2017 December Issue
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Sermon Ideas For Luke 1:26-38 Part 1

There are private moments in scripture that routinely are brought into the pulpit and transformed into public events: Elijah's encounter with God in the cave on Mt. Horeb; Ruth's profession of loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi; Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane; the angel Gabriel's annunciation to Mary. Something is lost when the spotlight is put on these moments, when something intimate and personal is put on display and publicly discussed. By their inclusion in scripture, these incidents do become part of the public domain, and the assumption is that what occurred to Elijah, Ruth and Mary has relevance to our own life. Yet these moments are categorically different from the talk-show emotional displays or the real-life police shows which provide vicarious thrills to countless television viewers today. At the heart of these scriptural encounters is the profession that the Creator God also interacts in our most private, individual worlds. The One who separated order from chaos is also the One who whispers in a still, small voice or who can appear in a young girl's chamber to tell how she is to be favored with the birth of the Son of the Most High.

Even if scripture had not brought us into the privacy of Mary's room when the angel Gabriel appeared, the space was soon crowded enough with references to the house of Jacob, the throne of David and his eternal kingdom, as well as her pregnant kinswoman Elizabeth and her yet-to-be born prophet-son John. Angels have never been very good at understatement, so before Gabriel's speech overwhelms us, it is wise to hear the quieter, domestic tone which Luke used to open this passage. We are told of a region and a village, of a man and a betrothed girl. Only if we appreciate the human issues at stake can the subsequent intrusion of the divine be fully grasped. Before we discuss the sacred covenant with the house of David, the theology of incarnation, and the possibility of virginal conceptions, we need to sit quietly and talk about youth, love, the sanctity of promises, the desire to honor one's parents, the fear of disappointing one's faith community. Those were the issues at stake in Mary's life when the angel confronted her so long ago.

Given the contemporary fascination about angels, some discussion of that theme seems necessary when preaching on this passage. By definition, angels are about God's business. Gabriel Fackre has commented that when they intervene, it is to fix our attention on God, and regularly that attention is at cross-purposes with our own agendas. Second, when they do interact with individuals, it will have implications for the community-at-large. For example, it is through Jacob's wrestling match with the angel that he gains the name of Israel. There is nothing in the encounter between Mary and Gabriel to justify the concept of a "guardian angel," nor is there much in the rest of scripture. (The closest, indirect references are Job 33:23 and Acts 12:15.) The best answer on this topic comes from John Calvin's Institutes (I.xiv.7): "We ought to hold as a fact that the care of each one of us is not the task of one angel only, but all with one consent watch over our salvation... For if the fact that all the heavenly hosts are keeping watch for his safety will not satisfy a man, I do not see what benefit he could derive from knowing that one angel has been given to him as his especial guardian."

The character of Mary both invites and deserves our homiletic attention. What it is like to bear a child and be a parent, many people can relate to; what it is like to be the mother of Jesus Christ, no one can dare presume to know. The little that we do know about her comes primarily from Luke's gospel. (His compassionate description of the mother of our Lord prompted later Christian tradition to suggest that Luke was also a painter and that a portrait of Mary by him still survives.) We are told that Mary was often troubled by what she heard, wondering what it all meant: the angel Gabriel's message, the message brought by the visiting shepherds, the dark prophecy of the aged Simeon. She kept those things in her heart. Later she would send for Jesus, asking to speak with him (Mt 12:46), and when it was almost too late for words, she kept watch over him near the place of crucifixion (Jn 19:25). As unique as it might have been to raise Jesus as a son, the experiences of Mary his mother are not as unique as we often assume. Other young mothers have given birth under trying circumstances, have seen strange things which they have pondered in their hearts, have raised precocious children preoccupied with works they cannot understand themselves. Other Marys have cradled the broken body of a child they once had held as a newborn in swaddling clothes, enduring the loss of a child unfairly condemned by a political system or untimely struck down by disease or tragedy. To speak honestly about Mary is to address these other Marys, and as such is the only way to offer comfort to them for all they are forced to carry silently in their own hearts.

Randall K. Bush

SOURCES

Gabriel Fackre, Theology Today (October 1994), pp. 349, 354. Diane Komp, A Window to Heaven, p. 109.