December 21, 2014

He Will Be Great

Passage: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38
Service Type:

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 for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

“He will be great”, exuded the Angel Gabriel, about the child to be born of Mary. Now that is an understatement of colossal proportions. Either that or we need to stop using the word “great” to describe anything else.

In a similar vein author Megan Hill comments on the use of the word awesome. “I have never eaten an awesome meal. I’ve never driven an awesome car or taken an awesome vacation. I haven’t danced to an awesome song or streamed an awesome video. I do, however, know an awesome God. My history with the word awesome goes back to my childhood, when my father…gently corrected my early attempts to apply that word indiscriminately. In our family, we reserved the adjective for the One whose name is great and awesome (Ps. 99:3). My dad’s point was not that awesome itself was some sacred incantation only for the divine. He simply wanted me to acknowledge with my words that, in both character and magnitude, God is different from deep-dish pizza.”

1. “He will be great.” Jesus is simply in a greatness category all of his own. The impact of his life in the world is monumental. Think for a moment of date nomenclature; that on every document, electronic or otherwise, produced anywhere in the world that has the year “2014” noted on it—every one of these notations is in reference to his life; a reference to the time when a young teenager named Mary gave birth to a son.

“He will be great.” Not everyone is happy about his greatness. It wasn’t that long ago in the halls of academia that time was noted as B.C. meaning the years “before Christ” and A.D., which comes from a Latin phrase “anno domini” and means “in the year of our Lord,” for time since. According to this nomenclature we are “in the year of our Lord” 2014. These notations can no longer be tolerated according to current academic standards. The years before Christ are now to be noted as “Before Common Era” (BCE) and the years of A.D. are now noted as “Common Era” (CE). It is like a collective averting of our eyes; if we stop looking at Jesus maybe no one will notice him. (I think there was a parable once told that illustrates this sort of behaviour—something about an emperor who had no clothes.)

The greatness of our Lord is not thwarted by such things; that Jesus is the hinge on which world history turns remains unchanged. Rulers and regimes have come and gone most of whose names are long forgotten—but the name of our Lord persists. Rome was the one lone super-power of Jesus’ day. Not even the power of Rome that labeled Jesus as the worst of criminals; not even being subjected to crucifixion nor being crushed by the military might of the world’s leading fighting force could render Jesus a footnote of history. Not being conceived under the appearance of questionable circumstances, to a young woman from a backwater town who said she sees angels; not being born in a barn whose first crib was an animal feeding trough—none of this could render Jesus irrelevant. Today, around our world, the name of Jesus is being confessed by more people than any other single religion or ideology could ever claim

He will be great. These words are spoken to Mary at the event we call the annunciation. Not just any annunciation but the annunciation. Indeed, this story recounted by Luke shrouds the event of the birth of Jesus in some mystery; but it makes clear a fundamental claim; the son of Mary is the Son of God, the promised Messiah.

2. “He will be great.” We must never take this to mean that such greatness removes him from us. Places him in some spiritual realm detached from our actualities. As we read the story we are confronted with its earthiness. A young girl likely, just past puberty, betrothed to be married. She lives in Nazareth and in case you’ve never heard of this backwater town, Luke tells us it was in Galilee so we can locate it; a real place, in a moment of time, to an actual person who lives there. The Angel may seem a mystery to many, but Mary is not. She is going to bear a child; “you will conceive and bear a son,” said the Angel. Conception, pregnancy, child-birth—things which are all very earthbound, of the stuff of this life. Jesus is the son of Mary; he isn’t apparently human or seemingly human but actually human, fully human

According to Amazon, the most highlighted passage in all books read on Kindle (as of November 2014)—highlighted almost twice as often as any other passage—is from the second volume of The Hunger Games: "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them." From time to time people will drop into the church to go into the sanctuary to pray. A young woman stopped by a few weeks ago went in to pray. She left a note with her prayer on the communion table. At the end was this sentence: “God, I’m tired—need you more than ever.”

Mary lived in precarious times. Her life was unfolding in a country that was under Roman occupation. She was part of a people without citizenship who lived a sort of indentured existence to Rome. They were an impoverished people because to Rome they were nothing more than a source of taxation to finance the might of Rome. Life was hard. They lived with the tension of not drawing attention to themselves; occupying armies are seldom kind.

We might think that the Angel announcement of this baby would be unwelcome news for Mary; unnecessarily complicating an already tenuous existence. Yet Mary seems to know otherwise in the coming of this child to her. Shortly after the Angel visit Mary makes her way to her cousin Elizabeth’s house where she offers her great song of joy. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.” (Luke 1:46-48) Not only is this joy to her, but she is convinced that her child is precisely for the actuality of her life. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)

The reformer Martin Luther said, “Not the hidden God (splendid, magnificent, majestic) but the revealed God (suffering, humbled, humiliated, slain;) only the revealed God can help us.” For only the revealed God has identified fully, identified himself wholly with the grief and guilt, turbulence and turpitude, conflict and slander and suffering that surrounds my life and yours. Only this God is of any help to us.

3. Soren Kierkegaard, a skilled philosopher, once remarked, “Life can only be understood backwards, even though it has to be lived forwards.” Kierkegaard meant that only after episodes in our life have occurred can we understand them; but of course since we must ‘live forwards’ we can never anticipate how our lives are going to unfold.

Mary cannot see all that will unfold. How Joseph will respond, the upcoming trip to Bethlehem, a stable birth far from the support of family, a sojourn in Egypt; how could she have ever seen her son’s great ministry of healing and help or the opposition that would lead to the dreadful events in Jerusalem. But she puts her trust in God and lives forward.

He will be great. The Angle Gabriel’s message isn’t just a word for Mary. Though it will have implications for her in the specificity of her life, this great one is for you and me as well. There is a sense in which this same Saviour would be born in each of our lives so that we too can bear God to this world. Will I receive him into my life as well? This is the question the story asks each of us. The message hasn’t changed other than we can see what Mary could only imagine—he will be great.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Mary couldn’t see the whole staircase yet she takes the step: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” For many in our age there are aspects of this story we find hard to embrace. So if you could see the whole staircase would you take the step? Mary shows us the way.

“He will be great”, said Gabriel of the child he hoped Mary would say yes to bearing into the world. Is Gabriel trying to convince Mary that this is a good idea?

The whole cosmos, all the hosts of heaven from the archangel Gabriel on down, are holding their collective breath and sitting on the edges of their seats. All eyes and ears are trained on one little girl, perhaps no more than thirteen years of age. She's about to get the shock of a lifetime, but what will she say in response? What will her answer be? Will she get it right? As Frederick Buechner once put it, Mary was probably too dazzled to notice, but maybe just beneath his wings and bright garments even Gabriel was trembling a little in nervous anticipation at how this encounter was going to go.

In the end, as we all know, Mary said yes, and the hosts of heaven must surely have heaved a collective sigh of relief! The long-awaited plan of salvaging this fallen creation was now really moving forward! After ages of waiting, a mother had been chosen to become the bearer of the very Son of God himself. Within a year that little baby would be born in Bethlehem, and the salvation of the galaxies would be off and running (or at least off and crawling initially!).

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 for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.