Culture – Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year. “Culture … allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue or group with seriousness. … It's an efficient word: we talk about the 'culture' of a group rather than saying 'the typical habits, attitudes, and behaviors' of that group. … This newer sense of the word is catching people's attention and driving the volume of lookups.”[i]
Merriam-Webster chose its Word of the Year based on our research. Through research, we learn the definition of words, family history or how to change headlights in a Buick LeSabre.[ii]
Researching today’s Gospel, we learn what Luke said about Jesus, what Mary and Gabriel said, and what it might mean to us.
First, what Luke said about Jesus had to do with culture. People in our culture are satisfied letting producers of shows on the History or Biography channels to present their research of Jesus. As a result, our secular culture accepts Jesus’ human nature, but questions his divine nature.
Conversely, people of Luke’s culture, Roman citizens who deified Caesars into gods, had an easier time accepting Jesus’ divinity than they did his humanity.[iii] This is why Luke narrated the human origins and birth of Jesus Christ.
During the first centuries, the church defended itself against heresies that denied Jesus’ true humanity (Gnostic Docetism, Nestorianism and Monophysitism). The movie, Interstellar, lays out its plot according to modern Gnosticism.[iv]
Martin Luther succinctly explained that Christ became man in order to redeem us from sin and death. The devil came close to us, but he did not come so close as to assume our nature.[v]
Luther confessed the Second Person of the Trinity was conceived by the Holy Spirit without means of a man, and was born of the pure, holy Virgin Mary as of a real, natural mother.[vi]
In addition to combating heresies, Luke illustrated how the Annunciation fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. Mary received God’s promise of a child, which was similar to, but greater than, previous promises to women of God. These included Hagar (Gen 16:11) and Manoah’s wife (Judg 13), but most pertinent was God’s announcement through Isaiah of the sign given to Israel consisting of a virgin who would conceive. This showed the promised birth was not a private matter for the parents, but one of national concern.
In Jesus, God came to Israel, was favorable toward her, claimed her as his very own, and was wedded to his people. Jesus and the New Testament authors often employed marriage imagery to imply the church is Christ’s bride.
The parallels between God’s promises to His people and His promise to Mary suggest that we can see her as representing the new Israel, the virgin bride of Christ, the church. In other words, without putting Mary on the same level as Christ, Luke showed that Christians have her as an example to consider.[vii] The unmerited grace poured forth into Mary is available to all.
The new era of salvation comes through the baby conceived by the gracious action of God upon Mary, who finds favor with God, not due to any superiority over other women or any merit in God’s estimation, but simply because of God’s grace.
Mary’s response was unlike Zechariah’s skepticism. Her pondering led to a simple, honest question, which Gabriel met with an explanation, a promise and reassurance. As the Holy Spirit came upon her, she conceived Jesus as holy, the Son of God. This was the moment of the Incarnation of our Lord.
Luther compared the conception of Jesus through the Word spoken to Mary with the real presence of Christ’s body in the Lord’s Supper, effected through the Words of Institution. In other words, as the first catechumen – members of the early church who heard the Word – she believed as we believe.
Luke used the Annunciation as an instruction on the virgin birth, on the Son of God, and on the work of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ conception. We confess it in the Nicene Creed.
The passage also gives us a glimpse into how the early church incorporated new members. As its first member, Mary received her catechesis from Gabriel. The Holy Spirit came upon her, and she received the flesh of Christ. As the first catechumen, she set the pattern for the apostles and all who followed her. We hear the Word, the Holy Spirit comes upon us, and we receive Christ’s Body and Blood. Like Mary, each of us is a servant of the Lord, humbly submitting to the will of God and his miraculous presence in and among us. That is what Luke said about Jesus, Mary and Gabriel. What might this passage mean to us?
First, we must be careful to notice that none of Mary’s qualities is offered as the reason God chose her; that reason is tucked away in the purposes of God.[viii] Luther taught that although we recognize Mary as Mother of God, we should not make too much of her, but ponder “in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God. … Her sole worthiness to become the Mother of God lay in her being fit and appointed for it, so that it might be pure grace and not a reward.”[ix]
It is hers to ponder in her heart, but ours to ponder as well. As church and individuals, what does it mean to hear the Word? To have the Holy Spirit comes upon us? To receive Christ’s Body and Blood? To be a servant of the Lord? To humbly submit to God’s will and his miraculous presence in and among us?
I asked several people what this passage means to them. My friend, Wendell, a lifelong Lutheran who teaches Old Testament Sunday School, responded with these words.
“I view Mary as an excellent example of a faithful servant. At her tender age, having undoubtedly endured horrible ridicule for a pregnancy out of wedlock, she was able to say the magnificat. Truly a great example of humility, faith and servanthood. She is truly a great Christian.
Also, what a great story of how something that appears awful at the time (an unwed pregnancy), ended up being a great blessing and miracle. We should all look for the blessings in our “curses” like she did.
She also teaches me that God’s methods may very often be seen as ‘unorthodox’, but we must have the faith to believe that he knows what he is doing.”
Our culture is not prone to agree with Wendell, but we must have the faith to believe that God knows what He is doing. Even when we do not know what God’s plan is for us, we must have faith. And we must ponder things in our hearts.
I close with a story of my own mother. She would have turned 89 this month. … Let me tell you how my mother taught me how to be a Christian – a humble servant of the Lord – by showing me how to grow tomatoes. I realize how God’s grace worked through her after many moments of pondering these things in my heart.
Every spring our family planted more than 100 tomato plants, which sufficiently fed our family of five. When the weather broke, we tilled the garden for tomatoes and many other vegetables.
We dug holes, and planted, fertilized and watered our plants. Through the summer, we weeded and watered; checked for bugs and blight and discarded rotten tomatoes.
We harvested tomatoes for salad, sauce and juice. We buried the discarded skin and seeds, which produced a later crop. Since we were 4-H members, we entered our prize tomatoes in exhibits at local fairs.
Growing tomatoes taught me three practical necessities about Christianity: nourish, reserve and share. Parents, pastors, teachers, elders and all members need to nourish, reserve and share their faith.
First, nourish. By exercising our faith – by attending worship, reading God’s Word, taking Communion, seeking forgiveness and attending Sunday school – we nourish ourselves.
Second, reserve. 27 years of ministry taught me there are times when we cannot nourish ourselves adequately. There will be times when troubles and temptations attack us. … We need a reserve. There will be times when caring for sick children or frail parents exhaust us. There will be times when completing projects, cramming for exams or meeting deadlines consume us. There will be times when we do not have the luxury to bathe ourselves in God’s Word or enjoy the feast of His banquet. We can only birdbath and eat on the run. During difficult times, we need that reserved Mason jar of tomatoes in the pantry. That is why my mother taught us how to can tomatoes. That is why she taught us to memorize Scripture passages and prayers because she knew we would someday need a reserve – of spiritual food that God provides to nourish our bodies and our souls.
Third, share. When God blessed us with plentiful tomatoes, we shared them with others. We shared tomatoes with friends, neighbors, pastors and the less fortunate. Mom taught me to practice charity by sharing God’s abundant blessing with others. How do we share God’s abundant blessings with others?By teaching me how to grow tomatoes, mom taught me how to be a Christian, a servant of the Lord. She taught me to nourish, reserve and share. I am sure your mother taught you the same. As we close out another Season of Advent, ponder in your heart what it might mean for Mary to be the Mother of God, and honor your own mother by sharing the Gospel with others. Share with others how God blessed you today and ask them the same. When you listen to their blessed answer, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.[x],[xi]
[iii] Rev. Albert B. Collver, Ph.D., Sermon “St. Mary, Mother of Our Lord, 15 August 2011 Galatians 4:4 – 7.” International Center Chapel, Saint Louis. “One of the most scandalous things the Christians confessed about Jesus is that he is truly human, with real human flesh and blood. The Ancient people did not have too hard of a time imagining that Jesus was some kind of a god, but they had a very difficult time imagining that this Jesus was truly a man. In the ancient world some people said that Jesus was born through Mary, as light passes through glass untouched. You see, there was a concern about tarnishing “divine” things with physical matter such as human flesh.” See http://wmltblog.org/2011/08/st-mary-mother-of-our-lord/
[v] What Luther Says, 153.
[vi] What Luther Says, 1376
[vii] Arthur A. Just, Luke 1:1-9:50. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (1996), pp. 65ff. Much of my material for this sermon comes from Just’s commentary.
[viii] Fred Craddock, Luke. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (2009), 28.
[ix] What Luther Says, 1256.
[x] Philippians 4:7
[xi] For Lutheran teaching on Mary, see: http://cyclopedia.lcms.org/display.asp?t1=m&word=MARIOLOGY; and references at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luther%27s_Marian_theology