4th Sunday in Advent, Proper B4                           

Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Luke 1:26-38 Sermon                                          
December 21, 2008

Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
11 "O How Shall I Receive Thee"
48 "What Child Is This?"
13 "Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending"
15 "Joy To The World"


TEXT (vs. 28-31):  "The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.'  Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.'"

            This morning's Gospel lesson is a familiar one to most people.  We've heard this section of Scripture read every year sometime during the Christmas season, and it is especially popular in the context of children's Christmas pageants.  The Angel visits the Virgin Mary, and tells her that she is going to give birth to the Saviour.

            This morning, we read this story as it is translated in the New International Version of the Bible.  When Gabriel comes to Mary, his greeting is translated, "Greetings, you who are highly favored!"  And it is certainly a faithful rendition of the original text.  We're probably also familiar with the King James translation of this text, which simply reads:  "Hail, O favored one."  That's also a faithful rendition of the original text, even though the terminology is somewhat archaic.

            I never really gave too much thought to the difference between the two, until I spent my first Christmas at a new congregation.  I have pretty much used the New International Version of the Bible throughout my ministry, and I thought its use was especially appropriate in this instance for a children's Christmas program.  After all, the words and sentence structure are in today's English, which is easier for a child to learn and comprehend.  It's what they use every day.

            So all was well and good; that is until one of the Sunday school teachers approached me.  She didn't like the word "Greetings" being used as the beginning of the angel's message to Mary.  She indicated that it sounded too much like a science fiction alien from outer space saying, "Greetings, earthling."  She thought that the "Hail O favored one" sounded much more reverent and appropriate.

            I hadn't given it much thought, but I was able see how she could have that picture in her mind.  In the discussion that followed, I countered with a couple mental pictures of my own.  Since very few people use the word "hail" as a salutation these days, what kind of a picture could we create with that word?

            I suggested that the word "hail" might give the picture of the angel Gabriel pelting Mary with round pellets of frozen water.  Could the children be led to think that Gabriel came to Mary in the midst of a hailstorm? 

            Or, the word "hail" also sounds a lot like the way someone from the Deep South would pronounce the name of Satan's dominion.  There are any one of a number of preachers from the Deep South that preach a "hail fire and brimstone" type of sermon.

            But even with those two examples, she still didn't think it was appropriate to use the "greetings earthling" image; and so I conceded and we used "Hail O favored one" rather than "Greetings, you who are highly favored." 

            What this has done to me since that time, is that I can never read those words without thinking of her example of "greetings earthling."  And that was the case as I was studying our Gospel lesson for this morning.  With that in mind then, I decided to use as my sermon theme for this morning, "Greetings, Earthling."

            The first thing I decided to do was to investigate where this saying originated.  Which one of the many science fiction movies with space aliens begat this expression?

            The expression was coined by a Looney Toones character known as "Marvin the Martian."  Marvin the Martian was "born" as the result of cartoon artist Chuck Jones on July 24, 1948, which makes this character 60 years old now.  His voice was the creation of comedian Mel Blanc, the same person who did the voices of such characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, and many other Looney Toones characters.

            Marvin is a character of rather small stature.  He wears big floppy tennis shoes, something that looks like a green ballerina tutu, a red polo shirt, white gloves, and a red football helmet-like thing that hides his darkened face except his eyes.  On top of this helmet he's wearing, is something that looks like either a scrub brush, or part of a broken off push broom.  Bugs Bunny is quoted as thinking he looks something like a bowling ball wearing a spittoon.

            So when Marvin the Martian makes his debut, he comes to earth and stands face-to-face with Bugs Bunny.  He says to Bugs, "Greetings Earthling;" and Bugs Bunny responds in his normal manner amidst the chewing of his carrot, "What's up, doc?"

            Marvin has a spaceship called the "Marvin Maggot" and a dog named "Commander K-9." Marvin's single goal in life is to blow up the Earth because it blocks his view of Venus.  The method he's going to use is a weapon he's brought with him.  He talks about this weapon when he says, "Oh goody!  My lludium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator."  And when he doesn't succeed, he is known for saying, "You have made me very angry, very angry indeed."

            Marvin the Martian is a cute and funny character, and he is a good compliment to the rest of the Looney Toones gang.  But what does all of this have to do with the angel Gabriel visiting the Virgin Mary with the news that she is going to be the earthly mother of our Saviour?

            To begin with, let's look at a contemporary poet from Minnesota by the name of Steve Healey.  He was familiar with Marvin the Martian.  In particular, the word "earthling" absolutely fascinated him; so much so in fact, that he entitled his first collection of poetry: "Earthling."  In describing his fascination for this word, he says that it "simultaneously suggests a connection with human beings, but also possesses an alien point of view, an outside perspective."

            This is where we start our comparison.  When Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary, a very important connection is being announced.  With the birth of Jesus, God is connecting with humanity in a way that only he could accomplish.  God would now take on the flesh of the mortal human and become human himself.  The Virgin Mary would provide the human vehicle for all this to take place.  Jesus would receive his humanity from the earthling Mary.  And since Jesus was a product of both his mother and his heavenly Father, he would have both a human and divine nature.  In theological terms, he would be both 100 percent God and 100 percent man.  The earthling would receive something alien; which used in this sense refers to something not of this world.

            This morning, let's consider this word "alien" and what it means.  Merriam-Webster defines the word as follows: "1: belonging or relating to another person, place, or thing; strange; 2: relating, belonging, or owing allegiance to another country or government; foreign; 3: exotic; 4: differing in nature or character typically to the point of incompatibility."

            We've heard this word in our culture quite often.  Our first thoughts direct us to the many illegal aliens in the United States, or those who aren't legal citizens.  Their citizenship is elsewhere.  Or we might think of fictional characters like Marvin the Martian who is a space alien.

            But the Bible calls the people of this world strangers and aliens.  Even though we could apply all of Webster's definitions to this, the fourth definition is particularly appropriate: "differing in nature or character typically to the point of incompatibility."

            By nature, we are the most incompatible creatures imaginable when it comes to the righteousness and holiness of God.  Our many sins have alienated us from God's presence so we are regarded as mere earthlings who are not fit for citizenship in God's kingdom.  And left on our own to rely upon our own devices, we would forever be aliens, and not regarded as fit for admission into God's holy family.

            The Apostle Paul explains this quite well.  In Galatians 5,4 he writes:  "You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace."  And in Colossians 1, 21 he writes: "Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour."   

            We are indeed in a sorry situation.  Left on our own, we would be lost and completely without hope.  God would have every right to say, "Out of my sight, earthling.  You are a foreigner and an alien to me.  We are so totally different that we are completely incompatible."  That's the sentence for sinful humanity.

            But today, we have a different picture.  The angel Gabriel, a special angel sent from God to the Virgin Mary gives words of hope.  Instead of "get out of my sight, earthling," it's "greetings earthling!"  This is the way God begins the revelation of the great news that will bring joy to the entire world, alienated because of sin, and sitting in the darkness of despair.

            In the womb of the Virgin Mary, the citizen and the alien meet.  The impassable chasm has been permanently bridged.  The heavenly takes on the flesh of humanity.  God has become flesh.  And with this, the world has a hope that it could not receive in any other way.

            The Virgin Mary became pregnant, and would give birth to the God-man Jesus Christ who would be the Saviour of the world.  Through faith in him, the sins that once made humanity nothing more than aliens in God's sight would now be completely eradicated.  Through faith in Christ alone, sinners such as you and me and even Mary and Joseph would cease to become aliens and thus be recipients of a mansion in God's house for eternity.

            The Apostle Paul in the second chapter of his letter to the Ephesian Christians explains this whole concept very well.  Verses 12-13:  "...remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ."

            And then we continue in verses 18-20: "For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone."

            I've often wondered if Mary had any idea of the importance of what was happening to her.  Did she realize that God was doing what was virtually impossible in her womb?  Did she realize the Saviour of the world was gestating inside of her?  Did she have any idea as to how special the task was that God set before her?

            As faithful as she was, I don't think she was able to fully grasp the whole situation.  But even so, she still fully trusted that God was doing what was best.  Verse 38 of our Gospel for today says, "'I am the Lord's servant,' Mary answered. ‘May it be to me as you have said.' Then the angel left her."

            Greetings earthling.  The earthling, the Virgin Mary found favor with God.  She was the earthling whom he selected to be the human mother of his only-begotten Son.  And when he was born, the angels lit up the night sky and proclaimed to the shepherds, "Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth [i.e. the earthlings] upon whom his favor rests." 

            When we hear the word "earthling," our thoughts might turn to a character like Marvin the Martian having a dialogue with Bugs Bunny.  It is intended to be humorous, of course.  However we must also remember that Marvin the Martian's goal was to destroy the earth. 

            God's purpose in coming to Mary the earthling was not to destroy the world, but to save it.  The only things that would be destroyed are sin, death, hell, and Satan.

            The poet Steve Healey indicates that the word "earthling" "simultaneously suggests a connection with human beings, but also possesses an alien point of view, an outside perspective."

            Through the Virgin Mary, God connected with human beings in the only way he could.  He brought about something that was alien to the way the world thinks.  He took on humanity, so that through faith in Christ alone, we would no longer be aliens and strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens in God's kingdom.  The Apostle John writes in Chapter 3 verse 17:  "God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved."