The Face of Christ
11 An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right of the altar where the incense was burnt. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was alarmed and felt afraid. 13But the angel said to him, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son. You are to name him John. 14How glad and happy you will be, and how happy many others will be when he is born! He will be a great man in the Lord’s sight. He must not drink any wine or strong drink. From his very birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, 16and he will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go ahead of the Lord, strong and mighty like the prophet Elijah. He will bring fathers and children together again; he will turn disobedient people back to the way of thinking of the righteous; he will get the Lord’s people ready for him.”
18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know if this is so? I am an old man, and my wife is old also.”
19 “I am Gabriel,” the angel answered. “I stand in the presence of God, who sent me to speak to you and tell you this good news. 20But you have not believed my message, which will come true at the right time. Because you have not believed, you will be unable to speak; you will remain silent until the day my promise to you comes true.”
21 In the meantime the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he was spending such a long time in the Temple. 22When he came out, he could not speak to them, and so they knew that he had seen a vision in the Temple. Unable to say a word, he made signs to them with his hands.
23 When his period of service in the Temple was over, Zechariah went back home. 24Some time later his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and did not leave the house for five months. 25“Now at last the Lord has helped me,” she said. “He has taken away my public disgrace!”
The Birth of Jesus Is Announced
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy God sent the angel Gabriel to a town in Galilee named Nazareth. He had a message for a young woman promised in marriage to a man named Joseph, who was a descendant of King David. Her name was Mary. 28The angel came to her and said, “Peace be with you! The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you!”
29 Mary was deeply troubled by the angel’s message, and she wondered what his words meant. 30The angel said to her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary; God has been gracious to you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God. The Lord God will make him a king, as his ancestor David was, and he will be the king of the descendants of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end!”
34 Mary said to the angel, “I am a virgin. How, then, can this be?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and God’s power will rest upon you. For this reason the holy child will be called the Son of God. 36Remember your relative Elizabeth. It is said that she cannot have children, but she herself is now six months pregnant, even though she is very old. For there is nothing that God cannot do.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary; “may it happen to me as you have said.” And the angel left her.
Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the time when Herod was king. Soon afterwards, some men who studied the stars came from the east to Jerusalem 2and asked, “Where is the baby born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star when it came up in the east, and we have come to worship him.”
9-10 And so they left, and on their way they saw the same star they had seen in the east. When they saw it, how happy they were, what joy was theirs! It went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 11They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshipped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him.
“Come my heart” says “seek his face”
Your face Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.
Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian Minister in his book of sermons called The Hungering Dark starts the book with a sermon about Christmas called The Face in the Sky.
This is how that sermon starts. I am not quoting exactly.
As the Italian film La Dolce Vita opens, a helicopter is flying slowly through the sky not very high above the ground. Hanging down from the helicopter is the life-size statue of a man dressed in robes with his arms outstretched so that he almost looks as if he is flying by himself,
Especially when every once in a while the camera cuts out the helicopter and all you can see it the statue itself.
It flies over a field where some men are working and it causes a great deal of excitement. They wave their hats and hop around and yell, until one of them recognizes who the statue is and shouts in Italian:
“Hey, it’s Jesus!”
whereupon one of the workers runs along under the copter waving and calling to it, but the helicopter and Jesus keep on going. It arrives in Rome where it passes over a building, which has a swimming pool on top of the roof. Around the pool suntanning are a bevy of bathing beauties in bikinis. The helicopter hovers while the men operating the helicopter try to arrange dates.
And of course, one is moved to laugh at the absurdity of it all. The sacred statue made in stone, lifeless and cold, hovering over the gorgeous girls who are full of life.
And if it came down to a choice, it was obvious whom the audience would choose.
But then the helicopter is on its way to the Vatican and as the dome of St. Peter’s looms up from below, the camera starts to zoom in on the face of Christ until for a moment the whole screen is just the face of Christ. And for a moment, just for a moment, you are moved to silence as you contemplate Christ up close.
All you can see. All that is before you is Christ.
And Buechner concludes his opening to this sermon by saying that in some ways, much of Christian faith is this; It is for a moment, just for a little while, seeing the face of Christ and being still.
You ever had a moment like that in your life, when everything else fades away, where nothing else is in the picture but Christ?
A time when he stood before you, he presented himself in such a way that his reality was beyond doubt, his presence was so real?
The bible is full of those experiences.
Abraham heard the call of God to go out to a promised land.
And in the story when he is about to sacrifice his own son, an angel appears to him, telling him to stop and use the ram caught in the thicket.
Sometimes when we see the face of God, we are moved to absolute faith and trust.
Jacob, one of my favourite stories. Jacob wrestles with God, and God allows him to win the wrestling match, but cripples Jacob.
Sometimes when we see the face of God, we find that grace and forgiveness come only because God lets us win,
Hannah praying for a child and God granting her request.
Sometimes when we see the face of God we move from barrenness to life.
The shepherds hearing and seeing the angels and finding Jesus in a manger.
Sometimes when we see the face of Christ we find that all our perceptions of what is important are changed.
Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife for she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes when see the face of Christ, we are encouraged to take courageous steps in the face of opposing public opinion.
Mary, the mother of Jesus. “how can this be?” she says to the angel.
The angel replies basically that with God there are things possible we never even dreamed of, but that God’s Spirit would come upon her and she was going to have a baby who would be “Emmanuel” – God with us.
The church has called that moment “the Annunciation,” but what we really mean is call. On that day the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was “blessed among women” because God was calling her.
And the first words of Gabriel were this – “The Lord is with you.”
In other words, God is taking up the whole screen. There is nothing else in the picture right now than this: “The Lord is with you.”
The Christmas story itself is full of this sort of thing. Someone is minding his or her own business, and then, as if from out of nowhere, there comes a call. The person is often startled to be called by God. Therefore, Gabriel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid.”
Usually, the person who is the recipient of the call asks questions. Mary asked, “How can this be?”
When God called to Moses out of the burning bush a 1000 years earlier Moses said:
“me, you have got to be kidding. What’s your name? How do I know you are real? What should I say? Who will go with me? How do I get out of this?
And who can blame Mary for asking? She is not even yet married to Joseph. She is engaged. She is a young woman without any particular education or preparation, as far as we know. How can this be?
Of course, anybody receiving a call from God would likely ask a similar question. How can this be? Why would you choose me?
Then, Mary accepts the call. She says, “Let it be to me according to your word.”
Isaiah, on a similar occasion, responded with a perhaps more enthusiastic, “Here am I, send me” (Isa 6).
As for Mary, she simply said yes. And as today’s gospel reminds us, Mary did not say yes only once. She had to keep saying yes.
Later on, when Jesus is about 12, Mary and Joseph lose Jesus. They find out that all along he was in the temple discussing spiritual matters with the spiritual leaders. Mary and Joseph were astounded by the boy Jesus’ actions in staying behind in the temple that day.
Perhaps Mary was even afraid on that day too, afraid of what the future might hold for her son, Jesus. Mary had to keep saying yes to the call of God….
She said “yes” before the angel Gabriel. She said “yes” that day at the temple. She said “yes” at the foot of the cross.
When Mary got called by God, she was called to all of that.
As I said, you get these calls, these annunciations, throughout scripture. You also get them today.
That is right. Maybe you think the sort of thing that happened to Mary happened once and only to her. But the Bible teaches that God seems to be in the call business. Even today – maybe especially today.
I remember at Knox College sitting around with my class while everyone shared about their call to ministry.
And as you can imagine it is really interesting, sometimes inspiring and sometimes even mind boggling to listen to people tell of times when God filled the whole picture. When they saw the face of Christ. When they encountered Jesus in a real way, and God called them.
What happened? What did you feel?
Some call stories are very strange. They tell about visions from God in the middle of the night, when they least expect it. Some call stories share about lives that are tossed and tormented until they finally realize that they are being called, until they finally summon up the courage to say yes. Here I am, send me.
Some call stories are rather calm and ordered accounts, about a gradual awareness that God had something for them to do.
I heard of one woman who said that she had been married for about 15 years to a minister. One afternoon she was sitting on the sofa in the manse, smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer, and reading some trashy supermarket, checkout-line novel.
Her husband walked in, the minister, and said something to her like, “You sure don’t look like a minister’s wife.”
With that, she stomped out the cigarette, threw down her novel and shouted out, “I’m a wife, but not a minister.”
She meant it as a way of telling her husband to back off. But she said that as soon as the words came out of her mouth, “I am not a minister,” she said it was like this voice in her brain which said,
“How do you know you are not called to be a minister?”
A voice, just like that. She said the thing started working on her brain over the next few days. After a period of over a year of struggle with the idea, she entered seminary.
Another story of call was the student who wrote that during his teenage years, “I was the teenager from hell.” He made his parents’ lives utterly miserable.
He was so irresponsible in college that he flunked out and spent a couple of years working. While working, he met a woman and married. They began attending a little church. Gradually, he came to the surprising awareness that God seemed to be calling him, calling him into the Christian ministry.
So, he went back to college. He dreaded telling his parents, after all they had been through, that now his life was taking this unexpected turn.
But he met with his parents and told them the story of the surprising turn of events, the way that, though his life had been a tortured series of mistakes and accumulated irresponsibility, he now believed that God wanted him to become a minister.
Suddenly, his mother burst into tears, saying, “I’m so ashamed! I can’t believe this has happened!”
He was troubled by her response.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I can’t believe this has happened,” she said.
She went on to say: “Didn’t I tell you that before you were born, I had had a couple of miscarriages? I didn’t think we would ever have a child. So, I promised God that if he would let me have a baby, that I could bring to term, if it were a boy, I would name him Samuel and would dedicate him to God, just like Hannah did back in the Old Testament.”
Sam heard all of this with great astonishment.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?” he asked. “You could have saved me a whole lot of trouble if you would have told me about this.”
“We’re Presbyterians,” the mother replied. “How was I to know something like this would work? I didn’t even know that we even believed in this kind of thing. How was I to know that it would work?”
All I am saying here is that if you think the story of Mary, being called by the angel Gabriel, is strange, think again. Stories of annunciation, of vocation, of call, of seeing the face of Jesus, tend to be strange.
They are not strange because God sends an angel to call someone, though sometimes God does; rather, they are strange because the one being called is us.
Like Mary, Joseph, Abraham, or the others, we think of all of the reasons why this doesn’t make any sense. We are not perfect people. We have baggage. We have limitations. Nevertheless, in our better moments, when the call comes, we, like those who have walked before us, simply say “yes”.
This appears to be the primary way God changes the world.
Through call and vocation. God changes the course of history, not through earthquake, wind, and fire, but through ordinary people who get called – ordinary people who say “yes”.
It seems that quite often people come to the door of this church looking for money or food. I sometimes reflect about the sadness of these people, not just because they are hungry, poor or challenged in various ways, but that there isn’t anything more sad about a person than not having a purpose.
And it goes for rich as well as poor. It is sad to sit down with someone who has oodles of money and is not happy. They are unfulfilled. Is there anything sadder than an uncalled life?
To have a calling, a vocation, like the one Mary received, can be confusing and sometimes even frightening, but it is nearly always exciting, invigorating and challenging.
It can be a great gift for God to choose you for some work or purpose. It can be a great gift to have your life caught up in something more significant than just your life.
Thus, Mary had the faith to see that, what the angel Gabriel was offering her, in calling her for God, was not only a bit disturbing and frightening, but it was also a great gift. And that is why she said yes. And that is why to this day we still call her “blessed among women.”
Throughout the centuries the church called Mary the very first of the disciples. She is the first person in the story of Jesus to have her life caught up in God’s great project of Incarnation. She was the first one to hear the call and say “yes”
If we had the time today, it would be fun to hear the story of your annunciation, your call. As your minister, I am sure that there are plenty of people here who have received a call.
Somebody else, looking at your life, might say, “Isn’t it interesting how she could have done almost anything with her life, anything that she wanted to. And yet she decided to be a nurse. She decided to care for people, even though she would not make a lot of money.”
Or they might say, “I find it interesting that, when some people might be spending their retirement time on the golf course, he spends every Tuesday afternoon at the food bank. I wonder how he decided to do that?”
The story of my call probably goes back before I was born. In fact, if my mother had not miscarried, I would not have been born.
But I am going to spare you a lot of the details and tell you how I became a Presbyterian.
It was 1978, and I had felt the sense of God’s call for several years. I had been a Baptist for a few years and then a Pentecostal for a few years.
I was at University at Mount Allison in Sackville New Brunswick and over the last two years or so I had been re-establishing a relationship with my father who had been out of my life for quite a while. I went to visit him that summer in Cambridge, Ontario and while I was there, I found a girlfriend who played trumpet in my father’s band. Not Fiona.
I came back ostensibly to see my father at Christmas but I think really to see my girlfriend. The reality was that the girlfriend wasn’t interested any more.
But while I was visiting my father, he got a call one Sunday morning to go to church. The band had been part of a fundraiser for the church, and my dad was asked to go to church to make a presentation to do with the money the band raised.
So, it was I went to Knox’s Galt Presbyterian Church. It was a little bit like First church in that it was a big traditional structure with a balcony, although the balcony was just at the back. I actually sat in the balcony that Sunday and as the Rev. Bob Jackson delivered the sermon that morning, after singing more or less traditional hymns, I heard a voice in my head: “this is where you could be a minister.”
It was not an audible voice. I guess it was a thought. But it was so clear, and from someone beyond me.
It was a call to become a Presbyterian minister and at the time I wouldn’t have known a Presbyterian from a Benedictine.
All I seemed to know is that this was where I could fit in as a minister. I met Robert Jackson, who got me going, and the rest of the story is for another day.
That’s when I most clearly heard the call of God.
I had an “Epiphany”
A sudden vision of light showing where to go.
A glimpse of the face of Christ filling the screen.
I sometimes think of the wise men, who followed the light of the star. That is the event we call “Epiphany.” The light showing these foreigners the way to Christ.
So another word for seeing the face of Christ up closed, is “Epiphany.”
You know there is another story of someone having a call, an epiphany in the Christmas story and it is the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. He and his wife Elizabeth who was Mary’s cousin, were fairly old and they had no children.
He was a priest. One day he gets chosen by lot to serve in the centre of the temple, an honour that comes at most once in a lifetime, and while he is there an angel meets him.
Which is really another way of saying God met him.
His epiphany, his annunciation, his call was that he and his wife were going to have a son who would be one of the greatest prophets.
He too had questions: How can this be? How can I trust what you are saying is true?
And the answer to his question is that he is struck dumb, and made unable to speak.
When he comes out to the temple, he is unable to tell everyone of his story or of his epiphany and he is not able to speak again until John the Baptist is born.
You see when we encounter Christ up close and personal…. When we see Christ face to face. When he fills the whole screen and everything else fades away, we are often made speechless.
For in that moment all that matters is Christ and all that matters is his words, his love, his grace, his forgiveness, his way, his truth, his life.
For in a call God speaks and we listen.
God speaks and we listen.
One of the greatest gifts of all is of being called, of living a life that has been summoned, of hearing God’s voice. It means your little life is about to count for something larger than your life.
This is one of the great messages of Christmas and of Epiphany
The Lord is with you. And you, and you, and you.
For I believe he calls to everyone, and today I believe he is calling you. Amen.