Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Luke, chapter 1.
We’re in a season of the church calendar right now called advent, which is a time where we remember the waiting of the people of God for the incarnation of God with us, Immanuel, the birth of Jesus Christ. We remember, and we spend time intentionally waiting for his coming again to bring hope, peace, joy, and love in full. The kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. We wait and we watch for heaven breaking through.
I’ve talked about hope in Christianity, not as some vague idea that next year may be better than this year—even this year, if you find yourself longing for a world in which there is no sickness, no more loss, and you’re reunited with everyone you’ve missed—you’re not longing for a new year; you’re longing for a new world, the renewed heaven and earth Christ will bring with his return. And with that new world comes peace—a peace of everything as it should be: the peace of Christ, which is completely different from the peace of this world. The peace of Christ is able to restore you, put you back to rights, and overflow in you to restore our families and communities, to make them whole. This peace is already here, and we are able now, in this life, to participate in the work and nature of God; but that work will not be finished until the end. We wait, and we long, like watchmen for the morning, for peace on earth.
Then last week, we took time to remember the joy of the advent of Christ on earth being closer to mourning than it is to pleasure, because it’s a remembrance, a foretaste of something that we have yet to experience face to face. Like streams of water in the desert, the provision of God to get us through.
And this week we look, as Sally Lloyd-Jones writes, to the never-stopping, never-giving-up, unbreaking, always and forever love of God our father.
Read with me, in Luke, chapter 1, starting in v.26. [Luke 1:26-38]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly: Father God whose love for us endures the ages and never fades; Christ, who gave his life for his friends; Holy Spirit, who knows us entirely and yet still loves us; please show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
My grandfather on my dad’s side grew up in the and 30s and 40s in port sulphur, Louisiana, which is a little bitty town in Plaquemine’s parish, close to the mouth of the Mississippi, where you have to build your house about 30 feet high if you want it to survive hurricane season.
It was a mining town. The Freeport-McNamara Sulfur company was crucial to the war efforts, because sulphur is a necessary ingredient in gun powder. My grandmother moved there from Texas when she was young, and she and my grandfather were in grade school together. He one time dipped her braid in an ink well, not expecting, I suppose, to hear about it for the next fifty years. He died shortly after their 50th wedding anniversary in 2001 in New Orleans.
He grew up nominally Catholic, and those were the days of the Latin mass. My grandmother’s father was a carpenter and workman. He was one of the founding members of Port Sulphur Baptist Church, a little church down there. He carved the pulpit which they and a church they planted used until Katrina took it in 2005. When he asked my grandmother on a date, she agreed on one condition, which was, and I quote: “If he wants to be anywhere near me on Saturday night, he better plan to be sitting next to me Sunday morning.” So he wound up in a little Baptist church one Sunday morning trying to convince a girl he liked to go out with him. That morning, he heard the gospel for the first time in a language he understood: that Jesus died for his sin, in his place, because God loves him. That’s how he was saved by God, how he came to know the love of God.
The love of God is perplexing. You always find it in places no one would expect. A mining town at the mouth of the Mississippi. No one outside of this area knows the name of it. No one of any real power or wealth has been there, I’m sure, since the war. And yet, the creator and sustainer of the universe is willing to dwell and work there.
This passage begins with the archangel of heaven being sent from the throne of God to a city. And which city is expected to greet en envoy from the almighty? Rome in its splendor? No. Jerusalem? It’s what the wise men assumed—that a king, God himself, would come to the seat of power, so they go looking for him first in the palace. But no. Nazareth: a fishing village in Galilee, a lot like Port Sulphur. And which ruler of men will receive this ambassador of the King of Kings? A young girl, not yet married, whose name simply means “beloved.”
So you see why, in v.29, Mary is “greatly troubled” when the angel greets her as though she’s royalty. The word here for greatly troubled literally bears a picture of distress and confusion moving through her beyond what she was really able to bear. Notice, she’s so perplexed she doesn’t even respond to the angel at first. I wonder what she was doing at the time. The text doesn’t tell us, and I’ve really enjoyed looking through the art as we’ve added more and more paintings to our walls through advent, of all the imaginings of Mary receiving this ambassador who stands in the presence of God, this archangel.
My favorite is this one, which Jack, one of our Jackson Square artists explained to me: it’s by Nigerian artist Limidi Fakeye, where he imagines her mashing cassava to make fufu when Gabriel comes to her—a daily task in Nigeria. I also like Rossetti imagining her in bed. Imagine just going about a normal day in your fishing village, or just waking up, and there is a warrior shining like the sun greeting you as one whom God favors. She’s confused, and scared, and embarassed, because she thinks there must be some mistake. She’s no one; she doesn’t deserve the greeting, or the envoy, or the favor. El Greco’s depiction is beautiful, but having her reading the Bible and praying in church just seems a little pietistic in my mind. The language here, translated “favored one” is based on the word grace, meaning unearned, unmerited favor. The only thing the text says Mary has done is in v.30 where it says she found the grace and favor of God, meaning, she looked for it. Between Mary’s name, her reaction, and Gabriel’s greeting, we see the unmerited love and grace of God showing up in the last place anyone would have thought, which is comforting for me.
New Orleans is not typically a place important things happen, and it’s not typically a place powerful people live. But I wonder, if we looked for it, if we might find the unmerited grace and favor of the God of heaven in this place as well.
The word used to call Mary blessed and favored here is used one other place, in Ephesians 1:6, in a passage talking about our adoption as Christians into the family of God. A great honor given without any hesitation, without any requirement to those who look for it: God with us.
One of my favorite books around this time of year is a devotional called “Waiting on the Word” by British poet Malcolm Guite. He writes beautifully of the first advent of Christ through Mary, god-bearer, when he came to live among us, and the second advent of Christ upon his return to bring the kingdom of God on earth in full and in peace; but he also writes of a third advent, which is the real presence of Christ among his church today. In every place where people gather in worship, even in the places you would never expect. Even here, in this little church in the French Quarter. God is with us here, too.
And since you are here, I have to believe you’re looking for something, even if you don’t know what, and I know God’s love has found you. Even if you came here this morning from the last place you would expect to find the love of God. God’s love is perplexing, and his grace, his favor, is given without any kind of merit or requirement to those who look for it.
The love of God is perplexing. It’s also steadfast. The love of God is steadfast. It never stops, never gives up. It’s unbreaking, always and forever.
If you look in v.32, you’ll see Jesus called the son of David, which is a dangerous statement. When that phrase was spoken to Herod after Jesus’ birth, he killed thousands of children hoping to kill the son of David. When that phrase was shouted in the streets of Jerusalem, it was dangerous enough for all of Jerusalem to crucify the incarnate messiah, God with us.
Because contained in that phrase, son of David, is a promise—the promise of a God who loved his children and promised to rescue them, a God who wanted more than anything to be able to live together with his children again. He promised that the son of David would come to rescue them. And here he is, however many hundreds of years later, come to fulfill his promise, because he never stopped loving his children. Through all of the sin, through exile and wandering, with every mistake they made, he never stopped loving them. He never stopped; never gave up.
After my grandfather was saved, he served in the JAG core through the war and he and my grandmother lost touch. She moved back to Texas and met a man there. They started dating and got engaged. When word made it back to Port Sulphur that she was going to be married, the town celebrated with her parents, but my grandfather decided he would go to Texas to see for himself about this engagement. The story goes dark at this point, so it’s left to the imagination. He came back from Texas with her in the car and they were married shortly afterwards. Because love, when it looks anything at all like the love of God, doesn’t stop, and it doesn’t give up. It’s always and forever. The love of God is steadfast, which is a comfort to me.
There have been many times in my spiritual life where I’ve tried to move on from God, deny him, do something else with my life besides what he’s called me to do, and every time, he comes after me and pleads, fights, does whatever he needs to do to bring me home—but that’s me.
Sometimes the steadfast love of God looks like patience, a waiting and a watching by the road for a prodigal child to come home. And sometimes it looks like going out as the psalmist writes, to the person who’s made his bed in hell—God is there. But no matter where you go, and no matter what you do, God loves you. He brought you here today because he hasn’t given up on you, and he never will.
The love of God is perplexing, it’s steadfast, and it makes all things new. The love of God makes all things new.
In our passage, when the angel tells Mary she’s going to give birth to a child who will sit on David’s throne and be called the son of the almighty, she responds, still in a place of disturbed confusion, still thinking there must be some kind of mistake, and she responds, “How will this be?” She’s correcting the angel, basically, she’s saying, “there’s been an unfortunate miscommunication. This is kind of embarrassing for you, but you’ve come to the wrong house.” They translate it “since I’m a virgin,” but kind of hilariously, a more direct translation would be “because I don’t know a man.”
Then the angel explains, beautifully, that the Holy Spirit will “overshadow you,” which is the same word used in the Septuagint, the Old Testament, all throughout the creation story when God is making the world. The spirit hovers over or overshadows the water. And then, again, at the passover, where the Spirit hovers over the houses of the people of Israel. And then again, when the glory of God rests on the tabernacle and the temple. Just like in creation, Jesus is made flesh by the power of God—the firstborn of a new creation, the first step in the love of God for his children making all things new.
My dad was my grandparents’ firstborn, and when he was due to be born, there was an outbreak of measles on the military base where they were living, and they locked it down to contain the spread to the base. So when my grandmother had the baby, they couldn’t get back onto the base. She had to stay with her aunt here in the French quarter. Her aunt had no place to let a child sleep, so my dad spent his first two weeks in a dresser drawer laid with blankets in the French Quarter. New life is messy, often sleepless, but always blessed. Sometimes you have to lay your baby in a drawer if you have no other place; or a manger. But the birth of children through labor reminds us that pain and hardship are just for a little while in this life, and then we enter new life, in a new heaven and earth.
From our perspective 2000 years after the birth of Jesus, we may say God has tarried too long. We’ve waited and watched at advent every year for the Lord to return, and where is he? Where is the peace on earth, the joy hope and love he’s promised? But the answer is always the same, and it’s always true—he’s near, even among us, and wherever he is there is love, love able to make all things new, even me; even you.
So as we wait and watch for his return, search for him here, yes, even in New Orleans, even in the French Quarter, because God is at work here making all things new. If you look for him, you’ll find him, and he’ll begin remaking you. So my invitation to you this morning is to look for Christ, to pray and ask him for his favor, to adopt you, to make you a son or daughter, whether he’s been chasing after you or whether he’s waiting and watching for you to come home, come today and be made new.
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Amen. Pray with me.