A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 21, 2014
(2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16; Luke 1:46-55; Romans 16.25-27; Luke 1.26-38)
Over the past three Advent Sundays, as you know, we have lit a candle. Each one represents an aspect of the waiting that characterises the season of Advent: we wait in hope, in peace, in joy, and finally, we wait for God’s coming in love.
Surely, if anyone exemplifies the call to wait for God’s action in love and adoration, it is Mary.
Our readings are, today, dominated by the words and story of a young teenager visited by the angel Gabriel. Mary is, unexpectedly, to become ‘the virgin with child’ that the seer Isaiah foretold so many years before. This girl will bear the one who’s ‘throne shall be established forever’.
Gabriel’s appearing must have – to say the least – thrown any life plans Mary had into a spin. She is already engaged. How on earth will she explain this to anyone – let alone to her beloved Joseph?
But Mary is a girl of faith and as such one from whom we need to learn. I would like, today, to point to two aspects of Mary’s waiting that Luke’s narrative emphasises.
First, Mary gave herself to God’s call wholeheartedly.
At the time of Gabriel’s visit, Mary could not possibly imagine what the messenger’s call might imply for her young, rapidly unfolding (perhaps unravelling) life. Her mind and heart is surely loaded with questions.
Only one, however, is expressed in our reading: ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’
It is a fundamentally different question to Zechariah’s: ‘How will I know that this is so?’ The old priest asked for a sign, for evidence that he could believe his visiting angel.
Mary’s question, however, is one of trust – even if loaded with bewilderment. Mary is not ignorant to the ways of human reproduction. The angel’s declaration is beyond the realms of human possibility and Mary knows it.
But Mary is not asking for assurance. This is not an attempt to move from faith to certainty.
Mary is, rather, wondering how on earth even the God of heaven is going to do this. In Luke’s introduction to the life-account of Jesus this is an epic difference. Zechariah asked for evidence to bolster his lack of faith. Mary asked out of faith-filled wonder.
And the great angel responded:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived and born a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible for God.”
And Mary’s response: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”.
Mary, as we all must, is giving herself to God.
And the God of the universe is found responding. The text, although we did not read it today, moves immediately into Mary setting out on a pilgrimage to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. It is surely a following of a path in which the angel directed.
Elizabeth is, at least in part, the answer to Mary’s honest and trusting question.
And upon her arrival Elizabeth’s exuberant response must have been just what the younger woman needed:
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
Elizabeth’s words, and no doubt her swollen womb, function in the narrative as the encouragement Mary requested.
The second aspect of Mary’s waiting is found in Mary’s famous song of praise. Mary delights in, is in love with, the God who called her to this most privileged role.
From the outset Mary’s song is established as ‘soul-singing’. Mary is rejoicing from her very ‘spirit’. This really is praise. It is worship – the perfect response to God.
I suspect the angel, the visit to Elizabeth, and the Spirit’s miracle: all these helped Mary get to this point. But we would be mistaken to think that all Mary’s questions were sorted before she burst into song. There has been no discussion of Joseph’s – and therefore Mary’s – predicament prior to this singing.
As Mary sings, her future is perhaps more dependent upon the fulfilment of God’s promises than ever.
Yet, Mary is convinced that she is infinitely favoured and blessed. Mary, perhaps before anyone, is entrusted with the ‘mystery that was kept secret for long ages’ that our Romans passage refers to. Prophets and Kings before her wondered at these promises. Now God’s incarnation is protected within her growing womb.
Mary is beginning to see this for what this incarnation really is: a display of God’s staggering ‘mercy’; a ‘scattering of the proud’; a de-throning of the ‘powerful’. Mary sees herself as lowly, but lifted; as hungry, but filled, and; as remembered in the great line of promise extending from Abraham, down through his ancestors, and is soon to be let lose on all.
I hope you can see this for the breathtaking praise that it truly is.
Of course, some in the church have esteemed Mary alongside Jesus himself. This, to my mind, actually takes away from the gospel accounts. Mary is not a God. She is a young girl. Mary is not a deity. She is a person of faith and trust.
And as such she calls us to a deeper knowledge of what it is to give ourselves to God. Cast her in a the role of a deity and we risk losing her as a true hero of our faith and destroying any possibility of genuine access to the one who was surely the very first to believe in Jesus.
May the humble, God-exalting, God-loving, and worship inspiring faith of Mary be yours this Christmas.