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”.