Fouth Sunday of Advent (C): A Sermon

A sermon preached at Christ Church, Tara and St. Paul’s, Chatwsowth, on Sunday Dec. 20, 2015

Texts: Micha 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

I.

Although I have four children, this hardly makes me an expert about pregnancy. I witnessed the physical changes and the process of giving birth, but my experience of pregnancy remains second-hand. I simply do not and cannot know what it means to be pregnant – to grow a human life inside me, a life that is physically dependant on me and a genetic extension of me. Nevertheless, for men and women alike, a pregnant belly swollen with life inspires a sense of awe at the wonder of the female body and evokes images of tender intimacy between mother and child.

Pregnancy is also a time of waiting. While the first months are filled with excitement and anticipation, the final weeks seem like an eternity of waiting for the baby to finally make its exit from the cramped womb and enter into the world: when will this baby finally come out?! Pregnancy is, I think, an apt metaphor for the Advent season in which we are waiting for the arrival of Jesus. Yes, we await the coming of the baby in the manger and the joyful celebrations with family and friends. But in a world torn apart by warfare and suffering, by hunger and addiction, we also await the coming of the risen and ascended Lord to reconcile and renew all things. Waiting for Christmas is like the excited anticipation of early pregnancy; waiting for Christ’s return in our broken world is like the agonizing discomfort of late pregnancy: when will he finally return?

II.

            The scene of today’s gospel reading is an encounter captured in numerous paintings throughout history. The joyful affection shared between these two pregnant women offers a stirring portrait of familial intimacy. But more than that, this scene remains a turning point in human history. The mundane and the miraculous are beautifully intertwined demonstrating God’s sovereign care in his interactions in human history. Not only is Elizabeth post-menopausal, even when she was able to have children, her womb remained barren. Like Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah, Elizabeth, once unable to have children, now finds herself six months pregnant with a child promised to her by God. Then there is Mary, an un-wed teenager coming to help an older relative “negotiate the last trimester of an entirely unanticipated pregnancy”.[1] Without any indication offered in the text that Elizabeth even knows about Mary’s pregnancy, which is in the earliest stages, she nevertheless knows about the life developing in Mary’s womb. Elizabeth does not chastise Mary for sexual immorality as an unwed mother; rather, “filled with the Holy Spirit”, Elizabeth exclaims “with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’” (Lk. 1.42).

Two women: one getting on in years (cf. Lk. 1.7) and one just entering womanhood. Two women: both miraculously pregnant by the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that hovered over the face of the deep in the beginning and gave birth to creation (cf. Gen.1).

Indeed, the work of the Holy Spirit pervades the entire scene, from Elizabeth’s greeting, to John’s in utero somersaults, to Mary’s song of praise; the presence of the Holy Spirit transforms the mundane into the miraculous.

It is only through the Holy Spirit that Elizabeth is able to identify Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (Lk. 1.43; cf. 1. Cor. 12.3b). Even before Jesus is born, he is identified as Lord. That the baby in Mary’s womb is the promised Messiah is underlined by John’s joyful movements. Already John, who will become John the Baptizer, is preparing the way for the coming of the Lord and pointing to him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (cf. John 1.29).

It is through the Holy Spirit that Mary magnifies the Lord, telling of what God has done and will do through the child she bears.

It is through the Holy Spirit that, in the words of Ephrem the Syrian, a 4th century theologian that “Our Lord prepared his herald in a dead womb, to show that he came after a dead Adam. He vivified Elizabeth’s womb first, and the vivified the soil of Adam through his body”. God is in the business of creating life and restoring life. Adam stands as a figure of all humanity, ensnared as it is in sin. But God does not abhor human flesh; he sent himself as the Second Adam (cf. Rom. 5.12-21), took on human flesh and was born of a woman, in order to liberate human flesh, indeed all of created reality, through his very birth, death, and resurrection. The Holy Spirit works within humans, in all our physicality, to birth new life.

This is precisely why Mary is such an important figure in Christianity. While some Christians protest that others make too much of a fuss over Mary, the reality is that Mary stands as a powerful reminder of Jesus’ humanity; we cannot think of Mary apart from Jesus. Moreover, Mary stands as the culmination of the entire Old Testament. In her song, she summarizes God’s actions through the Old Testament and the new thing that God is doing through Jesus Christ. Through her very body, Mary carries and births the Word-made-flesh, the one who is the very fulfilment of the Law and Prophets. Mary stands as a representative of both Israel and the new community birthed by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

Mary’s faithfulness to God is key to understanding her centrality. Elizabeth, the older of the two, shows deference to Mary, her younger relation because of what God is doing through her. Both Mary and Elizabeth exhibit a radical trust of God, a trust that is clearly on display in today’s gospel reading. Mary’s song echoes the worship of her ancestors and anticipates the worship of the Church. Indeed, the Magnificat is still said or sung as part of Evening Prayer in the Anglican tradition. Mary’s song of faith is an expression of the Church’s faith. Therefore, the Church echoes Elizabeth’s exuberant greeting of Mary – “blessed are you among women” (Lk. 1.42).

Mary accepts God’s promises that she will bear and give birth to the Messiah; Mary trusts that “nothing is impossible with God” (Lk. 1.37). Mary’s faith stands in stark contrast to that of Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, whose faith faltered when the angel told him his barren and aged wife would bear and give birth to a son. The one whose name means “God has again remembered” (Jeffrey, 22), has completely forgotten that God has done and continues to do the impossible.

You see, faith is born of trusting in God’s promises without qualification. Although Mary was initially perplexed when Gabriel announced to Mary what was to come, her response is born of faith: “Let it be with me, according to your word” (Lk. 1.38). Mary accepts God’s word at face value; her faith opens her to giving birth to the Word itself. Her faith sings about God’s faithfulness to his promise, the promise she now bears in her womb. Mary’s ‘yes’ to God, her acceptance of her role as God’s servant, her willingness to participate in the new thing God was doing, was the beginning of new life for the entirety of creation. Mary’s ‘yes’ to God gave birth to God’s ‘yes’ to humanity some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.[2] Mary’s ‘yes’ ensured the means by which Christ was born as a human baby into human history.

III.

The first two chapters of Luke open with two miraculous births, that of John and Jesus. Moreover, the opening chapters of Luke are full of worship – the songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon in the temple – and witnesses to Christ – Elizabeth’s greeting, the shepherd’s sharing what they saw in the manger, and the prophetess Anna’s recognition of Jesus as the promised Messiah. In first century Palestine, the testimony of women was inadmissible in court (Jeffrey, 19). However, in today’s gospel reading, the worship and witness of the women is brought to life by the Holy Spirit. The same is true of the testimony of the Shepherd’s on Christmas. The testimony of shepherds was, like that of women, inadmissible in court. And yet, Luke tells of how the shepherds, following their encounter with Jesus in the manger, went out and “made known what they had been told them about this child” (Lk. 2.17): that this new born baby is the Savior of the world. . St. Luke’s point is perfectly clear: the Holy Spirit makes our worship of and witness to Jesus Christ possible and it is precisely because of the work of the Holy Spirit that all testimony about Jesus Christ as the Messiah is equally valid regardless of the social status of the one who testifies.

The Holy Spirit stirs up our worship and propels us to witness to what God is doing in our midst. Through eyes of faith, we will see God birthing new life in impossible ways and in impossible situations; we will see God working the miraculous through the seemingly mundane. We do not need to look far to see God at work; if we, like Mary, say ‘yes’ to God, opening ourselves to his plan for us, we will begin to see signs of new life and rich fruit being born in our lives.

The Church is a community of people chosen and called by God to be those who give birth to Christ in the world and to prepare the world for his second Advent. In a world where death reigns, we are called to be a people who bear witness to the new life that God makes possible. This requires the kind of faith exhibited by Mary, a faith that does not get caught up in the limitations of what might be possible for God or calculates the potential risks, but a faith that trusts in God’s faithfulness to remain in our midst.

God is in the business of bringing new life. As we both celebrate Christ’s birth and yearn for his second coming, let us renew our faith in God and reflect upon the ways in which we can say ‘yes’ to God in our lives.

Where are you, right now, ignoring or resisting God’s call on your life? Where do you need to make room for God to bring you his new life? Where do you see evidence of God working in your life? How are we as Christ’s earthly body witnessing to and embodying the new life made possible by the Holy Spirit? Where do we see the fruit of this new life?

This Advent and Christmas season, may we discern the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our midst as it moves among us that we might be a people who faithfully proclaim to all the world the good news that because of Jesus Christ, new life is possible, even in impossible situations. Amen.

[1] David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke, Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012, 32.

[2] To be clear, I am not suggesting that the possibility of the Incarnation hinged upon Mary’s ‘yes’; the Incarnation was part of God’s plan from the outset of creation (i.e.pre-Fall). Jesus’ birth was according to and a fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.

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