Pretend for a moment that a cold winter’s night finds you snuggled into your living-room recliner under a comfy blanket.
And as you surf through the channels on TV, you stumble into the middle of movie. Two cowboys are standing about 30 yards apart in the middle of a dusty street. The men’s hands hang ominously above pistols strapped to their hips. Their steely eyes are locked in glaring glances.
Even though you have no idea what movie this is, you know exactly what’s going to happen – in a split second, their pistols are coming out, and the bullets will start flying. You’re watching the corny formula for a wild, wild west shootout. Even though you weren’t tuned in for the opening credits, the scene itself tells you what you need to know, and you know what’s going to happen next.
It’s tempting to see this morning’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke like that. In a familiar scene we just watched again last week, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and announces that he and his wife, Elizabeth, will finally become parents.
And now this morning, Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that she, too, will bear a child.
But this isn’t a carbon copy of last Sunday’s scene. We’re not peering in on the OK Corral.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, listen for the word of the Lord and watch for the presence of God, as our journey toward Bethlehem continues, and the next scene in the story of Jesus’s birth unfolds.This is Luke 1, starting with verse 26:
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.
The virgin’s name was Mary.And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and 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.”
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
The angel said to her, “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 Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)
Let’s go back to my cowboy-shootout comparison.
Suppose you run across a scene like that while thumbing through the channels.But then suppose that one of the two cowboys is dressed in pink, and when he reaches for his pistol, there’s a flower planted in the barrel.
I’m guessing that such an odd sight would lift your finger off the remote button long enough to see what’s what. There has to be a reason for such an unexpected twist in the usual pattern.
There’s a pink cowboy here in Luke.
An angel visits someone to talk about having a baby. We’ve seen this before. But wait – the mother-to-be is a virgin. Of course she hasn’t had a child yet – at this point, Mary’s probably only 13 or 14 years old, but her becoming pregnant hardly requires a miracle.
Mary isn’t like Sarah of the Old Testament,who was in her 80s when she conceived, or like her relative Elizabeth from last week,who’s near retirement age. No, Mary’s just entered puberty. Something quite new and different is going on.
Cue the pink cowboy. It’s time to sit up and take notice.
Mary understandably asks Gabriel: “How will this be?” But an equally good question to ask is, “Why will this be?”
Mary doesn’t seem like a logical candidate for divine intervention on the fertility front –nor does she seem a likely choice to play a starring role in the divine drama of cosmic redemption. In the society of her day, she’s a real nobody living in a nowhere place. She’s no mover-and-shaker living in a penthouse on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park.
Unlike Elizabeth and all the other women in the Bible for whom the announcement of a child is such incredible news, Mary’s not even ready to have a baby! Barely ready physically, hardly ready economically and emotionally! AND, she’s not yet married. Like most girls of her day, Mary’s marriage has been pre-arranged by her parents long ago, so there’s no question that she’ll wed one day; it just hasn’t happened yet.
But an out-of-wedlock pregnancy is reason enough to call off the marriage – it could even get her stoned to death for committing the crime of bearing a child without a husband!
So, “why will this be?”
Gabriel’s big news of impending pregnancy is not the answer to Mary’s prayers like it is for Elizabeth and Zechariah. She isn’t living with the bitter disappointment of being childless. Far from it! Gabriel’s announcement doesn’t so much solve a problem for Mary as it creates a problem. This simply is not the right time for Mary to have a baby!
God has chosen Mary for “favor,” but what a strange “favor” for God to give? God accomplishes for her none of the ideals or goals that so consume daily human striving – wealth, social standing, good health, the best life ever! God’s favored one, Mary, is “blessed” with having an out-of-wedlock child who would later be executed as a criminal, which makes Jesus’s birth as much as scandal as his death.
The ultimate scandal, writes one commentator, is that God would take flesh in the first place and enter human life with all its depravity, violence and corruption. Yet, that’s precisely what God chooses to do. God chooses not to abandon us to suffer the consequences of our sin but rather sends Jesus to us as a deliverer.
The real scandal is that the true essence of God’s “favor” has nothing to do with how acceptable or worthy we are and that God’s blessing often has little to do with making us prosperous or comfortable. God’s favor and blessing are part and parcel of God’s fellowship and relationship with us.
Favor, blessing, fellowship and relationship are bound up together tight as rein – the favor of God with us; the blessing of divine forgiveness and mercy; holy fellowship that transforms us into new creations; trusting relationship that lets God call the shots.
Yes, wrapped up in all that favor, and blessing, and fellowship, and relationship
is the wisdom and courage to be OK with letting God be the director in this scandalous, divine drama that’s playing out before your eyes and to accept with a willing and trusting heart the role that the Lord wants you to play – no matter how hard it is to play the part.
That’s the pink cowboy.
That’s the flower in the barrel.
The baby that finally comes to Zechariah and Elizabeth starts with their hopes, their plans and their dreams.
But this time around, the baby coming to Mary has nothing to do with her timing or her plans and everything to do with God’s timing and God’s plans – AND everything to do God’s mission. God is stepping in this world – upsetting schedules and re-aligning lives, because that’s what it takes to accomplish God’s mission – that of redeeming all of Creation.
And what’s truly amazing is that the people whose schedules and priorities get re-aligned are ordinary, run-of-the-mill people. God chooses the meek and lowly rather than the high and mighty to heal the world of what ails it.
God sends Gabriel not to a queen or a princess – not to Joe Biden or Donald Trump,not to Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes, but to a girl living in an insignificant and unimportant town and to an ordinary, gray-haired couple doing nothing more than going about their routines of daily life and work. Nothing about Zechariah’s, Elizabeth’s or Mary’s circumstances would lead you to suspect that these common folk have an uncommon role to play in God’s salvation drama. Something very new, very striking, very dramatic, and quite possibly very wonderful is about to happen.
And it is! Pink cowboy. Daisy in the barrel.
Our holiday celebrations might get more real – feel more new, dramatic, striking and wonderful – if we recognized that the glory of Christmas comes about by the willingness of ordinary people – people like you and me – to obey God’s baptismal claim on us and on our lives and to do the things that God would have us do. Unsettling, unexpected, scandalous and scary as it might be, it’s not about our timing or our plans and all about God’s timing, God’s plans, and God’s work.
To some of us, Christmas is all about bringing people together again, especially those who are estranged from each other.
Our favorite holiday movies reach their climax when the mom and dad who’ve been fighting get back together and avoid divorce.
Scrooge wakes up a changed man.
The Grinch’s heart grows larger and more loving.
The whole town of Bedford Falls shows up to save the day for George Bailey.
The next-door neighbor in “Home Alone” re-connects with his son.
Through it all, the spotlight of Christmas shines on us. So after a while, we start to think that having a “good Christmas” means being a little nicer than usual, maybe patching up a broken relationship or two, digging a little deeper into our pockets to chip in to a charity or two, and just generally getting along with everyone so as not to lay a wet blanket on all the holiday cheer.
“Peace on earth” may or may not happen in any literal sense, so we settle for the “peace” of not having Uncle Charlie and cousin Edna spew looney-tune conspiracy theories at the Christmas dinner table like last year.
We’re not really looking to change the world – we’ll just settle for getting along with some sense of reasonable happiness and tranquility until January 2nd mercifully arrives and we can get back to normal – however dysfunctional, and unholy, and self-centered normal might be.
In other words, we make Christmas about us – about solving our problems, about finding ways to handle this or that difficulty in our family dynamics.
At least some such concerns aren’t bad things to think about or work on, but they’re nowhere near the core of Advent’s lead-up to Christmas. Christmas isn’t first of all about we want. As with Mary, so with us: the Lord brings us what he knows we need whether we think we need it or not.
God intervenes in our lives to remind us that what Advent is about is the defeat of sin, evil, and death and about being ready to take on the difficult, potentially embarrassing, and possibly scandalous jobs that the Lord calls us to do, so that God’s mission continues.
The advent of God’s Christ into this world –as Gabriel’s speech to Mary makes so crystal clear –is ultimately about so much more than the seven-layer salad or rum balls you bring to the Christmas buffet or the ugly sweater you can’t wait to bring to the return counter.
Christ is the pink cowboy brandishing a flower that should stop you in your tracks long enough to notice that God is doing a new thing in your life and in the world, and it takes Mary-like courage to accept the blessing of Emmanuel –“God with you, God with us” – because sometimes that blessing creates Mary-like problems.
Given that all things are possible with God, it’s possible that God wants to do some great things through you – however impossible or improbable that sounds, for that just is the way that God works.
For that just is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message in worship for the second Sunday of Advent, December 5, 2021. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by R. Allen Culpepper, Scott Hoezee, and L.T. Johnson inform the message.