Fourth Sunday of Advent

In Roman mythology there is a god named Janus. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Janus is the god of those places and events that have a dual character. For example, he is the god of doorways, because through doorways there is both an entrance and an exit. 


But our interest in the god Janus is less in the affairs that he governs than in how he is depicted. He appears as a god with two faces, looking in opposite directions at the same time. In fact, the concept of the month of January (the beginning of new year and the ending of the old one) is based on the two faces of Janus. 


Let us reclaim this pagan god as a symbol of Advent. For Advent teaches us to look forward to the future when Christ returns in glory at the same time as it teaches us to look backward to the past when Christ is born into our world.


In our Gospel lesson today we look back at how the birth of Jesus the Christ took place. And here we have to speak of a very special Advent. We speak here about the Advent to Mary. For Jesus Christ comes to Mary before he comes to the rest of us. Put otherwise, there is an Advent for us only insofar as there is an Advent for her.   


But who is Mary? About Mary we do not know very much. Historians speculate that she was a poor peasant girl, probably in her middle or late teens, the typical age at which a woman in her time and place got married. She came from the rural town of Nazareth, in lower Galilee. The town hardly had a place on the map, and was of no significance to Rome, the occupying power in the holy land at that time. 


The first fact that we discover about her life is that she is engaged to a man named Joseph. 


But then there is this. “She was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Mary is pregnant. But this is no ordinary pregnancy. It is not the product of a union between a man and a woman. She is pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 


Of course, Joseph doesn’t know this. And since, in that time and place, an engaged man and woman were not to come together as husband and wife until marriage, Mary’s pregnancy was humiliating to Joseph. But he is a man of integrity and he loves her. Unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, he has in mind to divorce her quietly. 


But then he has a dream, in which an angel tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 


One of the first rules of reading biblical texts we learn is to pay attention to repetition. If the author wants to emphasize a point, he will repeat it.


Twice within the span of a few verses, Matthew tells us that what is conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary is from the Holy Spirit. 


Okay. He has our attention now. But what’s the takeaway? 


Put simply, it is God and not human initiative that brings Mary’s son into the world. A virgin birth is humanly impossible. 


This is a theme that runs throughout the Bible. For example, Abraham is to be the father of many nations, but the problem is that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is barren. And then, when through God’s promise, she does at last give birth to a son Isaac, he grows up and marries a woman who is barren. Humanly impossible. 


Israel is to become God’s own people, freed at last from her Egyptian oppressors. The problem is that the Egyptian armies are behind them and the Red Sea is before them. Humanly impossible. 


Ahaz, who is featured in our first lesson, is king of Judah at the time when the Northern Kingdom and Syria formed an alliance to attack him. Their purpose was to depose him from the throne, and cut off the line of David from whom the Messiah was to come. Ahaz and his people were so afraid, that they were like the trees of forest that are shaken by the wind (Isa. 7:2). Again, humanly impossible. 


King Hezekiah refuses to pay tribute to the Assyrian king. So the king of this most powerful nation in the world amasses 185,000 soldiers outside the gate of Jerusalem, which is defenseless against such a force. They stand ready to commence the slaughter at the king’s command (2 Kings 18,19). Humanly impossible.  


Later Jerusalem is destroyed, overrun by the Babylonians, and the promised land is a heap of ruins. To the prophet Ezekiel the devastation appears in a vision as the bones of the dead strewn across a desert floor. He then hears a voice: “Son of man, will these bones live again.” And the prophet’s response: “Oh God, only you know” (Ezekiel 37). Humanly impossible. 


And later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus proclaims that it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, and this prompts his disciples to ask: who then can be saved? Jesus replies: “With man this impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).  


And these are only a few of the examples in the Bible that can be multiplied. 


The virgin birth tells us nothing if not that with man salvation is humanly impossible, but with God all things are possible, even a virgin birth. 


“She will bear a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The name Jesus is derived from the Hebrew Yeshua, which means “the Lord saves.” There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved, cried the Apostle Peter in the Book of Acts (4:12). 


To make clear that from the very moment of his conception, salvation does not lie within our power, God chose a poor, young, unmarried woman from nowheresville, the very epitome of powerlessness, to bear the Savior of the world. 


Incidentally, our familiarity with the Christmas story blunts the sharp edge of the paradox here. An antiphon from the ancient church proclaims: “How can we find words to praise your dignity, O Virgin Mary, for him whom the very heavens cannot contain, you carried in your womb.” More recently author and former Presbyterian missionary James R. Edwards exclaims: “How utterly astonishing that the Lord of heaven and earth, whose glory surpasses all creation as the brightness of the sun exceeds the stars in the night sky, should share the lot of the lowly on earth!”   


Our utter dependence on the divine gift of salvation that we are as powerless as the virgin Mary to give to ourselves, a gift therefore that we can only receive from God as passively as a woman does the life growing inside her womb—is this not at the very heart of what the church proclaims and celebrates during this season of the year? 


It is perhaps not easy for most of us to keep this front and center during this annual commercialized gift fest that at best provides us only a few occasions to hear the familiar carols. But it is certainly there at the origins of the holiday called Christmas.  


Some of you may know that Christmas derives from a real historical figure named St. Nicholas. 


Nicholas of Myra was born around 270 in Patara, a Greek city on the southern coast of modern-day Turkey. Both his parents died when he was young, leaving him a rather large inheritance. 


As a young but wealthy orphan, he learned of a man in his city who had lost everything and became destitute. The poverty-stricken man had three unmarried daughters who were without dowries. A dowry is money or property that the bride’s parents brought to her husband on their marriage. Without dowries, the man’s three daughters faced a bleak future of either begging or prostitution. 


The family’s plight weighed heavily on the mind of the young Nicholas, and he decided to do something to help them. One night, Nicholas dropped a bag of gold coins through an open window into their house. 


Later, when he saw that the father in fact had used the money to secure a marriage for one of his three daughters, Nicholas returned again at night to deposit a second bag of gold coins into the home of the man and his two remaining daughters. 


The father used this money also to provide a dowry for his second daughter. 


Nicholas was pleased, and planned a third drop. But on the night on which he went to the house, the father had been hiding and watching, hoping to uncover the identity of this mysterious benefactor. Nicholas was caught in the act. He pleaded with the father not to reveal his identity, but obviously someone must have squealed, or else we wouldn’t have this story. 


There is no chimney and milk and cookies here, but the story of the anonymous gift-giver who comes at night has given us Christmas as we know it and hand down to our children today. 


Nicholas of Myra was a devout Christian who lived in a time and place when being a Christian could get you arrested or worse. He later became a priest and bishop in the church, and played an important role in the Council of Nicaea in 325. 


Nicholas did for that father and his three daughters what they could do for themselves. He gave to them that which they could not provide for themselves.  


Can we still accept the message of the Advent to Mary that it pleased God to “do” for us that which we cannot do for ourselves, that he gives to us that which we cannot provide for ourselves, because he has mercy on us? 


Author Eugen Drewermann draws our attention to the significance that the good news of God’s salvation comes to us today in the image of a pregnant woman. 


It seems to say to us, among other things, that the world can only be saved when our determination to do, make or build for God comes to an end. The pregnant woman does not do anything except provide the space in her body to receive. That which implants itself in her womb grows in due course without any exertion of her will. She has only to wait for her child to be born, a child she will welcome into her arms as a gift with a heart overflowing with gratitude. 


Isn’t it when we become convinced that we cannot “do” that we give up and lay down our burden? And when we lay down our burden, do we not feel a deep sense of relief? In “doing” for us what we cannot “do” anyway, God tells us gently: “I’ve got you covered. You can relax now. You can be at peace.” 


Mary is the model of the Christian experience of God. She is an open vessel, ready to receive grace, which God pours out on her abundantly.


In a few moments, we will recite the familiar words from the Creed: “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” 


Today we are reminded that the permanent value of this creedal statement that it is the Holy Spirit and not human initiative that brings Jesus into personal life (Frederick Dale Bruner). But this is so not only for Mary. It is also so for us too.  


One of the members of my cousin’s church approached him recently and asked: “Pastor, why are there no more miracles in the church today as there were in the Bible?” My cousin replied: “Every time someone is converted to faith in Christ, it is a miracle.” 


This is true. Jesus himself acknowledges in his conversation with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. You cannot enter into the Kingdom of God unless you are born of the Spirit (John 3). 


There is a very real sense in which every conversion is a virgin birth, and therefore a miracle. 


When I was growing up, the Christmas services at our church were always the best attended services of the year. Extended family came. People who came to church only very seldom showed up at the Christmas service. Christmas is really an ideal time to evangelize, to tell people about the gift of salvation in and with the one borne by the Virgin Mary. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit move in the hearts of those people to make space in them to receive this gift of salvation. Amen.   

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