, I trust God because God is trustworthy”: Jesus is no Gideon, no fleece required.  What Ahaz is actually saying is, “no, I’ve already made up  my mind to choose the Assyrian option, the alliance where the Holy Nation of God becomes a vassal to the evil empire, and I don’t want God to interfere.”  I’ve made up my mind, I’m going to do it my way, shut up and go away Jehovah.

Is that a statement of faith?  Is that a statement of submission and piety?  Yeah-nah.

And so we get back to Miriam the Galilean teen.  She was nobody special, but God chose her.  Ahaz was somebody special, and God chose him.  But Miriam did not become special because God chose her, just as Ahaz did not become special when God chose him.  Ahaz was already special, Miriam was still a peasant.  Miriam became special, became “The Blessed Virgin” and all that we read her say about herself in the Magnificat, and all that Elizabeth says about her, and all that the jumping Baptist in-utero pronounced, and all that the angel said to her and Joseph about her, when she said “yes” as we read in Luke 1:38.  (And effectively Ahaz lost his specialness when he said “yeah-nah” and walked away from God’s anointing.)

Today’s psalm, which is echoed in today’s reading from the Christian tradition, is about obedience to the call of God.  In Psalm 40:6-10, and quoted by the apostle on behalf of Jesus in Hebrews 10:5-7, we read how God is more impressed, indeed most impressed by attention to the Word which leads to obedience.  Ritual and the trappings of religion are not in themselves bad things, God does desire them and God ordained them as the means of grace for Jews.  Do not misread the scripture here, the call to worship is good.  But when God speaks to you and singles you out for a ministry, then your calling and your responsibility are to that beyond the duty to go to church.  The other girls of Nazareth were not damned for not being the mother of Jesus: by continuing to do what obedient Jewish daughters do, and by continuing to worship God within their households their obedience and worship were accounted to them as righteousness.  But Mary had a unique call, and her faith-filled response to God above worship and her relationship with her husband and family was accounted to her righteousness.  And look at what she did, having heard from the angel and accepting God’s invitation, the first thing she does is praise God and the second thing she does is nick off to Judea to be midwife for her cousin.  Mary the beloved of God, highly favoured and blessed amongst women is no less a good Jewish girl for her calling, she is all of that and more.

So, liturgically minded or not, user of ocker phrases or not, how do you respond to God’s call to you today?  Whether your response is “yeah-righto Jesus, I’ll give it a burl” or “be thou to me as thou wouldst desirest it sovereign Lord”, I pray that you would respond with delight, joy, excitement, obedience, humility, and love.

Today is the day to say yes.  Say yes today, so that when the Annunciation is made tomorrow you can tell the messenger of the Lord “I said yes yesterday, and it’s yes today as well”.

Amen.

Palm Sunday B (Annunciation)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 25th March 2018, which was Palm Sunday and also the Feast of the Annunciation.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 11:1-11

Today is Palm Sunday, I’m sure you already knew that without my having to tell you.  I wonder however, did you know today is also the day of the Feast of the Annunciation, the day upon which we celebrate the messenger Gabriel and his news to Mary that she has become pregnant by God?  Think about it, it’s nine months today until Christmas day.  Have you heard of that idea before?  March 25th, yeah?  That would be why we’ve just read from Isaiah 7 and sung “O come, O come Emmanuel”, yeah?  Clever.

 Well if you did know all of that, well done, but did you also know the tradition that the actual Good Friday upon which Jesus died was March 25th?  The theory goes that Jesus died on the anniversary of his conception; thereby completing the cycle of God the Son’s incarnation all rather neatly.  I must admit that I am radically unconvinced by this theory, for many reasons, but it is a rather nice puzzle even if it is all conjecture.  And hey, “Christ was born for thi-is, Christ was born for this” as we good Christians all rejoiced back in December.

Mark tells us that Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before the Passover festival; they have come to participate in one of the three great pilgrimage festivals in Judaism.  In John’s gospel Jesus comes and goes from Jerusalem quite a bit over his three years of ministry, but Mark (and Matthew and Luke who base their gospels on Mark’s) has Jesus coming to Jerusalem only one time, this time, and have Jesus ministering for less than a year.  So, this event is a big deal for Mark, and this passage describes the day that the Messiah enters the city for the first time.  Now, since it was expected of Jews from around the world that they would make their way to Jerusalem for the festival Jesus had probably been to Jerusalem before.  Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents brought him several times when he was a boy, to have him dedicated to God as a newborn firstborn, and again when he was a twelve-year-old.  So, Jesus has been before, but today he is coming as Messiah, not as a pilgrim.

 Passover was a time of celebrating the special identity of the Jewish religion and the Israelite people; of the three big festivals Passover was the biggest and it was a time of heightened awareness of nationalism and the pride that there was in being Jewish.  As Australians we might imagine Anzac Day with an added tradition that everyone gathers in Canberra for the dawn service at the War Memorial, and then moves across to the lawns of Parliament House for a massive barbeque breakfast.  Okay, that’s big, and it’s sacred.  However, unlike Canberra today Jerusalem in the first century took a bit of getting to.  Without aircraft, buses or cars pilgrims in Jesus’ time would have walked for days or even weeks to reach the city.  They would have travelled in groups with friends, neighbours and families walking and working together to entertain and protect each other.  Along the way the pilgrims would have stayed in designated campsites or hostels where they would have met up with other groups of pilgrims to eat and sleep together but also pray, sing and tell stories as well.  By the time they approached Jerusalem there would have been a mounting excitement and a buzz of expectation.  Songs like Psalm 118 which was read this morning, and other “songs of ascent”, would have been sung along the road and then would have formed part of the worship during the festival itself.  Happy and to be envied is the one who comes in the name of the LORD they sing to one another, reminding each other that this psalm had been composed as a victory hymn in celebration of a great triumph.  It’s “all hail the great, returning, and all conquering king” and all that. This is a song of deliverance and thanksgiving: think VE Day or a parade of gold medallists.  The roads to Jerusalem in the days before Passover were an exciting place to be and Jesus on his donkey is arriving right in the middle of it all.

 And that is part of the problem:  Jesus is coming on a mission of peace and reconciliation, riding a colt and not a stallion, but the crowds are shouting for Jewish victory.  The first part of Psalm 118:24, which was read to us as this is the day The LORD has made can also be translated this is the day on which The LORD takes action:  the pilgrims have reached Jerusalem and are ready to kick some Roman heads.  In a similar vein Hosanna means “save us” and was a general cry of praise, but in the heightened tension of the festival it also came to mean “get on with saving us (and kick the Romans back into Italy)”.

 So, I wonder whether in throwing down their cloaks and taking up the palm fronds the crowds acted spontaneously; already hyped up by being so near to Jerusalem did they see Jesus and go mental?  Did the Jerusalemites, swept up in the arrival of so many excited tourists to their city allow themselves to be swept along in the mob?  There may have been mixed emotions in the crowd, everyone using the same words but with very different agendas.  Some were crying out in ecstatic praise at reaching their destination at Jerusalem and the temple courts themselves.  Others were no doubt happy to see that nice healing-working prophet from Galilee.  Others still were crying out to the long-awaited Messiah with a demand for action, hopeful that Jesus might just be that Messiah.  Regardless of the intricacies, everyone was saying “God, continue saving us and make us victorious!”  But just like the crowds around Jesus we must take care to enter the celebration yet remain focussed on the meaning of the festival.  The message of Palm Sunday and the lead in to Holy Week may well be don’t get swept along in all the hype or you’ll miss Jesus’ point!

 In Psalm 118:22 we read that the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.  This wording was also used by Jesus (Matthew 21:42) to describe himself, and by Paul (Ephesians 2:20) to describe Jesus.  At this point in the story it is not Jesus who has been rejected by the Jewish leaders so much as what he represents.  Jesus is the cornerstone and foundation of Christianity, but more than the man or his teaching it is Jesus’ act of submission and trust to the point of deep humiliation and suffering that our hope is based on.  Yes, celebrate the man who is king but look closer at what is right in front of you: see what everyone else has missed.  The saviour king is riding a foal amongst the rabble, rather than a charger at the head of a parade, or a cloud at the head of the host of angels.  God is not who you think God is and the messiah was never intended to come as a new David conquering the Jebusites, or another Judas Maccabaeus recovering Jerusalem from the Seleucids.   It was never ever God’s intention that Jesus would overthrow the Roman colonial governors.

 Mark helps us out because he is more interested in presenting the humility and the lowliness of Jesus than the triumphalism of the crowd.  This is where we too must look.  For Mark this is not a triumphal entry at all, see how he tells the story.  After arriving in the city amongst the pilgrims Jesus takes a quick look at the temple, then turns right around and leaves Jerusalem for the night.  He doesn’t do anything.  He doesn’t address the crowd, he doesn’t speak to anyone, and he doesn’t even stay in the city.  Is this a deliberate anticlimax?  Mark’s story of the Sunday before Easter is a story of meekness and majesty, humiliation and vindication.  All four words describe Jesus at various points across the day.

The instruction to us, as we look to this coming week towards Thursday, Friday and Sunday, is that grace, mercy, and hope are Jesus’ meaning.  Jesus is Lord and King; and that is why he alone can offer grace, mercy and hope.  This week our focus needs to be on Jesus as “the least of these”, the meek one who allowed himself to be arrested and murdered by people and ideas far weaker than himself so that his glory, and his revelation of God as the God of all, could be displayed in the strongest way possible.  Christians alone of all religious people have a God who is prepared to die for them at their own hands.  On this Palm Sunday and Annunciation day I suggest that we dishonour God when we get all triumphal and energetic when God’s own nature is to be humble and anonymous.  Or, as Paul said, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in Heaven and on Earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

That’s what we want isn’t it, that Jesus would be worshipped and adored?  So, let’s have the mind of Christ and see him glorified.

Amen.