Hespeler, 2 December, 2018 © Scott McAndless – Advent 1
Galatians 4:1-7, Luke 1:26-38, Psalm 25
’m going to start off this morning with a little quiz, just a little bit of Bible trivia. Let’s see if you can answer these questions:
During Noah’s flood, how many days and nights did it rain?
How many years did the people of Israel wander in the wilderness?
How many days was Moses up on Mount Sinai receiving the law from God?
For how many days was Jesus tempted in the wilderness?
When Jonah was preaching in Nineveh, how many days did he give them before the city would be destroyed?
According to the Book of Acts, how many days did Jesus hang around with the disciples after the resurrection?
Yep, that is about the easiest Bible quiz that you will ever have. The answer to all of those questions is 40. And if you are at all like me you have wondered about that – about why that particular number keeps on coming up when you read the Bible. I have learned that there are very few numbers that are featured in the Bible by accident, and this is one of them.
Why does the number 40 come up so often in the Bible? Part of it, undoubtedly, has to do with ancient Hebrew habits of speaking. The ancient Hebrews likely used that number, forty, as a way of saying a really long time. But the number itself also had meaning beyond being a significant amount of time, the number was also used symbolically to represent a probationary period of time.
You know what a probation is, I’m not just talking about the probation that people sometimes have when they get out of jail, I’m talking about any period of time when you’re not quite sure how someone is going to be in a new job or a task or a position and you just want to try them out for a while to see how it goes. That’s what a probation is and for the Hebrews, forty was considered to be a good amount of time for a probation.
And that is likely another reason why that number comes up so often in the Bible. It’s not just a long period of time, it is specifically a time of testing and preparation before God begins to do something very new with his people. After all, isn’t that what Noah’s flood represents, and the giving of the Commandments on Mount Sinai, the beginning of the ministry of Jesus in the wilderness and on and on. It is about preparing the people for something exciting and new that God is about to do.
Okay, I’ve got one more quiz question for you. Can you answer this one? How many weeks was Mary pregnant with her child, Jesus? How many weeks? The answer is forty because, whatever else Jesus was, he came into this world, we are told, as a fully human being and fully human beings take about forty weeks to gestate.
Forty weeks! Think about that. Is it, too, not just a really long period of time? (And, yes, I am quite sure that every woman who goes through it finds it to be a very long period of time.) Is it also a time of probation? Probation for whom? For us? For humanity? For Mary? For God about to enter some new phase in relationship with humanity? Perhaps that is something that we can ponder with Mary.
ary had been struggling with the nausea of late. It was particularly bad in the morning. She would barely be up and out of bed and she would be running to the privy outback. The nausea made it hard to eat often and there were mornings when she could eat little more then a few scraps of bread and a little bit of dried fish.
But the physical struggles that she was going through were nothing in comparison to the tumult in her spirit. She found herself going over and over again the strange words spoken to her by that amazing visitor. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” he had said, “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
What did such words mean to a woman such as Mary? You need to understand, for one thing, that people didn’t really think of such matters back then as they do today. All of the things that you learned about the human reproductive system in your biology classes and in health, Mary didn’t know any of that. Back in the first century, they didn’t think of conception in terms of fertilized eggs or implanted fetuses. In fact, the metaphor that they used to talk about the creation of new human beings came from agriculture. For them, making a baby was like planting a seed in a farm field. In that analogy, the mother was the field. She was considered to be little more than a passive carrier of the life that was entrusted to her by the father of her baby.
That is what the official understanding was at that time but, of course, the official understanding was what had been maintained and written down. But here’s the thing: there was one particular group that was doing the maintaining and writing down: men. And let’s just say that there is a long-standing tradition among men in thinking that they are the most important part of any process and of dismissing the importance of women in general. So it is actually quite possible that women didn’t really think of it in the same way that was officially taught by first century philosophers and teachers.
So how did Mary think of that little child who was growing in her womb? I think she clearly understood that it was her child. I really have no clue what she understood about how that child came to be there. Honestly that is something that the author of the Gospel of Luke is not really interested in commenting on. The angel’s words simply refer to the power of God overshadowing Mary. It’s a way of saying that it doesn’t matter how it came to be biologically speaking because God is powerful enough to do anything. “For nothing will be impossible with God,” are Gabriel’s departing words.
So, yes, this child would be the son of God in a very unique and special way. But he would also be the son of Mary. That is how he is actually referred to in the oldest written gospel, the Gospel of Mark.
And what did Jesus take from Mary? As a woman, and undoubtedly as a very young woman, living in her time, Mary would have been someone who had meekness and humility drilled into her day after day. She would have been told that she was there to be seen but not heard. And, on the surface, that seems to be the way that Mary behaves in this story of her encounter with Gabriel. After all, what are her final words? “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” They are words that seem to speak of humility and service, and indeed they do. But they are also words that have a touch of defiance in them.
You see, for Mary to say “I am the servant of the Lord,” was actually a rather dangerous and subversive act. Mary lived in the world where she was meant to serve everybody else. She existed, it was assumed, to serve her father and, when she was married, to serve her husband, Joseph. She was there to serve her local village leadership and she was there to serve King Herod and whatever he might demand of her and ultimately she lived in service to the Roman Empire and its desires.
Because that was the reality of Mary’s life, for her to declare herself a servant of the Lord was actually a subversive act and she knew it. Essentially what Mary is doing here is she is taking the meekness and the humility that has been drilled into her for her entire life and turning it into a tool against her oppressors. “Oh, I’m supposed to serve am I, that is my role in life? Well then I shall serve, but I will not serve who you tell me I ought to serve. I will serve the Lord and to him only will I submit.” That is Mary’s defiant response to the angel’s shocking news.
That is what I mean when I say that whatever else Jesus was, he was also the son of Mary. He clearly inherited from her that same defiance and resolve. Jesus would grow up and turn obedience and servitude into something extremely powerful and subversive. He would teach his followers and say, if you want to be the kind of ruler who changes the world, what you need to do is submit to and serve others. He would teach them that when they were attacked and oppressed, that they could actually turn the tables on their oppressors by turning the other cheek when struck and by going a second mile with the one who forced them to go a first.
Above all, he would take obedience and service to a new level by being willing to go even to the cross. That one act would deliver a death blow to the powers that rule in this world – the power of death, the power of sin and the power of hate.
At Christmas we celebrate a great mystery, the mystery of the incarnation. Somehow, we believe, in a man named Jesus from Nazareth, God entered into the human experience. He wasn’t just God taking a tourist trip to this world. He wasn’t just pretending to be human while holding onto all of the perks of divinity. No, he entered fully and completely into everything that it means to be human. He experienced the limitations of knowledge and understanding. He experienced temptations like we experienced them.
If that were not so, then Jesus couldn’t really do anything for us. If Jesus had not become completely human, he could not have related to us in any meaningful way.
I don’t pretend to be able to understand how such a thing could be possible – how the infinite nature of God could somehow be contained within the finite flesh of one human being. I don’t understand the mechanism of such a conception or gestation. But that is okay, we don’t need to understand it or explain it.
Mary just knew it, as she felt that life grow within her. It was a miracle; it is always a miracle. And by putting herself wholly into that process, she made it possible. She chose to serve God and God alone.
The story of the incarnation changes something. Because, you see, if Mary could do it, why can’t we. Mary, simply by being willing to serve and by defiantly choosing to serve God and none of the others who demanded her service, opened the door to the incarnation. We can do the same. God is still seeking to break through into the world and we, by choosing to serve can make that happen.
Mary waited patiently for forty weeks to see true change enter the world. That probationary period was necessary. And God may be putting you through some probationary period as well. Be patient and willing to serve. God is still bringing wonders into this world.