Luke 1:26-38 | Matthew 1:18-21
Last week, the first week of advent, we remembered the prophets – the ones who pointed the way, who started us on our journey towards Bethlehem.
This week, the second week, we remember the family – Mary, and Joseph, and their journey to Bethlehem, and to the birth of their child.
For Mary and Joseph, the journey begins with the appearance of an angel. Or in fact, two appearances, if you take both gospel readings and combine them.
Which, incidentally, is something that we do with the Christmas story, and perhaps don’t realise we are doing it. The story as we tell it each year, in carols and readings and nativity scenes, isn’t found in any of the gospels; it only emerges from a combination of Matthew and Luke.
And on one level there’s nothing wrong with that; we read the stories together to get a more complete view of the gospel narrative than any one viewpoint would give us. That’s why there are four gospels, not just one!
But its always worth noticing who is telling us what – for the parts of the story that they choose to include are actually part of the broader themes that the different gospel writers are emphasising.
So Luke has the angel appearing to Mary – the young, unmarried, girl – the nobody, according to the customs of the day. Someone whose word was not valid in court, who had no financial independence or rights – someone essentially only one step above property; currently belonging to her father, soon to belong to her husband.
And it is Luke who gives us the Magnificat, the throwing down of the powerful and the raising up of the oppressed, the prophecy of the overturning of the social order.
And Luke gives us the shepherds; the distrusted outsiders, as the first to hear the news.
For Matthew, on the other hand, whether or not an angel appeared to Mary is entirely irrelevant. What matters to him is Joseph, the man. For in Matthew’s telling at the core of the revelation of the Kingdom of God is the validation of the people of Israel, and the ways of true Judaism, fulfilled in the Jewish Messiah. So Matthew tells us of the Magi, the foreigners who come to worship the Messiah; the story of Jesus is about a restored Israel finally achieving its destiny as a light to the nations.
But in these differences, something they have in common is the story of the virgin birth.
Now the biology of the matter isn’t something I’d particularly want to get into fights over – not because I don’t believe it, in fact I do, but because I don’t think it’s all that important; and it is, as Fat and Frantic classically put it, ‘virgin on the ridiculous’; and the subject of futile debate.
But what it important, and striking, is that this aspect of the story is told by both Matthew and Luke, even though they tell everything else quite differently.
Now just to give you a quick crash course in New Testament source criticism – it’s almost universally held amongst scholars of the New Testament that Mark’s gospel was written first, and that both Matthew and Luke had Mark’s gospel literally in front of them as they wrote.
And it’s widely, but not universally, held that there was another document, known as “Q”, or the “sayings of Jesus”, that they both had, but is lost to us.
And then they also each had their own unique sources, eye witness accounts, the traditions remembered by their own faith communities.
But what we have in the story of the virgin birth is a story not in Mark, and not the sort of this that was in Q (which was a collection of sayings of Jesus), and recorded by both Matthew and Luke, but very differently by the two.
Meaning that in each of their two faith communities, so very different (Matthew’s Jews in Jerusalem, Luke’s Gentiles scattered in the Roman world) this story existed, and was considered important, from the very start of the Christian Church.
Why does that matter? Because it tells us that from the very earliest days of the Christian faith, the followers of Jesus believed that there was something about his birth; that God was involved in a unique way; that, in Luke’s words “the power of the most high will overshadow you”, or in Matthew’s “the child is from the Holy Spirit”
That at Christmas, God entered into the world of humanity as a baby. A baby… the image of God entering into humanity is that of a baby.
And often when we focus on that truth (and I’ve definitely preached this sermon) we focus on the humility of God; God, the almighty, taking such a powerless state. Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.
And quite right. It is an astonishing statement about the nature of God, that God was prepared to do this.
But there is something else about a baby: that perhaps the most unambiguous expression of human love is that of a mother for her new born child.
God enters the world through a relationship that is characterised by the fierce, protective, hopeful, nurturing, self sacrificial love of mother for child.
And in that relationship, God does not take the role of mother, of lover. God enters into humanity in a relationship of love in which God is the beloved.
God enters humanity not, first, by loving us, but by allowing us – allowing Mary – to love God.
God was prepared to be loved
And when you stop and think about it, that is perhaps an even greater act of humility than the whole giving up power thing.
For we surely know, it is often so much easier to love than it is to receive love.
It’s often easier to offer forgiveness than it is to accept it.
It’s often easier to be a good host than to be a good guest.
It’s often easier to give from our wealth than to receive in our time of need.
It’s often easier to give help than it is to ask for it.
It may be more blessed to give than to receive; but it is more courageous to be willing to receive than to give.
Perhaps at Christmas it might mean something that God – who is the very definition of love – in this story was not the lover, but was the beloved.
Not to say that a baby doesn’t love the mother – but it learns to do so; as it learns that it is somehow separate from her, a baby, a child, learns how to make “love” make sense.
I wonder what it might mean to say that in Jesus, God was learning how to love; learning from his mother, from his father, from those who were around him.
I wonder if it might not be the greatest act of self emptying of all in this amazing miracle of the incarnation that God, who is love, who created love, who defines love, chooses instead to be loved, and to learn how, in human terms, to give love.
I genuinely don’t know where we go with this, what it means. We call it the Mystery of Christmas for a reason. But if nothing more, it surely speaks to our willingness – or unwillingness – to be the ones who need help, the ones who don’t have it together, the ones who struggle to love, the ones who need to receive, not just to give.
That there is nothing wrong with needing to learn those things. For Jesus went there first.