Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sermon for Advent 4: Luke 1:26-38

Son of God

‘What child is this who, laid to rest,
on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
while shepherds watch are keeping?’
What child indeed, and why are we still celebrating his birthday two thousand years later? I’m as egotistical as the next person, but I seriously doubt whether many people will remember my birthday two hundred years from now, let alone two thousand! Why is the birth of this child so special?

Today we read the story of the announcement that the angel Gabriel made to Mary when she first became pregnant. In it, the angel said these words:
‘And now, you will conceive in your womb 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 his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end’ (Luke 1:32-33).
Mary asks how this can possibly happen, since she is a virgin. Gabriel replies,
‘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 Son of God’ (Luke 1:35).
Twice in these verses Jesus is called ‘Son of the Most High’ or ‘Son of God’. What does that mean?

Some people think that the gospel writers are importing a pagan theme here, from Greek or Roman literature. Many of the old Greek myths tell stories of gods who lusted after human women and came down to earth to satisfy their desires; the resulting offspring were the ‘heroes’, men of great strength and women of great beauty, who figure so highly in these stories – people like Achilles and Hercules, Aeneas, and Helen of Troy. But the gospel story is completely different from these Greek and Roman myths. In those stories, the whole point is the lust of the gods; the children who were born are simply a by-product of that lust. But in the gospel story we have no account of God, or of a god, having sex with Mary; she conceives while still a virgin, through a miraculous act of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the whole emphasis is on the holiness of the event: ‘the child to be born will be holy’.

We have to go back to the Old Testament to find out what ‘Son of God’ means. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the King of Israel is sometimes called ‘the son of God’. Of course, some of those kings had not been particularly inspiring figures! They had worshipped false gods and exploited and oppressed their people, just as many modern politicians do! But the people looked back on David, the first great king of Israel, as an ideal king; even though he had undeniable weaknesses, he had always returned to God and tried to do what was right. And when Israel was under the power of foreign armies – the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes and Persians, the Greeks, and eventually the Romans – they remembered the prophecies in their scriptures and comforted themselves with this thought: ‘One day, God will do it again. He’ll send us another king like David, and we’ll be free at last’. They called this king ‘the anointed one’, which in Hebrew is ‘the Messiah’, and in Greek ‘the Christ’.

In our passage today David is a prominent figure: ‘the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end’ (vv.32-33). This is all Messianic language; Luke, the gospel writer, is telling us, ‘This is who the baby is. He’s the Son of God, the long-awaited king in the royal line of David, the one who will finally set his people free’.

But the fit isn’t quite perfect, is it? I mean, Jesus didn’t set his people free, or at least, not in the way they were expecting. The Messiah was expected to destroy his enemies; instead, Jesus’ enemies destroyed him on the Cross. This is because the kingdom Jesus came to rule was unlike any kingdom the world had ever seen before. It wasn’t based on the love of power, but on the power of love. It wasn’t defined by national boundaries or racial origin; it can’t be identified with so-called ‘Christian’ countries. It has no political system and no army. It’s a multinational community, a group of people who have freely given their allegiance to Jesus as God’s anointed king, and have chosen to live in obedience to his teaching.

And so, when we call Jesus ‘the Messiah’ or ‘the Christ’, we haven’t quite exhausted the meaning of this term ‘Son of God’. Yes, the first time Gabriel uses the term, he obviously means ‘the Messiah’, but the second time it’s not quite so clear. You remember that Mary had asked how it could be possible for her to become pregnant when she was still a virgin. Gabriel answered,
‘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 Son of God’ (Luke 1:35).
Here, obviously, it is the supernatural origin of Jesus that is being stressed. Jesus is not the son of a human father in the normal sense; he is the Son of God.

There were hints of this earlier on in the passage. In the ancient world, it was common to say, ‘May the king live forever!’ but no one seriously thought that he would, and God certainly never promised that any one individual king would live forever. But here Gabriel says of Jesus, ‘he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end’ (v.33). Obviously, this is not a mere human being that we are talking about here, because no human being can live forever; only a divine person can do that. Certainly no other religion has made this claim for its founder. Muslims refer to the Prophet Muhammad with great reverence, and when they speak his name they add the words, ‘Peace be upon him’, as they do to any other godly person who has died. But they certainly do not believe that Muhammad is still alive. The contrast with Jesus could not be greater; shining through the pages of the Book of Acts in the New Testament is the unshakeable conviction that, even though the apostles saw Jesus die, and even though, for the most part, they no longer see him with their eyes, he is still alive and active in the world. Indeed, Peter says of him, ‘He is Lord of all’.

That, of course, is a political statement. There was already a person in the ancient world who claimed to be ‘Lord of all’: the Roman emperor. His titles were ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’ – exactly the titles Christians claimed for the risen Jesus. The Roman emperors also claimed to be sons of the gods. And now this Galilean carpenter, born in a tiny community on the edge of the empire, was claiming the emperor’s titles! The very idea was ridiculous!

Except that it has not turned out to be ridiculous after all. In the first century the Roman emperor Nero persecuted the Christians and had the apostle Paul executed, but, as F.F. Bruce once said, “the day would come when men would name their dogs ‘Nero’ and their sons ‘Paul’!” Today the people of Jesus are spread throughout the world, and although we are far from perfect, we are still doing our best to live by his teaching and to point to his coming kingdom.

What child is this? This is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing, and the carol encourages us to follow the example of the wise men; they brought him incense and gold and myrrh as symbols of their allegiance to him, and we’re told that ‘the King of Kings salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone him’. You see, one of the major differences between worldly kings and our king Jesus is that he does not force himself on anyone; rather, he invites everyone to willingly give him their allegiance, to ‘enthrone him’, so that he can lead us out of darkness and into the light of God’s amazing love. Let it be so, for you and me, this Christmas.

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