“Good News Comes in Strange Packages” (Luke 1:26-38)

Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 18, 2011

“Good News Comes in Strange Packages” (Luke 1:26-38)

How’d you like to have a really scary guy come up to you unexpectedly and tell you: “Hey, I’ve got good news for you! You’re about to have a life-changing experience that will cause the person closest to you to think you have betrayed him, an experience that will make you into something of a social outcast and that will rearrange your whole life and plans from anything you expected. Yeah, this is some really good news I have for you!”

How would you feel, and what would you say to such a person? Maybe you’d feel scared, threatened, and you’d tell the person, “You’re nuts! Now get out of here!” Although maybe you wouldn’t say that, because the person who told you this supposedly good news is really scary and powerful, remember, and you’re scared out of your socks!

Well, the scenario I’ve just described is basically what happened to a young woman named Mary. A really scary, powerful person came up to her out of the blue–literally, out of the blue–and told her that her whole life was about to be turned upside-down, her fiancé would think she’s been cheating on him, people would look on her as though she’s done something shameful, and her life would be taken over, really, by circumstances beyond her control. Some good news, huh? But what we learn today in the account of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, what we learn about God’s ways of dealing with his people, is that “Good News Comes in Strange Packages.”

Good news comes in strange packages. Strange and scary packages. The angel Gabriel is the one who delivers the news to Mary. And angels are scary creatures. Everywhere in the Bible that we find angel messengers encountering human beings, the reaction is always the same: The people are scared out of their minds. They’re terrified. And understandably so. This is a direct, shocking, completely unexpected, completely out of the normal, experience, to come face to face with an angel. It almost never happens. Only on a few select and highly significant occasions in salvation history have the mighty heavenly beings called angels made themselves known to human beings. Usually angels are invisible, unseen by human eyes. But when they do make themselves known to humans, it is always a scary thing.

Contrary to their image in our pop culture, angels are not cute, cuddly little cherubs or soft, effeminate-looking men. No, angels as they are described in the Bible are warriors, bright, fiery, mighty beings who do battle for the Lord against the demonic realm and who occasionally, very occasionally, deliver major announcements to select individuals about some big event in God’s dealings with humanity. Don’t let pop culture distort your image of angels. The TV show may have been called “Touched by an Angel,” but more accurate to the biblical account would be “Torched by an Angel.”

The angel we meet in our text is one of the few we know by name. His name is Gabriel, which means, “Mighty Man of God” or “Warrior of God.” Gabriel had earlier received the assignment of announcing John the Baptist’s upcoming birth to his father Zechariah, and now here Gabriel gets a similar assignment in announcing Jesus’ birth to his mother Mary.

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” So this is the scene. It’s been six months since the announcement to Zechariah in Jerusalem, and now Gabriel comes to Mary in Nazareth. Mary is a young woman, unmarried–she is engaged, though.

“And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” Well, this is a bit strange, isn’t it? To have an angel come to you and speak to you? Sure, he greets Mary and says she’s favored, and that the Lord is with her. But still–an angel? No wonder it says that she was “greatly troubled.” Who wouldn’t be? Did she think she was losing her mind? Did she wonder if this mighty angel might strike her down at any moment?

“And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.’” The first words to Mary after the initial greeting are words you see just about every time in the Bible that an angel appears to a human being: “Do not be afraid.” “Fear not.” Angels are always having to reassure people that they’re not about to zap them.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Oh, good. Now here comes the good news. Tell us, Gabriel, what is this great favor that God is going to do for Mary? So Gabriel tells her: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.”

That’s it? That’s the great favor? That’s the good news? Mary is going to become pregnant and have a baby? And it sounds, Gabriel, like you’re saying, “not by Joseph.” So how is that going to work? This unmarried girl, suddenly showing up pregnant? How? By whom? What will Joseph think? What will people think?

Well, we know what Joseph did think, when he found out. It says in Matthew that Joseph was fixing to break the whole thing off. In his mind, if his fiancée suddenly gets pregnant, and he knows he didn’t do it, what is he is going to think? He will naturally think that she’s been fooling around on him behind his back.

And what would people think? In that society, where people rightly thought that getting pregnant outside of marriage was a shameful thing–in other words, in a culture unlike our current one, which has lost its mind and its moral compass–people would think that Mary was an immoral woman who has done something shameful. Mary would thus become a social outcast, looked down upon. She would lose her reputation.

And what would all this do to young Mary’s life, her plans, her dreams and her hopes? Everything would be turned upside-down. And you’re telling me this is the good news, Gabriel? This is the great favor from God? You’ve got to be kidding. Tell you what: Don’t do me any “favors.” You’ve got a strange way of looking at things.

But it’s true. It is good news. Mary is a highly favored lady. Good news comes in strange packages, at least when God is doing his work. What makes it good is who this child she will bear will be: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

A son with a name picked out in advance by God: Jesus. That would be “Joshua” in the Hebrew, the same name as the great hero from Israel’s past who led the people into the Promised Land. Only this Joshua, this Jesus, would be even greater. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” What are you saying, Gabriel? This will be God’s Son? You’re blowing my mind! “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David.” This Jesus, coming from the royal line of the great King David–this Jesus is going to be the Messiah, the be-all and end-all king of all time! The Lord had promised David that one of his descendants would be that fulfiller of prophecy, and now, finally, after all these years, this is it! It’s Mary’s son! “And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Pretty amazing stuff for this young lady to take in!

Good news comes in strange packages. And stranger still will be how this son Jesus will exercise his reign, once he is grown. To be the Messiah, the King of the Jews, and yet to be rejected by your own religious authorities, to be handed over to a Gentile ruler, and to be flogged and mocked and killed, dying a criminal’s death on a cross? Very strange indeed! How can any good come out of that? But again, this is how God operates, bringing good news out of strange and even bad circumstances. For in that shame and rejection, in that suffering and dying, Christ Jesus would be accomplishing the greatest good news of all: the salvation of the world.

The holy Son of God, born of Mary precisely so that in the flesh he could suffer and die–God’s own Son spilling his blood for the forgiveness of our sins–this is the good news you’ve been waiting for! This is just what you need. For apart from this forgiveness, purchased by the blood of Christ, you would be damned, and justly so. Your many sins would condemn you. But with Christ, there is forgiveness. And with that forgiveness, new life and eternal salvation. This is what you get with Jesus, and nowhere else. Good news, in strange packages.

Yes, strange packages. Some guy preaching in a dinky little church, where hardly anybody cares to show up–and yet, this is where God is handing out treasure greater than all the gold in the world: victory over death and the grave, and life everlasting. Or take another strange package–yes, take it! Bread and wine, simple means, not much, even at that–and yet here is a feast grander than any five-star restaurant could serve: the bread of life and the cup of salvation, Christ’s own body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.

Good news comes in strange packages. Sometimes it’s a little scary. Sometimes it may even seem like bad news. But God is doing his thing in the midst of it, and it is for our good. Good news, strange packages. It was true for Mary, and it is true also for you and me. God has this strange way of operating, and it is beautiful to behold.

Published in: on December 18, 2011 at 12:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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