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Saturday, December 17, 2011

The annunciation of the Lord


Texts:  Luke 1.26-38

Today we recall, with joy and thanksgiving, the announcement of our salvation to Mary through the Angel Gabriel.  The themes associated with the story of Mary and the Angel are exceptionally instructive for modern faith.  The story is rich, you see, with images of promise and perseverance in the midst of struggle and difficulty.  It encourages Christians to look for the birth of God’s salvation not in the past alone, but also within the disillusionment and uncertainty which characterizes so much of our present reality.  

According to Luke, the birth of Jesus was announced in the midst of exceptionally trying circumstances. Socially and politically, first century Palestine was a very miserable place.  There was a distinct pecking order that permeated the whole society, ranging from the Roman aristocracy, at the top, right through to landless women and children, at the bottom.  Your prospects for health, wealth and happiness were almost entirely determined by which rung of the social ladder you happened to occupy.  If you were born a Sadducee, that class of religious aristocrats who controlled Israel’s temple, you could count on a pretty cushy life.  But if you were born a landless peasant, there was very little chance of advancement.  Most likely you would die in your twenties of malnutrition and overwork.

The kind of social mobility we have become accustomed to in our society was almost impossible for a first-century Judaean or Galilean.  Quite apart from economic considerations, people were kept securely in their place by a complex system of social mores and religious rules.  Perhaps the most important reason why the poor could never ascend the social hierarchy was because the strategies by which they survived were labelled sinful by the temple aristocracy.  Labouring on the Sabbath, thieving, working in prostitution, begging – all these were necessary for landless peasants to put bread on the table.  But they were also the things which kept a very large part of the population from participating as equals in the religious life of Israel.  If you were poor, you had to break the Jewish law to survive: and the only law which counted was the version promulgated by the temple-based aristocracy.  So the boundary between God’s beloved and the god-forsaken was a very clear one in first-century Palestine.  God’s beloved were the one’s with a good social background.  The god-forsaken were those who struggled to survive!

As a consequence of these political realities, Mary’s own personal circumstances would have been less-than-marvellous also.  As a single Jewish girl of the merchant or lower classes, she would have been extremely vulnerable in this society. Vulnerable to grinding poverty, certainly, but vulnerable, also, to the well-documented sexual violence of the local military garrison, based at Sepphoris.  Historically speaking, it is possible that Mary’s community saw her pregnancy as the result of a violent rape by Roman soldiers. Unfortunately, in this society any such pregnancy would rebound not on the perpetrator but the victim.  A woman promised in marriage who became pregnant before that marriage would invariably be rejected by her betrothed.  At that time, women were more like property than people.  In marriage, the bride’s father payed another man, the prospective husband, to take over the ownership of his daughter.  Only undamaged, undefiled goods were fit for transfer.  Mary, as a pregnant woman, was damaged goods.  And her unborn child would have been regarded in similarly commercial terms.  Here was another mouth to feed.  Under Jewish law Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, would have been quite justified in refusing to go through with the marriage.  In that case, Mary would have become both an economic and religious refugee.  With no man to take care of her, she would have been forced into either begging or prostitution to survive. She was a religious failure already, pregnant to a man other than her promised husband.

Now here’s the real miracle in the Annunciation story, to my mind:  the intense presence and perseverance of Mary’s faith in God’s love throughout circumstances and events which can only be described as horrific.  On the face of things, Mary has every reason to doubt that God cared about either herself or her people.  An ordinary reading of things would have to conclude, would it not, that God had entirely and completely abandoned the situation?  Yet Mary had an extraordinary capacity, apparently, to detect and discern the presence and action of God where others would see only chaos.  And Luke has preserved that capacity for us in the wonderful exchange which opens with Mary’s question ‘But how can this be?’ and closes with the Angel’s promise that ‘nothing is impossible with God’.

In her prayerful consideration of the distressing circumstances in which she finds herself, Mary discerns that what men had purposed for evil, God had purposed for good.  Even though the fearful circumstances in which she finds herself seem utterly hopeless, what begins to form in her is a faith in God’s ‘impossible’ promise of a liberator for her people:
Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.
Here is liberation for the poor and the oppressed of Palestine.  Here is mercy and peace for all who call upon the name of the Lord.  Like the child born to Isaiah in the midst of Judah’s sorrow, the one whose name is Immanuel, ‘God with us’, Mary discerns that her own child will be a sign of hope for all who suffer under the yoke of rich men.  ‘Jesus’, or ‘Yeshua’ in Aramaic, means ‘the Lord liberator’.  And Luke goes on to tell us of this liberator.  He tells of a man who challenges the religious status quo of Judean society, who proclaims that the poor and the ‘god-forsaken’ are not poor and not God-forsaken.  ‘Blessed are you poor’, he says, ‘for yours is the kingdom of God’ (6.20).  Within this simple message, the poorest and weakest find a God of love, who has come to them in their hour of need. 

These themes reverberate through the Magnificat, the song of praise which Mary sings upon hearing the Angel’s message:

The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever

Mary’s faith and Mary’s prayerful discernment have much to teach us right now.  We face an increasingly dark time here in this ‘lucky country’.  We live in a nation which is increasingly run by the rich and powerful, for the benefit of the rich and powerful.  As a nation we are creating more wealth than ever before, but that wealth is being distributed most unfairly.  In modern day Australia, we who are well-off, gain easy access to the best levels of healthcare, childcare, education and housing.  We also enjoy a rich cultural life.  But if you’re numbered amongst the poor or under-employed, a population which is rapidly growing, it’s a very different story.  You wait in long cues at clinics and hospitals, your kids go to under-resourced schools and childcare centres, and your housing costs escalate in a Landlord’s market.

If that isn’t depressing enough, I remind you that we are part of a church which is in big trouble as well.  The Australian church in general, and the Uniting Church in particular, are in rapid decline.  More and more people are interested in spirituality, usually of a neo-pagan variety, but less and less interested in being part of a church community.  As Australians and as Christians, we face an uncertain and difficult future.  

A bit like the future which Mary must have faced, really.  Can we, like her, turn to God in prayer?  Can we turn aside from the fear and anxiety which threatens to overwhelm us, and discern the promised liberation for our own time?  When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he groaned with the pangs of childbirth, longing for Christ to be formed in them (Gal 4.19).  Christ waits to be born in our experience as well.  Again this morning, in the midst of this Advent time, I invite you to turn: to turn from the busyness of life, from the flurry of activity with which we cover our panic.  And I encourage all of you to make a beginning in the labour which is prayer, and whose issue is faith in the seemingly impossible. In baptism, the waters have already been broken.  I assure all of you, that the pain of labour will quickly be forgotten when the glorious Christ is indeed reborn in our midst.

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