What Kind of Greeting is This?

Luke 1:26-38  The Annunciation


I’ve been feeling nostalgic. Christmas does that. I’ve even gotten my annual Christmas cold to make everything feel familiar.


By my count this is the 40th Christmas season I’ve preached, now 23 with you all. Each year we’ve had four Advent Sundays and two or more services on Christmas eve. We’ve watched the attendance and energy build over the fall. Just a couple of hours ago the Sunday school Christmas pageant brought great joy as always.


The next two Sundays will be small – Christmas day and New Years Day. Then we’ll turn the corner into 2012 as we pause for Epiphany and pack away our varied treasures for another year.


Christmas and the scriptural story are as familiar as an old robe and slippers. Each of you knows the Christmas accounts by heart. You’ve heard sermons about Old Testament prophecies, about John the Baptist, about stables and inns and birthdays. What more is there to say?


I’ve preached about shepherds and soldiers and wisemen and Herod and stars in the sky. I have talked of Jesus as Christ, Messiah, Emmanuel, infant King and all the rest. I even remember looking at the Christmas event through the eyes of the sheep and cows gathered around the manger!


But I find that the better we know the story, the more we engage it at a fundamental level, the more questions we have to ask.


How can it be that the children among us can simply feel the excitement of it all – the anticipation and the sense of wonder as preparations are made and secrets are kept? Do you find yourself thinking Christmas will never come?


And you adults who come to this Christmas season with years of experience, have you noticed a melancholy mood, remembering years past when things felt different – maybe felt better than they do now? Or perhaps do you hear an inner voice saying “so what – let’s just get it over!”


Aren’t there, inside of us, the questions of why Christmas promotions begin in October; why we have such an orgy of commercialism that prompts us to measure the meaning of Christmas in dollars; why violent toys are still the rage; and mostly, the question of what it all really means?

  • If Jesus was Prince of Peace, why do war and terrorism still haunt us?
  • If Jesus is God’s love in human form, why are people so nasty to each other?
  • If the birth of Christ was the turning point of human history, why aren’t things better for all people?

No matter how many times we live this season, underneath the smiles and the greetings and the hopes of the season there are many unanswered questions.


Maybe that’s the point at which we can intersect the account from scripture, of the young woman, Mary, who had lots of questions! The story makes that clear.


We read that God decided it was time for Messiah to be born. An angel of God came to Mary and announced the decision, saying “Hail, O favored one – the Lord is with you!”


Verse 29 (Common English Bible) says: “She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” Well, I guess she did! Mary’s first response, of course, was disbelief. Maybe the message was right but the messenger delivered it to the wrong person!


The angel was insistent. How could Mary be sure she’d heard correctly? What had the angel meant, and why Mary of Nazareth of all women? She had so many questions!


Well, the angel said (vs. 36, 37) “Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God. ”

“Let it be with me as you have said” she told the angel, though none of it made sense.  And in the next moment, we’re told Mary went immediately to see her cousin Elizabeth, reasoning if that was true, anything could be. Mary was there in the midst of the drama – a central actor in the greatest story ever told.

And we may feel much as she did. Really, the Christmas story just doesn’t make sense: An angel telling the news to an obscure young unmarried woman that she will give birth to the savior; shepherds and wisemen and stars in the sky; the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies. Really!


And beneath it all the almost absurd idea that God decided to become human – one of us – to close the gap between heaven and earth. No wonder we have a lot of questions – just as did Mary. So she looked quickly for some way to confirm what the angel had said. And so do we.

But still, even in the doubts that our logical minds throw in the way, our hearts somehow know this is how God works:

  • God calls unlikely characters in surprising places to help in the unfolding drama of salvation.
  • God calls the humble and the lowly and the afflicted.
  • God calls the average middle class and Occupy Wall street protestors,
  • God calls the rich and famous; President and Congress, Governor and Legislators, or investment banker.

Each has a part in the play. And each of us, upon hearing the call must surely have our question: “What kind of greeting is this?!”

  • We may feel we’re bit players – or even off in the wings.
  • We may imagine we have nothing to offer in the great cosmic drama of God, coming in human form.
  • We may prefer simply to sit and mutter and mumble – “the world’s such a mess; people are so thoughtless; life is such a bother; things will never get better – humbug!”

What we seek in this season is not a reasonable, rational rebuttal to all our questions. Rather, like Mary, we seek hope – the strong, clear assurance of the angel who confronts our disbelief and says “remember – with God, all things are possible.”


Your calling at Christmas time may be to do quiet deeds of love – for family and friends, and for those whom you have never met. Your calling may be to give mittens to those with cold hands, or food to those with empty bellies.


Your calling may be to forgo some of the excesses that creeps in, and make a generous gift to the Christmas Fund, or to international relief; or to take a stand for justice in some concrete way, or speak out against domestic violence, or write your legislators regarding the stalemate in Augusta and Washington.


The angel may call you to soften your cynical side and listen, like a child,  to the miracles of lives that can be healed and changed.

God calls some unlikely characters to become actors in the great drama which unfolds all around us. And God needs us all! Each of us who believes, and those who say they do not, make life possible, day after day, week after week and generation after generation.


My dear friends, if Christmas means anything to you and to me, let it mean that God can and will amaze us with the joyous announcement that the Son of God and savior comes again to every heart that prepares him room. With God nothing is impossible!


J. Barrie Shepherd, long ago the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City, once wrote a poem for Mary at the manger. As he imagines Mary hearing the sounds of sheep and shepherds approaching, he wrote:

Whoever’s there,

whatever blessing is, or is to be for me,

I feel this day secure, secure as never in my life,

secure beyond all reason in this cold and darkened place,

this wintered season of the world.

Secure because beside me, yes, within my very being,

God is present, God is with me, God is sharing in and bearing

through my child the passing laughter and the tears that we call life.

God is giving himself to us in this child he gives to me;

and if this grace, this purity, this innocence, this love

I hold right now is God,

then I know blessing far beyond any fear, any hope, any dream

I might have dreamed. Don’t ask me to explain.

Just kneel, my friend, beside these shepherds.

Worship him in silence and be blessed.