The Incarnation Reverses Traditional Roles. [Advent 4 ~ Love]
Micah 5: 2 – 5a; Luke 1: 26 – 38
A storyteller wrote about two young people who were very much in love. Christmas Eve was coming and they wanted to give presents to one another. But they were very poor and had no money for presents. Then each one, without telling the other, decided to sell his or her most precious possession. The girl’s most precious possession was her long golden hair and she went to a hairdresser and had it cut off. She sold it to buy a lovely watch chain for her lover’s watch. He, meanwhile, had gone to a jeweller and sold his watch to buy two beautiful combs for his beloved’s hair. When they gave their gifts there were tears at first and then laughter. There was no hair for the combs and no watch for the watch chain. But there was something more precious and that was their self-sacrificing love for one another. [(Anon) Q&A pg.284]
A touching little story, no doubt fictitious, but profoundly true because those two kinds of love do occur amongst us. There is the love of deep affection for another and there is sacrificial love. And they do come together. You may say love is always a giving of yourself. Yes, it is! But the giving of love is also an exchange for the getting of love. But there is love that is sacrificially – given regardless of cost.
On this 4th Advent Sunday we light the ‘Love’ candle’. It signifies the love of God for this world. Now love is a over used word. We use it to describe our feelings towards others, towards things and many use it in expressions such as: love is blind, love my dog, make love, not for love or money, there’s no love lost between them and ‘love’, meaning zero in tennis. Dictionaries define love as ‘a strong feeling of affection or sexual attraction, or a great interest or pleasure in something. For me, love is one of those slippery words. We slip it in here and there and each time it slides into a slightly different meaning. We have to rely on the grammar and context for meaning as in the expressions, ‘for love’ or ‘make love’.
The Bible is full of love too. There is a lot of sex in the Bible, but I wasn’t thinking of that. In fact the Bible does not provide us with a single word for the English noun ‘love’. Possibly the best way to understand ‘love’ in the Bible is to use the Greek words for love. Greek has four words for love. There is erõs, which describes erotic love, phileõ describes brotherly love, storgõ describes married love, and agapê describes self-sacrificing love. That is a useful set of distinctions for the meaning of love. Hebrew also uses different words, which we translate by this single word ‘love’. The Hebrew word in the commandment to love our neighbour and the alien as ourselves in Leviticus 19:18 and 34 really means compassionate care. It’s not about liking or affection, but about caring and inclusive justice. Agapê is the more distinct Christian term for love. Love is that act of the will to care selflessly for others and to want the best for them as we do for ourselves.
All this may help us understand that when we sing, “Love came down at Christmas”, we are singing about God’s self-giving love. God’s love is not so much about liking and affection, but all about caring and doing things that will make us better people.
The Christmas story is a love story. A love story that begins in the beginning of time: in the Creation and the calling of Abraham and Sarah and kept alive through the prophets and the faithful. It is a love story about the persevering, persistent and faithful love of God towards humankind.
The Christmas story is a story of wholesome love. Sometimes we humans love badly and selfishly. We love badly by smothering our loved ones which leaves them dependent on us, or we take love, leaving our loved ones disillusioned. God respectfully loves us treating us with dignity and building us up.
The Christmas story is a story of restorative love. God wants to free us so as to be the people we are meant to be.
The Christmas story is a story of rescuing love. God wants us to be saved from our destructive foolishness.
The story of the nativity is found only in Matthew’s and Luke’s account of the Gospel. Matthew tells the story of the birth of Jesus from a male point of view. Luke focuses on the key women. Matthew has the men seemingly making the decisions, whereas Luke shows the women taking a leading role. I believe that Luke, in compiling this account of the births of Jesus and John, wanted to show what the Gospel of Christ is about. An essential message of the Gospel is that all are welcomed and treated as equal before God. Gospel living reverses the hierarchical and male dominated structures of society; or at the very least, Gospel living reforms the structures of humanity. An example of this is the household code found in Ephesians where the men are required to selflessly love their wives, children and slaves. [5: 21- 6:9]
Let us see how Luke shows how God, through Mary and Elizabeth, demonstrates the reversal of society’s traditional male orientated structures. We will take a step-by-step account of this.
a) Firstly, the Angel approaches Mary. The angel enters Mary’s space. This is neither an uncommon experience in the Bible nor in our current human experience. I testify to a similar experience. God intruded on my prayers. A vision confronted me. It disturbed me. I thought I was suffering a bit of religious madness. It took time to resolve my call to ministry.
b) Mary is perplexed and receives a disturbing message. To fall pregnant without the help of your husband-to-be is alarming. Mary asks for clarification how this birth was to be and the angel dignified her with a response. She receives assurances that all is well. She has found favour with God. She is to bear a son and she is given his name, Jesus. The assurance is based on this being God’s work. Gabriel tells Mary that her cousin, who was supposedly barren, is six months pregnant. This is not altogether surprising. These things have happened before. Hannah who was also seen to be barren gave birth to Samuel, the great prophet-priest.
c) Mary is given the honour of naming the child and so was Elizabeth [1:60]. Only after Elizabeth has named John does Zechariah get his voice back and he confirms the name, which is not a family name. Normally the first son would carry a family name and the father would name the child.
d) Mary gives a form of consent. She says to the angel Gabriel; “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” [Lk 1:38] This is a significant statement. The notion of a servant woman giving assent to a superior being is unique. It would be acceptable for her to be told and for her to merely accept. But her statement is a form of consent. And here we see that the marginalised woman is treated by God as worthy of direct engagement and given the opportunity to accept this gracious responsibility God has put on her. We live in such a different time where women and men are equals – at least in law – and even children have rights. None of that applied then. Mary’s consent is a sign of God’s reversal of our unhelpful customs. In holding to some customs we conveniently avoid updating outdated customs.
e) Mary goes to see Elizabeth. It appears she went on her own and independent of a man. This is another sign of the reversal of society’s norms.
f) Mary’s song of praise, which the Church has named ‘The Magnificat’, places her in the tradition of Moses’ sister, Miriam, who led the Exodus people in praise of God for his saving activity.
g) The Magnificat also celebrates the reversal of social norms to take place in the Kingdom of this Son, Jesus.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. [Lk 1: 52-53]
That is love, the powerful brought low and the lowly uplifted – the hungry filled and the rich emptied.
h) This reversal seen in the birth narratives in Luke follows through to the 12 year-old Jesus in the Temple. A boy entering manhood sits within the Temple not listening to the teachers, but engaging with the teachers and amazing them with his wisdom. So the boy becomes a teacher.
Luke has left us with a fresh insight into the nature and intent of the Almighty Creator God. God will reveal himself by walking in our midst. God will come and love us by being vulnerable to our rejection. God will love us by building a bridge between earth and heaven in this person Christ Jesus. This is how love looks. It is not an emotion of affection; it is a demonstration of care for the well-being of humankind. It is a declaration that humanity has dignity before God and enjoys a partnership with God.
William Blake penned these lines.
“Love seeketh not itself to please,
nor for itself have any care,
but for another gives its ease,
and builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 23/12/2018