Sunday, December 21, 2008

Scandal of the Annunciation

Fourth Sunday of Advent – Year B (BCP)
2 Samuel 7:4,8-16; Psalm 132:8-15; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Sunday, December 21, 2008 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Scandalous! Absolutely scandalous!

Today’s Gospel lesson is certainly worthy of the tabloids lining the racks at supermarket check-out lines. “Angel Appears to Young Girl, Gives Startling News.” “Virgin from Nazareth Conceives Child.” “Girl Claims God is Baby’s Father.” “Peasant Girl to Give Birth to King.” This story has it all – all of what makes a good tabloid story – other-worldly appearances, the supernatural, royalty. And while there is no specific sexual imagery, we even manage to work that one in, too. Put it all together and you have the biggest, most scandalous event of all-time – a story far surpassing anything the National Enquirer could ever hope to publish about Britney Spears, the British Royal Family, or UFOs.

Of course, we must remember that we are dealing with a different culture and different time. So what we might view as scandalous in our own day may not necessarily have been viewed as that scandalous 2,000 years ago. For those living in Greco-Roman society, steeped in a pantheon of hedonistic gods, a god choosing a human woman to bear a child would not have been unheard of, nor, in many respects, thought that unusual. Hercules was the son of the god Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmana. Perseus was the son of Zeus and the human woman Danaë, just to name a couple of the better known progeny of gods and mortals. For the Greco-Roman society of the day, the news of God choosing a mortal woman to bear a child would not have been everyday news, but it also would not be completely unexpected. In fact, such an event would have sent a definite message about the nature of the child. Since the offspring of a god and a mortal was virtually always a significant and heroic figure, the story of Mary’s spectacular conception would have indicated that the child to be born would be a hero of the people and would likely be powerful and achieve great things.

While in retrospect, this is certainly true of Jesus, the fact remains that in the first century, this story would, at a certain level, still have been viewed as scandalous by believers and non-believers alike, but for different reasons.

Whether or not you believe in the virgin birth, regardless of the historical veracity of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conception and birth, today’s lesson holds some key truths about the nature of our God, as well as some insight into what motivated Jesus and helped form his teachings and actions. As one biblical scholar notes, “Luke apparently believed that if we are to properly understand Jesus and what his birth means, we must hear how it began” (Peterson, 26). If that were not so, why would Luke choose to begin the story about the leader of a new religious movement, the story of the one whom he believed to be the Messiah, with a description that would have raised more than a few eyebrows? Why not just let Jesus’ life speak for itself, as Mark did? No, there must be something to this scandalous description of Jesus’ mother and his conception that is worth pondering. It is only by looking at the scandal involved in this story that the truths about Jesus, the truths about God, are revealed. So, let’s look at the scandal from several angles, and see what this extraordinary set of circumstances says about God, about Jesus, and about our relationship with them.

One of the first things that jumps out is the fact that the story is filled with a bunch of unlikely, even insignificant particulars. God chose an insignificant girl, betrothed to an insignificant carpenter, living in an insignificant town in an insignificant province of the Roman Empire to perform one of the most significant tasks in salvation history – to bear and give birth to the Son of God. If God wanted to make a big splash, to make sure that everyone knew about the birth of His Son, why did he choose such an insignificant time, location, and cast of characters to carry out this most important of events? I am reminded of a scene in the 1970s rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Near the end of the play, just before Jesus’ crucifixion, Judas sings:

Every time I look at you I don’t understand.
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.
You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned.
Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?
If you’d come today you would have reached a whole nation.
Israel in 4 BC had no mass-communication.

Judas has a point. But with all due respect to him, I think God had it planned down to a “T”. Yes, the place, the time, the principals may have been insignificant, but that was all part of the message. Ours is a God who does not rush in like a bull in a china shop or use Madison Avenue companies to create flashy press releases. Ours is a God who takes the insignificant, the seemingly lowly, and gives them the opportunity to become part of something bigger, better, and far more spectacular than they could have ever imagined. In so doing, ours is a God who sends the message that everyone, even the least of these, is important, is significant, is worthy of His attention, of his love, mercy, and grace.

I think this is, to some extent, reflected in the way Mary is viewed, particularly by Protestants. For the Roman Catholics, Mary is unlike other Christian believers. She is quite extraordinary, even unique. She is viewed as being sinless, as being both mother and perpetual virgin. For Protestants, “the extraordinary thing about Mary is precisely her ordinariness” (Rigby, 94).

Despite the fact that God chose an insignificant person from an insignificant place to perform one of the most significant tasks in salvation history, these insignificant particulars hold an inherent significance in their very particularity. As Luke tells us, God acts at a very particular time – in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy; in a particular place – a town in Galilee called Nazareth; through a particular individual – a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph. This is what theologians refer to as the “scandal of particularity”. Scholar Cynthia Rigby notes that in the “scandal of particularity,” theologians “recognize that it can offend our sensibilities to ponder how the omnipotent, omniscient Creator of the universe entered into the particularities of historical existence” (Rigby, 96). In other words, “How could God's revelation of his saving purpose for all humanity be restricted to one isolated event in a tiny outpost in the Roman Empire, some 2,000 years ago? Could God not just have revealed himself in a more universal way that was not tied to this particular historical event?” (Gil). The answer? No. We humans require relationship. God recognized this. The only way that God would be able to truly connect with humanity, or rather, for humanity to truly connect with God, would be through relationship. For that, God needed to be incarnate, made flesh, so that we might be able to be in relationship, face-to-face. For that, God needed to be incarnated at a particular time, to a particular place, to be in relationship with particular people.

And the scandal of particularity does not end in the first century, with the Annunciation, or with Jesus’ birth, or even with his death and resurrection. The scandal of particularly continues to be a central component of our faith journeys, both individually and collectively. Even today, in the twenty-first century, we continue to meet God at very particular times, in particular places, through particular people. This alleged “scandal” continues to be the primary means of encountering God, of knowing God, of how we progress along our spiritual journeys. And while we need the particular for our own benefit, it also takes us back to the insignificant. Not only do we meet God in the particular, we also quite often, it turns out, meet God in the seemingly insignificant.

Another key aspect of this scandal has to do with the way Mary is treated throughout all of this. As we’ve noted, Greco-Roman culture would not have been surprised to hear that a deity chose a mortal woman to bear a child. After all, gods were always forcing their will upon humans for their own selfish purposes. For first century residents of the Roman Empire, a god forcing his will upon a mortal would have been assumed, even expected. But what was different about this god was that he did not force his will upon his human “victim.” For us, it is unthinkable that God would have forced Mary to have the child against her will (Culpepper, 52). For first century residents of the Roman world, the Annunciation would have been a very different kind of story. Mary was not a victim. God was not a perpetrator of violence. Mary had a choice. After being presented with God’s request, Mary has the opportunity to carefully consider the full implications of what was being asked of her, and of what it would mean to her personally and to her unborn child if she said “yes.” After all, if she were to say “yes,” she would be subjecting herself, not to mention her illegitimate, unborn child, to great ridicule and ostracism. But after weighing all that Gabriel said, all that God was asking of her, Mary boldly says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary acts freely, consistent with who she really is – the servant of the Lord. In her response, and in her actions, “Mary is an important example, therefore, of one who is obedient to God even at great risk to self.” In this respect, Mary not only embodies the scandal, she also embodies the obedience (Culpepper, 52). While we often talk about Mary’s obedience, we tend to overlook what Mary’s willingness to be obedient says about God. God had a great plan, but it all hinged upon the willingness of a single person, Mary, to say “yes.” Without her “yes,” the plan would have been a “no go.” God invited Mary into the process, particularly into this event which was of paramount importance to all of humanity. God needed Mary’s participation. God needed Mary’s willing participation.

This story and Mary’s willingness to be a part of God’s grand plan demonstrates that in this most significant of events, God worked in mutual cooperation, in partnership, with humanity, represented by Mary. In this, Mary acts as proxy for us all. As a servant of the Lord, Mary, and we, are not merely tools to be used by God, but rather, we are asked to willingly contribute, to be partners, to be co-creators with God.

The story of the Annunciation is full of scandal. But not the scandal you might expect based on a cursory reading. The scandal is that God uses the insignificant to produce or create the significant. The scandal is that God meets us in very particular times and places, in very particular ways. And the scandal is that God does not coerce us, but rather invites us, lovingly, gently, into His plans, into His processes, to be co-creators. From the perspective of the secular world, all of this is truly scandalous. But, as one scholar notes, perhaps “The ultimate scandal is that God would enter human life with all its depravity, violence, and corruption.” In that, “the annunciation ultimately is an announcement of hope for humankind” (Culpepper, 53).

The original meaning of the word “scandal” was “stumbling block.” For us Christians, the story of the Annunciation, the scandalous particulars embodied in it, are not stumbling blocks as much as stepping stones on our faith journey – truths revealed about our God, to be treasured and pondered, as we go about doing whatever it is that God has asked of us. What God asks of each of us may not be as spectacular as what was asked of Mary, but it is, nonetheless, just as significant, just as particular, and is done gently and lovingly, inviting us into the process of co-creation.

As we wrap-up this Advent season and prepare for the birth of the One who is our ultimate hope, who is the ultimate purpose of our lives, let us enter into the scandal and say with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Culpepper, R. Alan. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Gil. “The Scandal of Particularity.” Just Wondering. (4 December 2008).

Peterson, Brian K., et al. New Proclamation: Year B, 2008-2009, Advent through Holy Week. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Rigby, Cynthia L. “Luke 1:26-38, Theological Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 1, Advent Through Transfiguration. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

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