I’ve noticed recently that all the cable news channels have taken to announcing that every new piece of information they get is “breaking news.” It used to be that all this was just “news”, but now it’s “breaking news”, which implies it’s something you urgently need to know. It’s breaking news that a politician is leading in the polls. It’s breaking news that the unemployment rate is down, or up. It’s breaking news that important people have gathered for a meeting. It’s breaking news that it might snow overnight. It’s breaking news that Christmas is almost here.
You get the feeling with all of this that news is now a product that’s being sold rather than information that’s being reported. And it’s also creating the impression that all news is of equal value – because it’s “breaking” after all, and that means you just need to have it.
But whether the news is breaking or not, clearly some of it is more important than the rest. There is some news that you just can’t do without. There’s some news that really makes a difference. That’s the kind of news we really need to pay attention to. That’s the kind of news that we really need to know.
In you were going to rank news in order of importance, you really would have to say the most important piece of news that was ever reported was given to a young woman in the small town of Nazareth. That young woman was Mary. Mary was quite an unexpected recipient of this news. She wasn’t someone famous. She wasn’t someone who was wealthy. She wasn’t someone who was powerful. She was just a simple peasant in an out of the way town, living a quiet, ordinary life. But she was the one who was chosen to receive the breaking news. And she wasn’t just given this news so that she could be informed or entertained by it. She was given this news because it involved her. It was going to have a direct impact on her life. The news that came to her was about something world-changing that was going to happen through her.
The delivery of this news is what the church has traditionally called the Annunciation. “Annunciation” is a fancy way of saying “announcement.” Someone has observed that “Annunciation means that God is saying, ‘Stand back and see what I am about to do.’”
The person who made this observation is Fleming Rutledge. Fleming Rutledge is an Anglican minister who lives in New York, and she was a keynote speaker at the preaching conference I attended last month at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. One of the things she said during that conference is that we preachers are often guilty of missing the real point of what’s going on in the biblical passage we’re preaching on. She’s taught preaching for many years, and she says she’s heard a lot of bad sermons. These sermons weren’t bad because the preacher was a bad speaker, or used poor technique. They were bad because they didn’t make God the subject of the sentences – in other words, they didn’t emphasize what God was doing in the text, and instead focussed on the human actors.
According to Fleming Rutledge, there are two passages in particular that seem to attract this basic preaching mistake. One is the story of the Transfiguration. The other is the story of the Annunciation.
The Transfiguration is the story of Jesus going up a mountain and being transfigured. I’m sure you know it. While he’s praying, the appearance of Jesus’ face changes, and his clothes become as bright as lightning. Moses and Elijah then appear in glorious splendour, and they talk with Jesus. Then a cloud descends, and a voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen. Listen to him.”
In Fleming Rutledge’s view, the big mistake preachers make with this text is that they immediately rush over to Peter and talk about how Peter reacts to this extraordinary event. Perhaps that’s because we can relate to Peter. He’s the human actor in the story. It’s tempting to think the story is really about him. But it’s not. The story of the Transfiguration is not primarily about some amazing experience that happened to Peter, and how he reacted to it. The story of the Transfiguration is about the revealing of the Eternal Son of God. It’s about what God is doing, not what Peter is doing.
Fleming Rutledge thinks we preachers often make the same mistake with the story of the Annunciation. Instead of focussing on what God is doing, we tend to put all our emphasis on Mary. Now, Mary has a key part in the story – no question about it. But ultimately the story is not about her. It’s about God. It’s about God’s decisive action – an action in which Mary herself will be swept up.
There are a lot of interesting things this passage can lead us to say about Mary. We can speculate to no end about what it must have felt like for her to see an angel, or what it must have felt like to know she was going to be with child even though she was not yet married. These are the human dimensions of the story, and we can’t help being drawn to them. It’s the part of the story we find easiest to relate to. But if we focus only on these parts of the story, we’re going to miss the most important part – which is what God is doing. We’re going to miss the breaking news that’s being announced.
Fleming Rutledge says with regret that the theme of almost all the Christmas sermons she has ever heard is that Mary’s readiness to say “Yes” is the most important factor in the annunciation story. Sometimes this is coupled with the idea that there was something about Mary that made her especially open or prepared for what God was asking of her. In other words, Mary’s willingness to respond is what the story is all about.
Fleming Rutledge says that way of looking at the story reflects our own assumptions more that the text. In the text, Mary is never asked to say “Yes”. She’s just told what God is going to do: “You will conceive and give birth to a son.” It doesn’t say, “If you are willing.” It just says, this is what’s going to happen. It’s an announcement, not a request.
Mary’s response is important – but it’s just that, a response, not a precondition. It’s a response to what God has already decided he is going to do. Mary just happens to be the one through whom God is going to do it. What God has decided to do is act in a world-changing way.
The sudden presence of the angel Gabriel is evidence of this. Mary has not sought an audience with an angel. She has not given her permission for an angel to show up. The angel simply appears – to bring an announcement directly from God.
This is what angels do in the Bible. They are messengers – messengers from God. As Fleming Rutledge says, “Angels are not household pets; angels are not decorations; angels are not magical talismans to help us get parking spaces and protect us from getting stuck in the snow.” An angel is “a being who arrives in our midst directly from the presence of undiluted power. Angels descend from the seat of cosmic majesty into the dust and ashes of our dying world. They bring their news from another place, another sphere altogether. They come into the kingdoms of this world from the Kingdom of our Lord.”
The news the angel Gabriel brings from God is quite stunning. There’s more to it than just the announcement that Mary will give birth to a son. There’s the further declaration that this son will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.
Mary’s son will be the Son of the Most High God. He will bring God’s kingdom into this world – a kingdom that will never end. This may sound completely far-fetched. It may sound absolutely impossible. But it’s not. For with God nothing is impossible.
According to Fleming Rutledge, the message of the Annunciation is this: God has moved. God has decided to move towards us, because we have shown ourselves incapable of moving towards him. Until the announcement to Mary, there was no obvious answer to the terrible state the human race had got itself into. Every human effort to fix things had proved to be a failure, and far from getting better, things seemed to be getting worse and worse. The only solution to all this was something coming from beyond this world. The only solution to all this was an act of God to step in and make things right. God needed to move. He needed to reach down from the seat of cosmic majesty into the dust and ashes of our dying world. He needed to come here, to be with us. This would be something absolutely new. It would be something completely without precedent. But God in his mercy decided to do it. God in his mercy decided to bring his never-ending kingdom to earth. There is no news more important than this.
The news comes with a surprising twist. The way God will move towards us will be through the birth of a baby. That’s unexpected, although there were hints God would act this way back in the Old Testament. There were signs God would do this even back then, for those who were able to read them. Isaiah was one of those people. Isaiah said, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” In other words, a child would be born who would be a descendent of Jesse, the father of King David. This child would become a king even greater than David. He would bring the reign of God to earth. According to Isaiah, “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.”
In this never-ending kingdom, the whole world will be transformed. The wolf will live side by side with the lamb. There will be nothing that will harm or destroy. And every corner of the world will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord.
The announcement to Mary did not imply that all these things would happen at once. There would be waiting involved. Mary would have to wait nine months for the child to be delivered. And world would have to wait longer than that for God’s purpose to be completed. The child to be born would have to grow up into adulthood. He would have to spend three years travelling around the land, preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God. And he would have to be arrested and crucified, after which God would raise him to new life. And even then the kingdom would not come in the fullest sense. That would have to wait until his return in power and glory.
The announcement to Mary indicated that God had moved – and the news for us is that he is still moving. He is still moving to bring his kingdom to completion. He is still moving to make his promise reality.
Mary is the very first person to receive this news. That in itself makes her unique. But what is more noteworthy is the way she responds to this news. She simply says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” This is the response of faith. This is the response of one who trusts that God will do what he says, and that nothing is impossible with him.
The Annunciation is not about Mary. It’s about God’s announcement of what he is going to do. Like Mary, our role is to respond to this announcement with faith, saying with Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word be fulfilled.”