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Sermon: Overshadowed

December 18, 2011

Luke 1:26-38

This is it—the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  Seven days until C-Day.  So now we turn our attention to the Nativity texts, the gospel stories about Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ birth.

Today we have one of our most well loved stories, the Annunciation.  The angel Gabriel visited a young woman Mary and gave her news that is normally glorious news.  “You are going to have a baby.”

It has been one of my favorite Christmas scriptures, too.  That is, it was one of my favorites until I took a closer look at it this week.  Now, I’m not so sure.  I am beginning to have conflicting feelings about the story.  It has become a troubling text.

It is a story that comes on the heels of the news that the formerly childless couple, the older Zechariah and Elizabeth, will be parents.  It was surprising news.  Neither expected this so late in their lives.  But it happened.  Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy when another unusual thing occurred.  The young virgin Mary was minding her own business in the town of Nazareth when Gabriel appeared to her.

“Greetings, favored one!”  Favored one.  Just about everything that comes after this greeting makes me wonder whether or not Mary really is favored.  You know the basic content of the angel’s message, but I want you to listen carefully to me as I share it with you.

You will conceive…and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  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…David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end…The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God…Nothing will be impossible with God.

Everything will be possible with God.

You will do this.  God will do this.  Jesus will do this.  The Holy Spirit will do this.  This is not a road map.  It’s not a plan.  This isn’t a series of helpful suggestions.  This is the pronouncement of an extremely confident deity.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Well, of course that’s what she said.  What other option did she have?  Gabriel wasn’t asking any questions.  Gabriel didn’t ask for Mary’s input.  The angel told her the way it was going to be.  Period.  End of story.

That’s what is troubling about this text.  I believe firmly in a God who gives us freedom, freedom to choose our own paths in life, freedom to act righteously or to sin, freedom to say “yes” or “no” to God.  A God who forces faith no longer has human beings, but has a Creation full of robots, machines.  I believe God is not God unless God gives us freedom to act and to live our lives as we will, wisely or foolishly.

And then, here is this text.  It is the pronouncement of a very powerful God about the way things will be in the life of this young woman and her son.  What else was Mary going to say?  As a young woman in the ancient world, she had become used to being told what to do.  Now, here was this angel telling her what to do again.  “Yes, Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”  What choice did she have?

The most striking word in these verses, even more so than the multiple uses of the word “will” is the way Gabriel describes how God will accomplish Mary’s pregnancy.    She is a virgin, but “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”  Your pew Bibles say that the power of God will “rest upon” Mary, but the actual Greek word used is “overshadow.”  God’s power will overshadow Mary.

That is an ominous word.  It is a dominating word.  In the ancient world, it was sometimes used to describe a conqueror overshadowing a subject nation.  (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 7, p399-400.  Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds.)  It is a word that leads me to wonder if God was inviting Mary to be a partner in the gift of salvation, or if God was simply using Mary as a tool.  The power of God overshadowed Mary, and what choice did she have?

Well, as it turns out, she may have had a few options.  Do you remember Moses?  God said, “Moses, you are the one.  You will lead my people out of slavery in Egypt.”  Did Moses say, “Let it be with me according to your word?”  No.

Moses said, “I’m not really a public speaker.  Find somebody else.”  Granted, God kept after Moses and badgered him into accepting the mission, but Moses was no Mary.

You may remember Jonah.  God gave a mission to Jonah, to travel to the capital city of the enemy and call them to repent.  Did Jonah say, “I am at your service, Lord?”  No.  Jonah ran away on the first boat out of town.  Granted, God caused Jonah to be swallowed by a big fish and then vomited up on the beach after three days, but Jonah was no Mary.

Mary could have resisted.  She could have tried to argue God out of this foolish plan.  She could have insisted that she was not the right woman for the job.  She did not.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Yet I am left with this troubling notion that Mary may not have had much say in her future.  God had decided.  Perhaps to her credit, Mary did not resist, but from the beginning decided she would be a good and faithful servant in the midst of these events that she could not control.  I believe in a God who gives us the freedom to choose how we will act in this life, and today’s scripture is perplexing.

It is troubling.  It is perplexing.  Unless there is another option.

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, but for many hundreds of years, faithful Jews knew only the Greek version of those scriptures.  We call it the Septuagint, and it was the standard of the Old Testament much like the King James Version of the Bible was the standard for Christians for so many years.  For the writers of the New Testament—including Luke—the Greek version was the only Bible they knew.

In that Greek version of the Old Testament, the ominous word “overshadow” was used only a few times (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).  Perhaps the most important place that word was used came toward the end of the book of Exodus (40:34ff).  Moses and the people of Egypt were out in the wilderness seeking their freedom from the Egyptians.  You may recall that God went before them as a pillar of cloud in the daytime and as a pillar of fire at night.  The people would watch this divine pillar, and whenever it would move, they would follow.  God led them through the barren wilderness, ultimately to safety, security and to their own land.  The pillar of cloud and fire represented for the people of Israel the comforting, protecting and leading presence of God.  This pillar overshadowed the tabernacle of God.  It overshadowed the people of Israel.  God’s presence overshadowed them in the sense of guiding them and being present with them in the time when they were most vulnerable.

Luke knew his Old Testament—in Greek.  This was the sense of overshadowing that Luke understood.  The power of the Most High overshadowed Mary during her most vulnerable time—a virgin engaged to be married who found herself pregnant.  This may not have been welcome news to Mary, but God overshadowed her.  Through Gabriel, God promised to protect her and guide her, even though every circumstance of her life was out of control.  More than that, God would work to see to it that these circumstances actually came to benefit all Creation.  Mary’s child would bring God’s peace to every one of us.

The reality is that we are all dominated by circumstances from time to time.  We are dominated by economic forces beyond our control, illness, bureaucracies, our own weaknesses.  Various messengers come to us again and again with messages about what will happen to us.  Sometimes it feels as if there is very little of this life that we can control.

Perhaps we don’t have as much choice as we would like, but the story of Mary can remind us that the power of the Most High overshadows us.  God guides us by day and by night.  God is with us when we are at our most vulnerable.  God works in the unmanageable circumstances of our lives to give us hope and a future.  You are overshadowed.  Thanks be to God!

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