Sunday, July 22, 2012

Grace That Terrifies [Luke 1.26-38] (16 December 2001)

Accompanying Presentation (opens in a new window)

You have to hand it to George Lucas! When it comes to mimicking the gospel story and certain particulars about Jesus’ life, no one today comes closer or does a slicker job of it. To the careful listener, little phrases reveal how indebted Mr. Lucas is to the biblical writers. Of course, he will most likely deny my claim, probably because he and millions of his fans consider him an ingenious storyteller. However, before we go into the details of his indebtedness, let us read the scripture for today.

[Read Luke 1.26-28]

I see a number of parallels. In The Phantom Menace, Anakin Skywalker’s mother tells Qui-Gon Jinn, “There was no father.” There was no father! Anakin has no human father. Just like Jesus. What about Anakin’s nickname Ani? If you were to take a class on biblical Hebrew, in the second week or so you would learn that Ani in Hebrew means, “I am.” Whoa! That little twerp has a self-referential name, just like the God of the Old Testament, the name that Jesus then claims to have authority to use. But it does not stop there! Could Anakin’s last name, Skywalker, be yet another allusion to Jesus, but here in an attempt to trump Jesus? Jesus is, after all, only the sea-walker! Anakin is a step above, the Skywalker! And we could go into the entire Star Wars plot and we will find more similarities. That is the task for a different day and a different setting.

However, Lucas’ superficiality shows up in the meaning he gives these similarities and in some things that are distinctive in the Gospels. And it is to these that we must now turn. Unlike most of my sermons, I am going to give you a partial roadmap right at the start. This is because we will be exploring Luke’s theological brilliance by drawing out meaning from a few phrases in the passage we just read. Before we do that, however, I wish to make a disclaimer.

We have four Gospels in the New Testament. All of them tell the same story. However, all of them are different. They tell the same story in four different ways, with four different sets of purposes, and with four different expectations of the reader or listener. Let us not conflate the four Gospels into one and try to get one story. For in so doing, we will have to discard precisely those elements that do not fit our storytelling scheme. If, then, we consider Luke’s Gospel inspired, let us see what Luke was led to tell us, what nuances he was led to bring out in this story, what implications he would expect us to draw from his telling of the story. So let us now get to the roadmap.

We will focus on four parts of the conversation between Mary and Gabriel that are loaded with theological insight. First, we will deal with the initial words of Gabriel, “Greetings, favored one!” Second, we will look at the next phrase in his greeting, “The Lord is with you.” Third, we will address Mary’s question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Fourth, we will look at Gabriel’s reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

Our passage begins with Gabriel appearing to Mary and saying, “Greetings, favored one.” How do we visualize this? Now, George Lucas’ creation is not the only one that wanders into the issues with which we are dealing. The movie Dogma also does the same. I recall the scene in which Metatron, the voice of God, blasts his way into the bedroom of Bethany, the heroine, to tell her that God had chosen her to be the savior of the world. Just as an aside, Jewish Hekhalot mystics in the 2nd century AD coined the name, Metatron, as another name for the archangel, Michael. In the movie, Metatron is an angry being, quite disgruntled with the job of having to be the voice of God to humans who never listen. Since Dogma is parodying the Gospel accounts, it misses two very important elements. Gabriel tells Mary, “Greetings, favored one.” Later he tells her, “You have found favor with God.” Two elements missing in the movie are the two that are most crucial to this passage in Luke. First, the notion that Mary is favored by God. We will consider the second shortly.

In the Old Testament, we have one example of someone finding favor with God. Can anyone recall whom? Noah! In Genesis 6.8 we read, “But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.” And what was Noah’s task? God was using him to save the entire human race. By using the same phrase, Gabriel was telling Mary that she too was to be used in a like manner.

In Star Wars, Anakin too is supposed to be the great savior. However, his conception was inexplicable. His mother had no clue whatsoever. The midi-chlorians, the organisms that communicate the will of the Force are as impersonal as the Force itself. They conceive the child without bothering to relate to the mother. Anakin’s mother was neither blessed nor cursed by the midi-chlorians. She was just a vessel for the fulfillment of their prophecy.

Not so in the bible! Mary, in and of herself, had found favor with God. Just as no one but Noah could have done what God did through him, so also no one but Mary could have done what God did through her.

However, this was no quaint greeting, as though Gabriel had appeared and said a soft “hello” or “God loves you” or something like that. It was no ordinary greeting. And Mary knew that. That is why we read, “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” That is, she knew that this was an extraordinary greeting and wondered what kind of extraordinary task she was to be given. For to be the recipient of God’s favor is not, as we might suppose, a thing of comfort. Rather, to be the recipient of God’s favor is to have your world shaken to the core! God’s favor is unsettling. God’s grace is grace that terrifies!

Gabriel also tells Mary, “The Lord is with you.” Mary was assured of God’s presence. We often use words lightly. We say, “The Lord be with you” or “peace be with you” or simply “peace” without understanding the implications. The phrase appears in the Old Testament not as often as we might expect or even hope. Rather, we read it at choice moments. We read it when Jacob has his dream, only to see him then work as a slave for his father-in-law, only to see him then struggle with God and leave the struggle with a limp. The phrase shows up when God appears to Moses at the burning bush. And we then see Moses’ struggles with the Egyptians and with the Israelites. The phrase shows up in God’s calling Jeremiah as a prophet. And we see Jeremiah being beaten, thrown in prison, lowered into quicksand, and dragged off to Egypt by the people who refused to listen to him. I do not know about you, but to hear God say, “I am with you” is not like a warm embrace! This is not a hug from a doting father.

It is very different from the trite, “May the Force be with you” often uttered in the Star Wars movies. In the movies, that phrase just serves to remind the viewer the world that has been created on the screen. It is a world permeated by the Force. If it were not for the need to remind today’s viewer who has extremely bad short-term memory, the phrase could well be replaced by a sweet “Goodbye” or “Have a good one” in most places.

To the contrary, the words, “The Lord is with you,” pave the way for a life of struggle, a life of uncertainty. God says these words before Jacob, Moses, and Jeremiah enter their struggles so that they will have something to hold on to when times get rough and doubt sets in. To hear the words, “The Lord is with you” then is not to be assured of a smooth road ahead. Rather, it is to know that God says these words precisely because the road ahead is horrific. Again, to hear that God is going to grace you with his presence is to know that there are untold struggles ahead! God’s presence is disquieting. God’s grace is grace that terrifies.

So we come to Mary’s question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” We must let Mary be Mary, a young Jewish girl in the first century. Gabriel had said, “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.” What did Mary understanding Gabriel to be telling her?

The references to David’s throne and to a kingdom without end would have made it clear that Gabriel was announcing the birth of the Davidic Messiah. This would have been good news to Mary in and of itself. However, there was a problem—Mary was still a virgin. She was betrothed to Joseph but they had not consummated their relationship. Like her contemporaries, Mary might also have been hoping to be the mother of the Messiah. And like her contemporaries, she probably had no expectation of a virginal conception.

Rather, she expected that this son would be born through the normal human process. To be the mother of the Messiah was a glorious thing. Imagine! Some years in the future, her son would ride into Jerusalem and vanquish the Romans. He would establish God’s Messianic kingdom centered at Jerusalem, with renewed Temple worship. What glory! And the cooking he would crave would be Mary’s! He would wear robes that she had sewn! And when he married—yes, they expected the Messiah to get married—he would marry the woman Mary chose! What glory!

This Wednesday the first of The Lord of the Rings trilogy subtitled The Fellowship of the Ring will be released. Alice and I are going with a few of you to see it. If others of you are interested, let me know. The three books revolve around a haunting poem:

Three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bin them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

At the beginning of the book, the ring has come into the possession of Frodo, a young Hobbit. In a conversation with Gandalf, the wizard, Frodo learns of the immense power of the ring and wishes to have nothing to do with it. He tells Gandalf that, since Gandalf knew much more about the ring, he was better suited to destroy it than was Frodo. Here is an excerpt from the book that will hopefully entice you to read it and then watch the movie.

[Read from The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 60. The Lord of the Rings can be purchased from Amazon outside India and from Flipkart inside India. Page references will vary!]

Frodo thinks like us. If the ring is so powerful, surely one with more power is best suited to deal with it. Mary and other Jewish women also thought in much the same way. To be the Messiah was glorious. To be the Messiah’s mother surely was the most glorious thing that could happen to a woman.

But Gandalf reveals an insight that we often overlook. Frodo was the best choice to care for the powerful ring precisely because his lack of power made him lack ambition. His meager status made it impossible for him to have visions of grandeur. So also with Mary. To be the Messiah might be a glorious thing. But this Messiah was to carry around with him the shame of a dubious birth. And he would die an disreputable death on a Roman stake. And Mary would have to share in her son’s shame. To be the mother of this Messiah was to be willing to carry around with you the stigma of illegitimate birth. After all, how many people would have believed her when she said that this child had been conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit? And Mary would eventually have to watch her son die seemingly cursed by God. Such shame!

We do not see this in Lucas’ epic. The world Lucas paints is not a moral world like the one Jesus lived in. Anakin’s conception without a father results only in admiration for the boy. The mother, once again, is only a vessel, neither loved, nor despised, by those around her. Having violated her, by imposing their miraculous conception on her, the midi-chlorians spare her the joy and terror of participating in most of her son’s life.

But God did not spare Mary the joy and the terror. And right from the start, right from Jesus’ conception to his crucifixion and resurrection, Mary had to realize that God’s actions are not predictable. She had to realize that to be the person through whom God acts is to have your expectations altered. God’s actions are universe shattering. God’s grace is grace that terrifies.

Finally, we come to Gabriel’s response, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Gabriel also points to the fact that Elizabeth had conceived though she had been barren. What the angel was saying is that God had overcome Elizabeth’s barrenness. God would also overcome the obstacle of Mary’s virginity. And Gabriel tells Mary how. The language used appears in only once in the Old Testament in Genesis 1.2. “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” Here we see the juxtaposition of God’s spirit and the language of hovering or overshadowing.

In The Phantom Menace, we learn that the midi-chlorians are the ones responsible for Anakin’s conception. They are symbionts. Qui-Gon Jinn tells Anakin that the midi-chlorians could not exist without humans and that humans could have no knowledge of the Force without the midi-chlorians. It is important to understand what is said. The midi-chlorians depend on humans for their existence. Humans could, on the other hand, live without the midi-chlorians. We would just not have knowledge of the Force. In Lucas’ world that might be undesirable. But it is not life threatening! Human life is necessary for midi-chlorian life, but not vice-versa.

In contrast, Genesis tells us that creation was God’s initiative. God’s Spirit existed prior to and apart from creation. Creation needs God’s Spirit to exist, not vice-versa. God’s Spirit hovered over the void and filled it with life. In the same way, Gabriel tells Mary that God’s Spirit would hover over her empty womb and fill it with life. The allusion to Genesis, however, leads us to realize that this is no ordinary life. Rather, the life to be formed in her is so special that only language used in relation to the original act of creation is appropriate. This life marks a new creation.

God had made the first creation from the void. And he had made it very good. However, humans spoiled creation. God could have decided to scrap it all. In fact, the Old Testament tells us that he did consider that option a few times. In the end, however, he decided to do what he does best, to let his grace abound in the context of our sinfulness, to bring life out of death. Rather than scrap creation and begin afresh, God decides to bring good out of his first creation itself. Into the morass of sinfulness, he sends his Spirit to birth a new creation. A new creation with paradoxical laws in which a person can be human and divine, in which the way to rule is by serving, in which self-surrender is the way to self-realization, in which the humiliation of the cross is the glory of the Messiah.

We do not see this reversal in Lucas’ world. Rather, in the Star Wars universe the light and dark sides of the Force are in perpetual battle. There is no reversal, nothing new. There are only cycles that repeat endlessly.

However, in the bible the action of God’s Spirit creates something new. Mary realizes this slowly. She realizes how awesome, how awful, it is to be acted upon by God’s Spirit. She realizes that to be acted on by God’s Spirit is to be faced with a new reality, a new way of living. God’s Spirit recreates our world. Indeed, God’s grace is grace that terrifies!

This is the message of Christmas then. We have made it trivial by speaking of it merely as a celebration of Jesus’ birth. We have reduced it to a family holiday. We send cards to those who send cards to us. These aren’t bad things. It is good to celebrate Jesus’ birth. It is good to celebrate with family. It is good to tell loved ones that we are thinking of them as we celebrate. But there is much more! So much more!

Gabriel told Mary the challenge of Christmas. It is this: God’s favor is unsettling. God’s presence is disquieting. God’s actions are universe shattering. God’s Spirit recreates our world.

Is this comfort? What about the message of peace on earth and goodwill to humans? Ah! There’s the bite! There’s the paradox! To those who embrace God’s grace in all its awe-inspiring terror, the challenge of Christmas becomes the message. To them the unsettling favor will become a sure foundation. To them the disquieting presence will become the source of peace. For them the actions that shatter our universe will become the reason for hope. Moreover, the Spirit that replaces our old world with a new one will become the source of power to live in the new reality.

Are we willing to embrace God’s grace in all its awe-inspiring terror? Are we willing to say, as Mary did, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord” and become a powerful instrument in his hands? Are we ready to face up to daunting opposition in the course of serving God? Are we primed to see God remove the obstacles and show us that “nothing will be impossible with God”? Are we, after all, bold enough to let his Spirit show us a new way of living, a way of living markedly different from what we might be used to? If we are, then, though God’s grace is grace that terrifies, we are truly those to whom God says, “Do not be afraid!”

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