Fourth Sunday of Advent

Advent introduced us to John the Baptist. With him we spent the last two Sundays in the desert. There we heard him announce the imminent arrival of God’s salvation, “Make straight the way of the Lord!” We wondered why we had to go out to the desert to encounter John. But then we recalled that in the Bible the desert bears special significance. The desert often is a symbol of temptation, failure and ruin. But God cannot leave his people to suffer in the desert. He loves them too much. In this love we find comfort because we too know what it’s like to be in the desert, figuratively speaking. In our shame we too have retreated to those lonely and arid and desert places to hide from ourselves and others, whether it was because of something we did, or because of something that was done to us. But it is precisely in these places that God shows the power of his love, which forgives, restores and makes whole. We want this power, because we want to begin anew; we want a fresh start. Therefore, we stood with those people who’d thronged to the desert from Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean countryside to hear John preach and to undergo baptism at his hands.   


Today we stand at the border between the season of anticipation, which is Advent, and the season of fulfillment, which is Christmas. And this means we have to adjust our focus so that we can see with sharper clarity the one who stands closer to this fulfillment than John. Until the time of John no one greater than John had been born to women. John was the greatest of all prophets because he stood closer to the one to whom all the prophets before him had pointed. But there is one who stands even closer. We refer here to Mary. She stands closer than John, and, for this reason, the church has accorded to her an even greater honor to her than to him. Mary herself anticipated the special place she was going to have in the living memory of the church, when she sang that “all generations will call me blessed” (Lk. 1:48). While John prepared the way for the gospel, this young peasant girl from Galilee carried the gospel, in the very literal sense of the term.


We have the singular privilege today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, of contemplating this remarkable woman, whom several Christian traditions around the globe rightly venerate—this woman, to whom, or rather, in whom the fulfillment of God’s promises, the hope of all the nations, has come.


Who is Mary? About Mary’s origins we know next to nothing. Historians speculate that she was a poor peasant girl, probably in her middle or late teens. Her skin was darkened by a cloudless Near Eastern sky under which she labored in the fields and groves. 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 of the holy land. The first fact we discover about her life when we turn to our gospel lesson is that she is engaged to a man named Joseph. Now the gospel author tells us that Joseph is of the house of David.


Why does Luke see fit to include this detail? The answer is found in our Old Testament lesson. It’s David’s desire to build a house for the Lord—he has brought the ark of the covenant into the new capital city of Jerusalem. He wants to make Jerusalem the permanent dwelling place for God, where God can be worshiped in a special house built for him called a temple. The prophet Nathan at first tells David that this is a good plan, but later retracts his advice. The word of the Lord came to Nathan. David is not to build a house for the Lord. The Lord instead will build a house for David.


There is a play on words here. House is used both in the sense of a physical dwelling and of a dynasty, that is, progeny that will continue David’s line. “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:16). That is why the Messiah, the last and greatest king of David’s dynasty, whose throne God will establish forever, is called the Son of David.


Could this one born to Mary be the Messiah, could this one be the fulfillment of all the hopes of Israel, after all this time? The people have not had a king in the line of David since Zedekiah, whose reign ended tragically more than 600 years earlier, when the hapless king was captured by the Babylonian invaders, who bound him and gouged out his eyes. Was God now, after all this time, going to re-establish the Davidic dynasty?


Virtually every line in our gospel lesson raises hopes that he is. That the life of the obscure peasant girl from Galilee is inextricably bound up in these hopes is made known to her by a strange visitor. The angel Gabriel appears to her and greets her. Or at least that’s what our lesson tells us. But the word in the original is probably better translated as “rejoice!” Now if someone came to us and instead of saying “greetings!” “hi!” or “hello!” said “rejoice!” we’d probably find this person odd, if not a little disturbing. But by this single word Gabriel is telling us something significant about Mary and the one she is going to bear.


To understand this, we have to turn to the Old Testament prophets. “Say to the Daughter of Zion: behold your salvation comes” (Isa. 62:11).  The only response appropriate to this prophecy is rejoicing. “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; for lo I come and I will rejoice in the midst of you” (Zech. 2:10; 9:9). The daughter of Zion is the name for Israel in these Old Testament passages. In telling her to rejoice, Gabriel in effect transfers this title to Mary: Insofar as she stands for all Israel, she is the Daughter of Zion. It is to her, the Daughter of Zion, that the Lord comes. It is in her, the Daughter of Zion, that Israel receives her king. This is the one to whom the Lord God will give the throne of his father David, the one who will be called the Son of the Most High.


We may ask: why this woman? Why is she favored by God? The simple answer is that it pleases God to favor her. This “good pleasure” is reflected in the word “favored one.” That is more apparent in the original language, where we see the word “grace” in Gabriel’s address to Mary. Later Gabriel repeats this word: “you have found grace with God” (Lk. 1:30).  


God’s salvation from beginning to end is grace. Our salvation does not depend on what we do or make or build; it depends on God’s grace. Did not David have to learn this lesson? David wanted to “build” a house for God, but then Nathan told David what God was going to build for him. Not David—he is not the active subject, but God.


Do we think we need to “do” for God to be acceptable to him, to be loved by him? In our world, we often feel compelled to perform to be accepted. Unless we measure up, our parents or our friend or even our spouse will not love us. Or at least that’s the message they seem to send to us. Through social media we are bombarded by messages that we are not good or skilled or attractive enough to be loved, to deserve happiness.


Can we still accept the message of the Christmas story that it pleased God to “do” for us, because God loves us? Isn’t it when we become convinced that we no longer have to “do” that we lay down our burden? And when we lay down our burden, do we not feel a deep sense of peace? 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.


Let us pause to reflect on this point further. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, God’s salvation is portrayed under the image of a pregnant woman. It seems to say, among other things, that the world can be saved only when man’s determination to do, make and 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 effort on her part. 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.


James tells us that we are to receive with humility the word that has been implanted in us, which can save us (1:21). James means here the word of God, the word about Jesus, the word preached to us, hopefully, on each Sunday. The verse conjures up in our minds the image of conception and pregnancy. In this light, Mary appears as a model to us, to all Christians. Following Mary’s example, we too ought to receive the word implanted in us with humility. And we too ought patiently to wait for God to do his work in us, a work of sheer grace, a work that, when it is time for it to be born, will fill our hearts with gratitude.


Mary is the recipient of God’s grace. But that grace is not without effect. Here is another lesson about grace we have to realize. Grace energizes, grace sets us free to carry out our vocation, our call, our purpose. As Mary received the word of grace from the angel Gabriel, she at the same received her call. Hers is the call of the prophet.


Now many of us may be confused enough to ask here: “Have we not moved beyond prophet already? After all, we have been talking about John for two weeks!” But we said earlier that we stand at the border between anticipation and fulfillment. We are still in Advent. That means we have still to incline our ear to the prophet.


Now if Mary is a prophet, it is clear that she is a very special prophet. I mean, if John proclaims the word of salvation that is to come, Mary carries that Word in her own body, from which it takes on flesh. This is why even we Presbyterians can call Mary “Mother of God” without fear that we are becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christians. When we do refer to Mary as the Mother of God, we are saying no more and no less than that the Son of God really has become incarnate, really has become one of us in order to be with us: “Immanuel, God with us.”


But regardless of her special status, Luke does mean for us to see her as a prophet. Her itinerary follows the classic steps of the call of prophets familiar to us in the Old Testament. There we find: God’s call, God’s task, the prophet’s objection, God’s reassurance, and the prophet’s acceptance of the call.


Listen again to Mary’s call: “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will call him Jesus” (Lk. 1:31). Like other prophets, Mary is informed what she is going to do. She is not consulted about what role she would like to play.


But the prophet always objects to the call. He tells God he is inadequate. He tells God about an obstacle that makes the call unlikely to succeed. For example, Jeremiah objects “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (Jer. 1:6). Moses objects, “Lord, I am not a very good public speaker. Why don’t you send my brother Aaron instead?” And then Mary’s objection, “How can this be, since I am a virgin” (Lk. 1:34)?


God then reassures the prophets that the divine presence will be with them as they take on the call. Fulfilling the call does not depend on the age of the prophet, as in the case of Jeremiah. Nor does it depend on the speaking skill of the prophet, as in the case of Moses. Nor does it depend on the experience of the woman, as in the case of Mary. The prophet is a mere instrument that God uses to carry out the divine plan, which cannot be thwarted.


But God does not toss out the prophet on the ash heap; God promises to deliver the prophet from every danger. In Mary’s case, the angel Gabriel conveys this divine reassurance: “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk. 1:37). Finally, comes the prophet’s acceptance of the call. Mary accepts it with the words: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38).


With these words “May it be done to me,” Mary reveals to us a God of grace. In sending Jesus Christ into the world, God does for us that which we cannot do for ourselves. In the one to whom Mary will give birth, God makes a way of salvation for us. This is the gift of Christmas which our hearts must remain open to receive. It is God’s grace. And it makes all the difference. Amen.

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