The reading we have just heard is is primarily an account of a very personal encounter between Mary and God. However it draws on the story of the community and became formative for the community. So, as we explore this event this morning I invite you to keep two questions in the front of your mind. What is God saying to you personally in this encounter and what is God saying to this church through this encounter?
I wonder if you’re into family history at all. My Mum and Dad like nothing better than traipsing round old graveyards trying to decipher inscriptions and work out which great, great uncle is buried where. I was in Wales after Easter, and I was sitting on the steps of a Welsh Methodist Chapel having my packed lunch, and down the side of the path were a line of gravestones all from the same family, a family who had obviously been important in the community and the founding of this chapel. Where we come from is important to us as human beings. The popularity of TV shows like “Who do you think you are” is an illustration of that. And it is here in this story. The angel links what is happening now, to what has happened in the past.
Joseph is of the house of David .. . Jesus will take the throne of his ancestor David … he will be of the House of Jacob –
What do we know about these people – Jacob and David.
Jacob – Abraham’s grandson – Isaac’s son – had a brother called Esau. Not such a happy family. Tricked his brother out of his inheritance twice. Had to run away, and on the way he met with God. He had a vision of a stairway going from heaven to earth, and angels going up and down, and from the top of the stairway, God spoke to him in Genesis 28:
‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’
Then Jacob goes and spends some time with his uncle, Laban, at least seven years, gets tricked into marrying one sister, marries the other one as well, and eventually God does bring him back to this land, and as he is on the way back to be reconciled with his brother he met with God again, this time it was a more contentious encounter – he wrestled with God, and wouldn’t let go until God blessed him – he walked with a limp ever after – but he got his blessing.
And what about David? I could be here all morning recounting the story of the shepherd boy who was discounted by his family, but seen by God’s prophet. Who put the whole army of Israel to shame by trusting in God and going out to conquer the giant who insulted God and the people. Whose heart was God’s, and yet committed the most awful crimes of rape, murder, and adultery. Whose parenting was disastrous and whose worship was uninhibited and timeless. But for our purposes this morning the key thing is not who he was or what he did, but the promise that was given through the prophets that a King would arise from the house of David who would rule justly and wisely for ever.
When the angel makes reference to David and Jacob they aren’t just ancestral links to the past, they are links to the past promises God has made, to people in the past who weren’t perfect, but did seek after God, and who were promised things by God, promises that are to be fulfilled in Christ.
So what about our two questions? What is God saying to you personally about your history? What is God saying about this church’s history? Are there things from the past that need to be acknowledged and owned, perhaps forgiven, perhaps built on. What promises has God made that need to be held on to?
As we go on through the account we read that Jesus’ human life in Mary is brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit. In Matthew’s account it says that, “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”. It seems to me that this sets the pattern for how the reality of Jesus is brought to life. Jesus only comes in to people’s lives and hearts by the work and power of the Holy Spirit.
As the angel talks about the Holy Spirit and the power of God overshadowing Mary we are taken back to the very beginning of the Bible and the image of the Holy Spirit brooding over, hovering over, overshadowing the darkness on the surface of the deep. As the Holy Spirit’s presence was fundamental to the creation, so the Holy Spirit’s presence is fundamental to the new creation that occurs when Jesus is born in someone’s life.
This link between the work of the Holy Spirit and bringing people to faith is being emphasised this year for those of us in the Church of England by a call from our Archbishops to make the week leading up to Pentecost, the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers, a focus of prayer for people to come to faith this year.
They write, “The dream is this: imagine every Anglican, perhaps even every Christian, in this nation praying that prayer together with the specific intention that all may come to know Jesus as Lord. We profoundly hope that you and those you serve will want to be part of this great movement of prayer. Evangelism is the work of God, and it begins as we seek him in prayer. It is always good for the Church to pray. “
As part of this they have invited each person to pray specifically and faithfully for five friends to come to faith.
It is the Holy Spirit who brings Jesus to life in people’s hearts and minds. This is both an encouragement and a challenge. We are released from the believing that it is up to us to change people’s minds about Jesus – it isn’t – it’s up to the Holy Spirit. We have a responsibility – to be obedient, to sow the seed, to share the good news, but it is the Holy Spirit that gives new life and growth.
So what about our two questions? What is God saying to you personally about the Holy Spirit’s work? What is God saying to this church? Is there a need to lay down a burden that is not yours to carry? Is there a call to discern what the Holy Spirit is bringing to birth? Is there a call to pray in a new way?
In the Anglican church this reading is also read on the Feast of the Annunciation – which is normally the 25th of March, 9 months before Christmas Day. This year the 25th of March was also Good Friday. It is quite rare for this to be the case, in fact the next time it will happen is 2149, but when it is it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the pain that this news caused to Mary.
We sometimes do this at Christmas, when we might see a painting in which the roof beams of the stable throw the shadow of the cross, or we might sing with Graham Kendrick,
“And did she see there
In the straw by his head a thorn
And did she smell myrrh
In the air on that starry night
And did she hear angels sing
Not so far away
Till at last the sun rose blood-red
In the morning sky”
And sometimes we do it at Easter, we read of Mary standing at the foot of the cross, with John’s arm round her. Last year we videoed the Easter story around different places in Priorslee and had a Good Friday event where we invited people to come and see and hear it. At the crucifixion scene we had a recording of a local school choir singing Mary’s Song, Mary asking why these things had to be done to her Son. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
But what about this day, the day that she receives the news that she is pregnant. What are the pains of this day? She was young, unmarried, and pregnant. She had no means to support herself economically, she would face disgrace and insult in her community, her parents and fiancé would feel betrayed. The path she would have to walk would be painful and difficult. It would lead her to Calvary to watch her son being tortured and battered to a cross. It would also lead her to see great miracles, and healing, and, in the end, resurrection. There is the hope and joy of new life – but also the shadow of the cross
This is the pattern for Christian life: the way to resurrection always goes by way of the cross. There will be painful things ahead, there may be death, not just of ourselves but of our dreams and hopes, of parts of ourselves. But that is what it means to carry our cross, and it is only be carrying that cross that we come to new life in the resurrection.
Again our two questions. What is God saying to you personally about the pain and hope? What is God saying to this church? Are there things that need to die so that new life can come?
As we come to the end of the passage we find obedience, no matter what the cost. We’ve thought a bit about Mary’s life situation. She knew that this was not going to be an easy path, she knew that it would be difficult, that it would cause her and others pain and hardship. Knowing this, she says to the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.” She says “yes” to God’s will. She says “Your will be done” to her Father in heaven before her son on earth had taught that this is the start of all prayer.
It seems to me that it is important that we take note of the order – God says what he’s going to do, Mary asks how that will happen, she is reassured that with God nothing is impossible, Mary agrees with God’s word.
It is just as important to realise what it is not – Mary fixes her mind on something impossible, tells God that he’s promised that nothing is impossible for him, God agrees with Mary’s word.
Given Mary’s example, it is up to us to follow God, not the other way round. If only it was always as clear as an angel appearing and giving us the marching orders. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem to happen that often. It’s never happened to me.
In the absence of that, we need some standing orders – so it’s just as well that we have been given them. Jesus was quite clear about this. The two greatest commandments are for us to love God and love each other. It really is quite simple and at the same time really difficult. I’ve been reading John’s gospel and his letters a bit recently and I have been struck by the weaving together of the themes of
Listen to this from 1 John 4:
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”
Now I could preach a whole other preach on this passage, but I’m not going to do that. I just want you to be struck again by the emphasis on love – 27 times the word appears in 14 verses. God’s love for us and our responsive love for God and for each other. And how do we receive this in our lives – again it is the gift of the Holy Spirit.
These are our standing orders – to love as we have been loved. All else will flow from this. As we love God so we find ourselves doing God’s will. As we love others so we find our capacity for love growing and blossoming. As we are obedient to these commands, following Mary’s example, sometimes it will crucify us, but always it will bring new life.
Back to our two questions. What is God saying to you personally about the loving obediently? What is God saying to this church? Are there other words that God has spoken that require an obedient response?
As you, both individually and as a church take encouragement from the promises of the past, trust in the work of the Holy Spirit to bring new life to people, are obedient to walk the way of the cross to the hope of resurrection, and seek to be obedient to God’s call I believe that there is nothing impossible with God.