The Annunciation of Mary and Christopher Hitchens

You may wonder how the historic announcement of the birth of Christ and the more recent announcement of the death of long-time atheist Christopher Hitchens connect.

Well, if you have 20 minutes, listen to this message from the Rev. Scott Herr preached at The American Church in Paris on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 18, 2011). It should be posted by Monday, December 26.

Below is a copy of the manuscript if you would rather read:

“Messengers and Miracles”

A Sermon by the Rev. Scott Herr Romans 16:25-27

The American Church in Paris, December 18, 2011 Luke 1:26-38

The gospel lesson today is an amazing account about Mary, the mother of Jesus. It sounds like fantasy, something out of the Chronicles of Narnia. But you know what C.S. Lewis once said? The more true something is, the less literal language can accurately describe it… Who knows? Something happened to Mary. Luke writes the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin named Mary. You can’t blame Mary for being “much perplexed” at the encounter she had with the God-sent angel Gabriel. Gabriel hadn’t made an appearance in a long time… Gabriel came to the prophet Daniel in a vision over six hundred years before. It’s interesting to note the meaning of Gabriel’s name: the power of God. In Jewish thought, Gabriel was the angel of judgment. But as he comes to Mary, he comes with a word of mercy for her.

It’s strange, but we are the ones who have problems with angels. If you pay attention to the text, it’s not the angel Gabriel Mary finds perplexing and causes her to be afraid, but the message this angel has brought! “Angel” in the Greek, άγγελος, is simply the word for “messenger” and is related to the word άγγελιον, which means message. The English word “Gospel” in the Greek is literally the ευ or “good” άγγελιον “message.” This is where the English word “evangelical” comes from…

I give you this background because it is this message that Gabriel brings that is perplexing and even causes fear in Mary. What does Gabriel say to her? He says basically three things: 1/that she is favored by God (literally that she has been [χάρι] “graced” by God); 2/ that God is with her; and 3/  that the Christ child will be born in her… The word “miracle” is not used in this text, but the whole virgin birth is indeed a miracle.

The English word miracle comes from the Latin mīrāculum, from mīrārī, “to wonder at.” The virgin birth is the gospel writer’s way to give us his Christology, or understanding of who Christ is: fully God (conceived by the Holy Spirit) and fully human (born of Mary). But for Mary it’s not even who is to be born in her, but the mechanics of it all that makes her wonder. The message doesn’t make sense. Her response to the angel is simply, “How can this be…?”

Mary can’t believe that she is favored by God. After all, she’s just a peasant teenage girl in some back-water village. She can’t believe that God favors her, and finds it even harder to believe God is with her! So her response is fear. Gabriel’s command to her, “Do not be afraid,” is in response to her perplexity and pondering. It’s interesting that the Greek word for ponder here is “διελογίζετο…” Dialogue. She’s having a dialogue with herself! She’s thinking: “…On the one hand, there is this person talking to me… and that seems real enough… but what he’s saying is incredible… At best, he’s got the wrong address. At worst, this is some cruel joke. Messengers and miracles happen over in Jerusalem where all the really important religious people are. Not here. Not me.”

In fact, Gabriel did show up in Jerusalem and gave a similar speech to Zechariah, the priest (father of John the Baptist, uncle of Jesus) but he didn’t believe the angel and so was punished with temporary muteness. Gabriel shows up to deliver the “good news” to Mary, and she doesn’t know what to think…

Now here’s what I’d like for you to consider with me: While this account describes the dynamics of Mary’s personal experience, I think this account describes the dynamics of what happens to any of us when we are confronted with the Gospel. Too many of us have missed the message of God’s grace and love for us, that God has come to be with us in Christ. God knows there are so many other messages we are receiving in life, whether through advertisements, news agencies, governments, families, school and friends… We miss the message of God’s love because we have been either afraid of the messenger (sometimes the church is the last place you’ll hear the gospel!) or simply couldn’t believe the message itself…  Some of us have preferred not to be converted at all… Or so we think.  We don’t want to be converted, especially by these wonderful stories in the New Testament around Christmas time… We remain skeptical and even cynical with all the political and economical messaging in the world, especially around Christmas…

The fact is, however, everybody is converted by some message… Christopher Hitchens died this past Thursday in Houston, Texas. He was 62. It was his 2007 book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything that got my attention. He was a hostile proponent of atheism in the public eye in recent history.

I share this news of Hitchens not because I take any comfort in his death, but rather because he is the perfect example of how all of us are created to believe passionately in something! Even though he was baptized in the church of England and his name meant, “Christ-bearer,” he gave his life in the end to anti-faith. He was against a lot of things, including strangely, Mother Teresa, as he regarded her “as a proselytizer for a retrograde version of Roman Catholicism rather than as a saintly charity worker.” But this is the whole point… In the end, he turned out to be a rather pathetic and angry man. He was very clear about what he was against… He was a messenger, he said, who was against “dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation…”

As Douglas Wilson puts it in an obituary, Hitchens was committed to skepticism: “I think, therefore I am. I think.” He pulled out the stopper of faith, and the bathwater of reason appeared undisturbed for a time. But modernism slowly receded and now postmodernism is circling the drain.

And so the question lingers, where does one get their ideas of what is ultimate, or any authority to presume to say what is right or wrong? Hitchens showed that he could change his mind. One of the great ironies of his life was that he ended up agreeing with George Bush on the Iraq war, to the howling criticism of his politically left-wing cronies… Did he not lose any of his naïve hubris which allows one to think you can tell right from wrong all on your own?

William Willimon, former chaplain at Duke University, says this, “The dominant culture in which we live is that of expressive individualism since the Enlightenment. People like to say, ‘well, what the church says might be OK for some, but I think you have to determine right and wrong for yourself.’ But let’s be honest: people aren’t  thinking for themselves! They’re doing exactly what the cultural messaging tells them. In reality, they’re espousing the very way of knowing that’s been imposed on them by their culture… and a very white western individualistic one it is.” Hitchens seems to have thought that conversion takes away personal critical reflection and perspective, but that would assume that there are already unformed, untouched people out there, and that there are only religious zealots trying to convert them to their way of thinking… In fact, everybody is converted to some world view, some way of seeing and making sense of reality, looking through the lens of their own experience and epistemology…

A good question to ask yourself then is this: What story has converted my heart and mind? To what message have I given myself? …

God desires that we be overshadowed by and converted to the ultimate reality revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the one born of Mary, the One who came “full of grace and truth.” Just as Mary’s world was rocked, so our reality and our way of thinking is rocked when we receive the message of the Gospel. Mary is considered the first disciple because she heard the gospel and responded to it in faith…

This is the strange message of Gabriel to Mary: There’s nothing you can do to earn God’s favor. It just comes right out of the merciful heart of God for you. Too often we read the logic of this passage backwards. We think that Mary found favor with God because she said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word…” Wrong! In fact, her pledge of loyalty to God, her willingness to serve however God calls her to serve, is the result of a transformed heart, a heart that has received the message of God’s loving kindness and grace. Not the other way around. Friends, God doesn’t love you because you serve God, or because you’re smart enough or beautiful enough or even good enough. God loves you because God is a loving and grace-filled God. And we freely choose to serve God because we have known God’s incredible love!

Today and in this last week before Christmas, I invite you to reflect again on Mary’s story and your own. In the busyness of these days, consider what messengers are speaking or have spoken into your life? What is the effect of those messages, of those words, those people or events, that have converted your heart? To what defining “reality” have you given your life?

The messenger God sent to you is not Gabriel, but rather Jesus Christ himself, God’s Word Incarnate; and that through him you may know that no matter what your station, condition, worldview or orientation, you are favored by God, that God is with you! The miracle of miracles is that Christ can be born in you as well. Perplexing as that might be, as we enter into the darkest week of the year, the light of Christ can overshadow you. We hear again the good news that Jesus is the Most High God, that his kingdom will not end, and even we can become messengers, angels of his miraculous (wonderful!) love and joy for all people… It all depends on what message we believe…

Friends, as you hear the fantastic message of Christ again, I pray that you will receive it as truer than any other message; that you will respond with the humble faith of Mary:  saying, “Here I am, servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN…

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