Sermon for Sunday, December 21st (Advent 4)
Luke 1:26-38 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Birth of Jesus Foretold
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[a] 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.32 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 ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[b] 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[c] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.”
The beginning of the good news…
A few weeks ago in Advent 2, we heard the beginning of Mark’s gospel, the good news of Jesus. Mark began with John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord. Last week, in Advent 3 we read the gospel of John, which begins with Jesus as the word of God, present at creation. Today, our gospel message comes from the first chapter of Luke. And Luke begins his story from his own unique perspective. He begins his gospel in this way, with a dedication to Theolphilus, or literally, lover of God. “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,[a] to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”
After Luke investigates the complete story of Jesus, he begins his gospel with Mary’s story. Luke’s gospel is the only one to include Mary’s story and the story of her family including her cousin Elizabeth, her husband the priest Zechariah, and of course their son John the Baptist. It makes one wonder where this additional part of the story came from? Who was this mystery source? Maybe Luke was able to track down Mary herself, to tell her side of the story of Jesus. By the time Luke’s gospel was recorded Mary would have been a very old woman, if she was still living. Or maybe her story was passed on to her other children, or to a community that she was a part of. But maybe for a moment we could imagine Mary a frail but bright woman telling of the birth of her mysterious and divine son. Luke sitting at her feet, addressing her as the, “blessed Mary, mother of Jesus” with the utmost respect and humility…. Hanging on her every word as she recounted the day that the angel Gabriel appeared to her…
Notice he would not have addressed her as, the virgin Mary- as virgin implies not only purity but can also be translated as young girl in the Greek. In fact, no one in our scriptures personally addresses Mary as the virgin- rather it was one of the descriptive details of the story. It was not central to her identity, but central to the story of God doing the impossible! Rather Mary was addressed as, “Favored One” by the Angel Gabriel. As the Message paraphrase puts it, the angel Gabriel proclaims,
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.”
Elizabeth later addresses Mary saying, “Blessed are you among women.” And Mary sings of herself, “all generations will call me blessed.” Not Mary the virgin, not Mary the young girl, but Mary the Favored One of God, Mary the Blessed one among women, Mary the blessed one for all generations.
Certainly, Luke would have listened with reverence as she recounted the events around the birth of Jesus. Mary would be known through the scriptures for her boldness in her resounding yes to God’s plan of salvation. Mary would be known for her joyful song of redemption. Mary would be known for her faithfulness to God and to her son, until the very day that he died- and beyond.
Mary- the one chosen to bear God’s son to the world
Mary- (the theotokos) the God-bearer
Luke’s story begins with Mary and the conception of Jesus- because it tells the truth about Jesus. Jesus is from God. His birth is an ordinary human birth- and yet it is exceptional. It is messy- and it is holy. God is brought to birth through a woman, just as all people are… And yet this woman had a radical encounter with God that sets this birth apart for all of history. Mary’s story illustrates this truth.
The Angel Gabriel tells Mary that, “the child born will be ‘holy.” Mary hears this news with wonder. The name Jesus, literally means Yahweh saves. Mary will bear God’s son to the world. She will hold the holy in her womb, in her arms. And God’s work of redemption will flow through her.
Mary bears the holy. Mary cradles the holy. Mary shares the holy with the world.
This is God’s call for her, announced through the angel Gabriel. And this is the call for each of us this Advent and Christmas season.
But how would Mary respond to the angel’s pronouncement? Mary blessed? Highly favored Her? She is only a peasant girl and never had anyone call her blessed or favored. A teenage girl, unmarried pregnant… Would anyone believe that an Angel of the Lord appeared to her? This angel had told her that she is to bear a Son, God’s Son. A Son who is the one her people have been waiting for. One who will sit on the throne of David, a promised Messiah! She could hardly believe it herself!
At times we may question with Mary, “How can it be?” How can I be God’s chosen, God’s beloved? Maybe we are a lot like Mary. Many times we may view Mary in a class above all of us. But as we read the story again this Christmas, we see that she was an ordinary person, but by saying yes to God, God worked extraordinary things through her. “Nothing is impossible with God.” Mary was blessed and blessed others because of her YES to God. And we can do the same. Mary holds the holy.
Imagine for a moment holding the most precious thing you can imagine in your hands.
Some may imagine- the holding that precious newborn in their hands. Pure gift. Pure holiness- entrusted to you.
Some may imagine- the hand of a beloved…
Some may imagine- a tiny seed- the beauty of God’s creation…
Some may imagine- any number of important things
We have done little to create these gifts or earn them- all we can do is open our hands and hearts and accept God’s gifts to us.
And as a community we also live out- holding the Eucharist, the body of Christ every Sunday. God’s holiness in our hands… In essence taking the body, spirit, teaching, of Jesus and taking it within our bodies- ingesting it. Holding the holy. Each of us- not only the ‘good enough’ ‘old enough’ ‘trained enough’ ‘spiritual enough’ among us- but all of us- holding the holy- just as Mary with no training, a poor young girl did. And this season we imagine with Mary that we hold the Christ child, as she did. Even as an old, frail woman- I’m sure she could remember vividly the moment she heard the angel tell her that she would bear a holy child within her. I’m sure she could picture the moment after all of the pain, blood, sweat, and tears- that she held the holy child in her arms. Holding, cradling, sharing the holy…
We may never know the mystery of Luke’s source for Mary’s story. But we do know that Mary’s story brings the gospel message in a different form. It puts flesh on the good news. It makes it even more earthy, messy- even more real. God really among us. God with us. The holy brought as close as our own two hands. It also helps us to see the holy in the world around us. God in the stranger- God in the person in need- God in those seeking justice- God in those imprisoned. The mystery of Mary’s story is our story too. God has called us to bear the holy- to hold the holy- and to share the holy with the world. This Christmas, may we share in the work of bearing the Christ Child to the world and recognize the holiness of God among us.