by Chris Ritter
Breaking news from Nazareth came to us a couple weeks ago. A British Archeologist named Ken Dark completed fourteen years of field research and concluded that the likely childhood home of Jesus could been identified beneath the Sisters of Nazareth Convent.
There had been claims dating back to 380 AD that the location on which the convent stands is the spot where Jesus grew up. Those claims were dismissed in the 1930’s, but Professor Dark decided another look was warranted. He did the work of examining the multiple layers of structures that exist to look for the site identified in the days of Emperer Constantine as the place where Jesus was raised.
What Professor Dark found beneath the convent were the remains of a First Century cave-like home built into a limestone hill. The house has a staircase and pottery fragments were found in keeping with what would have been used during that time. But that could be any First Century home, not necessarily the one in which Jesus grew up. But he also found, higher up, the remains of a Fifth Century Cathedral built over the site of the house. This large Byzantine church included marble and mosaics that matches a 7th Century description of a cathedral built on the site of Jesus’ boyhood home.
The church, Professor Dark says, was even larger than the nearby Church of the Annunciation which marks the location where the Angel Gabriel brought the news to Mary that she would give birth to the Son of God.
I visited the Basilica of the Annunciation in 2016, built on the traditional site of Mary’s childhood home. Near the altar there are steps where you can go down into the original excavated home site. But just down the road is the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation which marked the site of a spring where an alternative tradition says that Gabriel came to Mary while she was drawing water.
If you take away the Jesus sites, Nazareth would be a place none of us would have ever heard of, much less think to visit. I remember seeing a KFC, a pizza parlor, and several falafels stands. It is about 22 miles from the Mediterranean and 15 miles from the Sea of Galilee. The population was maybe less than 500 people in Jesus’ day. There are the remains of wine presses that showed the agriculture around that area. Nazareth was no place special. Until…
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.Luke 1:26-38
This is the third installment of a series of messages in Luke that will take us through Easter 2021. This passage is called “The Annunciation” because it is the announcement of the birth of Jesus to Mary. On liturgical calendars the Feast of the Annunciation is March 25… nine months before the celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25. If you were raised Catholic, you will recognize part of today’s passage quoted in the rosary prayers that millions recite daily.
There are a lot of similarities between last week’s announcement and this week’s announcement. Both come through the Archangel Gabriel. The word “angel” means “messenger.” Angels are mentioned 25 times in Luke’s Gospel. In the Christmas story, angels signify that these events are happening because of God’s divine initiative. There is an eruption of angelic activity in the Christmas story. That is why we see so many angel decorations everywhere during this time of year. This is all God’s doing, God’s initiative.
Both announcements are a reflection of God’s grace and goodwill. God pronounces favor upon Zechariah and Elizabeth. And he certainly pronounces favor upon Mary. The Gospel is, after all, Good News. God is pouring out his grace and goodwill at the coming of Jesus.
Both passages are a reflection of God’s power. Mary and Elizabeth will have sons not because they are able, but because God is able. Where humanity fails, God triumphs.
But there are also some differences worth noting:
Last week the Angel Gabriel appeared to a very old man, Zechariah, to tell him about the birth of John the Baptist. In this passage we learn that six months later that same angel visits a very young woman. There is a universal nature to Luke’s Gospel. Women take an equal place with men in God’s plan. God moves through the young and old, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles. No one is left out. This Gospel and this Savior are for the whole world.
Is There Something About Mary?
What do we know about Mary? She is maiden, a virgin, and pledged to be married to a man named Joseph. Betrothal was more binding than our understanding of being engaged. (It required a divorce proceeding to undo.) The marriage was likely arranged by the parents when Mary was quite young. She grew up knowing for whom she was intended.
Last week Zechariah was frightened by the appearance of Gabriel. Mary is troubled not just by the angel’s presence but by how he greets her: “Greeting, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you!” Let’s assume Mary is around a 14 year old girl. I can almost imagine that nothing in her life to date led her to believe that she was highly favored or that the Lord was with her. She did not feel like anything special. We know from reading the New Testament that Mary was a very common name. (There are six Mary’s in the New Testament alone.) Next week we are going to get a glimpse of how Mary thought of herself. She will talk about her “lowly estate.”
Mary is the bottom rung of the social ladder of her day: Poor, female, and young. Galilee was the wrong side of the tracks, socially speaking. The people around Jerusalem were very observant and situated near the seat of religious power. North of there was hated Samaria. North of Samaria was the area Galilee. This was the Jewish hinterland… the sticks. And Nazareth had no prominence. Bethlehem might have been small, but had a storied history because David was from there. Nazareth had no such pedigree. Remember what Nathanael said to Phillip when he invited him to meet Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth? “Nazareth?! Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
Gabriel tells Mary that she has found favor with God. We have a word for divine favor: “Grace.” God choosing Mary is an ultimate expression of his Grace. There is an avalanche of exalted language that will eventually be assigned to Mary: “Queen of Heaven,” “Mother of God,” “Queen of the Universe.” There are interpretations of Mary that go to great lengths to show how and that she was special, sinless. But in Luke, I think Mary is there as “one of us.” The power of her story is not how special she was, but how magnificent God’s grace really is.
The angel tells Mary that she is going to conceive and bear a son. His name is to be Jesus. This is not an unusual name (the same name as Joshua in the old testament, Yeshua in Hebrew. Jesus grew up speaking Aramaic and his name would have been pronounced “Eashua.”) But the name is so appropriate, meaning: “Yahweh saves.” This child will “be great and called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom will have no end.”
John the Baptist was described using the language of Prophet, in the spirit and power of Elijah. To Mary, the angel uses royal language. This baby is coming to rule on the throne of David forever.
Mary has a question. It is a little different from Zechariah’s question that we discussed last week. Zechariah asked, “How can I be sure?” Mary asks, “How will this be, since I am a version.” The issue is not whether it will be. She accepts that. Her question is how. That shows her faith.
Zechariah received some remarkable news, but at least there was some precedent in scripture for what the angel said was going to happen. God gave Sarah a baby in her old age. There are stories of several barren women that God visited so that they conceived. What the angel spoke to Mary was completely unprecedented. No one has ever heard of such. She did not believe in the stork. She knew what it took to have a baby. Her question is a simple “how?”
Gabriel explains, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
The angel goes on to explain that Elizabeth, her relative, is going to have a child in her old age. She is six months pregnant by this time.
The Creed Behind All Creeds
And then the angel says some words that God has used at key times in Israel’s history. It happens to be something we need to remember often: “Nothing is impossible with God.”
This has been called “The Creed Behind the Creed.” Nothing is impossible with God.
God told Abraham in Genesis that Sarah was going to have a baby. He could not believe it. The Almighty One said: “nothing is Impossible with God.”
In the Exodus, God tells Moses that the people will enjoy bread and meat to eat. Moses does not see how this is possible. Numbers 11:23: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not.’” Nothing is impossible with God.
Job, in the midst of all his sufferings, kept his faith and said, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2). Nothing is impossible with God.
Jeremiah proclaimed, “‘Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.” (Jeremiah 32:16). Nothing is impossible with God.
The phrase that sticks out to me this Christmas season is “with God.” That speaks of partnership and togetherness. We talk about Immanuel, God with us. But there is a corollary response from us: “Us with God.”
We see this in Mary’s response: “I am the Lord’s Servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”
Many of us prefer familiarity to spontaneity. Mary humbly accepted this radical change of direction in her life. In trust, she yields herself – her dreams, her plans, her very body – to the Lord. And she celebrates in song the privilege of being used by Him in His Kingdom plan. Mary says, “I’m in.” She matches “God with us” with “Mary with God.”
This is the most successful partnership of all time started with a Holy “Yes.”
How do we say “yes” to God? I have an acronym for you to consider.
The Y in Yes is “Yielded.” To yield means to give way to something more important. When you stop at a yield sign, you are acknowledging someone else has the right of way. Living in God’s Kingdom means our Heavenly Father always has right of way in our lives. To yield means to meet God on his terms… giving him priority in our decisions and priorities. Mary is a beautiful example of a yielded soul.
The E is “Expectant.” Mary leans in to what God speaks to her through his messenger. She was expecting even before she was expecting. The people who find God are the people who are looking for him. Seek and you will find. This is the posture of faith… leaning toward heaven and expecting God to speak, act, and guide. This means a certain pliability toward our own expectations.
I have been revisiting the Serenity prayer, written by Reinhold Neibuhr, but popularized by the Twelve Step Movement. Sometimes we forget the longer version:
God, grant me the Serenity
To accept the things I cannot change…
Courage to change the things I can,
And Wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it.
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His will.
That I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with Him forever in the next.
In the midst of the grittiness of life, we remain expectant that God is on the move.
The S in “yes” is Stillness. I tune into a lot of podcasts and books on the topic of leadership. There is a lot out there about “hustle.” Get out there are make something happen. The Christian leadership genre is no different:
- 2/3 of God is “go.”
- Be the arrow, not the target.
- Give God something to bless… God doesn’t bless nothing.
- You can’t steer a car that is not moving. Take action!
I subscribe to a lot of these ideas. But there is also a leadership principle called “sharpening the saw.” We are wise to stop chopping down a tree long enough to periodically sharpen the ax, otherwise we are working hard instead of smart. But we also might pause from time to time to make sure we are cutting down the right tree.
E.B. Bounds said that if we want to be much for God, we must be much with God.
2020 has caused me to return to the deep, rich contemplative traditions of our faith. Since we are speaking of Luke’s Gospel, I simple mention that this book, perhaps more than any other, has served as a foundation for that tradition.
In Luke 10, Jesus and his disciples are visiting their friends in Bethany: Lazarus and his two sisters Mary and Martha. Martha was running around like a chicken with her head cut off trying to cook dinner. Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to him. Martha said to Jesus, “Would you tell my sister to get in the kitchen and help me?”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”Luke 10:41
I knew a very honest woman who told me that this was her least favorite passage in the Bible. “Jesus and those men expected to be fed, didn’t they? Who did he think was going to do it?” But Jesus honors Mary of Bethany’s decision. She chose being with him over working for him. This passage contributed greatly to the idea that women could pursue lives of prayer, study, and contemplation. If a model for this is Mary of Bethany, it is also (and most supremely) Mary the mother of Jesus who will “contemplate all these things and treasure them up in her heart.” (Luke 2:20)
Have thine own way, Lord, Have thine own way
Thou art the potter, I am the clay
Mold me and make me, After thy will
Why I am waiting, Yielded and still.
I just got a message from one of our church members yesterday. I didn’t get permission to mention her name. But she sent me the nicest note. She was writing to say, “I’m still alive. I am watching online.” She remarked how much she appreciates all the creative stuff the church is putting out throughout this season. She also commented that being home is giving her time to reflect and count her blessings.
I replied back: “Sometimes the only way to get the hamsters off the wheel is for the wheel to break.” What if we looked back on this time of pandemic as the season of contemplation and prayer… a season of ceasing from our own labors and making ourselves available, anew, for the impartation of the Holy Spirit? There is such a thing as a Holy Pause.
Yes, God is with us. And this calls for our response: Us with God. It all starts with a holy “yes.”