Sermon for Wake Forest Baptist Church
Feast of the Annunciation in the season of Lent
Isaiah 7:10-14, Psalm 40, Luke 1:26-38
Spring in winter … winter in spring … the stormy dregs of winter fit our Lenten struggles. We don’t want to throw off the covers when the morning air is cold, but that same dawn also brings the light. Digging into ice-hardened earth, we plow toward the passion, believing the allelulias of Easter are somewhere down this potholed road.
Light in darkness. Darkness in light. Looking at the texts for this season, I found the Feast of the Annunciation right smack dab in the middle of Lent. In the literal thinking of the pre-modern church, someone figured that a Jesus born on December 25 must have been conceived around March 25, and so, here we are, with a chance to see the light in the midst of the darkness … and the darkness in the light.
Which may be a moment that resonates here at Wake Forest Baptist Church. This community is in a season that likely feels full of both questions and possibilities, challenges and charges.
How did we get here? Where are we going next? Is God still with us?
Great questions. And, it is a good and faithful thing to be asking questions. As we’ll see. So, let’s do this. Let’s have a bit of Advent in the midst of Lent.
So. Isaiah. Ahaz. What’s going on in this Old Testament reading? Did the lectioneers just pick this text because Matthew quotes it in his birth narrative? Maybe. But if we are going to read Isaiah, let’s read Isaiah. Let’s hear what he’s saying in his own context, before we read him into Luke’s story … or ours.
Our reading today begins with the word “Again.” That right there tells us we have just landed in the middle of something. Looking back at Isaiah 6, we see Isaiah having a wild vision full of angels and wings and thrones. And God is calling … “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Isaiah jumps up, “Here I am! Send me!” And so God gives Isaiah a message for the people of Judah, and their king Ahaz.
The backstory is that Ahaz and Judah are about to be under attack. Isaiah prophesies that the attack will fail, but that Ahaz must be firm in his faith. Isaiah is very stern about this: “If you do not stand firm in the faith, you do not stand at all.”
And then God, maybe noticing Ahaz is not standing too firm, says to Ahaz directly, “Go ahead. Ask me for a sign. Make it as high as the heavens or as deep as Sheol.”
That’s quite an invitation. From God’s own self. What does Ahaz say? “No … I don’t want to put the Lord to the test.”
Wow. Really? God offers you a sign and you say, “Yeah, no. No thanks.”
Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it. Maybe Ahaz didn’t want a sign. Maybe Ahaz didn’t want to be encouraged to face his enemies. Haven’t we all been there? Afraid to ask, because what if God says no? Or, even scarier … what if God says “Yes!”?
So, Ahaz is on the fence. But Isaiah, doing what prophets do, gives him a shove. “You don’t want a sign? You don’t want to know the answer? Too bad. God’s going to give you a sign anyway. See that young woman over there? She’s pregnant. And when she has her baby, she’s going to name him Immanuel.”
In other words, whether you are asking or not, Ahaz, whether you are trusting or not, God is with us.
Now let’s zoom out to 60,000 feet and see the shape of this story. Calling. Invitation. Refusal! And yet … signs and wonders from an ever-present God.
When we turn to the reading from Luke, we find that again, a messenger has come from God. This time it’s the angel Gabriel, come to speak to a young woman named Mary. Many of us know this story so well, it can be hard to hear it fresh. But let’s listen for how the story moves, and see what we can see.
The angel Gabriel greets Mary, leading with his best news. “Mary! Favored one! The Lord is with you!”
Mary, as you or I would be, is somewhat taken aback, to say the least. She is, the scripture tells us, perplexed. She – not for the last time – ponders. Who and what is this?
Gabriel has to use the usual angelic follow-up: “Fear not.” And then says, “You have found favor with God.”
But then comes the “And now …”
“And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and he will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end!”
Wow. Angels, wings, thrones and kings. That’s quite a message Gabriel just delivered. And, if we are paying attention, some aspects of it might be a little familiar. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Because Mary, real live flesh and blood woman that she is, in that particular time and space and betrothal status, is not surprisingly still back there at “And now, you will conceive in your womb …”
“How can this be?” she asks. She asks … “I’m still a virgin, you know.”
She may be afraid … but Mary asks …
Gabriel answers, although the fuller disclosure just gets more mysterious.
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.” Overshadow … such a strange word. God, whose light needs darkness in order to draw near …
But Gabriel isn’t done. There’s more. A sign, and a wonder.
“Your cousin Elizabeth, who is old and barren, is six months pregnant. Because nothing is impossible with God!”
There are no words in the scripture for what happens then, in the quiet of a woman’s heart, mind, body and soul. Only God knows what was hanging in the balance. Only Mary knows what she thought and felt. Scripture is silent on her pondering … her fear … her joy.
What we can hear is how she answered … with echoes of the prophet Isaiah.
“Here am I,” she says, “the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
Again, let’s zoom out to 60,000 feet, and see the shape of this story. Calling. Invitation. Acceptance! Signs and wonders …. All the elements are there. Where Ahaz could not or would not entrust his life to God, Mary does. Without knowing what she was saying yes to, without knowing what lay ahead, Mary steps up. “Here I am,” she says … and this prophet begins her work.
Of course, that new beginning came at a price. In that moment, she lost her old name. She muddied her reputation and risked her relationship. She left her mother’s house. She spent time in exile. She gave herself to the work of this child, all the while knowing she’d give him back to God.
I am reminded of a question Riane Eisler asks in her book, The Chalice and the Blade: “What if the central image of Christianity were a woman giving birth, rather than a man dying?”
Of course, we wear crosses, not mangers … the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are central to Christianity as we know it, but it might be helpful to tilt the perspective a bit to the incarnational beginning of the story. What can we learn from this prophet who sang her son into his ministries of healing, teaching and liberation, this human being who trusted God and never turned away?
A good question for a church pregnant with possibility.
It can be powerful – when faced with enormous challenges – to remember how you got here. Even our children do this. “Tell me again about when I was born!” I suspect sometimes Jesus thought back to the story of his beginning … to remember and take heart from the song his mother sang.
So, let’s linger here with Mary, just for a moment.
A woman hears God’s invitation, and says yes. She herself bids God welcome.
A woman becomes intimately acquainted with the innermost heart of God, and is forever changed.
A woman gives the blood of her body, bone of her bone, breath of her breath, bread of her hands, life itself to Love Incarnate.
A woman accepts mystery and not-knowing, loss and exile, birth and death, pondering in her heart, putting her trust in God.
A woman hears the blessing and affirmation of her female family, and she sings!
The very exultation of God rises up in her and she sings praise and prophecy and power into the world.
Calling. Invitation. Acceptance. Signs and wonders. Praise.
Wake Forest Baptist Church, do you hear God’s calling to you?
What invitation is God offering?
New life may not be simple. The prophet Mary can tell you that you’ll risk your name, your reputation, your relationships. You may have to leave your mother’s house to follow God’s call. You may have to give yourself over to a creation that ultimately belongs to God.
Signs and wonders are all around you … do you see them?
How will you answer?
May the God of Mary and Jesus,
the God of spring in winter,
the God of light in darkness,
overshadow you with wings of grace,
and bring you a new song to sing.