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A Tale of Two Birth Announcements

Look over Luke 1:5-25; 57-66.

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Annunciation of the Angel to Zechariah by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1490, fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Florence) Public Domain

We all know the story, don’t we? Zacharias (an “official” “ordained-type” priest) goes in his proper time to offer incense within the Temple. The Angel Gabriel appears to him there, announcing the upcoming birth of John the Baptist, along with his role as forerunner and preparer of the way of the Lord.

Zacharias responds, objecting, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” [v. 18] Gabriel then identifies himself by name, and declares that Zacharias will be mute until his words were fulfilled.

Time passes and so things come about. Zacharias regains his voice finally upon naming his son “John” at his circumcision, in response to community objections because this is not family name of their line.

We all know the story.

Now, please look over Luke 1:26-56.

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The Annunciation by Pinturicchio (1501, fresco in the Cappella Baglioni, Collegiata di Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello) Public Domain

We all know this story, too, don’t we? We see this played out in Christmas pageants almost annually, no? The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, declares her favored, calms her confusion, and announces that she will conceive the Son of the Most High and name Him Jesus.

Mary seems to respond much as did Zacharias, pointing out a physical incongruity as she says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” [v. 34]

But far from punishing her, as it could seem Gabriel did to Zacharias, the angel answers graciously with not only the answer to her question (that the power of the Most High would overshadow her), but he gives her an additional sign declaring that Elizabeth (her kinswoman) is six months along expecting the birth of John. Their exchange ends with “’nothing will be impossible with God.’ And Mary said, ‘Behold the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her” [vv. 37-38]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So, like, am I the only one who ever wondered, “what’s the difference here?”

Zacharias clearly ticked Gabriel off, while Mary didn’t. It’s one thing to point to the “rank order” difference between them. There’s certainly a difference of “graciousness” between them. Lots of flavorful differences, but I always sensed there was more here than that.

And… why should we care? What difference does, or should, it make to us… to you and me… here and now… why these two encounters went the way they did?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I think the answer to both questions is the same one… “Faith”.

The difference between the two encounters is “Faith”. And the reason we should care, is also “Faith”.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It never dawned on me, until very recently, that Zacharias… even faced as he was with the terrifying countenance of an Angel of God Almighty… doubted the truth of his words. Even INSIDE the Temple, standing next to the Altar of Incense as he offered up incense to God!

Seriously?

All of Gabriel’s words spoke to FUTURE events, not present events. Zacharias was going to have to go from that place, be with his wife in the proper time, conceive John, and watch nature take its course for the next nine months.

But that wasn’t good enough for Zacharias.  He says, “how will I know this for certain?” (We know italicized words are inserted by editors.) So he wants to know, right here, right now, why he should believe Gabriel. Waiting apparently isn’t good enough. (We know for certain that the issue is doubt, because Gabriel tells us that.) Zacharias is rendered mute until all was fulfilled “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” [v. 20]

Zacharias needed to know these things were true before he was willing to do his part. Clearly, his part in this miracle would be of crucial importance. It was he and Elizabeth who needed to conceive this child. But before he would go to that trouble, before he would dare go communicate this to Elizabeth, before he would risk Elizabeth’s heartbreak, disappointment, or disgrace… he had to have a sign. He had to KNOW this was true, before he could obey.

Gabriel gives him an unmistakable sign of his authority and power, using his words alone to stop all words for Zacharias until the truth was borne out.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So what is different about Mary? She, too, asks a “how” question.

The difference is that her question is one of “means”, not “verification”. She was perplexed at the appearance of Gabriel, not terrified. Gabriel declares the upcoming conception, birth, and kingship of Jesus, and Mary does not express doubt at the announcement. Rather, she asks how this is to come about, what is she to do? She knows she is virgin. Is that to change for this miracle? How should she obey the will of God?

Gabriel responds to the “how” of the question… that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” [v. 34-35] (By the way, that word “overshadow” only appears 5 times in the New Testament. Once here; then three times referring to the Cloud around Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in the time of the Transfiguration that came upon (and terrified) Peter, James and John, from which came the Voice saying “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”[Luke 9:34-35]; and third when Peter’s shadow heals the sick [Acts 5:15].)

Unsolicited, Gabriel offers Mary the sign of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Mary yields unconditionally to God’s will and embraces Gabriel’s words, the hurries off to aid Elizabeth in her first pregnancy. Isn’t it interesting that Elizabeth had only “come out”, publicly acknowledging her pregnancy in the month before Mary’s arrival? No way was Elizabeth going to endure the risk of disappointment had she miscarried, or been merely deluded into thinking she was pregnant. She would not face either the jibes or the condescending looks of other village women as her face began to round and her figure became more full. She was an elder of her town, disgraced by the curse of barrenness perhaps, but nonetheless righteous and dignified of demeanor. She would not be mocked.

But by the time Mary arrives, Elizabeth KNOWS. She knows for sure that she carries life within her. The baby has quickened, and for the first time she has the glorious sensation of life moving inside her as he responds to her motions or sounds around them. No words describe the joy of hugging new life with your very self, as a woman can in this time.

Mary comes, calls out in greeting, and the Holy Spirit already filling John [v. 15] now fills Elizabeth as well, and her joyful encounter with Mary as they attend to one another’s needs for the next three months (Elizabeth’s third trimester, Mary’s first), offers blessing to them both. Even as I type those words, I can only pause and wonder in awe at what those months must have been like. What would evenings have been like in such a home? Zacharias silent (no choice there), Elizabeth growing ever more excited even as getting around gets more difficult and stilted, and Mary finding her appetite less predictable, perhaps napping now and again, and sensing the changes in her body as the Christ waxes in form…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

What does all this mean to us, Gentle Reader?

Well, God does the impossible all the time. For those who are ready and seek Him, miracles are all around.

When they come, sometimes they are hard to believe in. That’s just the truth. But! When one is willing to yield to them, God grants. When one is willing if and only if there is a sign attesting to the truth… well, God accommodates and a sign will be given. We see this over and over again throughout the Scriptures (Gideon, etc.) However, as we see from this text, while faith that may be, it is a flawed sort of faith. (I, for one, have engaged in such flawed faith countless times, so no judgment here!)

But there’s another kind of faith. There’s a faith that takes a truth on the authority of the speaker, and simply says “Yes!” before it asks “How?”

There, I think is both the difference between the two Gabriel missions, and the significance to us today.

Zacharias wanted proof before he would act. Mary was willing to act before any proof was offered.

Both were engaged in astonishing blessing and miracle. Zacharias just had to go about it with a bit more inconvenience. That and, frankly, their lingering doubts certainly would have robbed him and Elizabeth of months of joy and consolation.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The Holy Spirit, the overshadowing Power of the Lord Most High, certainly wins out in every miracle. Let us simply say “Yes!” first, ask “How?” afterwards, and watch events unfold!

Grace to you, Gentle Reader!

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Posted by on July 16, 2017 in Quiet Time, Sermon Seeds, Uncategorized

 

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Would we dare?

The Omega

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” [Hebrews 12:1-2]

The Alpha

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Never, before today, have I thought of Christmas in terms of “shame”. Of Mary’s shame of conceiving out of wedlock, Joseph’s shame to wed a pregnant bride, their family shame to bear their son in a cast off stable, to bed Him in a feed trough…

And what of Jesus Himself? Who can even begin to conceive of the contrast between His glorious throne, and swaddling clothes, nappies, and nipples?

And yet… and yet… He EMBRACED that! ALL of them did! Who can imagine such a thing? Mary dared deadly shame to say “yes” to the Angel Gabriel. Joseph dared to trust Mary when she told him of Jesus’ conception.

And Jesus? Jesus willingly embraced His humanity, placing Himself in the care of this incredible couple. He embraced the shame. He accepted His own weakness, helplessness, dependency.

Doing so… as a puny little infant… His very presence terrified a king, prompting the slaughter of countless boys. His presence inspired other kings, who paid Him homage and presented Him gifts. His danger, and the warning of an angel, uprooted His family to an alien country to preserve His life. Did they travel in secret? Like people ashamed? Traveling by little known routes, not to be seen, moving by night, resting and hiding by day?

How strange does this all seem for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?

Did they despise the shame? Yet did they all embrace it, for the love of God and those He came to save? Did they love us? Somehow know that somewhere, sometime, you and I would be sitting here praising God for all this?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

All this… all this shame… they took on and embraced, that WE might come to be freed of OUR shame! That our own shames, guilts, sins, be remembered no more. That we stand clean and clear, robed in the righteousness of Christ before the Holy Throne of the Father!

What about us? That’s the question that came to me this morning. That’s the question the Lord confronted me with this morning.

Does “shame”, a concern about what other people will think of me, ever prevent me from doing the right thing, a righteous thing, an action of grace?

It has, Gentle Reader. I must be honest. There are times I have refrained from doing “the right thing”, because it would embarrass me. You too?   * head nods here *   Well, our human frailty gets us all sometimes.

But just let me encourage you, Gentle Reader. Let me ask you to encourage me as well, from time to time. Acts of grace, of compassion, of gentleness… should never be constrained by “how it looks” to others, or whether we will “lose status” by embracing the shame. Do the right, the gentle, the loving… and let onlookers sort themselves out before the Throne.

Jesus’ earthly life began embracing shame. His earthly life ended the same way. But throughout… He is, was, and ever shall be… King of Kings, Lord of Lords…

“Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” [Philippians 2:8-11]

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2015 in Advent Devotions, Sermon Seeds, Uncategorized

 

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Before the Beginning — Pt 4 — “First Sleep”

First Sleep

He/She/They bid me come apart for a bit, had me lie down, and, for the first time ever, I knew “sleep”.

It was quite different from sleeps since then. Things changed radically shortly after this first sleep. This was not the healing sleep of recovery from illness or injury. None of that was yet possible. This was not even the sleep of the mind and heart recovery from fears or worries or hurts from others. None of that was yet possible, either.

This was an amazing sleep of oblivious trust. He/She/They took me, I lay down, and there was simply this new word… “sleep”… and I was.

And then, I awoke. Truly awoke, this time, and there before me… right in front of me… there “she” was.

She awoke, I awoke, at precisely the same moment. What a wondrous moment! No words. There are, and were, no words for such a moment. He/She/They just seemed to “glow” in the moment with an indescribable joy. I… I did not know what to say or what to think. I looked into her eyes, as I had learned to do when presented with all new living beings, and I saw her fashioning out of my very own body in His/Her/Their hands.

She was,,, like ME. She was of me, from me. She was, in a sense, me. There was nothing of her that was NOT me, but for her own life as a life opposite me. She reflected me. In our first moments, we moved, and it was synchronous. I raised my hand in the very same moment she raised hers. I looked at her hand as she looked at mine. She stared into my eyes as I stared into hers. In tandem, we looked towards Him/Her/Them with the same expressions of wonder and awe.

I felt the word coming within myself, and I spoke the word aloud… “Woman”, I said. She is/was from me, “Man”. He/She/They responded, “Good”.

I was no longer “alone”, or “sad”. I had my “other”, my own “beloved”.

I heard a truth reverberate from deep within Him/Her/Them/It. I cannot say I understood it completely yet, but I could hear it. I/We, man/woman, were made in the image of Him/Her/Them. We could create through the words birthed in the consciousness we all shared. Our words could “create”, as He/She/They affirmed each word.

I sensed, thus far, only one “mystery”. One thing I felt “should be”, that as yet “was not”, and I asked Him/Her/Them of this.

I had named the animals. I had even named woman. But I had not yet been named myself, and that did not seem right. I could not name myself. No more could the animals name themselves, nor the woman herself. I yet needed to be named. I yet lacked my own name, my own full name. I “knew” somehow, that I was “Adam”… I was the first of men, yes. But there was something more than this, something beyond all this that I lacked.
I could not look into my own eyes. I could not see my own beginnings and destiny. Only He/She/They could do this. I needed yet to be named… but not by myself… by Him/Her/Them! I lacked my own name, as yet.

Feeling my heart on this, hearing my thoughts on this, He/She/They responded. “No fear. Name comes. You will have simple names. You are discovering. Go on. No fear,” and with all that, the simple conclusion, “Good”.
I knew I was not wrong to wonder. I had discovered more new words. “Yearn”, “wait”, “patient”, and the beginnings of “Trust”.

Eve the Woman, and I, Adam the Man, dwelt together. We spoke. We explored. We discovered and created words. All was open, all was light of day or twilight of night, all was new and clean and perfect.

When our awareness extended to Him/Her/Them, the response was always, “Good”.

[To be continued…]

 

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Learning Curve… Beginnings…

Awakening Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.

This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven.

Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground. But a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground.

Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. [Genesis 2:1-7]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There’s this question that keeps coming to me…

“What did Adam know?”

I mean, think about it for a moment. All our preaching/teaching/debate regarding “culture”, “worldview”, the “fallen world”… all that…

A friend spoke to me the other evening about a sermon they heard about Adam at the Creation. He spoke of Adam’s great intellectual endowments and prowess. How magnificent must God’s First Perfect Created Man have been! True… all true…

But I had to respond with a question the Lord has buzzed in me for a long time… “What did he know, in that first instant?”

This all truly has a point which will develop over the next few days, but before that I’d ask that you spend a few moments building the foundation of this discussion and

Imagine… God fashions Adam from the dust of this (new) material universe… God “breathes spirit” into him… Eyes open and here, for the very first time… very first moment in all of history there is…

Human… consciousness…

But… there is nothing else! Adam opens his eyes and sees… the Face of God.

Adam knows nothing about God. No memory. No “intrauterine” memories or sensory stimuli. No parents, no culture, no nursing and nurturing… not even language.

Adam… is the ultimate tabula rasa, the blank slate. God now must grave onto and into Adam all the knowledge, the learning, Adam needs to live fully as a human…

Before anything else happens in the Garden, before there is even speech, just consider this question, “What did Adam… what COULD Adam… know in those first moments when he opened his eyes?”

Until tomorrow…. Grace to thee… The Little Monk

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2015 in Quiet Time, Sermon Seeds, Uncategorized

 

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