Sunday, December 24, 2017

Harking the Herald Angels

“So this is Christmas,” sang John Lennon, “and what have you done?”

That Lennon — never one to get a point.

Whatever Christmas means, you can trust me: it’s not about what you’ve done. When you get stock-taking at the end of the year, you can easily get more than a little depressed. How has the year worked out? Did you achieve all the goals you set for yourself? Did you always live up to the mark, always do your best, and always win what you hoped? How’s it all been going?

Merry, merry Christmas indeed!

What we’ve done is usually a bit of a car wreck. Sure, we start out with all the best intentions sometimes. But between the vicissitudes of a fallen world and the failures of our fallen characters, we rarely live up to any of the standards we set for ourselves, let alone the standards of a holy God. Disappointment, personal inadequacy and depression are the products whenever we get thinking about what we’ve done.

So thanks for that happy thought, John.

A Better Tune

Don’t waste your time listening to John Lennon. Instead of harking to his barking, maybe we should harken a little better to the herald angels. They had a much better tune for us.

The heralding angels were pretty busy at the birth of the Lord. There was, of course, the big one in the sky above the shepherd’s heads, but also three more quiet ones — to Zacharias, to Mary, and then also to Joseph. But contra John Lennon, none of it was to inspect our own lives and achievements for signs of special distinction. Everything they had to say had to do with what the Lord had done.

Getting It Wrong

Now, I don’t know how many of us have had an angel show up to make an announcement, but I expect it’s a pretty impressive event. If it happened to any of us, I don’t know that we’d handle it very well. So maybe we can be a little understanding with those who didn’t hark so well … at least at first.

When it happened to Zacharias, he messed it up. He asked the wrong question. “How will I know this?” he asked. In other words, “How can I be certain that what you say is true?” That explains the angel’s reply to him: “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” Because of his slowness of belief, Zacharias also gets the sign he asked for: “And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.”

Harking Better

That’s not Mary’s problem. Her issue is different. She asks not “Will this really be?” but “How can this be?” with her explanation, “… since I am a virgin”. In other words she’s not doubting. She’s asking about next steps. Her concern is more like “What do you want me to do? How do I cooperate with this? What’s my part in the thing you’re telling me will happen?” Because, as she notes, she doesn’t even fit the minimum qualifications for how these things usually come about.

The angel’s answer is a clincher: “The power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

In the Shade


That word implies a lot. Like a shadow from a cloud passing overhead, the process that ensues will be subtle, without human effort or contribution, almost undetectable — and of the Holy Spirit of God entirely. Mary has to do nothing; just believe, present herself and wait.

Not only that, but the process will be high — a heavenly process, not an earthly one. And in that process, Mary herself will not be the figure of attention but the one in shadow; we might paraphrase, “The power of the Most High will eclipse you.”

How extreme will this eclipsing be? The angel explains, “and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” Rightly. God’s Son. Not “the Son of Mary”. (Only his enemies would ever call him that!) There would be a truly holy, heavenly, miraculous conception that would completely overshadow any thought of human effort.

The Bondmaid’s Role

Nevertheless, Mary does contribute something: not her action, but her submission. The process would not be compelled against her will: her assent was required. And Mary steps up to that challenge. “Behold, the bond slave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” She presents herself for the overshadowing to come.

She would not obtrude, but would look to her Saviour to achieve all that he had promised would happen without her effort. Like all mere humans, Mary stood in need of such a Saviour. Without him, she, like everybody else, would not see God. Therefore, her prayer is full of all that he has done for her and for Israel, and devoid of her own initiative or achievements.

Getting Mary Wrong

Mary would not like how she’s been treated since. Not at all. That little maid of Nazareth would never want herself exalted and extolled, let alone worshiped or prayed to. She would be appalled at what men have made of her since.

She had no authority. Our Lord’s time of obedience to her was a gift, not a right; and it was one granted in the face of her lack of understanding of his full nature. Her status with the Lord was no greater — and no other — than the status of all those redeemed and obedient to God.

It was all not about Mary. Not at all.

Not About Us

“The power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

All those born again are “born of God” and “born from above”. They are not born into the second birth by means of their flesh, and no attempts made in the flesh to perfect them will succeed. We know this — in theory at least — and yet in practice we find it all too easy to begin to look at ourselves with disappointment. We are not what we wish we were, do not always do what we wish we did, and have not achieved all we hoped we would. And so we get discouraged, downcast and sometimes even disbelieving.

But the power of the Most High will overshadow us. At the end of it all, when the tale is told of what was achieved in our lives, it will turn out that none of it was really us. To our surprise, we will discover that every good thing that we did was really a product of the work of God’s Spirit in us, not of our wit, wisdom or goodness.

But this we will also have: that when the call came from God, we heard and bowed to him. To him we said, “Be it unto us as you have said.” To him we became bondservants; and in that is the fullness of our reward.

So what kind of God saves people who are no good, empowers them to do things that could never get done if they were left to their own devices, and then at the end of the day rewards them simply for allowing themselves to be used and empowered by his Spirit?

A generous one, I’m thinking.

The Bondservant’s Reward

We might not be much — unless we are his. Then his power overshadows what we are, and marvelous works are done by the power of God.

It is the annunciation of this work that is to being made to us, today. It’s called “the gospel”. It comes to us not just in the voices of angels, but in the person of the eternal Son of God. And if the word spoken through angels was a big deal, just imagine how much bigger this is.

Good news: the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Your inadequacies will be covered; your shortcomings will be compensated for, your insufficiencies will be made sufficient. Somehow the glory of the eternal God will flow out of us, vessels merely of earth. And when the whole story is recounted, it is we who will receive the reward of the obedient.

Our response to such a heralding can only be, “May it be done to me according to your word.”

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