An Advent Reflection on Luke 1:26-38 | The Annunciation

May 21st, 2011. Cataclysmic earthquakes rocked the globe, loved ones everywhere suddenly disappeared, unmanned cars and planes wreaking havoc, massive devastation, death, and destruction, riots and panic in every major city. It was the end of the world. Or, at least, it was supposed to be. So said Harold Camping, and his followers. With 5 million dollars worth of advertising, they plastered billboards and RVs across the country, announcing the definitive date of the impending Judgment Day, May 21st, 2011.

I listened to the media coverage of all this with great interest, not, of course, because I believed Camping’s prediction, but because I wanted to hear more about the people who did. Many of them had left their respectable jobs and blown their life savings in order to join the campaign to spread the “good news” of the end of the world. But especially, I wanted to understand what it was like for these people to believe with such certainty that God was going to show up in an undeniable, powerful way, and then to have that hope evaporate when, the next morning, the sun rises, and it is just another day. What do you do on May 22nd?

Hold that thought and take a look at Luke 1:26-38.
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 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, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
The Christians that Luke is writing his gospel to are stuck in a moment, a May 22nd moment. These are second generation Gentile Christians converted and living in an environment full of apocalyptic predictions, full of anticipation about the end of the world. And they were part of it, they had once been sure they were going to live to see the end, Christ coming in power to reign on the earth.

As Luke writes his gospel, he puts the basis for their hopes right out there. Gabriel declares that Mary’s son
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 Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
These words are unmistakable echoes of the what the prophets of Israel had foretold: a political messiah who would throw off the oppressive empire, lead Israel back to global prominence, and the whole earth would look to Jerusalem from which God would at long last bring peace to the earth.

But for the Christians to whom Luke was writing, these promises must have rung hollow. After all, it was May 22nd. The Son of Mary had come and gone. Sure, he’d resurrected and ascended, and Pentecost had come, and the gospel had spread across the Roman world. But all that had happened more than two decades ago, and still, these glorious promises were unfulfilled.

Jesus hadn’t returned to sit on David’s throne. While, Jewish zealots had temporarily taken back Jerusalem from Roman rule, the result in AD 70 was the utter destruction of the temple which was supposed to be the seat of Christ’s coming kingdom. These revolutionaries had been brutally crushed and Roman empire was as powerful and exacting as ever. Besides, the Jewish people had rejected Jesus as the messiah. Leaving the church as nothing more than collection of small bands of bedraggled believers, bracing themselves against the Emperor’s demands of full allegiance and enduring opposition from the Jewish faith that gave them birth.

This reality was a far cry from the vision which compelled the first Gentile believers. Leaving them anxious, confused, and aimless. Too many times they had admonished themselves to be patient, finally they were caving into the nagging sense that all hope of reigning with Christ in an earthly kingdom had faded long ago. What now? What do you when May 22nd comes and the kingdom doesn’t?

These are the anxious questions circling around the community for which Luke writes.

And yet, as I sat with this text, and considered these questions, my own anxieties began to come to the surface:

Denominations are in decline; the Nones are on the rise.

Seminary enrollment is down, and seminary graduates struggle to get jobs.

Churches are being sold and converted into apartment buildings and furniture stores.

So-called successful churches are racked by scandal and reek of corporate culture and crass marketing strategies.

The church suffers from schism and compromise within and ridicule and dismissal without.

Congregations are graying.

Ask young people what they think about Christianity and the words that come to mind are judgmental, hypocritical, intolerant.

1500 years in the Western halls of power, and this is what we have to show for it?
The time of our influence is quickly fading. What now?

What are we to do as the kingdom of Christendom slips away?

When we first encounter Mary in our text, we find her in an anxious state, too:

“Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.”

Luke’s purpose in this text is to invite his readers, past and present, to join Mary on the journey she makes from this place of anxiety. In this text, we watch Mary as she moves from anxiety, to attention, and finally, to availability. And Luke invites us, too, to move from anxiety, to attention, to availability.

Mary begins in anxiety – “deeply troubled,” wondering “what can this mean?”

Gabriel’s words to her are reassuring: “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.” And he proceeds to announce that she will conceive, and bear a son that will rule in David’s throne forever.

Mary’s response to Gabriel signals that she has made a transition from anxiety to a new posture of attention:
“How will this be,” she says, “since I am a virgin?”
We might imagine that Mary is incredulous: So, Gabriel, I don’t know about heaven, if they have sex education in angel elementary school—but let me tell you a little something about what we humans call “the birds and the bees...”

But when Mary asks “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” she is not doubting Gabriel as Zechariah had several verses earlier; instead, she is humbly acknowledging her own inability to make this happen—while turning her attention back to God. How will God do this? How will this be?

Luke wants his anxious readers to make a similar move from anxiety to attention, and in order help them do this, he puts Mary’s anxious thoughts immediately alongside the great source of anxiety for his readers, the eschatological promises that Christ will sit on David’s throne and his kingdom will never end.

Luke’s audience had once been sure they were going to live to see this, but every morning the sun rose, and it was just another day, and each passing day was one more reason to doubt that God would ever fulfill these promises. What now?

Luke’s readers resonate with Mary’s anxiety, but they can also resonate with her humble self-assessment. Just as Mary is unable to conceive on her own, Luke’s readers feel powerless to bring about the realization of these eschatological promises. We’re just a few Christians scattered here and there. The Romans think we’re seditious and the Jews think we’re heretics. We’re really in no position to make these promises come true. We’re in no position to build this kingdom.

Moving from this place of anxiety, Luke invites them to wonder with Mary, “How will this be?” To turn their attention away from their circumstances, to give up their preconceived notions of what it will look like when the kingdom comes, and to turn their attention to God…How might God do this? What might this look like? Maybe it’s happening right now, where might we see it…HOW will this be?

We, too, are invited to move from anxiety to attention with similar questions. Our institutions and influence may be in decline, but where might the kingdom be breaking in? What might this look like? Where might we see it? How will this be?

This question is a game changer: How will this be?

When Mary asks it, Gabriel’s answer reveals much about how the kingdom comes:

The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.
The words are so familiar and so poetic, it is easy to miss their significance. This is a story about getting pregnant…but its not one of those stories! Nothing like the dramatic mythical tales of the Greek gods coming down to spend a night of passion with the beautiful women of earth.

This will be subtle. Like a shadow. Like a breeze.

When the incarnation began in the womb of Mary, I’m not sure she even noticed.

Conception is like that. For most of human history, it has been impossible to confirm that it has even happened until weeks after the fact, when the mother begins to experience its affects – tiredness, hunger, morning sickness, and later, a growing belly, and, in my wife’s case, swollen ankles!

This is why pregnancy tests are a $220 million dollar industry in the US. It is why we’ve developed advanced, early-detection, first-response, sure-predict pregnancy tests, all because it’s hard to tell.

Conception is like that, and the kingdom coming is like that, too, suggests Luke. One day the kingdom will come in its fullness, and it will not be subtle, but until then, we must to learn to pay attention.

This is why it is so important to dwell with that question, “How will this be?”

It is because of this faithful question that Mary is given a sign of the in-breaking of the kingdom.
“Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month,” says Gabriel.
Nothing earth-shattering. No cataclysm. No army of angels descending from heaven. But this is not just another day. Something is definitely afoot. Maybe today isn’t May 22nd after all.

The same is true in our day. As we move from anxiety to attention, we too, begin to see signs of the subtle in-breaking of the kingdom…

Catch a glimpse in the new Churches and fresh expressions popping across the western world, like the SimpleWay, a new monastic community in Philadelphia incarnating the kingdom in the backwaters of Empire, or like WildGoose Uprising: a Presbyterian church formed out of the bluegrass culture of rural Appalachia;

Catch a glimpse as historic churches are drawing on the best of their traditions, contextualizing the gospel in new ways; like Beer and Hymns: a Christian Church in Portland, OR that revives the old fashioned hymn sing and puts those bar-tunes back in their original settings; like Community Dinners: a 90-year old church Pentecostal that moved out of its building and into community centers across the city of Seattle where it hosts agape feasts as dinner churches 5 nights a week.

Young people committing to lives of radical discipleship and witness among their peers, and rediscovering ancient Christian practices like the catechumenate and lectio divina.

Mature elders, determined to pass on their legacy and wisdom, modeling time-earned trust in the faithfulness of God.

Renewed interest in Christian social engagement: Christians caring for creation, combating human trafficking, reflecting on the arts, rediscovering vocation in the workplace, leaving behind political ambitions and simply caring for those in need with no strings attached.

And the signs of the inbreaking kingdom aren’t just in the church, the kingdom is breaking through in the wider culture as well:

Young people moving beyond cynicism, eagerly looking for ways to serve.

Impassioned voices calling out for gender pay equality and livable wages.

Consciousness about climate change translating into changing life-habits and development of forms of renewable energy.

Most recently, growing popular consciousness and discourse about of the ways we allow technology to draw us out of real relationships and presence…

Nothing earth-shattering. No cataclysm. But something is afoot in our day. Our institutions may be in decline, but the kingdom is on the move. In the twilight of Christendom, something new is dawning. And if we pay attention, we’ll start to see it.

Mary's posture of attention leads her ultimately to a declaration of availability. In response to Gabriel’s assurance, and the sign of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, she announces her willingness to participate in this surprising work of God.
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
This posture of availability is ultimately where Luke wants to lead his readers.

Being available for the Lord’s work, however, does not mean joining a campaign to build the kingdom. It’s not about signing up to fight for a resurgence of Christendom. That is not how the kingdom comes, and that is not what the Lord’s servants are invited to. Indeed, when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, he never implored anyone to build it or to extend it. Instead, he invited people to enter the kingdom, and to receive it as a gift.

This is precisely what we see Mary doing: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled. Let it be. I receive the gift. God, do what your kingdom thing. I’m available to participate.”

The kingdom does come through human partnership, but it is not an equal partnership. As Lukan commentator Joel Green states:
“Although Mary’s role is crucial, the initiative and powerful work of God are much more so. Ultimately the purpose of Mary’s question [and Gabriel’s answer in this text] is to emphasize that all of this is God’s doing!”
All of this is God’s doing. This is important for us to take to heart, especially those of us who are passionate about being “missional.” For many, the call to be missional comes through as an appeal for Christians to muster their strength and to get to work, to get out there and bless the world, to fight for justice, to help the poor, to share the gospel. All good things, of course, but sometimes in our eagerness to serve the kingdom, we rush out ahead of God and find ourselves lacking the empowerment needed for the work.

This response, while zealous, is not what Mary models for us. In her journey from anxiety, to attention, and finally to availability, she invites us to recognize that this mission is all God’s doing, to trust that God will do it and in that humility to learn to pay attention and make ourselves available to participate in the surprising work of God.

My daughter Ginny is five; she’s about three feet tall with dirty blond hair and a sweet and spunky personality. During Advent two years ago, we brought out the Nativity set like we do each year. Except this was the first year she really began to get into it.

She had a blast playing with these Little People characters. Some of the scenes she created with them were, shall we say, nontraditional. OK, they were probably mildly heretical; I’m pretty sure I overheard the angel putting Jesus in a time-out.

A couple nights each week for her bedtime story we’d sit down together with all the characters and act out the traditional Christmas story, with the angel, and Elizabeth, and the shepherds and the wise men and Mary and Joseph.

Well, a few weeks of this and finally it was Christmas eve. We turned off the lights, plugged in the Christmas tree, had our annual fondue dinner and before we opened presents we asked Ginny if she’d like to pray. To our surprise, she did want to say something. And these are the words she said.

God is strong. 
God is patient. 
God does surprising things. 
And then you find Jesus lying in a manger.

My wife and I looked at each other and I said proudly, “Pretty good theology for a three-year old.” She smiled and shot back, “Or a 33-year old.” So, lately, whenever I feel the pull into anxiety over the state of the church, I think of Ginny’s simple prayer, and I let it remind me: Pay attention, Chris—God is strong. God is also patient. God does surprising things. Then you find Jesus…lying in a manger.

And that is how the kingdom comes.

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