Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 1, 2013

2013.12.01 “The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem – Mary of Nazareth” – Luke 1: 26 – 38

Central United Methodist Church

The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem
Mary of Nazareth

Pastor David L. Haley

December 1st, 2013

The 1st Sunday of Advent

Luke 1: 26 – 38

 

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, “Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.

He will be great,

be called ‘Son of the Highest.’
The Lord God will give him

the throne of his father David;

He will rule Jacob’s house forever—
no end, ever, to his kingdom.”

Mary said to the angel, “But how? I’ve never slept with a man.”

The angel answered,

The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
the power of the Highest hover over you;
Therefore, the child you bring to birth
will be called Holy, Son of God.

“And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”

And Mary said,

Yes, I see it all now:
I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
just as you say.

Then the angel left her.”Luke 1: 26 – 38, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

Today I begin a new series: The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem.

The Journey is the third in a trilogy of series created by Rev. Adam Hamilton, Pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, near Kansas City. The previous two we have done are 24 Hours That Changed the World and The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus.

Those of you here for the previous two series will remember that each week, through video, we go with Adam Hamilton to the Holy Land, where the events happened. And we are going to do that today. Because we are going to do that, my time to introduce it must necessarily be brief.

As most of you know, this has turned into a very expensive series for me, because after we did The Way in the spring, I finally did what I’ve wanted to do all my life: go to the Holy Land to visit these places for myself, which I did this summer. And I will be sharing in this series what I saw and learned from that as well.

Each week, we are going to ask three questions:

What does the story teach us about God?

What does it tell us about the child whose birth we celebrate?

What does this story mean for our lives today?

Today we begin by meeting the most important person in the story other than Jesus, Jesus’ mother, Mary of Nazareth.

Those of us who are Protestants, who did not grow up Catholic, sometimes aren’t sure what to make of Mary. The late Peter Gomes, Dean of the Chapel at Harvard used to tell the story about a former Dean of St. Paul’s in London — and you could substitute for him most Protestants — who died and went to heaven. Jesus comes down from God’s right hand and says, ‘Ah, Mr. Dean, welcome to heaven; I know you have met my Father, but I don’t believe you know my Mother.”

For most of us, Mary is missing from our tradition and devotion, at least until Christmas, that is, when she shows up in the Crèche and on countless Hallmark cards, looking, as someone said, as if she just returned from having her hair and nails done, to discover this chubby little baby waiting.

But today, in the limited time we have, let’s go deeper in the story, about who Mary was, and why she deserves both our gratitude and devotion.  Mary’s story – as much as any story in the Bible – reminds us that no matter who we are or where we are from, we can be used for the purposes of God in a mighty way, maybe more even than we may ever know.

The name, Mary, undoubtedly one of the most common names in the world, is the English form of the name Maria, which was in turn a Latin form of the Greek names Mariam, and Maria, which in turn were forms of the Hebrew name Miryam.

Remember, like countless other unknown mothers who have changed the world through their children, we would not even know Mary’s story if it were not for her son, Jesus, and what happened to him.  So you must keep in mind this is a story told backwards, after Jesus died and rose from the dead, when the Gospels were written some fifty years later, someone thought it important to tell the story of his beginning.  Even then, of the six sources – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and other unknown sources, only two of them told the story – Matthew and Luke – and each in a different way

What do we know about Mary?  She was a member of one of the most powerless nations in the ancient Mideast, living in one of its most insignificant towns, a peasant teenager engaged to a Jewish handyman named Joseph.

Mary was from a small town in the north of Israel, in Galilee, named Nazareth. At that time, Nazareth was a one-horse town of a couple hundred people. But it was only a few miles away from the much larger town of Sepphoris, a city which at its height had a population of around 30,000 people. Unfortunately, because Sepphoris was the seat of a significant Jewish rebellion, it was destroyed by the Romans around 4 B.C., about the time of Jesus’ birth, and had to be rebuilt, a factor which shall prove important later, in Jesus’ story.

Nazareth – on the other hand – was so insignificant it was not even listed among the 63 villages of Galilee mentioned in the Hebrew Talmud or the 45 mentioned by first century Jewish historian Josephus, who knew the area well.

Even when it was known, it did not have a good reputation. You may remember in the Gospel of John, when Philip, one of Jesus first disciples, told his friend Nathanel, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” And Nathaniel said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1: 45 – 46)

The name Nazareth may come from the Hebrew word for “branch,” or “shoot,” a shoot springing from the stump of a tree. Little did whoever named the town that – know that the “Righteous Branch” the prophet Isaiah talked about (Isaiah 11: 1 – 6) would come from such an insignificant place.

Mary lived in Nazareth.  She was likely uneducated and probably came from a poor family who may well have been servants in a household in Sepphoris, what we would call the servant class.

Mary and her family may even have lived in a cave. Because of the soft limestone, there are many caves in the Holy Land, and if you are poor, they provide cheap housing.  Perhaps Mary and her family lived in such a cave, or maybe the cave formed a cellar for the house built above ground.

As shocking as it may be, Mary was likely a girl as young as 13.  It sounds harsh, but at that time and place – as still the case in some places in the world – women were engaged at an early age. We find it strange, but at a time when the average life expectancy was under 50 and most people did not go to school, girls were considered women when they had their first menstrual period, and typically married shortly thereafter, in an arranged marriage.

This was the case with Mary; she was engaged to be married, to Joseph, about whom we will learn more next week. According to custom, there would be a year-long legal engagement followed by a formal ceremony. Finally, she and her husband would consummate their marriage and began having children. Before contraception, when children were your insurance and your pension, it was expected that every year there would be another child. Women hoped and prayed that they might survive this, bearing one child after another over the course of their childbearing years. The infant and maternal mortality rate was high, and many mothers and children died in childbirth.

But in Mary’s case, something mysterious happened. According to Luke, an angel of God appeared to her.  The word we translate “angel” means messenger.  While it tells us the angel’s name was Gabriel, it does not say the angel had wings, or really, even that he was a he; I have appreciated those artists who challenge us with the idea that the angel was a woman. But regardless of what the angel looked like or how it happened, what the angel asked of her would change her life.  Because what the angel asked was Mary’s permission for a child to be engendered within her.

Exactly where this happened is unclear; it is the stuff of legend (and tourism.) Today, when you visit Nazareth, there are two sites maintained as possible places: one is maintained by the Orthodox Church, over the spring which was the likely water source for ancient Nazareth, named (surprise) “Mary’s Well”; the other is the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation built over the site believed to be Mary’s house.

I have to say that when we visited there this summer, I was expecting a small village. What I learned is that Nazareth is now a huge city of some 80,000 people, 70% Muslim and 30% Christian.  We arrived, at long last, following the signs, to find ourselves in a huge traffic jam of tour buses.  Not what I expected!  I begin to think I was going to have to convert to Islam to ever find a parking place. But finally we did, and toured the sites you will see in the video, now way beneath the street level of modern day Nazareth.

After receiving the news from the angel, what exactly happened? Did Mary experience a virgin birth, or, as we should call it, a virginal conception? While that is the tradition, what actually happened is less than clear. My own belief is that what life is now, it was then; the same laws of biology apply.

Despite what we may have heard, there is much in the story to suggest this.  Remember, this is a late tradition, written some 75 years after the events described, and even then, only by two of the sources: Paul, who wrote first, makes no mention of it, neither does Mark, the first Gospel. Was the angel telling Mary that she would have a child without sex, or that she would be able – at her young age – to conceive? Did Matthew and Luke misinterpret Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin would conceive (Isaiah 7:14), when the passage clearly refers to something that happens in Isaiah’s time? Is the Gospel account of the Annunciation and Nativity a form of Jewish commentary, or midrash, whose intent is spiritual, not biological, as we attempt to read it today? Was this story even as a defense of Jesus’ reputation, against charges that he was “illegitimate?” Whatever the case, like most other miraculous events in the Gospels, what actually happened remains hidden from our knowing.  But what should be clearly understood, is that the child Mary would bear would be special, the Savior of his people.  All I’m trying to say is that if the virginal conception of Jesus is a problem for you, as it is for many of us moderns; don’t let it be an insuperable difficulty.

With what we’ve learned about this town and Mary, what can we say? We can only stand in astonishment at the mystery of God: Why then, of all times? Why there, of all places? Why Mary, of all women? And what does this tell us about the people God uses to accomplish God’s purposes?

What it tells us is that the people God looks for, to accomplish God’s purposes are not for the proud and arrogant (like the people of Sepphoris?) but the meek and humble. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (1 Corinthians 1: 27 – 28)

As we prepare our hearts for Christmas, we remember the little town of Nazareth and God’s choice of a young woman from this humble village whom God would choose for God’s greatest work. This story invites us, as surely as Gabriel invited Mary, to offer ourselves as wholly to God, to be an instrument of God’s purposes on earth.  Mary’s story invites us to say – here and now, in our time and place – what Mary said so long ago: “Here I am, Lord. Use me according to your will.”  Amen.

 

Note to Reader:  This series, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, was originally preached by Pastor Adam Hamilton at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, in 2010. 

It was made available as a series for other churches by Abingdon Press, and is available through them, (here), through Cokesbury, our denominational bookstore, (here) or Amazon.com (here

Adam Hamilton’s most complete presentation of each segment may be found in his book, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem. Note that it is available in multiple formats: hardback, Kindle, etc.

My sermons are my version, intended to go with the video presentation

watched in worship, which my sermon supplements, which you may view here: (Video)   

Finally, here is a Vimeo of Adam Hamilton’s original sermon: (Sermon)

 

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