Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow – Advent 4 – The Annunciation
2 Samuel 7 vv 1 – 11, 16 – God’s promise to David to build him a house with an eternal King
Romans 16 vv 25 – End – God’s promise is being fulfilled in the Gospel
Luke 1 vv 26 – 38 – The angel Gabriel promises Mary will bear a son, Jesus
Theme: The Annunciation
Introduction. Imagine if you will that William of Normandy having claimed the throne of England had been promised that his descendants would reign over England for ever. Imagine that instead of Henry V having won the battle of Agincourt in 1215 and laid claim to the French throne, it had worked the other way round and England had become a vassal state of France with no English King. Imagine that state of affairs continuing through to the 19th century under Napoleon and then in 20th Century, Hitler had conquered the United Kingdom you have something of a parallel to the situation in Israel and then the Southern Kingdom of Judah in the millennium leading up the 1st century A. D. King David of Israel had wanted to build a temple for God. David, living in the 10th century B. C. had a beautiful palace, built of stone and the best timber that money could buy, cedar wood from Lebanon. The place of worship, for the whole of the nation of Israel, was still the wilderness tabernacle, a vast great tent. David had conquered many of the surrounding nations and imposed tribute on them. He was a rich man. Surely the right thing to do would be to build a temple for God; right, not only religiously, but also politically, to reinforce Jerusalem as the nation’s capital and unify the nation. David, a godly man, decides to consult the leading prophet, Nathan. Nathan wanting to please David and anyhow it seemed an excellent project, says to David, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.” Thus our first reading sets the scene leading to a great promise to David, for God has other ideas and plans, to be implemented over a long time scale leading up to our Gospel reading for today and beyond.
- The Promise. In the OT reading we find that God speaks to Nathan, who the following day has to backtrack and give a very different message to his King. In effect the message is, “I am a God who is on the move, I cannot be tied down to a permanent building. I am happy with a tent. Don’t you build me a house, I will build a house for you”. To quote the words of Scripture, “Your house and your kingdom shall endure for ever before me, your throne will be established for ever”. He is also told that one of his descendants as a subsequent king would build a temple. How did that promise work out? As I am sure most of you will know, David’s son by Bathsheba, Solomon, built the temple. However, the other aspect didn’t work out so well, as it might seem. The Davidic line of kings came to an end early in the 6th century. Jerusalem was besieged and attacked by King Nebuchadnezzar of Assyria in 597 B. C, the leading people were deported to Babylon, in modern day Iraq. He placed a puppet king, Zedekiah, on the throne of Judah. Zedekiah rebelled; Jerusalem was sacked in 586 B. C. There followed more deportations and the Davidic kingship came to an end. What of the promise to David? During the next 600 years there was no king. Judah was under foreign domination, firstly from Assyria, then Persia, then Greece after the huge military exploits of General Alexander. In the 1st Century B. C. Judah actually invited Roman forces to come to their aid. By the time of our gospel reading, the late 1st century B. C. Judah was still under Roman rule which was to continue for many years after. However, many Jews had not lost hope of the restoration of the Davidic kingship, they looked forward to the coming of God’s chosen one, the Messiah, who would release them from foreign domination.
- Angels. Into the mixed situation of hope of the Messiah and accommodation with the Roman rule, angels, messengers of God, appear to various people. At the end of her sermon last Sunday, Nicky read a poem which included the phrase ‘Angels are real’. Many people at this season of Christmas listen to the gospel accounts associated with Jesus’ birth and sing the familiar carols, such as ‘Angels from the realms of glory’ but, because they have never themselves knowingly met an angel nor spoken to someone who has, put angels in the mental category of myth and fairy story. How many of you here have met an angel? I have not. But neither have I seen an electron. However as an electrical engineer I certainly believe in those tiny, negatively charged atomic particles, which, if I remember correctly from school physics, are only one eighteen hundredth of the mass of a proton, the corresponding, positively charged, particle. I suspect that actually all of us, whether consciously or not, believe in electrons for it is they which comprise the electric current which flows in the cables, wires and circuits of our fridges and freezers, our electric cookers, our TV, our cars, our mobile phones and computers. Modern life would be quite impossible without those tiny electrons being harnessed to serve us.
Our gospel reading today includes one very important account of the appearance of an angel, to a young woman, perhaps no older than a teenager, as the narration on the Sunday newssheet makes clear. It invites this young woman in the northern village of Nazareth to play a crucial role in the fulfilment of that promise to King David through the prophet Nathan 900 years before, to bear a son who would be God’s Messiah.
It is so often at crucial points in the salvation plans of God that angels appear to people of faith to prepare and assure them that God is going to do something unusual in their lives. There are something like 300 references in the Bible to angels. This probably relates to nearly 100 events. Last week Nicky challenged us as to whether we are interrogators or witnesses. I think if we examined all these accounts we would find that they derive from fairly reliable witnesses. Governments, supported by scientists, astrophysicists, engineers and many others are prepared to spend billions of dollars looking for extraterrestrial life, for living beings on other life-supporting planets. Why should we not accept the witness of those people who claim to have met angels whether it be to the elderly priest Zechariah, the young mother-to-be Mary or the group of shepherds? We are told the name of the angel, who appeared both to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist and also to Mary the mother of our Lord – Gabriel. Gabriel is Hebrew, meaning ‘man of God’. Luke records Gabriel saying to Zechariah, “I stand in the presence of God and have been sent to speak to you.”
For Advent reading, I bought one of the books Sue Wheeler had available a few weeks ago. I suppose I was somewhat fascinated by the fact that the author is Pam Rhodes, one of the ‘Songs of Praise’ presenters. The book is called ‘If you follow me’ – Book 3 in the Dunbridge Chronicles. The novel relates the interactions of the various characters in the life of the Church and community of Dunbridge. A battered wife, Sonia and three children Rosie, Jake and Charlie arrive in Dunbridge, escaping from her violent husband. However her husband knows where they are and fire-bombs the house. Sonia, aware of the fire, wakes the two younger children and then goes to alert Rosie who is quite calmly sitting on her bed pointing to the man in the corner (p 68 ff). Sonia thinks that her husband has actually been in the house, until Rosie describes the man as being dressed in a white robe and having wings; the man assured her that all would be well. It is interesting that Pam Rhodes’ story of an angelic visitor is to a young girl, perhaps with her own fairly simple faith uncluttered by all the questions of an adult. Should we expect to meet angels today? I think that it is unlikely but not impossible. The activity of angels didn’t cease 2000 years ago. It may be that at some critical point in our lives such a revelation may occur.
- Response. Let’s now consider Mary’s response to Gabriel. Her response to the angel is actually both readily understandable and also quite remarkable. Gabriel greets Mary, “Greetings, you are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” Her response, as so often with angelic encounters, is one of fearfulness. She was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. However after further explanation her response is one of great faith. She responds, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be as you have said.” Just think of the implications of the acceptance that she will as a virgin bear a very special son in fulfilment of the promise to King David 900 years before. Her acceptance nearly led to her fiancé breaking off the engagement. It might easily, without Joseph’s support, have led to her social ostracism and even to her death. By way of contrast the response of the elderly priest Zechariah is rather lacking in faith. He comes more into the category of the interrogators of Nicky’s sermon last Sunday. There is a danger that in old age we less open to God’s guidance and call. I am conscious of being in the category of an elderly priest. My prayer is that whether I live for one more year or 21 more years, I should not loose my enthusiasm for the Christian gospel and that I should be open to God’s guidance and empowering.
God can work through young and old. Sometimes people refer to children as the church of tomorrow. Although I understand people thinking in this way, I believe that it is unhelpful. Children of faith are the church of today. The Church Times of 8th December shows a photograph of Emily Burch, a 14-year-old girl from All Saints’ Church Guildford. She has been named by the Diocese as the first ever Young Preacher of the Year. She won the contest by first submitting a short video of herself preaching, and then winning a live “preach off” in front of a panel of judges at Guildford Cathedral on Advent Sunday. Her prize is to preach at evensong at the cathedral, and then give a 60-second sermon on BBC Radio Surrey in January.
- Conclusion. In conclusion let us be inspired by the angelic visit to Mary the mother of our Lord as we prepare to celebrate that birth tomorrow. Let us, whether young or old, be open to God’s guidance and call to commitment and service and let us worship our Lord Jesus Christ, Christ the King, who came to earth in fulfilment of the promise to King David nearly 3000 years ago. I end with the epistle reading for today, the concluding 3 verses of St Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, “Now to him who is able to establish you by the gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him – to the only wise God be glory for ever through Jesus Christ! Amen.
1990 words Christopher Miles