Sunday, December 18, 2005

Fourth Sunday in Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:47-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

For no word from God shall be void of power.

With Christmas often comes long road trips as families go to visit family that live far away. Many people will climb aboard airplanes or take other modes of transportation, but there is something about that image of a family in a station wagon overloaded with suitcases and presents on their way to Grandma's house. Songs have been written about the adventure, carols are sung about going home.

Anyone who has taken such a journey with children knows it is not always the most pleasant experience. Children do not understand distance or time. They just know that they want to be warming up over a cup of Grandma's homemade cocoa or diving into her special Christmas treats. An hour is too long to wait any longer and they can drive a parent crazy. "Are we there yet?" they ask over and over again. "Soon," we answer because we do not know how to explain how far two hundred miles is. Soon to a child is immediately. Moments after we answer the question, they repeat it. "Are we there yet?" This happens over and over again until we get frustrated and upset.

In our Old Testament lesson for today, Samuel relates a story about David. David was the first king of Israel. He was the first one to establish roots, to establish a physical kingdom. He built a palace in which to live, provided the people with stability. Saul did reign before David, but Saul's reign was always tenuous. It was David who began the line of kings that would last throughout the history of Israel.

David realized that he had a home but God was still dwelling in nothing but a tent. "And it came to pass, when the king dwelt in his house, and Jehovah had given him rest from all his enemies round about, that the king said unto Nathan the prophet, See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwelleth within curtains." David's motive is clear he is thankful to God for every blessing and he wishes to honor God with a home more suitable for the Lord Almighty. Nathan agrees and tells David to go do what he feels right.

God has a different plan. He sends Nathan to David with a promise. Now therefore thus shalt thou say unto my servant David, Thus saith Jehovah of hosts, I took thee from the sheepcote, from following the sheep, that thou shouldest be prince over my people, over Israel; and I have been with thee whithersoever thou wentest, and have cut off all thine enemies from before thee; and I will make thee a great name, like unto the name of the great ones that are in the earth." God never asked for a house. AS a matter of fact, the temple would eventually become a place where God was seemingly 'trapped' by the people. By the time Jesus was born it was as if He didn't exist anywhere but inside the building.

No, David was not to build him a house. His son, Solomon, would be given that honor. David is asking, "Are we there yet?" and God has answered, "Soon." In this story, God promises to do more than just establish a kingdom. He promises to establish an eternal kingdom. "And thy house and thy kingdom shall be made sure for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever." We hear here the promise of David's seed reigning forever, the fulfillment of which we see in Jesus Christ.

It seems odd, then, that Jesus was not born in a palace or that He was not the son of a king. It was not possible because the kingdom of Israel had fallen apart. There were Jews, of course, who could pinpoint their lineage back to David. There were even those that claimed to be the Messiah an earthly king born to restore Israel and make them a great nation. Certainly God could have chosen a powerful person, a wealthy family, a place of prominence and value to bring forth the king and fulfill His promise to David.

Instead, an angel approached a very young girl and gave her some amazing news. "Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee. Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end."

Now, Mary was startled by this appearance and troubled by the angel's greeting. The news was even more startling. She was unmarried and she was not from the House of David. She responded to the angel, "How shall this be?"

Mary was betrothed to Joseph who was from the House of David, but she had not yet known Joseph as a wife knows a husband. She wanted to know, "How shall this be?" Jesus was not the first miraculous pregnancy in her family. For the past two weeks we've heard the story of John the Baptist, a man born to aged parents. When the angel announced the promise to Zechariah, he asked a similar question, "Whereby shall I know this?" Zechariah doubted the angel's words and asked for a sign. The sign was to be silence until the child was born. When the baby was named John, Zechariah could speak again.

We should not read Mary's response to the promise as doubt. She may have been frightened or perplexed. Perhaps she simply wanted to understand what was to happen. "How shall this be?" does not question God's power to do the miraculous, but instead seeks information. David, when he was settled in a home decided to build a home for God, but instead of seeking God's opinion on the matter he went to Nathan. Nathan did not seek God's opinion on the matter. They decided it was time and were planning to go about the business of establishing God's dwelling amongst the people of Israel.

Though this is an admirable calling, it was not what God intended. Mary, on the other hand, sought to know and understand how God was going to accomplish the task. She had not yet known a man, but was betrothed to Joseph a member of the House of David. Did the Lord want her to be married early, to know Joseph as a wife knows her husband? Or did God have something else planned. "How is this to be?" Mary asked, and the angel told her all she needed to know.

"The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also the holy thing which is begotten shall be called the Son of God." Then the angel gave her a sign, "And behold, Elisabeth thy kinswoman, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that was called barren." John's birth was miraculous, but the birth of Jesus would be even moreso. John was born of a man and woman, conceived in the normal way even if the circumstances were extraordinary. Jesus however, would be the Son of God, born of a virgin and conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. "For nothing is impossible with God." (NIV)

The American Standard Version translates this last line, "For no word from God shall be void of power." God is faithful to His Word, and when He speaks things happened. In the beginning God said, "Let there be light" and there was light. To Abraham He said, "You will inherit this land" and four hundred years later the Israelites returned to the Promised Land. To David He said, "I will make you an everlasting kingdom" and through the son of Mary whose husband was Joseph, the House of David was restored.

Yet even while we celebrate the birth of the King, the fulfillment of the promise to David and the coming of the Messiah, the Son of God, we are reminded that Jesus was also the son of Mary. He was born, lived and died. He laughed, He cried. He knew hunger and thirst, anger and doubt. He knew what it was like to have blisters on his feet and to be tired from a long day. Though the beloved Christmas hymn "Away in a manger" makes Jesus sound as if He was the perfect child, rightfully so because He was the Son of God, but the reality is that He did all the things a child would do. He probably even cried when He was wet, hungry or just needed the love of His mother.

During Advent we look at both the coming of the child and the coming of the King in Glory, yet on this day we focus more heavily on the child. We see through the promises and in the eyes of His mother, that Jesus is a man sent by God to fulfill His promises. He did not do so by bringing the Christ into the world in a palace or as the son of a king. He did not send Him as the son of a powerful or wealthy family. And though Jesus' birth was extraordinary, it was missed by most of the world because He was born to a lowly handmaiden, young and unmarried.

Mary's response to the angel's explanation was simple. "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." Zechariah doubted, but the Lord proved true. Elizabeth had a son and they named him John. John pointed toward the Christ, the Christ who was born to a lowly virgin named Mary. It is all so unbelievable.

The kids can't wait to get to our destination whenever we take one of those road trips. They hope that Grandma's house is just around the corner. "Are we there yet?" they ask repeatedly. We answer, "Soon" because we have no better answer. After awhile it gets harder and harder to believe that we will ever get to our destination. Zechariah and Mary both knew the promise of God to David. I imagine that they, along with all the other Jews, were asking a similar question of God. "Are we there yet? Is it time for your promise to be fulfilled?" It was difficult to believe and a great many people had already claimed to be something they were not. False messiahs were a dime a dozen, others claimed to speak for God and yet others assumed His power. They were not true, however, and they did not succeed.

Yet, it is hard to keep watching for something that has not come and that has been such a disappointment. There were those who still believed in God's promise. He did not come as expected, but He came in the most miraculous way.

It is funny on those car trips. It seems just as the kids give up asking and get into something else either they fall asleep or get involved in some activity then suddenly we arrive at our destination. When they were only concerned with "when" the time could not fly fast enough. It is only when they focus their attention on other things that the promise is fulfilled.

Though we do focus on Jesus the man, the son of Mary on this day in Advent, we can't forget that we are also looking forward to the second coming. Of course there are many in the world whose sole focus of faith is on that moment. They study the scriptures in the hopes that they will be the one to understand the signs and seasons. They predict the time, the date and the way Christ will return. Some people even give up on the rest of life to wait and watch for the coming of the Lord.

We've waited for two thousand years. Far more people have given up waiting. They no longer ask "Are we there yet?" or "How shall this be?" Instead, they go about their business as if there is nothing to look forward to. They don't know how to react to the miraculous; they respond like Zechariah with doubt and demand a sign.

These are two extremes of the same problem not believing the Word of God. One takes God's work into their own hands, like David, trying to build the house that God did not desire. The other has given up waiting and watching like most of the people in Israel when Jesus was born.

We are called to be like Mary. She heard the Word of God and did not doubt. She sought understanding, asking God how He would accomplish the work. She received the message with humility and responded with obedience and joy. "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour." She praised God for the great things He has done, even though the great things were not necessarily great in the eyes of the world. She thanked God for remembering His promises and for fulfilling them in her life. Today we use her song of thanks as a beautiful reminder of God's unexpected and extraordinary ways. "He hath showed strength with his arm; He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart. He hath put down princes from their thrones, And hath exalted them of low degree. The hungry he hath filled with good things; And the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath given help to Israel his servant, That he might remember mercy (as he spake unto our fathers) Toward Abraham and his seed for ever."

God does not do things our way. He does not do things in our time. What He does do is speak His promises into our lives and calls us to believe. We need to do anything to make His promises happen. He does not desire us to build Him houses or do His work. He simply asks us to listen with a humble heart and to respond with obedience and joy. His Word has power and is true. We are called, like Mary, to bear Christ into this mixed up world in which we live, anointed by the power of God's Holy Spirit and gifted by God's grace.

Paul writes, "Now to him that is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which hath been kept in silence through times eternal, but now is manifested, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, is made known unto all the nations unto obedience of faith: to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever. Amen."

It is not about Mary. It is not about us. The story of Christmas and the promise of Advent is that God's Word can do the impossible. While we are anxious to see the end of the journey, just like the kids on a long road trip, it is only when we go forth in faith believing that God can do miraculous things in, with and through our lives that we will truly see the coming of Christ in glory. Thanks be to God.

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