What Shall We Talk About?

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

December 13, 2020
Third Sunday of Advent
Scripture reading – Luke 1: 26-38

For the first two Sundays of Advent, I have begun a sermon series I call “Second Fiddles.”  In these messages, I describe the various people that were involved in the birth of Jesus Christ and their involvement in the beginning of his ministry and his life on earth.

  • The first sermon discussed the fact that – no matter who we are – all leaders in any type of Christian ministry or leadership, are “second fiddles” to the Lord himself; this was clearly stated by the Apostle Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians.  Paul clearly and bluntly identified himself as an ordinary man serving his Lord.  And we all know that Paul was anything but ordinary…
  • The second sermon discussed the first Christian prophet – and probably the most famous one – John the Baptist.  John’s entire ministry was discussed in detail by all four Gospel writers who obviously viewed him and his work as setting the stage for the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth to begin his earthly ministry.  Despite the fame and recognition that John the Baptist rightly received, he was quick to fade from the Biblical record once Jesus began his work.  With all four Gospels telling the story of John the Baptist, it is almost shocking that he paid no real role after this, and thus he became one of the most famous second fiddles who ever lived. And again – I’m certain that we would all agree that – like the Apostle Paul, John the Baptist was anything but ordinary either.

Today we encounter two more figures in Luke’s Gospel; my point is still that no matter what, the two vital and significant figures in this Gospel reading were also second fiddles to Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Messiah.  I am speaking of the archangel Gabriel and Jesus’ mother, Mary.  Let’s first examine Gabriel.

In multiple Biblical accounts, angels appear as heavenly servants to the Lord God.  In fact, even the word “angel” itself comes from the Greek word for “messenger.”  Yet in all the Bible, there are only two angels who are specifically named: Gabriel who appears in today’s reading of his announcement to Mary – and who earlier helped the Old Testament prophet, Daniel, interpret his visions (Daniel 8:15-26; 9:21-27) ; and Michael, who is only mentioned one time in the tiny New Testament letter of Jude (Jude 1:9).  Other times, when angels appear, we do not learn their names, but we know clearly that they act on behalf and at the command of the Lord.  

In other Christian denominations, angels are celebrated and even revered much more than we do.  A perfect example is right across the parking lot from our own church office, where you could find a large Egyptian church called Saint Mary and Archangel Michael Coptic Orthodox Church.  

In all kinds of Christian artwork, angels figure prominently. They are shown as little cherubs with tiny wings and solemn faces, or they are white-clad beings with long, beautiful hair who stand majestically, or they are winged creatures who hover in the sky and often carry flaming swords.  All of this has been done for centuries, but I am not certain any of them is an accurate portrayal of the Angel Gabriel who appeared to Mary.

We should also note that we have a face-to-face appearance of Gabriel to Mary.  This didn’t happen often in the Bible; the standard operating procedure is for angels to be somewhat hidden.

  • In Genesis 18, three angels appear to Abraham who doesn’t realize they are angels.  He treats them as honored guests.
  • In Acts 10, Peter receives a vision from an angel telling him to go to the home of a man named Cornelius.  When you read it, notice Peter was “terrified” at this appearance!
  • And finally, we have the appearance of angels in dreams directing people to change what they were going to do.  Remember an angel appeared twice to Joseph in his dreams; first, he was told not to divorce Mary but to take her as his wife; second, he was told it was safe to return home from their exile in Egypt.  If that’s not enough, the Wise Men were “warned in a dream” not to return to Herod, so they returned to their homes by a different rout…who do you think warned them with this “message?”

We reformed folks have some difficulty with angels, but even the most skeptical of us can easily picture that conversation, no matter which artist designs and creates it.

Then we have the very young maiden named Mary.  We get a consistent picture of this woman in Luke’s Gospel:

  • She is righteous and good.
  • She is engaged to be married to Joseph, who is a handyman.
  • She and Joseph either live in Nazareth at the beginning of their lives, or they move there later to avoid trouble.
  • She is very young by our modern-day standards.  In fact, a good guess would be that Mary is around 15 or 16 years old.  And yet Gabriel told her that she was going to be the Mother of the Son of God.  Wow…

Gabriel’s message to Mary was relayed straight from God:

  1.  The child will be named Jesus.
  2. The child will be the Son of God.
  3. The pregnancy and birth will be possible because of the Holy Spirit.
  4. As a sign, Mary was told about the pregnancy of her older cousin, Elizabeth.

Clearly, this was an incredible conversation between the two of them, a history-making conversation. A clear message had to be at the heart of it all; there could be no hidden or secret or “you-will-understand-this-more-clearly-later” type of message.  If Mary has not clearly grasped the message, she might not have accepted anything at all.  She seemed pretty strong.

Gabriel was following the command of the Lord God; he didn’t seem to be judging Mary for the task ahead.  He was delivering the message, which was what he was supposed to do.  Of course, I am filled with questions as I read their conversation:

  1.  Even if Gabriel was “just the messenger,” I wonder what he thought of Mary.
  2. Was Gabriel impressed when Mary didn’t appear to be afraid of him?  Remember the shepherds’ reactions to the appearance of angels in the night sky over Bethlehem.
  3. Mary asked questions because she didn’t understand how Gabriel’s message could come true; how did she gather her wits in that moment to ask her questions?  Most of us would have been too startled or too fearful to do so.
  4. Why didn’t Mary ask the most important question of all: “Why has the Lord chosen me?”  That would have been the number one question from any of us in her place.  Luke describes how “perfect” Mary is in human eyes, but God chose her for God’s own reasons.  Yet Mary didn’t ask this obvious question at all.  She asked for an explanation of how this could occur since she was not married yet.  Once she got it, note her final words to Gabriel: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Once again…wow!
  5. Last question: when Gabriel told Mary about her older cousin, Elizabeth, being pregnant, was he saying this as a reward for Mary’s acceptance and behavior?  Or was it to illustrate clearly to Mary, as he said, “For nothing will be impossible with God”? (verse 37 and Genesis 18:14)

With all that I have told you, it would appear that I actually made a good case for why the Angel Gabriel and Mary are both so important to the birth narrative in Luke’s Gospel.  Believe me, in my heart of hearts, I believe that too.  Without these two figures, how would anything so amazing have taken place?

And yet, I submit to you that Gabriel the archangel and Mary the mother of Jesus, were also “second fiddles” – just like the Apostle Paul and John the Baptist.  Of course, they were all important.  Of course, we love and respect them and value their words and their work.  Of course, we look at their lives and note that our own contributions to the world pales in comparison.

Some of us with Catholic training in our blood might even understand how many people around the world pray to Mary and ask her to intercede on their behalf with the Lord.  We Reformed folk also have a problem with this because we believe that we do not need anyone – human or saint – to go to God on our behalf; we believe, and Scripture clearly shows this, that we can pray directly to God ourselves.  We do not pray to saints or angels or even Mary to do so for us.

And yet…every night in my house, we say a bedtime prayer with our grandson, Logan, that was said in the Plunkett household when I was a child.  It begins, “Angel of God, my guardian dear, God’s love for me has sent you here.”  The childish notion of a guardian angel watching over a beloved child is a hard one for us to shake.  So, we don’t try very hard.

And yet…when a beloved friend of my family almost lost her only son to a massive heart attack last year, she told me through her tears that for the very first time in her life, she had some understanding of what it was like for Mary to watch her son die on the cross.

And yet…is it right of me to label the Apostle Paul and John the Baptist and the Archangel Gabriel and Mary the Mother of God as “second fiddles?”  Is that too much of a reach just to make a point?

Perhaps.  But if you were to ask any of them about their importance in the story of Jesus Christ, I suspect that all four would quickly dismiss the word “importance” and suggest strongly that they were merely the servants of the Lord, just like any of us should be.

And maybe that’s the message for all of us.