2017 December Issue
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Sermon Ideas For Luke 1:26-38 Part 2

The leaders of the late first-century Church faced a traumatic crisis. The saints, the Apostles who had known the Lord were dying. They were dying despite the promise of Jesus that he was returning soon, while they were still alive. One response was to batten down the hatches for a long voyage through the stormy seas of history. The oral gospel was converted into the four gospel texts over the next generation. At the end of the second millennium, main-line orthodox Christianity finds itself in a comparable crisis. We find ourselves declining in numbers. Worse still, we seem to be struggling with the entropy of failing will, vision, and substance. Are we contending with the end of an age, or are we being pressed to reform and translate ourselves for the age to come?

A second related Advent concern for the preacher is raised by Alan Richardson when he writes, "When we use revelation in theological discussion, we usually mean historical revelation. However, in the New Testament it means the final unveiling or the parousia."1 He further notes only Hebrews 9:28 uses a term related to the "Second Coming." How do we balance pastorally the historical revelation in time with the New Testament parousia? The world barely gives lip service to either. Even some in the Church have taken the pastoral message of Paul to the Thessalonians and turned its words of comfort into a smug condescension of the rapturous saved over the damned who are left behind.

The challenge for today's Church is to profess (unveil) to our world the Lord Jesus as he manifests himself. The world is always coming to an end. Christ has to be unveiled to every age. Each moment of history participates in the final consummation. Such a theological notion runs counter to the popular, secular doctrine of progress which pervades Western Culture. Tillich was wrestling with the matter at his death, as attested by his address, "The Decline and the Validity of the Idea of Progress."2 Over the last century nations and governments have carried a Christian hope of God's kingdom-come-on-earth to a secular extreme. Our human enterprise seems bankrupt. The restless zealotry of fundamentalism, the "failure" of liberalism, and the discontent of the younger generations are marks that salvation as presented by mainline Christianity needs revision. The New Testament has maintained the paradox of "in but not of the world." The world we know, the historical, participates in the final redemption and consummation, the parousia. Furthermore, the good news of the Gospel has to touch the core nerve of daily life and the problems which confront us. Ours is the task of unveiling the presence of the Incarnate Jesus in our struggles.

Mary's struggle as described in Luke 1:26-38, The Annunciation, is one potential avenue. The exchange between the angel Gabriel and Mary runs counter to our cultural indoctrination. He speaks disarming words of praise, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you." We have been taught wisely to beware those who blandish us with compliments. The "catch" quickly follows with the promise of a pregnancy out of wedlock, a child of the Holy Spirit, absentee father. No matter what the reassuring words, "Don't be afraid!" they are only promises. When God makes contact with a human, it is discomforting, for it is a time of conversion and transformation. Such times are instinctively ones for fear.

The miracle is Mary's acceptance, "Be it unto me." Amazing receptivity! Amazing faith, "I am the handmaid of the Lord." Not fatalistic capitulation are these words, but positive acceptance. They bring to mind the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross on Death and Dying. The fifth and final stage of grief she defines as acceptance. Action, not words, counts; presence, not activity, counts. Such is the miracle of "Be it unto me."

If the dialogue between Mary and Gabriel is counter to our cultural expectations, even more is Mary's plight in her acceptance. Pregnancy out of wedlock was as much a stigma then as being childless. Were the setting of the Annunciation in our time, Mary would join the ranks of the one out of three mothers who are unmarried when their child is born.

If the preacher chooses to digress with this text, it is an opportunity to minister to a deeper appreciation of the American home. The concern for unmarried mothers is less one of moral disgrace, and more one of pastoral concern by the Church. We can take a position without condoning the behavior. The same can be said of the plight of the single parent, usually mother, with young children. Single parenthood is an equal opportunity, non-discriminatory statistic—Black, White, Latino—which creates opportunities at best and problems at worst. The real minority is the idealized home of mother, father, two kids, dog, cat, and lawn mower safely ensconced behind a white picket fence in a crime-free suburban neighborhood. The threats to the family unit which used to populate our congregations are real. Political and moral injunctions will not save us. A pro-active, affirming congregational outreach ministry might. We have much to teach; we have more to learn.

The pastoral implications do not stop here. Being childless is as much a stigma now as pregnancy out of wedlock. We are reminded that "barrenness" was a sign of divine disfavor in the Old Testament. Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary and mother of John the Baptist had borne such a stigma. We are possibly more polite today than then, but the tone of conversation with a childless woman still carries the implicit implications. If in doubt, ask.

We have much to do and say to our world in a new apologetic. We may have much to atone for in what we have and have not done, for the Gospel we have and have not proclaimed. The last word is also the first word and belongs to God. Paul summarizes for us in Romans 16:25-27, "The revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages, now disclosed..." Jesus is the revelation which transforms and saves through the coming of his kingdom.

Louis C. Fischer III

NOTES

1. Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testment (London: SCM Press, 1958),p. 54. 2. Paul Tillich, The Future of Religions (New York: Harper & Row, 1996).