*Please scroll to the end of this post for the downloadable pdf version of this sermon.
A sermon preached in Christ Episcopal Church, Sheridan, MT, by the Rev. Bruce McNab
4th Sunday in Advent Service of Lessons and Carols. December 22, 2013. (Using the gospel for Advent 4, Yr. C: Luke 1:29-55).
There is one great thing you women know intimately, which we mere males cannot know—except as engaged and—one hopes—empathetic observers. And that’s the experience of conceiving, carrying for nine months within your own body, and then giving birth to a child. Husbands, fathers, brothers—we can be companions to our wives, daughters, or sisters as they pass through the awesome experience of becoming a mother. But we can only imagine what it’s like, how it feels, and what it means to you . . . what it teaches you—and what, if we’re ready to learn, you can teach us.
Today is the last Sunday in Advent, the joyful end of this season of expectation. Very appropriately, today we ponder Mary, the Mother of our Lord, who carried within herself the very life of God. The Eastern Orthodox have a special title for Mary. They call her the Theotokos, “the Bearer of God.”
In the first month of her own pregnancy, Mary—who is probably no more than sixteen years old—leaves her home in Nazareth and walks a long road south to the hill country of Judea where her kinswoman Elizabeth lives with her husband, a priest named Zechariah. Most likely, Elizabeth is Mary’s aunt, her mother’s sister. And, like Mary, she is expecting a child. An elderly woman who had been childless through a long marriage, Elizabeth has been suddenly, miraculously given a new life to carry in her womb and bring to birth. It’s an exciting time for her, but scary too, because she is well beyond the usual age of child-bearing.
Elizabeth is in the sixth month of her pregnancy, and Mary comes to stay with her until the baby is born—to help her aunt with household chores and stay beside her through these last difficult months of expectation and hope. The two mothers—one older, one younger—will share the experience of carrying within their own bodies and then bringing forth into the world a precious, long-awaited new life. And in both cases, the child each bears is a gift from God, a promise of heaven, announced by an angel: John, who will be the last and greatest of all the prophets, and Jesus, who will be the Messiah, the Son of God. The two mothers will spend a season of waiting, hoping, wondering and praying together. It will be a kind of “Advent season” for them.
When Mary comes into the house and greets her aunt, the older woman is deeply moved, touched by the Spirit. She feels the child in her womb “leap for joy,” and says to Mary, “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? . . . And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Let me remind you of a few details of the whole story, because if we don’t “connect the dots” we’ll miss the point of all this. You recall how Mary answered Gabriel, don’t you, when the messenger of heaven told her that she would bear the Son of God? Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be with me as you have said.” She said “Yes” to God. —Keep that in mind.
Gabriel had also appeared to Zechariah six months earlier while the priest was offering incense in the Temple, telling him that God had heard their prayers and would give him and Elizabeth a son. But Zechariah’s response to the word of God was the opposite of what Mary’s would be a few months later. He had not believed the announcement, even from an angel. Zechariah said “No” to God. He said, “How can I trust in such a thing? We’ve been praying for years, and now we’re old people. And you say that now we’re going to have a son? This is incredible.” If he lived in our age old Zechariah might have said, “Prove to me that I’m not hallucinating!” Gabriel answered, “Because you did not trust my words, you will be unable to speak ‘til the baby comes—because this IS going to happen! The Lord has spoken.”
Today we contemplate the steadfast faith of Jesus’ young Mother, who—from the moment Gabriel spoke to her—trusted that his words would come to pass. She trusted that God had chosen her. She trusted that God would be with her. And she lived not only the next nine months but all the rest of her life trusting that her Child was the Son of God and Savior of his people. We can’t know for sure what role Mary played in helping Jesus understand his mission, but I believe it was crucial. I think Jesus built on his Mother’s trust in God’s divine “agenda”—to manifest his power by showing mercy to those who trust him, to humble the arrogant while lifting up the lowly, and to fill all who are hungry “with good things”—the Bread of Life.
Mary continued to believe in her Son even when the “religious experts” said she was wrong. She believed in him even when he was betrayed by Judas and arrested by his enemies. She believed in him even when he was crucified. When her Son rose from the tomb, that trust was vindicated.
Here’s what we want to take away from church today: Every single one of us has been given a promise from God: the promise that Christ Himself will be born in us if we—like Mary—are able to trust God’s promise, and are ready to wait as long as it takes for it to be fulfilled. If we do that, we—like her—will one day sing our own Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” We, like Mary, will become “God bearers.” …Even us men! All of us can “bring forth Christ” into the world.
When Gabriel gave God’s message to Mary, she responded “Let it be with me as you have said.” She said, “Yes” to God. She made herself available to God. She didn’t protest. She didn’t say “no,” the way Zechariah had done. She didn’t say “This is incredible. How can I trust in such a thing?”
We want to say “yes” to God, as Mary did. We want to say “Let your promise be fulfilled in me, whatever it requires of me. No matter how long it takes.” Trust has to be the core of our relationship with God. “Blessed is she who trusted that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
We move from trusting what God promises to understanding what God is doing in our life. That’s what Mary did. It’s what Elizabeth did. No mother knows in advance what the life of her child will ultimately be like, or how she is going to handle being a mother. Mothers go forward in faith, believing in the lives that have been entrusted to their care by God, and trusting God to guide them. All of us, mothers and fathers, women and men alike, start with trusting God’s promises and what God is doing in our lives—and then, if we’re patient, we ultimately come to understand what it all means.
The Advent season of hope, marked by preparation and patient waiting is ending. Christmas is this week—the happy reminder that God keeps his promise. We who are his disciples bear within ourselves the Son of God. If we keep trusting God’s promise, He will be born into the world through us.